Monday, August 6, 2012

"The Dark Knight Rises" - An Epic Review to an Epic Conclusion

It really has been a long time since "The Dark Knight". In the four years that have passed since June 2008, the world has changed in ways I never could have imagined. Outside of the seriousness of the global economic crisis (remember when we had money?) and other pressing elements of current affairs, there's also changes to pop culture that no one could have predicted. Superhero movies don't just decorate the Summer movie season, they absolutely dominate it, with Marvel Studios cementing their status as a force to be reckoned with, particularly after the titanic box-office performance of "The Avengers". It's hard to believe, but in the time since "The Dark Knight", we've had two Iron Mans, Captain America, Thor, Green Lantern (sigh) and for better or worse, a new Spider-Man (crazy as it may seem, Tobey Maguire's last outing came out just one year prior to "The Dark Knight"). And despite all of these colourful additions to the genre, they were all just biding time before the return of the Caped Crusader, the absolute king of the genre (sorry, Clark).

Needless to say the release of "The Dark Knight Rises" was a huge event for me, personally. Batman is far and away my favourite fictional character, and not just because of the comic books, but because of the Animated Series, because of the previous movies, because of the toys, because of the Adam West series, even because of the video games. Bruce Wayne has invaded every form of media that has ever meant anything to me and no matter how much older or wiser I get, no matter how many flaws I start to see in the concept, I'll never stop being captivated by his ongoing struggle to save his city. What excited me so much about this film was that in its promise to be an ENDING, we might just finally see the fruits of his labours. We might finally, definitively, actually see Batman SAVE Gotham.

More than anything else I've ever written for this site, I've found this review really difficult to write. It's impossible to be entirely objective about a film I desperately wanted to enjoy, so in a sense, my advice may not be the best to go by. This particular incarnation of Batman has meant the world to me, ever since watching "Batman Begins" in UCI Tallaght, where my friends and I were absolutely floored by how utterly straight and serious this version was played, in stark contrast to previous films. Watching that film always brings me back to that particular first screening. I'll never forget my sudden realisation during the sequence where Bruce is being trained by Ducard in the Himalayan mountains. Ducard shows him the various tools and methods of a ninja and how to become invisible. My mind was suddenly flooded with memories of the Animated Series and the comics. "These guys GET IT." was the predominant thought rushing through my 15-year old head. It was already the best Batman movie ever and we hadn't even seen him in the cape and cowl yet. I emerged that day proudly and was quick in announcing that "Batman Begins" was not only my favourite Batman film, but my favourite film ever. That exclamation changed over the years, but every time I watch the film, I'm reminded of how it's really not that outlandish a choice for that coveted honour. It's definitely, definitely up there.

Then came "The Dark Knight" three years later, and my feelings were similar, but different. The film was much more of an ensemble crime drama than the raw, visceral Bruce Wayne epic of the previous film. Everything was upgraded and updated, everything was sleeker and even more serious. Batman operated out of a barren store-room rather than a subterranean cave (and when he did appear in-costume there was about his voice, compared to the last film). Much more emphasis was put on the credible police work done by James Gordon and Harvey Dent. And obviously there was Heath Ledger's Joker.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE his performance and he makes up so much of that film's iconic status, but unlike Bale's Batman, which was an absolutely loving embrace and distillation of everything that worked about the character, injected with realism and credibility, Ledger's Joker was a total re-invention. While he was undoubtedly electric and dominated every second of screen-time, the Joker of "The Dark Knight" was more of a realistic look at a typical motivationless supervillain, rather than an actual translation of all of the fun that made Joker interesting before. The themes of chaos versus order were kept in a big way though, so the Batman/Joker rivalry was more or less the same, even if Joker's modus-operandi was scaled down. The film was obviously objectively better than its predecessor and I love how Batman comprehensively defeats the Joker in the final act (not just by incapacitating him, but by disproving his claims about people's hidden intentions). Batman's final sacrifice of his good name (to ensure the successful elimination of the mob) was outstanding and it left me hungry for more. I desperately needed to see how Batman was going to be able to continue to inspire people to do good, now that his name was in ruins.

With "The Dark Knight Rises", Christopher Nolan promised to address all of the concerns I had at the end of the previous film.

So let's (finally) get down to brass tax. Did I like the "Rises"? Yes, yes, yes indeedy do. Was it objectively better than "The Dark Knight"? No. Did I PREFER it to "The Dark Knight"? Yes.

The first thing I'll say is that "The Dark Knight Rises" is not quite as thematically effective or as intelligently-structured as its immediate predecessor. It moves at a lightning-fast pace and while I was definitely never bored, certain events transpire so quickly that it leaves you feeling like something's missing. Lots of people are complaining about plotholes and while repeated viewings explain most of these problems away effectively, it still possibly makes you yearn for a more cohesive film that can satisfy on the first viewing. Make no mistake, you'll need to see TDKR more than once. What effortlessly saves the film is its massive acting performances (probably the best ensemble performance of any superhero film), its outstanding, practically-achieved action (there's a police chase in the film that is absolutely SEXUAL), it's better, larger focus on Batman himself and the goals he set up for himself in the first film, and its deliriously effective, legendary, iconic ending.

Basically, because of its fairly significant flaws, I can't pretend like "The Dark Knight Rises" deserves to win "Best Picture" at the Oscars (the way "The Dark Knight" definitely could have), but it's also quite possibly my favourite Batman film ever made.

The premise, for those of you who don't know, is that Bruce Wayne has ceased being Batman for 8 years, following the sacrifice of his good name at the end of "The Dark Knight". Thanks to Batman and Jim Gordon covering up Harvey Dent's crimes, successful legislation in Dent's name has resulted in the lasting eradication of organised crime, negating the need for a Batman. Unfortunately though, the weight of this lie has effected Gordon and Bruce heavily, with both men waiting in the wings for things to go wrong again, so that they can somehow redeem themselves.

Enter Selina Kyle and Bane. Kyle is a duplicitous cat burglar who performs a daring robbery on Wayne Manor, which reawakens Bruce. Bane, a mercenary with a past rooted in pain and tragedy. Bane is a man who wants to 'liberate' the citizens of Gotham from the unfair shackles of wealth and corruption. Coupled with the corporate meddling of shady construction magnate John Daggett, it's clear to Bruce that the Dark Knight must Rise.

Even summarising the plot of this massive movie results in something convoluted and hard to keep track of. Even moreso than its predecessors, "The Dark Knight Rises" is hard to follow and its efforts to become "bigger" and "better" leave the viewer wondering if Nolan's attempts to tell a compelling, intelligent, cohesive story got lost somewhere amongst everything else that was going on. There's a lot that happens in this film that will leave first-timers scratching their heads. As I've stated already, most of the perceived plotholes are explained away during repeat-viewings, but the fact that future viewings have you searching for explanations at all, is arguably a failure in itself. Personally, I thought that "The Dark Knight" was wrought with aspects of this same over-ambitiousness (and "Inception" showed gasps of it here and there as well), and that glaring Ed Wood-like mistakes were glossed over by over-enthusiastic fans ("Five dead, two of 'em cops!" what fifth person did Harvey Dent kill?). Frankly, similar problems abound in this particular film. Sacrificing attention to detail in favour of artistic ambition is uncomfortably becoming one Nolan's trademarks.

Another problem with the previous films is that the dialogue was occasionally a little bit too comic-booky and a little bit over-the-top. "The Dark Knight Rises" suffers hugely from ridiculous dialogue that comes close to ruining certain scenes ("I came back to stop you!!"), and again certain characters make assumption and deductions that seem a little far-fetched given the circumstances (Alfred reveals Bane's allegiance to the League of Shadows as if it was easily obtained information; the League is supposed to be a devastatingly secretive organisation). Again it feels like certain scenes' dialogue could have been fleshed out a bit more.

The biggest narrative problem in "The Dark Knight Rises" that I could see was that it was a laboured sequel that requires you to almost be intimately familiar with the previous films. Both "The Dark Knight" and "Batman Begins" could be watched by someone who had never seen a Batman film before; a huge strength of those films. The opposite is true of this film, which is wholeheartedly rooted in the atmosphere of those previous installments, particularly "Batman Begins". The whole third act of the film won't make a lot of sense to people who haven't seen "Begins". In saying that though, in many ways, TDKR's reliance on those previous films enhances the trilogy as a whole, tying all three films together. Some people have complained that "The Dark Knight" didn't really feel like a true sequel to "Batman Begins". I certainly understood this complaint, and I feel as though "The Dark Knight Rises" is the glue that connects the other two films. In that respect, it works really excellently as a conclusion, an epilogue, rather than a new installment in its own right. In that sense, I can really get a feeling for why people were disappointed in it and why I enjoyed it so much. In some ways, I suspect that Nolan may have even been trying to make an 'epilogue' instead of a true third installment on purpose.

In terms of things I DID like, there's lots of fun little nods and references to Batman's history in "The Dark Knight Rises", maybe even moreso than there were in the previous films, and I lapped them all right up. From scenes lifted almost word-for-word from specific stories (the old cop and the young cop chasing Batman really made me smile, "Oh boy, son are you in for a show tonight!") to characters like Daggett from the beloved "Batman: The Animated Series" having prominent roles in the film (even if his name is 'John' in the film and not 'Roland' like it was in the cartoon) to all the memorable imagery and plot points from stories like "The Dark Knight Returns", "Knightfall", "No Man's Land" as well as one scene which I suspect was a direct nod to two films from previous Bat-generations. "Rises" picks and chooses from the history of the comics, excellently distilling some of the very best stories into one narrative. The previous Nolan films did this to an extent as well, but it's clear that the most amount of research went into "Rises"; something that made me enjoy it even more. Even my mother commented on how similar in atmosphere the film was to the Animated Series.

Speaking of the atmosphere generated in the film, a lot of that is down to the absolutely titanic performances delivered by the actors in this film. Tom Hardy was absolutely astounding as Bane, elevating dialogue that would have been disastrous in the hands of a lesser actor. He shifts from being wonderfully hammy (at times I almost wished he had a moustache to twirl) to being downright chilling. People complain about his voice...I don't have time for these people. His voice was badass from the very start of the film.

I think I speak for many people when I say that I was truly taken aback when Anne Hathaway didn't suck as Catwoman. Quite the opposite in fact, she embodied everything I like about the character from the comics, jettisoning all of the over-sexualisation her character is often privy to. She wasn't perfect 100% of the time, but she succeeded in making her morally ambiguous Selina Kyle completely likable, an unenviable task. In comparing her to Michelle Pfeiffer, she's obviously playing a completely different kind of Catwoman, far more level-headed and with entirely different motivations; resulting in a more laid-back, understated performance. Her version of the character won't end up being as culturally iconic as Pfeiffer's, but Hathaway's version of the character didn't get licked back to life by cats, so go figure. I definitely consider Hathaway the best version of Catwoman so far.

Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman return with top-rate performances from all three. Oldman possibly doesn't get as much screen-time as he did in the previous film, but his performance is just as impressive, with the effects of age and his Big Lie weighing heavily on him. Oldman's greatest scenes are at the beginning of the film and later on at the very end, during a truly heartbreaking scene with Batman. Despite a memorable scene or two, Morgan Freeman is mostly relegated to exposition in this film, which should hardly come as a surprise given how massive the film is. Nevertheless, he holds his own in a part that would have been disastrous in the hands of a lesser actor. Michael Caine is a tour-de-force in every single scene he's in. Every time he was on screen I found myself aghast at the fact that there is a series of films where an actor THIS GOOD plays Alfred Pennyworth. He's absolutely phenomenal and it's very difficult to hold back tears during some of his scenes.

Joseph Gordon Levitt plays John Blake, an idealistic young cop with a lot in common with Bruce Wayne. It would be perfectly acceptable for JGL to get lost in the sea of distinguished actors, but he performs outstandingly. I can't really talk too much about him in the spoiler-free section of this review, but needless to say his first scene with Christian Bale had me absolutely convinced at his right (and his character's right) to be in this film. The same goes for Marion Cotillard, who plays Miranda Tate, a board member of Wayne Enterprises...

Finally, we come to Bruce Wayne/Batman as played by Christian Bale, the Batman of my generation. In "Batman Begins", Bale was absolutely outstanding as Bruce, injecting a three-dimensional tragedy into the character, while always remaining lovable, like someone you'd want to hang out with (despite his massive wealth and traumatic life experiences). He was AMAZING as Batman in that film. Absolutely my favourite in-costume Batman portrayal ever. In "The Dark Knight" he was given less to do both as Bruce Wayne and as the Caped Crusader. As the title character, he still appeared in a lot of that film, but I felt like his scenes just didn't have the impact they had in the first film. This wasn't helped by the fact that his once-awesome "Bat-growl" had deteriorated into an awkward lisp.

In "The Dark Knight Rises", Bale is back with a vengeance, upping his game immensely. From his very first scene in the latest film, he owns every second of screen-time he has, both as a result of improved direction and a meatier script. While it's a pity Batman didn't get an updated Batsuit in TDKR, Bale looks much better in the costume, thanks to his larger physical frame (I felt the newer Batsuit in TDK made him look skinny - this problem is absolutely abolished in "Rises"). His voice, while still a bit too over-the-top, is nonetheless cooler than it was in "The Dark Knight", possibly because Batman gets more dialogue in this film in-costume, so we're able to get used to it and even grow to love it. It helps that the film hearkens back to "Batman Begins" so much, as it reminds us of why we ever fell in love with Bale's interpretation of the character in the first place. Bale has matured with age and presents to us a wiser, more fatherly version of Bruce Wayne, who while still full of the rage and storminess we see in the comics, never quite reaches the levels of dickheadedness we see in the source material. Now more than ever, we BELIEVE in this version of Bruce as a man who could actually save the city. And I love his sexy new hairstyle.

As soon as I saw the very first promotional image of Christian Bale as Bruce from "Batman Begins" (above), I knew we were on to something special. For seven years, he has embodied the essence of Batman and brought so much of the source material's magic, previously unexplored in other Batman films, to our attention. Other actors will come and go in the ongoing cinematic legacy of the Dark Knight, but Christian Bale will always be my Batman.

From this point onward, this article will be rife with spoilers, so you've been warned.

...Miranda Tate turns out to be Talia Al Ghul, the daughter of Ra's Al Ghul, the (secret) primary antagonist of "Batman Begins". Upon first viewing, this isn't a very shocking twist and doesn't leave the same amount of gravitas as did the twist in "Batman Begins", but upon repeat viewings, you spot some amazing instances of deception throughout the film and in Cotillard's performance. In the final scenes of the film, Talia is played as a straight-up villain who wants to destroy Gotham and Batman along with it. At no point does she refer to Batman as "beloved" and she quickly meets a grisly fate in an epic air/land chase. To be honest, I much prefer Talia as a clean-cut villain and never appreciated her as a love interest for Batman. In "Arkham City" Batman puts all of Gotham in jeopardy to ensure Talia's safety...and that really rubbed me the wrong way. So good riddance to bad rubbish. In terms of performance however, hats off to Cotillard who delivers admirably.

One of the most effective components Christopher Nolan has created in his particular vision of Batman is Bruce Wayne's ambition to create an idea in people's heads of what Batman is and to sustain that idea for the long-term benefit of the city. Bruce tells Alfred in the first film that "People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne." "The Dark Knight Rises" moreso than the other two films cements Batman as an idea, an original creation of Bruce Wayne's rather than an actual physical being. This has always been evident in the films as we've learned that unlike the comics in which Batman is the true identity and the foppish Bruce Wayne the true disguise, here we have a Batman that is a disguise, a playboy Wayne who is a disguise and Bruce, the man who creates all of this deception for a worthy cause. This human Bruce has a specific set objective from the very first film: the elimination of organised crime and the creation of an effective police force through his action as Batman, a man who can operate outside the law, a man who is ideally not a killer (although Batman breaks that rule in all three films). I have always praised this approach, as it stops Batman from being the dreary, disenfranchised cynic of the comics, who believes that his crusade is basically fruitless, that he will never win and that he just roams from villain to villain in some attempt to redeem himself. Batman is never seen "going on patrol" in the Christopher Nolan films. He's not The Punisher. He has a specific objective from beginning to end, which gives us a plausible end-point for his mission, for the first time in the character's 70-year history. These films AGREE with Bruce, they don't believe him to be insane, right-wing or sickeningly classist. Make no mistake, Christian Bale's Batman is a hero. A self-made superhero.

At the end of "The Dark Knight" Bruce successfully defeats the Joker, and by sacrificing his heroic status, he and Gordon manage to definitively wipe out the mob's stranglehold on the city. The problem here though is that Batman, the IDEA that makes people better than they are, is defeated. This is where "The Dark Knight Rises" succeeds. While in more than a few ways, the film doesn't quite succeed at being as cohesive as its predecessor, it flawlessly gives us a context where people can believe in Batman, as well as goodness in general, again. When Batman releases the 3,000 police officers that Bane has trapped beneath the city, they are no longer complacent as they were in the beginning of the film, they are no longer afraid of standing up for what's right (embodied by Michael Modine's character Foley) and they are no longer viciously corrupt as they were in "Batman Begins". Finally, Gotham City has a righteous law enforcement system of men and women willing to die for the good of the city. Bruce Wayne's goal has always been to "rid the city of the evil that took [his parents'] lives". "The Dark Knight Rises" allows him to do that. For the first time in 70 years, Batman doesn't just win the battle. He WINS THE WAR ON CRIME. Batman is comprehensively triumphant at the end of "The Dark Knight Rises", and unlike previous 'endings', he even gets to live happily ever after.

Which brings us to John Blake. I, like many predicted that this character would be an analogue of Robin, grounding Batman in the original ideals of his mission, and preventing him from straying too far into the darkness, or losing faith in himself. The scene where Blake meets Bruce Wayne for the first time, revealing that he strongly suspects (or "knows") that Wayne is Batman, is terrific and is completely plausible as the kick Bruce Wayne needs to start considering the return of the Dark Knight. People have complained that it's implausible that Blake would make such an assumption of Wayne based solely on their shared experience of watching their respective parents get murdered. I understand this implausibility, but thanks to the writing of the scene and the sheer determination in Joseph Gordon Levitt's acting, I buy the bejesus out of it. And not to use this kind of trump card, but that's exactly the kind of wild, instinctive detective-work Robin would employ in the comics. Throughout the film, Blake very much acts in the Robin mold, doing groundwork for Batman and Gordon and always remaining staunchly loyal to the Dark Knight and the hope he promotes throughout the city, going as far as to "tag" Batman's logo around the city (calling back to Batman's similar tactic in "No Man's Land").

In the final moments of the film, we learn that John Blake literally is Robin, that 'Robin' is his actual first name. Many cringed at this, some complained that it should have been revealed that his name was actually 'Dick Grayson' or 'Tim Drake'. I disagree with this for a number of reasons (and not just because the scene wouldn't make any sense as a result). First of all, I can guarantee a strong 80% of the people going to see "The Dark Knight Rises" wouldn't know who the hell "Tim Drake" was and a lot of them would at least have forgotten who "Dick Grayson" was, as well. It makes more sense to solidify the reference and just make it John Blake's actual name. Plus by making it his birth-name, it pretty much guarantees he's never going to run around in a costume calling himself "Robin" and have that be his secret identity.

More importantly though is the genesis of the character, and the reference's relevance in the final moments of the film. When Robin was created in 1940, he was created as a way of allowing the readers a character who, while still romantic and dashing, was someone they could relate to a lot more than Batman. In the 70+ intervening years since Robin's creation, this idea has become a little bit lost as Dick, Jason, Tim, Stephanie and Damien (and anyone else who has called themselves 'Robin') all developed more in their own unique identities. It made sense for Nolan to create a new character to enable the original idea behind Robin. It would have been a disservice to any one of those characters had John Blake turned out to be one of them, because he embodies traits of all of the Robins.

Anyway, the strength of Blake being revealed as 'Robin' is that we suddenly realise HE'S ONE OF US. Throughout the film, Bruce reminds us that "Batman could be anyone", well John Blake is 'anyone'. He's the faceless character onto whom we can transpose ourselves. The seemingly dead Bruce Wayne leaves John Blake the proverbial 'keys' to the Batcave and the final shot of the film is one of the black obelisks rising, with John Blake atop them. When I initially saw this, I thought it was a bit weak as an ending "So now Joseph Gordon Levitt is Batman? Come on..." I said, leaving the theatre, still delighted by Bruce Wayne's final fate. Upon repeated viewings however, I felt differently.

We're not explicitly told whether or not Blake is going to immediately don the mantle of the Bat - it's not exactly like he trained with the League of Shadows, and besides does Gotham need a new Dark Knight straight away? - but that's not really the point. The point is that Bruce Wayne has clearly passed the torch onto John Blake. Or if you like, Batman is TELLING US that now it's OUR TURN to be the hero, in whatever way we can. Essentially, WE can be the Batman. Seeing as how Bruce's goal was always to inspire people and teach them that any one man could make a difference ("A hero can be anyone," he tells Gordon), there couldn't have been a more fitting ending to this amazing trilogy.

"The Dark Knight Rises" is certainly a very busy film and after three viewings, I'm still not entirely convinced that the whole film lives up to the sum of its parts. However, its parts are truly wonderful and are satisfying enough that I know I'm going to be watching this film again and again for years (I can't wait for the Bluray, for the inevitable back-to-back marathons). As an ending to the greatest superhero movie series of all time, it's outstanding and it more than definitively closes the three films. These films kicked off a proud legacy for Batman. Unlike previous movies to feature the character, they didn't just make Batman a 'cool Summer franchise'. They elevated his exploits into the realm of Cinematic Valhalla, creating a proud legacy that lifelong fans like myself could point at and say "I told you so," to all of the dissenters who could never quite get our undying love for this enduring character. Sadly, unlike "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings", this trilogy's impact will probably be diluted by the inevitable swarm of newer Batman films (or Justice League films) that are more than likely to be made even before the end of this decade. For me though, these films will always be the Batman saga of my generation.

Walking out of "Batman Begins" at the age of 15, I had never been so delighted at a film in my entire life. Within weeks I proclaimed it my favourite film of all time. Now, seven years later, having walked out of "The Dark Knight Rises" (a film that deals heavily with conclusions and the passing of torches), my brother Andrew, aged 15 quickly proclaimed this new film to be his favourite film of all time. You couldn't ask for a more perfectly cyclical sequence of events.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Update! TDKR Review is on the way

First of all, I'd just like to mention how utterly heartbroken I was by the tragedy that struck in Aurora on July 20th, 2012. Watching movies in the cinema is my favourite thing in the world to do (especially when they're movies about Batman) and an atrocity like this in a place of such wonder and escape defies any modicum of reason. My heart and thoughts go with the victims and their families. Especially this poor guy

Anyway, the reason for this post is just to let everyone know that the review of "The Dark Knight Rises" is well and truly on the way. I've seen the film three times and I've read the novelisation and it's still difficult to do justice to my overall thoughts on the film. Essentially though, I really loved the film and it's an absolutely spectacular end to a trilogy that has meant more to me in my lifetime than any other series of films. There's a quite a lot wrong with it and it's probably not as objectively good as "The Dark Knight", but as a Batman film I absolutely prefer it and I'm far more likely to want to watch it than either of its predecessors, in the years to come. It's an outstanding film and a great time at the cinema and if you haven't seen it, go out right now and do it. 

So check back tomorrow, when I hope to have the review uploaded!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"The Amazing Spider-Man" is surprisingly good, but it's impossible not to draw comparisons with the other films.

With "The Avengers" dominating box office records worldwide and with "The Dark Knight Rises" set to definitively close the book on the most epic cinematic chapter in superhero history, everyone has been wondering what room is left for Peter Parker to spin his webs once more. Well, nevertheless we have "The Amazing Spider-Man", a film that retells the story we saw just ten short years ago, about a boy, a spider-bite and some great responsibility.

While I haven't been too vocal about it on this site, I was never terribly excited about this film. Even right up to ten minutes before the film started in the lobby of the cinema, I just couldn't muster up any excitement for it. It's not that I didn't think the film could be good. Certainly, the cast was always going to be impressive and the hiring of (500) Days of Summer helmer Marc Webb (yes, that is his real name and enough people have pointed out the obvious) was an extremely interesting choice compared to the usual action-oriented directors for these kinds of projects.

What bothered me about the film's direction were two-fold: it was obviously far too soon to spend an entire film retreading the origin of Peter Parker/Spider-Man after a (mostly) celebrated, extremely profitable trilogy of films had already covered that within this generation. And seriously, "celebrated [and] extremely profitable" is doing Sam Raimi's films an injustice. The Spider-Man films are an iconic, unforgettable benchmark of the Golden Age of superhero cinema. They represent the beginning not just of mainstream acceptance, but of mainstream embrace of these characters being truthfully represented on the big screen. "The Amazing Spider-Man" marks a new low in cinematic showmanship - it was just poor form to white-out over everything Raimi had accomplished, warts n' all after such a short amount of time. To put it into context, "The Dark Knight" came out a year after "Spider-Man 3" and now "The Dark Knight Rises" is coming out the same Summer as a Spider-Man reboot. It seems like it's too soon. I'm going to warn you all now that comparisons between this film and the Sam Raimi films are going to come thick and fast, as there's just not really any other way of looking at the film.

The other problem I had with the film's premise before the cameras even rolled was that the story was going to deal with the mysterious circumstances of the deaths of Peter's parents. I honestly couldn't care less about Richard or Mary Parker. Seriously, they mean about as much to me as Alfred Pennyworth's father Jarvis Pennyworth. They're the glorified answers to Spider-Man trivia questions, not fodder for a movie-trilogy. Every last speck of integrity and endurance that makes Peter Parker a hero comes from Uncle Ben and Aunt May. His actual parents being dead was just an excuse Stan Lee came up with in order to explain why Aunt May was so old and poorly, in order to give Peter extra baggage on top of all of the problems he dealt with as a teenage superhero. Sure, given the soap operatic nature of Spider-Man's stories it does make sense to eventually give some exciting reason for why his parents live no longer, but to tie it in so squarely with the origin of the Webbed Wonder seemed like it would be really awkward. Luckily, it's only very awkward.

Simply put, I enjoyed "The Amazing Spider-Man" quite a bit.

The film takes many obvious cues from Christopher Nolan - the characters all seem much more like real people in the real world, there's much less emphasis on whimsy and dough-eyed, cornball heroics. Everything is dirtier and more painful (even the webswinging - a stylish MTV dance in the previous films - is intentionally clumsier and more improvised), but there's a sense of refinement in the progression of the plot and its characters.

Chief among the high points of this film is Andrew Garfield himself. Supposedly a lifelong fan of Spidey (aren't they all?), Garfield injects an honest intensity and a web-swinging electricity into Peter Parker, completely submerging himself in the role with understated brilliance. His performance is wonderfully nuanced and layered to the point where you fall in love with Peter as a real person and not as a cartoon archetype. Peter is no longer the stereotypical "Saved by the Bell" nerd he was in the previous films and is far closer to the complex, socially challenged techie of the comics; his bedroom, his belongings and his very mind constantly cluttered with weird little inventions and machinations, retarding his ability to communicate like a normal person. Some fans might be offended by his trendier looks, Robert Pattinson-hairstyle and the general sexiness of his brand of geekiness (as opposed to the wonderfully unattractive aloofness of Maguire), but it's never implausible that this guy would have trouble dealing with other teenagers, let alone girls. This is the Peter of the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run, to be sure. As every single fanboy in the world is likely to point out, when Spider-Man does finally show up in-costume (more than a full hour into the film; again similar to Nolan and Richard Donner before him), he is decidedly more wisecrackin' than before (although people do forget that Maguire's Spider-Man had his fair share of comedic quips in his series of films as well, however brief they may have been) and it never feels forced. Like the evolution of the comics character, Spider-Man's humour always feels like a natural development as a result of the confidence Peter's new identity gives him. Spidey's still not quite the comedian he is in the comics, but I was genuinely delighted by the full-fledged three-dimensionality of Garfield's portrayal. For me, Garfield is as close to the definitive Spider-Man as we've seen so far and I look forward to watching him continue to grow and develop over the course of more films.

The best parts of the film are when Marc Webb plays the origin straight, showing Peter getting tormented by Flash Thompson (who's given a much bigger, better role than before) and other callous schoolmates, followed by the burgeoning gift/curse of his spider-powers and the all-important warning of powers and responsibility from Martin Sheen's toned-down Uncle Ben (the dialogue is taken almost word-for-word from the version of the scene in the early issues of "Ultimate Spider-Man"). Sheen does a fine job at fleshing out the world-weary Ben, but he couldn't ever possibly beat the magical, tear-jerking benevelonce of Cliff Robertson's Ben (which is probably why Webb felt he had to hire an Oscar-winner to even try). Sally Field is a truly marvelous Aunt May however, and her role in the film is important at examining a relationship that was excised from the Raimi films. Unlike the original films where Peter promptly moved into a sexy apartment with Harry Osborn after the death of his uncle (although he moved into a shitheap later on), Garfield's High-School student remains house-bound, forced to explain to his ever-loving Aunt where all the cuts and bruises have come from. I was really glad that this relationship was properly explored in the film and I look forward to seeing more of it in the future films.


The deviations start with the lack of the familiar wresting/TV personality sequence with Webb opting for an all-too-realistic scene of a simple newsagent hold-up by Ben's eventual assailant. The structure of the sequence works surprisingly well in giving us a reason that Ben's death is Peter's fault, but it means that we don't get a scene of Peter using his powers for personal gain, an absolutely titanic part of the Spider-Man mythos. And it's this kind of thing that ruins the otherwise well-meaning film. There's all kinds of awkward "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" moments, where the mythos is changed not for any particular reason other than not to step on the toes of the previous trilogy. It makes you yearn to see what a Marc Webb Spider-Man film would have been if it hadn't been living in the shadow of Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire.


Emma Stone is predictably enjoyable as Gwen Stacy and her chemistry with Garfield is right on the money. Webb's film gives Gwen much more to do than MJ ever did in the other films and it's a delight to have such a strong female character who's never exploited for sex appeal (no wet t-shirt nipples in this movie!). It's just so damned unfortunate that she's even playing Stacy at all though, when she was so absolutely born to play Mary Jane. The character of Gwen in this film is undoubtedly lifted from Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man version of Mary Jane (although she is a bit bookier; more prim and proper), which makes it all the more painful that once again this film had to change for the sake of breaking from tradition. Outside of those complaints, the only other criticisms I'd have of Gwen is that again, Peter's luck with her runs a little bit more true than what we're used to from the guy who's meant to be anything but smooth. During the very early production of this film, people complained that the producers were trying to emulate 'Twilight' and while that's certainly an unfair comparison to make on a whole, there are some scenes where Peter is uncharacteristically smooth and unbecomingly sexy in a way that at least suggests that Sony want to have their own Pattinsonesque teen-heartthrob love story with Garfield and Stone (even if they are both in their mid-to-late twenties). Peter is in no way the hapless sap he was around MJ in the original films and while in some ways that's a good thing, some are going to find that a hard pill to swallow. But, again, in the comics Peter was better with women than people gave him credit for.

Rhys Ifans is fine as Curt Connors/The Lizard, but his character represents possibly the most glaring problem in the entire film outside of the mythos-changing. While the plot about cross-species splicing and turning into a giant lizard creature is all done as well as it could be (we've seen it all adapted dozens of times before in Spider-Man cartoons and video games) once again we're given the same tired mold of villain that Peter faced in the first two Raimi films. Connors is an intelligent mentor to Peter before some science happens and he begins hearing voices that tell him he has to be evil and kill Spider-Man. This is exactly the same as Green Goblin and Doc Ock right down to the sinister voices in their heads. Can we please have just one Spider-Man film where the bad guys don't discover his secret identity? For some this might be a minor complaint, but for me it represents the fatigue of the franchise, when this was supposed to be the reignition of it. After leaving the film, my friends began a depressing examination of how most superhero franchises have a variation of the same clichéd villain in every single installment (with the exception of Batman). The source material proves them wrong, but Hollywood continues to prove them right. Spider-Man deserves better explorations of his cast of villains.

The other problem with Connors is the aforementioned mystery surrounding Peter's parents. Peter crosses paths with Curt when he discovers that his father worked with him (I'm not spoiling anything, it's in the trailers), but unfortunately, absolutely nothing is resolved from this (okay, well that was a spoiler). At no point does Peter get any kind of closure or even any information regarding what happened to his parents (at least Harry Potter got a photo album at the end of Philosopher's Stone). The filmmakers even had the gall to use this annoying aspect of the film as the central topic of discussion in the now-customary scene-after-the-credits, suggesting that it was sequel-fodder from the very start and that they never had any intention to develop anything of this plot-point beyond (literally) what we saw in the trailers. In a lot of ways, this makes the film feel less like an actual film (something that only comes around every three years) and makes it feel more like an episode of a Spider-Man TV show. All of the parental mystery in the film would have been far more suited to a Spider-Man HBO/AMC series.

To veer the review away from the negative once again, I'll point out how well done the film is technically. Webb gives us more scenes of Peter discovering his powers and having to practice finesse in certain aspects of day-to-day life. The effects here are completely seamless. Peter handing Flash Thompson his ass in basketball (again, a la "Ultimate Spider-Man") was another really impressive scene. The combat throughout the film between Spider-Man and the various thugs he faces, as well as the final showdown with the Lizard all suited the word "amazing". We've never seen Spidey move with such fluidity and spider-like consistency before. The night-time atmosphere of most of Spider-Man's appearances elevates the success of this even further. Finally, the web-swinging as I mentioned previously is done in a way that probably isn't as aerially spectacular as it was in previous films, but is scaled down to evoke more credibility. There are a number of scenes where Spider-Man has nowhere to swing from and finds himself awkwardly jumping from cars and swinging at dangerously low heights, crashing into buses etc. I thought this was a really clever look at how webswinging wouldn't actually be as logistically seamless as Spider-Man stories seem to suggest.


There's a scene near the climax of the film where a wounded Spider-Man is having trouble getting to the OsCorp building to showdown with the Lizard, so a group of crane workers set up a more convenient swing-through for him. It's a funny, sweet little scene designed to show how much New York really cares for Spider-Man despite the negative press he receives. One thing kept going through my mind which is unlikely to have crossed anyone else's. In the video game designed for "The Amazing Spider-Man", 'invisible-ceiling webswinging' makes an unwelcome return and once again Spider-Man's webs shabbily arc from the clouds instead of realistically grasping onto the buildings of Manhattan as has been the case in previous games. It's particularly shameful that this is the case in the game, given that there's such a specific scene in the film devoted to Spider-Man's webs needing to stick to things.


While watching "The Amazing Spider-Man", I suspected on a number of occasions that despite its flaws, it might be the best Spider-Man film ever. Its devotion to fleshing out the previously explored characters and giving a grittier examination of the hows and the whys of Spidey's weird life really impressed me, as did the high-flying special effects. In many instances the performances were stronger than their respective predecessors.

What made me realise that this cannot be the best Spider-Man film ever was that it was so limply grasping onto itself for fear of over-writing the original trilogy. I can't decide whether someone would be better off watching this film having not seen the original films, when in many ways, the film relies on the originals to be relevant. In spite of the cues the film took from Christopher Nolan's Batman series, Nolan made one of the most important and brilliant decisions a rebooter (to coin a phrase) can make when reimagining a loved-franchise: He assumed that no one had ever seen a film made about that character before. "Batman Begins" is a film that builds Bruce Wayne from scratch and hammers his beliefs and ideals into the audience until they fall in love with him. "The Amazing Spider-Man" however is a film that has to assume that you've seen a Spider-Man film before, forcing it to deftly dodge all kinds of predispositions you have regarding Peter Parker and Co. The film has an utterly unenviable task, resulting in an experience that lacks the iconic factor of the originals.

Simply put, if aliens from space who had never heard of Spider-Man before came down and requested I show them a film about this character, I would have to show them the Sam Raimi original. Unlike "TAS" which dances around the themes and ideals of the character (however effectively), Raimi's film hammers them home and solidifies them in the audience's mind. Martin Sheen's Ben Parker only refers to Great Power and Great Responsibility once in the film and it's a roundabout, modernised version at that, never mentioned again by Peter (although he does hint at it once with Gwen). Cliff Robertson's Uncle Ben says it twice in his film (once from beyond the grave where he reminds Peter to "Remember that, Pete. Remember that.") and Peter himself says it later as well. It's things like this that make Raimi's 2002 original, goofy and flawed as it is, such an iconic, mesmerising delight.

With that being said, "The Amazing Spider-Man" is almost as good as it could possibly be. Despite a few serious problems stemming from a clichéd villain and a really shabby mystery that does nothing but set up the sequel, the film does an admirable job at reawakening the web-slinger and what he stands for. I was pleasantly surprised at how well-executed the film was (particularly the first hour) and would be quick to recommend it. It didn't blow me away and its flaws were significant, but I'm glad to say that Spider-Man is back and that it looks as though he'll be around for another while longer. I'm going to give this film a 7.5/10.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

B-Movie Marvels: "The Fantastic Four" (1994) - You Won't Believe How Bad a Movie about a Man with Stretchy Arms Can Be.

I've been teasing/threatening this one for a short while now and well, here it is. My review for the 1994 "The Fantastic Four" movie/catastrophe.

I'm going to get right to the point here, folks: This film is really, really bad. It's REALLY, REALLY, REALLY BAD.

I've spoken at length about various comic book movies that were either so bad they were good, or just downright unenjoyable. This one sort of transcends all of that. In 90 arduous minutes, this film dances around being traditionally mediocre to showing flickers of promise, to being completely unenjoyable to being one of the most spectacularly, gasp-inducingly, jaw-droppingly, dick-losingly, face-forgettingly atrocious pieces of celluloid every edited and packaged together with the intent of creating a moving picture for public consumption.

Essentially, this film is a fucking disaster.

First and foremost, in case there's any confusion, this review has nothing to do with the more recent Fantastic Four films (starring Chris Evans as the Human Torch which has undoubtedly caused confusion for people watching him in "Captain America" and "The Avengers"). Personally, I had no major problem with those films. They were decent popcorn flicks that just didn't really try to be anything more than that. They certainly could have been a lot more and it's a bit of a shame, but overall I think there are worse comic book movies.

To refer to this as one of those "worse comic book movies" seems as much of an understatement as to refer to the Hulk as "a trifle miffed".

"The Fantastic Four" is so bad that apparently someone went back in time and prevented it from ever even being released. According to the timeline of the universe I live in, the reason the film was never released is because "It was never even SUPPOSED to be released."

Apparently, the company that made the film had owned the movie rights to the Fantastic Four franchise for a number of years and their option would lapse if they didn't produce a movie within a given time. Their 'solution' to this was to hire infamous B-Movie God Roger Corman to produce a "film" at lightning-speed (which he was well-known for doing) assumedly so that they'd be able to hold on to the rights for a bit longer - maybe with the intention of making a better film? Who knows? Essentially, from the beginning of this film's production, it was never supposed to be more than a leverage tool, a stamp on the production company's loyalty card so they could get a free latte at that year's SAG Awards. Personally, I don't believe any of this. In my own personal canon of the universe, I believe that Stan Lee, so completely horrified by this film's comprehensive woefulness, sold his soul to Mephisto in exchange for the ability to go back in time and fabricate some mad story about how the film was only made to retain the movie rights to the comic.

I've tried and tried to examine this movie's story, but it's too bizarre and has too many WTF moments where I just can't believe something that was made by industry professionals could be so terrible. Admittedly some of the stuff in the movie bears the stamp of seeming like the writers and actors were at least trying (the scene where Reed suggests that their powers have backgrounds in their individual psyches, is at least ambitious), but most of the movie is just total bullshit. There are episodes of Power Rangers with better, more ambitious production values.

Here's a few key moments of Complete Nonsense in this film:

- Reed Richards and Ben Grimm are 10-15 years older than Johnny and Sue, and visit them early in the movie when they're CHILDREN. Later, when Reed is arguing that it makes absolutely no logical sense whatsoever to bring two inexperienced 20-somethings (with no knowledge of astrophysics) into space with them, Ben argues that "Johnny won't forgive you if you don't take him," as if they were going to "Space Mountain" at Disneyland AND NOT OUTER SPACE. Reed changes his mind when he sees how beautiful Sue is. That's right: Mr Fantastic in this movie is kind of a paedophile.

- There's this completely arbitrary secondary villain named "The Jeweller" who serves almost no purpose whatsoever in the movie except to drive some of the movie's "plot" points. When Ben Grimm falls in love at first "sight" with a blind woman (oh, brother) so too does the Jeweller, who kidnaps her and makes her his "queen" (I couldn't make this up).

- Alicia (aforementioned blind woman, who actually is a character in the comics) meets Ben (in human form) once, at a bank, where he bumps into her and helps her pick up the things that she's dropped. After this, she randomly decides she's in love with him (see the video at the end of the review).

- The film is RIFE with kind-of inappropriate touching and weird moments of intimacy between all the characters. Almost every character in the film hugs every other character at one point or another. More signs that the writers were drunk when they wrote the film.

- Three actors play Doctor Doom in different stages of the villain's story arc. In no way were three actors needed.

- This.

- This.



"Fantastic 4" certainly isn't the worst film I've seen, but it's without-a-doubt the worst comic book movie I have ever seen (although I've never seen "Elektra"). There are so many elements of total badness in the film (including entire characters, like the Jeweller) that could have easily been rewritten but were left in; there were so many special effects that just didn't cut the mustard and shouldn't have even been attempted without a bigger budget (the Human Torch's full flame-on being an example) and there's just generally a conflicting, depressing atmosphere of certain people (like the actors) really trying to make something special out of this mess, while others (the production crew, probably the writers, the company that ended up never releasing the film) never really believing in the product they were trying to create, to the point where it's just a total mess that can't stand up right.

As I said in the beginning of the review, it's hard to even classify this as a "So Bad It's Good" film like Captain America or The Punisher. It absolutely belongs in that genre and should be watched with that frame of mind, but even the pace of the movie is bizarre, with long, lumbering scenes of exposition completely annihilating even an ironic interest in the film. Pretty much every scene with the Jeweller comes close to being totally unwatchable. And yet...I absolutely recommend this film to Bad Film enthusiasts (I am going to rewatch this with my friends and many, many beers in the very near future). It's the bacteria on the knee of a flea scraping at the bottom of the barrel of comic book movies and it shows in absolutely every way. While the film does have a scant few redeeming factors (compared to the other films I've reviewed, this one is really close to the comics, outside of the fact that it randomly introduces a new villain), in almost every respect it is a supernaturally bad film that haunts the viewer for days after they've seen it. "The Fantastic Four" is The Worst Marvel Movie Ever Made.

So that's tentatively the end of "B-Movie Marvels", although I may revisit the title later for other, more recent Marvel movies I haven't seen (like "Elektra"). But, if you're still interested in bad superhero movies, I'll be taking a look at the movie that may have inspired Marvel Studios to make their huge crossover epic "The Avengers" (no, I'm joking. It so totally, absolutely didn't). Yes, my loyal followers, next week I'll be taking a look at the "Justice League of America" TV movie pilot from 1997, described by many as "a really shabby version of 'Friends' with superheroes in it".

Sunday, May 13, 2012

"Spider-Man: Web of Shadows" (2008) Game Review

I was delighted to hear that the game based on "The Amazing Spider-Man" movie is going to be a free-roaming epic, similar to "Spider-Man 2" which I've reviewed in the past and which I still believe to be one of the very best licensed games of all time. Lately, the Spider-Man games have taken a step back and have avoided the free-roaming approach in favour of simple, level-based brawling (Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time). After swinging majestically through the open-world streets of Manhattan, I had no interest in dialling down the virtual experience, so I never bothered playing either of these games.

I've often wondered why Activision ever decided to abandon the free-roaming option in the first place. With my excitement surrounding this upcoming game, I decided to examine the last Spider-Man game that used a free-roaming premise; another game I've never played for one reason or another: "Spider-Man: Web of Shadows".

Unlike the trilogy of movie-games, this game isn't based on an existing storyline, giving it free reign to tell its own unique story. The game sees Spider-Man reacquainted with the black symbiote costume after a small piece of the villainous Venom's skin attaches itself to the wall-crawler. Herein lies the primary hook of the game: the ability to switch between the traditional red and blue Spider-Man costume and the black symbiote costume at will. You don't have to go through the main menu or even pause the game to trigger this change - a simple press of the left-analog stick causes the black suit to quickly wrap itself onto Spidey's body.

The two suits have their own distinct moveset, completely distinct from each other. Red n' Blue Spidey is swifter and more skilled at aerial and web-based attacks while the black suit is more about sheer concussive power while Spidey has his feet on the ground, as well as giving Spidey ever-increasing mastery over the black suit's creepy symbiote tendril abilities, allowing Spider-Man to grapple enemies from far away or whip them into submission with vine-like tentacles. When you first play the game, your first instinct is to use the black suit as often as possible. As you progress through the game and level-up the abilities of both suits, you find yourself using the red suit more and more, as it has a wider range of skills and abilities.

In-keeping with the dark psychology of the black symbiote suit, the game gives the player the ability to choose between clean cut justice and darker choices, reflecting the control the symbiote suit has over Spidey. This is where the game really excels, as the outcome of the game depends on the choices you make. It's no Mass Effect, but it gives you a lot more control over what you're doing as Spider-Man. While I dearly love the Arkham games (and while both of them are far better than this game), I often disagree with the decisions forced upon me in those games. Sometimes while playing the story-mode, I don't feel like I am Batman, I feel like I'm taking orders from him. In this game, you get to decide what kind of hero Spider-Man is going to be. In this respect, it makes much better use of the black suit than Spider-Man 3, doing everything that I hoped the latter game would do.

One of the coolest things about the game is how New York changes as the story progresses. In the beginning of the game, it's the same NY we've seen in other games, with typical gangbangers and other more souped-up villains causing grief here and there requiring Spider-Man's intervention. As the game continues, the symbiotes get more and more control over the city, until all of Manhattan is deserted by its citizens, with only creepy symbiote zombies remaining. Even some of the buildings have been mutilated and covered in symbiote slime with hives sprouting out of them.

The combat is greatly improved on Spidey 3. Spider-Man uses a brand new 'web-strike' attack that is quite familiar to how Spider-Man would attack villains in the Spider-Man animated cartoon of the 90s. He shoots a webline at them from mid-air and uses the gained momentum to smack into them at force. The game mistakenly places too much emphasis on this move, however, making it a necessary part of the gameplay, rather than just being a cool new move you can use. I really didn't like how Spider-Man had no concussive projectile abilities like in most of the previous games. You still have impact webbing, but it's not as effective as it was in "Spider-Man 2".

The aerial combat was probably my favourite ability of the Red n' Blue Spider-Man. It's a lot more like the aerial combat in Spidey 2, as opposed to the useless, forced counter-system in Spidey 3. Most of the combat in the Black Suit is great. It's easy to find yourself using the black suit for most of the fights, as Black-Suited Spidey eliminates his enemies quicker and neater than Red n' Blue Spidey. It's a little bit less of a precise science however, and you're not quite as athletic in the black suit, but that's kind of the point. The ability to switch between suits is great overall, but can become very irksome in heated combat situations if your thumb slips and you accidentally trigger a change without meaning to, completely throwing off your momentum and the moves you intended to pull off. In this respect, it was probably a bit of a mistake making the left-analog stick the button you press to trigger the change. Surely the less-used right-analog stick would have been a lot more appropriate as a change-triggering button.

The biggest feeling I had during the combat stages of this game was that compared to the other games' reasonably realistic, credible uses of a man who can shoot webs and walk on walls (heh), this game was just completely overblown and ridiculous. It's like a videogame of a Spider-Man comic from the 1990s where the emphasis was on everything being as "EXTREME!!" and "EPIC!!" as possible, even if it didn't make any sense. A lot of Spider-Man's special web moves in this game make no sense whatsoever given the character's powers and abilities.

Generally, the combat in Web of Shadows is a big improvement, but it still falls into the same familiar trap as "Spider-Man 3" did, by putting too much emphasis on gimmicky context-sensitivity and not enough old-fashioned freedom to the player. Web-strike is great every now and then, but it was a mistake to make it such a central, necessary part of the gameplay.

(from "Spider-Man: The Movie" for PS2. Note the 'invisible ceiling'.)

One of the most iconic things about free-roaming Spider-Man games is the ability to swing around New York like you're really Spider-Man. One of the few things "Spider-Man 3" got absolutely right was how it perfected this mechanic, improving the already-great system in "Spider-Man 2". "Web of Shadows" is still good, but it's not nearly as breathtaking as it was in Spidey 3. There's no button to speed up your swingspeed like there was in previous games (Spider-Man just becomes increasingly faster automatically as the game progresses), which was always one of the most fun aspects of the control-system of the previous games. Not only this, but the developers severely dumbed-down the realism of the web-swinging by bringing back the most maligned aspect of the original PSOne-era Spider-Man games: "Invisible Ceiling-Swinging" whereby Spider-Man's weblines don't anchor to specific buildings and he appears to be hanging out of mid-air. It's nowhere near as ridiculous as in those early games and for the most part, Spider-Man appears to be swinging from building to building, and usually you can't swing in totally-barren buildingless areas, but there's a few notable exceptions to this, unlike the previous two games. It's just really off-putting when you tilt the camera upwards and you can clearly see that Spidey is swinging out of the clouds in the sky.

Seeing as how this game doesn't exist within the continuity of the movies, this gave the developers more freedom to include other elements and characters from the Marvel Universe. Unfortunately, most of the classic characters we know and love, such as the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, most of the X-Men, Nick Fury, Doctor Strange and Daredevil are all absent. All we get is Wolverine, Black Widow, Black Cat and...Moon Knight? Moon Knight especially feels like someone the developers used because they weren't allowed use a better character because of all the different films coming out around the time the game was made. It's also a shame the developers weren't allowed to use Nick Fury (unsurprising, seeing as how the first "Iron Man" came out that Summer) and had to settle for Black Widow as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (this was long before ScarJo immortalised her on the big screen, remember). This is all a bit disappointing, as it feels like you're travelling through a second-rate version of the Marvel Universe, compared to the amazing sightseeing romp "The Punisher" game was.

The biggest problem in the game is its script, its story, its characterisations and above all else, its voice performances. None of these elements are anywhere near as magically strong as in "Spider-Man 2", which showcases the one of the best examples of a script enhancing the playthrough of a game. Storywise, the basic plot of a symbiote invasion of New York is fine and is typical comic-book fare, but we're never given a reason as to why Spider-Man suddenly trusts his symbiotic black suit, which he so desperately tried to rid himself of before. He frequently defends the suit and his choice to use it throughout the game, with no reason given to us as to his change of tune. He also never exhibits any guilt for bringing the symbiote to Earth in the first place, indirectly causing the invasion that serves as the game's plot. Characters frequently call him out on this throughout the game and Spider-Man just jokingly shrugs off any suggestion that he's to blame for this citywide catastrophe. It's an offensively out-of-character representation of Peter Parker.

The actor playing Spider-Man gives the worst, most exaggerated, cringe-inducing performance as Spider-Man I have ever heard (and that includes 1970s Nicolas Hammond and his Japanese counterpart, both of whom were nothing like any Spider-Man I've ever seen or heard). He sounds just about as stereotypically dorky as possible and completely repels you from wanting to watch the game's cutscenes. On the subject of cutscenes, they are among the worst edited scenes I've ever seen in a game. The dialogues are frequently subject to bizarre pauses or interruptions and sometimes it doesn't make any sense what characters are saying. It gets better and more cohesive towards the end certainly, but there's generally an extremely unfinished feel to the game's presentation.

Also, an absolutely staggering misstep in how the game is developed is that it doesn't allow you to continue roaming freely through the city playing side-missions after you've finished the story like all the other free-roaming Spider-Man games (not to mention other free-roaming superhero games, even the really bad ones) allow you to do. The story ends in such a way that the only way to continue playing the game is to play from the start, losing all of the upgrades you achieved throughout your first playthrough. It's bizarre and insane that the developers expected players to just play through absolutely every nook and cranny the game has to offer within the confines of the main story. When it comes to games like this, I always breeze through the story first to see how that part of the game unfolds and THEN I focus on the smaller stuff for a comprehensive experience. It's baffling that the developers didn't feel this way when they were developing the game. I know it would have been difficult to explain the state of the city or how Spider-Man is still able to switch between suits after the climax of the game's story, but frankly I don't care. They should have found a way to make it work. This is my biggest problem with the game. Instead of happily continuing on from my original progress, I've turned the game off and started replaying the Arkham City challenges, instead.

So is this game worth playing?

For the most part, yes. I think it makes much better use of the capabilities of the Black Suit than in the Spider-Man 3 game and while there's certainly plenty wrong with the story, the overall plot is epic and lots of fun to play through. This game captures the silly over-the-top feel of the kinds of Spider-Man stories I grew up with (in the comics and especially in the 1990s animated series) in a way that perhaps the more serious gameplay design of previous Spider-Man games did not. Where the presentation fails, the action succeeds. And as we all know, action is Spider-Man's reward.

It's by no means the definitive Spider-Man game that "Spider-Man 2" comes so close to being. Too much is wrong with the presentation of the story, the combat, the swinging and the absolutely dumbassed decision to effectively steal your progress away from you after you've finished the story mode, but I can't deny that "Spider-Man: Web of Shadows" has a charm all its own. It's not a great game and there's a lot wrong with it, but it's still a really good Spider-Man game and if you're craving some more web-swinging around New York, you could do worse than checking this one out.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Thoughts on the new "The Dark Knight Rises" trailer

So yesterday, the new trailer hit for "The Dark Knight Rises".

This isn't going to be one of these "Here's what I think's going to happen based on every individual shot in the two-minute trailer" posts. I hate people who waste their time on such rubbish (ahem). I just thought I'd post a general reaction to the overall feel of the trailer and the direction the film seems to be going in.

First off, I really hoped they'd adjust and improve the visual of Christian Bale's Batman, but they haven't. He's wearing the exact same costume he wore in the last film and it looks completely ridiculous.

I know what you're thinking "Blah, blah, blah all superhero suits are ridiculous." Well, that's as valid an opinion as any, but personally I think compared to other superhero uniforms and even other Batsuits, this one just doesn't cut the mustard. The Batsuit in Batman Begins was amazing, imposing and intimidating. In "The Dark Knight" they slimmed it down into something that looks more like something from Power Rangers than the world of Gotham City. Batman just looks too skinny and the cape just doesn't drape on his shoulders the way it did more effectively in other films. And the mask/helmet makes the Dark Knight look like a Ninja Turtle. I just don't get how people think it's an improvement on the first Christopher Nolan Batsuit.

My other problem with Bale-as-Batman is his nasally, lispy voice. Again, in Batman Begins, the bat-voice was perfect. It was a throaty rasp, perfectly suited for urban crimefighting. In the second film, it uncomfortably deteriorated into the ridiculous lisp, so often lampooned online. It's the one flaw of the film that no one can even come close to defending.

I've heard talk that Nolan was aware of this and planned to adjust the voice for the film and just never quite go around to it. I had hoped that this would be rectified for the new film, but again, Batman sounds silly in the trailer. Listen to him say "Not yet." It's as if he's being choked by the mask.

As for Catwoman, I think she looks great. I love the idea that the cat-ears on her costume are actually night-vision goggles, and I generally love the Julie Newmar-feel they're going for with the costume. It really helps to differentiate the look of this Selina from that of Batman Returns. People have complained that her mask just doesn't disguise her enough, and that's certainly fair, but as a professional thief (again, assuming that they go in that direction with the character in the movie) is she even really trying to be seen at all? I just hope her acting ability stands up, as she's rarely excelled in that department (although she was fairly good in "Brokeback Mountain"). Aside from that, the trailer seems to indicate that she's going to be some kind of field-partner for Batman, which I like and which ties in well to the more anti-heroic direction the character's headed over the past twenty odd years. People are calling her this movie's answer to the problem of Robin and they're not wrong.

Personally, while Catwoman looks to specifically be Batman's sidekick in this film, I'm fairly certain that Joseph Gordon Levitt's mysterious character 'Detective John Blake' is going to act as a stand-in for the feel and spirit of Robin in the comics. He looks like Dick Grayson, he's a cop in the GCPD (which Grayson has been in his career as Nightwing) and he seems to be every bit the clean-cut, honest-living young man who believes in Batman's mission that Grayson is. In the comics, Robin provides Batman with a link to grounded humanity; the kind of outlook that escapes him the longer he spends scrambling around in the darkness. I suspect Blake will provide Batman with a similar outlook. People have opined that Blake might also act as an Azrael/Terry McGinnis type of character and will actually take over from Batman after he falls in this film...I really don't think the film is going to go in that direction. This is Bruce Wayne's mission. The hard lesson he had to learn in "The Dark Knight" is that he's the only man who can save Gotham. Batman has to come from him, not a successor.

And then there's Bane. A lot of people complained that his dialogue was unintelligible in the previous trailer, so they seem to have isolated it in this one. I think he sounds great in this one, although I certainly preferred him in the last one. I'm keeping a completely open mind about Bane in this movie. The character in the comics was effective and credible both psychologically and physically as someone who could defeat Batman. Unfortunately, his eventual downfall led a lot to be desired and within Batman's world they haven't really done anything particularly noteworthy ever since. I'm looking at the character in this movie as a blank slate, and I like that. This movie has the impossible task of having to carry on from a villain as culturally and aesthetically iconic as Heath Ledger's Joker. With Bane, they seem to be taking a streamlined, toned-down approach. He's much more of an invisible villain than the Joker, indicating that they're taking a quieter, streamlined approach to topping their previous film.

The last thing I'll say is that I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed by this film. I don't believe this will be the grand-standing epic the last film was. I'm personally hoping for a smaller, more personal, more Batman-centric story, than another extravaganza and I have a feeling that that could be the film we get. If "Batman Begins" was the prologue, than "The Dark Knight Rises" will be the epilogue, leaving "The Dark Knight" as the central, magnum opus in-between. The main thing this film provides is an appropriate ending to a really significant time as a comic-book fan, when one of the two or three most iconic characters of the medium was elevated in the public's eye to the stuff of legend. I'll see you all on opening night.