Defending Man of Steel
Spoiler alert: Reader Beware, you’re in for some horrors if you haven’t seen Man of Steel.
Who knew so many people had so much to say about Superman? The bulging reboot by Zack Snyder and David Goyer has set viewers into a critical firestorm over what morally and thematically defines the world’s greatest Superhero. Here, the Geekwhore discusses the film’s flaws and praises its successes.
But first, let’s dispatch with the biggest “issue” about this movie: Superman kills Zod. Time, AV Club, Entertainment Weekly, and several other outlets have proclaimed this climactic act to be a violation of Superman’s basic code to never kill. The Superman we collectively know and love would seemingly never do something like that, would he? Actually, maybe he would. Look, as an actual comic book reader, I can tell you that the issue of killing supervillains has been done to death – yikes - in the last 15 years, nearly as much as the “secret rape backstory” in comics. For some heroes, like Batman, the issue of killing is part of the character’s active discourse, which is to say that Batman – within his series’ diagesis and dialogue – faces questions of the morality of killing his villains. But that’s because Batman and his villains are bound by thematic ties of madness and delusion. If Batman kills a crazed psychopath, what does that make him? That’s rooted in Batman’s story. The Dark Knight pretty much was the end of the should Superheroes kill debate.
Superman doesn’t have that discourse. His villains – Doomsday, Darkseid, Braniac, Zod – tend to be world conquering, genocidal alien overlords. The questions raised aren’t about justified killing, but rather about identity, allegiance to native or emigrated lands, and cosmic and global intervention. He’s not driven by revenge or anger the way Batman is, so his relations with his enemies have different moral outcomes. Of course, Superman doesn’t kill, but if he does, it’s not like the character has been fundamentally violated. What’s more, Zod had just incinerated half of Metropolis and all of Smallville. Genocide wasn’t just expected from this guy: it was already in progress. What’s more, the theme of Superman taking responsibility for his human/Kryptonian identity was ultimately resolved in this climax. He had to make his choice, and he did it, damn it. He killed Zod. Are we over it already?
And as for the idea that this Superman incarnation is too cynical, I point to Iron Man 3, a movie so jaded and over the optimism and raw feeling of superhero mythology that it puts its focus on middle-aged anxiety attacks and drone warfare and turns its “twist” on an actor pretending to be a classic villain. Cynicism is a superhero movie that pretends to be over superhero movies. Man of Steel may not be cerebral, but at least it is earnest. It wants you to feel something when Superman flies.
As for the rest of the movie, look: the dialogue was terse and a bit cold. The narrative was split between pastoral mosaic of an icon’s life and bombastic disaster movie. Though the final battle between Superman and Zod featured some of the most breathtaking action I’ve ever seen, it didn’t cover it’s own tracks. The filmmakers needed to take responsibility for devastating a city. Superman, and the people he was supposed to inspire, did not get to rebuild. And so, the audience felt cheated of a fair resolution. There was a sequence involving world builders and terraforming that could have been cut in favor of some story development. And we were only in the Daily Planet for a few minutes.
This movie lacked the charm of the original series. And though the original Superman featured lovely romance and great 1940’s style newsroom dialogue, its villains were sideshows and its treatment of Lois Lane was a bit cruel. In 2013, do we want to see Lois Lane “getting into trouble?” just for wanting to know the identity of the man she loves? Sure, the exchanges between Henry Cavill and Amy Adams could have been warmer, but at least Lois was allowed to act like the Pulitzer-prize winning woman she is. She uncovered Superman’s identity within the first half hour. She was structurally present throughout the film to fight the antagonist, not just to get strapped up in a sports bra like Gwyneth Paltrow. What’s more, Faora(Antje Traue) and Lara(Ayelet Zurer), two marginal comic book characters, were upgraded to play strong, defiant women who got in on the action. Three solid female roles in a superhero movie. That’s not to be taken for granted.
And, keeping the narrative aside for a moment, let’s remember that this movie was visually spectacular on a level beyond its competition. When Henry Cavill emerged in his resplendent costume and prepared to fly through the arctic, I felt for the first time in my life that a character who had been a part of my consciousness since memory had come alive before my eyes. With a velvety cape and an iron jaw, Cavill is Superman. The flight scenes, given roaring life by the best scoring of Hans Zimmer’s career, were magnificent and godly on an unprecedented scale.
I was born in 1990. The Christopher Reeves era ended in 1987. My generation deserves its own distinctive Superman mythos in the movies. Man of Steel was far from perfect, but as a first step in a new franchise, it has strength, and, like it or not, a vision. Some superhero adaptations are fundamentally rotten all the way. Yes, Man of Steel has narrative issues and a difficult tone to swallow, but those flaws should not weigh down the value of exquisite music, divine visuals, powerhouse casting, perfect costume and set design, and an epic scale. The next Superman films in this series can fly, if only we believe they can.
I first watched Enlightened on a plane ride back from Tel Aviv to New York. In my Dramamine haze, I found the episode to be well made but bitterly dry; like if I took one more pill or watched one more episode I might verge onto the side of suicidal. Still, the episode was impressive. It featured a surreal slow-motion voice-over monologue over Laura Dern’s horrified face that really struck me. As she walks through a courtyard of goony fratboys turned businessmen, she narrates:
“Is there any love for me anymore? Where would I find it? Men can be such monkeys. Most of them are so ridiculous… the pissing contests, promotions. What happens when the thing that used to attract you now repels you? Where do I go from here?”
I decided I wouldn’t pursue the show past the plane ride.
But something about that monologue stayed with me – for months. In December, I found myself returning to it in my head again and again – and let’s remember that I was seriously medicated when I first saw it; this would be like asking my dad to share his feelings about Bollywood movies he watched on his flights six months after the fact.
I watched the entire first season. I had found a new muse. I am almost finished with the second season. My standards of television will never be the same.
As we settle into a world of TV series featuring young, quirky, sluts with fun apartments and handsome white friends, it seems that the real women of the medium, those true arbiters of gender and genre standards – from Mary Louise Parker’s Nancy Botwin to Jennifer Saunders’ Edwina Monsoon, to, finally, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon – are as always few and far between. Sure, we have Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath, but she has enough to deal with on one front.
Enter Amy Jellicoe, otherwise known as the part Laura Dern was born to play. After a massive nervous breakdown at her corporate pharmaceutical job and a pricey stint at a Hawaiian rehab facility, Amy lives in debt – and with her mother(played by real life mother Dianne Ladd). Forced to work in a data-processing ward at her old company, Amy embarks on a mission to transform the cruel and cultureless world around her and maintain her own inner peace. But what qualifies as resolution or success for Amy? I find myself worrying about her at the beginning of every episode, like a wayward friend who I just want to feel better. I know Amy. She’s a real person. And I just want her to be happy.
Dern is fearless. The fact that she doesn’t have an Emmy that’s been dipped in chocolate is a testimony to state of decline that the human race is in. Planet Earth should be hit by an asteroid as penance for such an egregious crime. She is Amy. She brings a trademark aura of discomfort, honesty, and blind tactlessness to every uncomfortable encounter on the show. I often say I can relate to her character, but because of the brutal realism of Dern’s performance, I must amend my statement: I want to be Amy, but I’m not yet. Amy is optimistic, unjaded, and determined. Although her personal neuroses, fears, and vendettas often cloud her missions of altruism, she is nonetheless unafraid to walk into corporate hell and take in the man in the most literal terms. Amy is that friend you have who pushes you too much, the one you wish you could support more but just can’t handle. She makes you question who you are and where your own need to be accepted by society places you. Can you really be brave?
Fearing cancellation, Mike White(the series’ co-creator, writer, and co-star) has raised the stakes for season two. Caught between two loves(Dermot Mulroney, sinewy babe, and Luke Wilson, classic Bottle Rocket babe), Amy is forced to reconcile with her own ambition, corruption, and deviation from the seemingly redeemed Hawaiian she thought she had become. And as we watch Amy plan a delicious coup on her corporate overlords, we must wonder what it will take to satisfy Amy – until she finds true peace, we can’t stop watching.
Watch Enlightened and you will understand why HBO is the most important force in the television industry. This is unconventional, bizarre, and deeply real storytelling at its finest. If Enlightened is cancelled, people like me will have to live with the knowledge that a true masterwork was left unwatched because people were too busy keeping up with Once Upon a Time. Think about that for a moment.
Just give it a few episodes. Season two will be over in two weeks, but the show doesn’t need ratings so much as a viewing presence. Watch it. Talk about it. Find your inner Amy. She needs you. And we need her – far more desparately than we think.
…He’s still madly in love.
Look, don’t think that I’m blind. I can feel some growing pains in Girls’ new wave of episodes. Season one had a set cast but no rules and no real narrative structure. Anything could happen. Characters could come and go. If Marnie broke up with her boyfriend in episode five, he may never return. Now that Dunham has to return to her world, she does inevitably have to make a few contrivances to frame the characters into a smaller pool of interaction. There’s more of a traditional story this season. There’s more drama. It has to sink a little lower to the standards of a TV series. Just deal with it.
The only thing that has bothered me so far this season is the pacing. There’s too much story to tell and too many characters to flash by for a show this small, and some of the scenes need more time to breathe. We need to soak in the discomfort. Poetically enough, the cocaine episode jumped back and forth too much, which made it harder for us to access to the drug trip, and, inevitably, harder for us to believe it. But I think that will course correct. Season 3 will have 13 episodes instead of the standard ten, and by then the press bubble around Girls will have burst, and Dunham will have more quiet time and breathing space to spend time with her scenes.
But, so far, Season two is excellent. The current structure of the show is to have an episode full of delusional, neurotic, kind of disassociated moments that all culminate in a very cogent climax at the end. The scenes feel scattered and you are paying some mind to things, then BAM – Elijah is fucking Marnie – and you are fully present with the characters. The final scene of “It’s a Shame About Ray” takes place in Hannah’s bathtub. Jessa gets in silently, leans on the rim, and cries in her hand. She’s naked, luminous, and exposed, but she’s too ashamed to even look at Hannah. Jemima Kirke’s breakdown and Lena Dunham’s reaction was so real and so harsh that I forgot where I was until the end credits rolled. It just rolled in.
I think the characters are really going to turn people off this season. Dunham made the choice to make them more unlikeable, more selfish, more shallow, and more spoiled than last year. Whether she wanted to challenge her critics – those who criticized her for focusing on J.A.P.’s who don’t have real problems – or just wants to caricature her own work is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for certain: the Girls of Girls did not learn a beautiful lesson about life at the end of last season that made them more docile or considerate. They’ve only gotten worse in their ways, and I couldn’t be any happier. Hannah is in a total spiral into becoming a monster, and I’m just waiting for Dunham to pull the carpet out from under her blithely selfish protagonist. This season has been loaded with surprises – probably too many for a show with the speed and space of Girls to handle – and I’m dying to see how all hell breaks loose in the middle of Brooklyn.
I’d like to respond to some criticisms I’ve heard recently.
First of all, I’ve been hearing a lot of “We get it, Lena Dunham likes to show her tits, but it’s enough already.” There’s not really a limit on how many times she can show her tits. It’s her show. She can show them every episode, which, apparently, she’s doing anyway. I get that it’s not always savory or necessary, but Dunham’s personal nudity is doing far more for the medium than any of us knows. In five years, actresses of varying deviant body sizes will be holding up awards and thanking artists like Lena Dunham and Jennifer Saunders for making a place for them in the aesthetics of Hollywood. Soon, showing your tits won’t just be for skinny girls, and our society won’t make women think that the only girls who get laid are the traditionally hot ones. Girls has exposed many to the idea that, yeah, tubby, poorly dressed, unladylike girls do have sex – because they like it. Dunham has broken the barrier. Now she has to keep pushing it.
And one more thing: I’m a little horrified by the class comments surrounding Dunham. She’s taken a lot of flack for growing up wealthy, having a summer house near Meryl Streep’s, and having well-connected parents in the art world. In a recent Entertainment Weekly article, Dunham went to her own defense on the subject. “This mythology sprung up that I had these rich parents, but it’s like, we all lived in one room!” she insists. “I worked at the dog shelter for $4.50 an hour. I worked at the video store. I babysat.” That may be true. It may not be. But what the hell does that have to do with anything? Should she be castigated because she didn’t grow up in a shanty town in Gaza? Was Dunham supposed to disown her parents and take out food stamps so that one day when she did become successful she could say she did it by writing about her authentic experience as a poor person? What is this logic all of a sudden? Because Dunham has been charged with writing my generation, she has been criticized for not living in exactly the same conditions as her lead character. Maybe Tina Fey should divorce her husband so she can play a better single Liz Lemon. Perhaps Homeland should fire Claire Danes because she is not actually bipolar. Then their performances would be really good, unlike the garbage they are peddling out now. Is that really what this is about? Authenticity?
It seems that much of the criticism towards Dunham has to do with the fact that Girls is striking a weak nexus in the class/sex/gender/age matrix that hasn’t been hit before. I’m confident that she’s just getting started, regardless of if our media wants to be sick of some Girls who just won’t grow up.
The final two episodes of 30 Rock’s perfect fifth season represent the sheer awesomeness of a show that isn’t afraid to get full on crazy town whenever it wants.
In “Everything Sunny All the time Always” and “Respawn,” Lutz poops in a diaper onscreen, Condoleezza Rice says “Mars Attacks is Awesome,” Victor Garber hits on Will Forte while the latter is dressed as Jenna, Liz commits a hate crime against a Jewish tree, and Avery Jessup gets kidnapped by Kim Jong Il.
So, yeah, this is why I don’t really watch New Girl.
But you know what is as good as the bat-shit madness of these two episodes: the friendship and the philosophy. When Liz enters Jack’s office and announces her new life philosophy(“Lizbeanism means I am a dyke…against the rising waters of mediocrity”) Jack tells her he’s proud of her and gives her one of his neck ties. “This is a big moment for me,” Liz says, and I can’t help but tear up a little just thinking about it. People talk about Liz and Jack’s relationship as if it is one of those great will they or won’t they sagas, but that is not what it is about. Throughout the craziness of the series, these two characters have always come through for each other and made sacrifices, all in the name of friendship. Jack recovered Liz’ middle school retainer from the Air and Space Museum. Liz called in a bomb threat at the train station to stall Jack’s goodbye with Nancy. Jack picked Liz up from the dentist on Valentine’s Day. Yes, 30 Rock is ridiculous. But it is also very sweet. These two people really supported each other in an honest way for seven years. That’s a beautiful gift.
Something should be said for the life philosophies of 30 Rock - into the crevasse, when it rains it pours, respawn, the Fabian strategy are not just clever concepts devised by Jack Donaghy at the beginning of every episode. They’re full on ways of thinking. I often go into my own crevasse, just to survive. And Lizbeanism – well, that’s a lifestyle I’ll keep until I die.
Don’t say 30 Rock is silly or frivolous. There’s a lot going on. You just need to rewatch it a few times to get it all.
When Liz Lemon groaned and said “I hate going to the airport,” she spoke for empowered American Women everywhere. Her former boyfriend Floyd was in town, and, after catching him being evasive, immature, and uncooperative, she still was forced to chase him down at the airport in a grand romantic gesture. Liz rushes to the airport – but, when forced to throw away her cherished meatball sandwich at TSA, she does not make compromises.
“I Can have it all!” she proclaims, stuffing the ninth meatball in her face.
Poor Liz. She tried to play the part of the romantic object of Floyd’s affection. When he returned to NBC, she had Pete and the guys turn on the hair-blower machine and fit her in a pretty dress. She even tried to broach a conversation about her feelings. But, with work and the endless suffering of daily life, can’t she just have her sandwich and her man and not have to go through all this bullshit?
Sandwich Day is a celebration of post-romantic comedy feminism. Yes, we like grand romantic gestures, and yes, we’ll shlepp to the airport in the afternoon in the middle of traffic to tell someone we love them, but can’t these guys get their acts together? And can’t we just wear our sweatpants and go about our lives as we please?
If NBC really knew better, they probably would never have produced such feminist entertainment as 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, each featuring a hard-working, unapologetic 30 to 40 something unmarried woman. Liz Lemon has never been glamorous. She’s never had many fabulous female friends. And she’s never really had her life together. But she’s the protagonist of this show and she will get out of bed every morning, go to work, and wear her crusty sweatshirt because damnit, she’s got a show to run.
Her employees deride her. Her best friend and mentor usually makes fun of her. Her relationships with men are so sordid that she once tried to initiate kissing at her date’s mother’s deathbed. But Liz won’t be invisible. She’ll keep looking forward, staying optimistic, embracing lifestyles and philosophies of her own making. Even if she’s loud, or obnoxious, or unlovable, she’ll keep fighting to do things her way.
A lot of working women in TV and Film are given what I call the Katie Holmes treatment. In Batman Begins, Holmes plays a sexy but high-strung attorney. She’s a woman – and a lawyer. She wears high heels and doesn’t have time for drama. The franchise rectified this bad female archetype by replacing Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who actually looked like a lawyer. She was well dressed, but also kind of shluffy. She had been working all day – what do you want from her?
I’m not saying that working women can’t look like movie stars or have personal drama. What I’m saying is that Liz Lemon broke into this bound depiction of working women, who are usually portrayed as pretty/bitch, thorny/repressed, by showing a career lady who works 80 hours a week, doesn’t always look great, and has a sense of humor about it. She’s not out to prove anything about working women – she just is. This image took inspiration – clearly – from Jennifer Saunders’ reckless and wild Edwina Monsoon on Absolutely Fabulous and clearly inspired the vastly complex, hard for the media to define Hannah Horvath on Girls.
Not talk of 30 Rock’s feminism would be complete without including Jenna Maroney, as played by the divine Jane Krakowski. The role of Jenna originated as “Liz’s sluttly best friend” but, like all things on 30 Rock, spiraled into crazy town very quickly. Jane Krakowski is fearless. As the seasons progressed, Jenna became a kind of sin offering for every way that the industry marginalizes women of an age about 21. Jenna is competitive, insecure, cruel, perverted, cheap, uneducated, skanky, and we couldn’t love her more for it. Tina Fey needed a character who would reveal the worst of Hollywood, and Jenna Maroney was just the girl for it.
And, even though Jenna is demented and clearly out of her mind, she’s never asked to apologize for her loose sexual ways, nor does she ever really fail in the industry. Jenna keeps working, jumping from roles as Tartine’s Mother on Gossip Girl to a sexy lunologist in an Icelandic Werewolf movie. And even when she does “settle down” and stop jumping from men to men, it’s not like she moves to the suburbs. She engages in open and proud deviant play with her impersonator boyfriend, Paul. And how could anyone not love the woman who got pushed off a boat by Mickey Rourke?
For a show that supposedly goes unwatched and unnoticed, 30 Rock has had some big names: Jon Hamm, Matt Damon, Oprah, Selma Hayek, James Franco, and, of course, Komiko-Tan. Tina Fey and her writers rarely waste a celebrity guest star and don’t ever sink to the let’s have Reese Witherspoon play Jennifer Aniston’s ditzy sister shtick that low series like Friends tried to get away with. Ironically, the only bad guest star 30 Rock ever featured was Jennifer Aniston. So, that worked out.
How do we celebrate them all? Should we celebrate them all? I don’t think there is room. I could probably write paragraphs on the recurring Homeless characters or Brian Williams. Maybe I should limit this down to some of the most memorable.
Colleen Donaghy, played by Elaine Stritch
She was only featured in nine episodes. Without Stritch’s performance as Jack’s sinister, overbearing Irish-Catholic mother to compliment her perennial bachelor and Republican blowhard son, Alec Baldwin probably would have had a much harder time selling his character. Colleen is Jack’s true underbelly: she understands him in a way no woman ever could and knows exactly how to torment him to the brink of madness.
Every Colleen appearance was a flash hurricane. All hell broke loose. Colleen eviscerated several of Jack’s paramours and took her son on in games of purest psychological warfare. Most episodes end with a sweet, lovely little moment between Mother and Son that shows off what can be achieved when two masters of the craft – Stritch and Baldwin – are allowed to give in to their shared charismatic entropy. She’ll be missed.
Some classic Colleen lines:
"Patricia Goodband, whose sister runs the Friday night bingo game at Our Lady of Reluctant Integration in Waltham…turns out last week that the game was won by Anne O’Connor, who mentioned that her niece, Nancy Donovan, got divorced and was running around with a hot-shot in New York City who pours scotch like a woman."
"Tell him his mother’s here. And she loves him. But not in a queer way."
Angie Jordan, played by Sherri Shepherd
Another shocker: Sherri Shepherd only appeared on 30 Rock 11 times, two of which were for Queen of Jordan episodes. Of course, Angie’s best moments were when she was beating up/making Liz feel uncomfortable, and she was a consistent way of refreshing the Tracy Character. No moment was greater, of course, than when Tracy got his tattoo of Angie. No, scratch that. No moment was greater than the Tracy/Angie showdown at the end of “Mystery of the Phantom Pooper.”
Some classic Angie lines:
Angie: I cannot believe you made me come here for this. Now I won’t have enough time to shop for Christmas presents and still get my hair did!
Tracy: Your hair did? You just got your hair did! You have to get your hair did again?
Angie: It needs to be did every week!
Liz: Maybe we could ”undid” these handcuffs.
Avery Jessup, played by Elizabeth Banks
They were never going to top her. Alec Baldwin got to partner up with some stone foxes through the course of the series, but none ever matched or exceeded his character than the hardcore Avery Jessup. It felt kind of contrived to break the two up, like the writers of 30 Rock needed to explain that the two were not compatible, even though every scene they shared was a fascinating, escalating competition between conservative nutjobs. At least we got a few good seasons out of her.
A lovely Avery moment:
Paul Lastname, played by Will Forte
When Paul Lastname, Jenna’s gender-dysmorphic bigenitalian pansexualle boyfriend showed up on the scene, we all knew she’d never do any better. Will Forte doesn’t even look like Jenna when he dresses as her in drag, but that makes it better. He cheated on her by dressing as Cher. The story ideas for these two are simply endless.
How we met Paul:
Devon Banks, played by Will Arnett.
“Do you have any idea how strong I’ll look?” Will Arnett consistently nailed it as Jack’s ubergay archnemesis, and only developed his uncomfortably homoerotic tete a tete style as the years progressed, leading up to a season seven crescendo of gayness in their final showdown.
I only have ten days to say my final goodbye to the funniest series of the last decade, 30 Rock. The series never had a chance to swell into massive, stratospheric popularity or cultural discursive newness, but that has nothing to do with its quality. NBC does not know how to market its series, let alone the few good ones, and, with The Jay Leno Show, two elections, two Olympics, and the fall of network television, the network never really knew what to do with 30 Rock but to let it play in the background. 30 Rock, of course, does have a large viewership, but a massive portion of it has the face of a 20 year old film student named Sun/Moon who ambres her own hair and really likes the episode “TGS Hates Women.” Those ratings don’t count against the decrepit, dying viewers who religiously watch American Idol and NCIS on their TV screens. But no matter. 30 Rock will be added to society’s collective pantheon of greatest hits along with the likes of Cheers and Seinfeld.
So how do I, the Geek Whore, who watched Tina Fey’s unlikely first series from the very first episode on October 11, 2006, wrap up the show that taught me everything I know about writing? I remember bracing myself – before DVR – for the premiere, trying to gear my friends up for it. “You know, Mean Girls? That movie we always talk about? Now we can have a show like that!” I would preach. It didn’t really catch on until season three or four, when everyone pretended that they had been watching it from the beginning. When I was trying to learn how to write a comedy, no less write my first movie, I watched one episode of 30 Rock every morning and was instructed on the art of fast dialogue, off beats, and unpredictable turns. When I’d drive home from a night gone wrong or a brutal interview, I’d let my Bossypants audiobook fill up my car and wrap it’s arms around me.
I couldn’t possibly decide on the best moments of Tina Fey’s perfect series. I couldn’t even narrow it down to the best episodes. Instead, I will do my best to find attributes and aspects of the show that make it the most original, most relevant, and most revolutionary series of contemporary mass television. I’ll pick a few episodes that encapsulate the Lizbean experience, and focus on a few characters who have made an impression on me.
I may sound maudlin and saturnine but that’s because I’m bracing for the impending void of culture and political commentary that I’ve gotten too used to. All of it – kabletown, the Rural Juror, Ludachristmas, America’s Kidz got Talent – all of it is coming to an end. Now, it’s time. Get on your knees and mourn with me.
#1. The Dark Knight Rises
You didn’t think this countdown would end any other way, did you? Just hear me out.
Batman Begins is the ultimate validation of the superhero genre: it affirms the simple idea that one person can, with determination and sacrifice, make a difference. It wasn’t a candy colored pop spectacle(which can be just as enjoyable in this genre, when appropriate) but instead a stylish and economical chronicle of one man’s quest to make his life mean something. The casting was inventive and overall very successful, and Christian Bale proved himself as the greatest living Batman of them all. It’s a perfect film that doesn’t really need a sequel. But Batman Begins was only, well, a beginning. We didn’t really know what Gotham was or what the consequences and rewards of Batman’s missions could be on the larger society. The scope was still small.
In order to escalate the moral and sociological view of Gotham, the Dark Knight had to detonate the conventions of the superhero genre entirely. It was a hurricane of a movie. From the moment Heath Ledger’s Joker stepped onto the scene, all hell broke loose and you couldn’t look away for single shot. Most movies have tried to replicate the all out crazy town madness of the Dark Knight, and have failed terribly, most notably Skyfall. The movie created an ideological and ever-threatened trinity of chaos, order, and belief that inevitably destroyed and recreated the meaning of Batman. But as the idea of the hero was brought to new cinematic heights, was the man himself – Bruce Wayne – really in this picture? Like Batman Returns with Michelle Pfeifer, The Dark Knight put a bombastic villain at its center and kind of had Batman driving around town trying to catch up with his dark counterpart. While the conversations and philosophies of the second Nolan Batman film are the stuff of genius, do they allow for a ground-level view of the characters involved, or are they just moving chess pieces put in place to signify a point? Where’s the personal in this nihilist hospital explosion?
The Dark Knight Rises represents a beautiful combination of the first two films. Bruce Wayne – man first, legend after – is the center of the film, just like in Batman Begins. And like in the Dark Knight, Gotham city may be too batshit apocalyptic to be saved. The size of the second film was prodigious, sure, but the scale of this one was… absurd. Stolen Batmobiles patrolled the city in the snow. Bridges and stadiums were destroyed. Missiles tore through the air. Martial Law, Nuclear devastation, class rebellion, and fascist occupancy all passed through Gotham in one movie. Yes it was long and yes not every scene was perfect but Christopher Nolan took a risk and trusted his audience to let him build a set of circumstances in which Gotham could truly be finished and the entire legacy – the essence – of Batman’s mission could be lost forever.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows a simple season-by-season platform. Every year, Buffy faces an unbeatable big bad, who usually kicks her ass and brings her to near death. When all is seemingly lost, Buffy finds it in herself to rise higher than ever before, because she’s the chosen one and she motherfucking can. And once she’s made her mind up to stop evil and save the day, she’s unstoppable: a force of unbridled determined power. And the final Batman took a cue from the greatest slayer of them all.
In the first act, Bruce Wayne is totally defeated, vessel and essence. Bane(a very game Tom Hardy) personifies the spectre of punishment that Gotham had to suffer for the lies she used to carry on in peace. Batman attempts to handle Bane only to prove that he can, unaware that the institution he himself created could have its own equal on the other side of the spectrum. Once Batman is out of the picture, Bane brings Gotham down spectacularly. Things get dire in just two and a half hours. But once Bruce Wayne – again, the man, not the legend – chooses to live, he reaches apotheosis and returns to Gotham a God. When Jim Gordon(the divine Gary Oldman) lights his last match on the ice to see the form of the Bat’s raspy voice, Batman appears, with the occasion, beauty, and charisma of a cinematic messiah. Nothing’s going to stop him now.
It all culminates in a fight on the streets of the financial district, a chase through Gotham, and a big twist. The battle between Bruce Wayne, Bane, the rebels, and the police takes place in the day and in the snow, revealing a Holy Batman – one ready to step out of the shadows and embrace his humanity. The sequence was filmed with thousands of extras – unlike most other films these days, which would use CGI and much cutting and pasting to make a scene like this work. It’s huge. And look, I understand that the explanation of Bane’s backstory was confusing and to some a little off-putting. But for this comic book fan, seeing an A-list, Oscar winning actress play Talia Al Ghul, a character many of us never thought would make it to film, is one of the best treats I’ll ever receive in a movie theatre. As she marched out in her sleek kimono slip, stepped into a Batmobile, and calmly said “Shoot them. Shoot them all,” while a full on war raged around her, I screamed out in the theatre. It was just too much.
Joseph Gordon Levitt brought the series back to the original theme that anyone could be Batman. Anyone could change Gotham. The turbulence of the second and third films challenged but ultimately reaffirmed the idea that as politics, religion, the law, and the will of the people all fall into the hands of the corrupt or the misguided, one institution – that of a man trying to save his city – could stand pure, gilded, and resplendent in face of it all. The beginning of his journey into the Batcave is unabashed inspirational glory at its best – what superhero films are supposed to be.
The character of Selina Kyle is written surprisingly sharply. She isn’t a sexy foil to the deadpan Batman. And she isn’t some at-risk fatale who needs to be “corrected” and “taught what it means to be a hero.” No, Catwoman is a loner, like Batman, whose talents led her in a different direction. Sure, she comes in and helps save the day at the end, but she also teaches Batman a lesson – namely, to get a life. Anne Hathaway looked like a Tim Sale drawing. She was a comic book vixen. There was something about her brow, her lips, and her attitude that made her feel like the stuff of comics more so than any previous actor I’ve ever seen onscreen. She was Selina Kyle. And nobody saw it coming.
A moment of praise for Hans Zimmer. There were scenes in this film that made me cry simply because of the surging power of his cutting, climactic scores. When the Bat flies, it soars with the operatic music. When Batman makes his sacrifice, you feel the pain, the conflict, the depth of it all through Zimmer’s ascending chorus. With help from James Newton Howard, Zimmer was given the chance to create one of film’s great soundtracks, developing and cascading over three movies. The Dark Knight trilogy would be a more prosaic saga were it not for it’s music.
There were a few scenes in the Dark Knight Rises that could have played out better. Some moments of dialogue are achingly missed chances, without a doubt. In the heat of the final, epic battle, Bane asks Batman: “Did you come here to die with your city?” Batman’s response: “No, I came here to stop you.” I wish I had been on set that day to help out with that one. I’ll agree that the lines and exchanges in this film are not as tight and fun as those in the previous two, but what this film lacked in sharp dialogue it made up for in astonishing, seismic narrative enormity.
We rarely get perfect series. So often, a film franchise will hit on a nice beginning, a dark, gorgeous second act, and a final chapter that feels too ambitious, too unstable, and too sloppy. With comic book movies, we often get the villains we’d expect and the storylines that are seemingly safe for mass consumption. But Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Jonathan Nolan, and David Goyer, along with an unusually trusting studio, took risks that paid off. They hired Cillian Murphy to play the Scarecrow. They finished off their own protagonist. They killed Harvey Dent. And, ultimately, they made the perfect comic book franchise, the perfect action series, the perfect war spectacle, and the perfect trilogy.
So, did the one, protracted storyline of Zero Dark Thirty dazzle me as much as DK3? What the hell do you think?
#2. The Avengers
As I explained in my review of the Cabin in the Woods(read it here), Joss Whedon is the master of the balls-out, freak fest third act. He builds and builds and then tears the whole house down. With the Avengers, he made two wild acts of mayhem and mid-air destruction, culminating in a random, psychotic final half hour that nobody saw coming. He proved that he didn’t really need a plot to make a great action film. He’s that good.
The fight scenes were unbound, juicy, and long enough to savor. And the verbal altercations between the cast made the movie feel like a classic bitch-out from the Magic Box. I wasn’t one to agree with the praise for the “interesting” and “cutting-edge” improve work that Robert Downey Jr. insisted on. Most of Tony Stark’s lines felt out of sync or off cadence. I wish he had stuck to the script. What’s more, the lines between Black Widow and Hawkeye made no sense, whatsoever. In fact, I didn’t really know what Black Widow was talking about at all most of the time.
But those little idiosyncrasies are paled by the enormous contribution Whedon made to making Marvel’s heroes interesting and watchable. Before the Avengers, Johanssen was a lifeless sex doll, Chris Evans was so tired and bored he could barely hold up the shield, and the Hulk had too dark a storyline to fit in with his comrades. Whedon was given a very flawed cast and did his best to make them fascinating, nuanced, and whole. And he had fun doing it. It’s nice to see Thor call everyone else “tiny.” I’d say most improved goes to Captain America. Gone was an old school character with dull, patriarchal ideas of heroism. Whedon and Evans in its place created a real, valiant man of action who viewers wanted to believe in. It’s hard to sell such a typically noble and honest character. But they nailed it.
The stakes of the Avengers weren’t that high and there wasn’t much of a plot, to be sure, but the action was inventive and collosal and unprecedented. Nobody thought a movie like this could ever happen. I certainly didn’t.
Of course, everyone now pretends that they’ve loved and supported Joss Whedon all along. But no matter how many billions he makes or new fans he collects, there will be the small group of us who got the Buffy DVD sets as the came out with our savings when we were 11. There will be those of us who had to explain to our Queer Theory class why Dollhouse had a lot to say about gender in just two seasons. And there will be some of us who were given a set of offbeat, out of nowhere characters on the WB and UPN and found ourselves in ways unforeseen. For us, it’s nice to see our beliefs validated: if you give a Hollywood tentpole to a truly brilliant writer and give him freedom to make his fantasy come true, he can make one of the great action movies of time. I’m just happy the studios could trust him as much as I do.
#3. Moonrise Kingdom
Every collar is perfectly folded, every pleat is crisp, and every line of dialogue is inane perfection. There’s no telling where the inspiration for characters like Social Services(Tilda Swinton) come from, but it has a powerful grasp and clear transmission through the film. Moonrise Kingdom represents a kind of perfect vertical production where every shot, every lyric of music, and every boy scout uniform falls into place to create a moody, gorgeous gestalt of childhood rebellion and kitschy romantic grandeur.
As with many other Anderson films, the focus mainly falls upon a set of disturbed youth. Jared Gillman and Suzy Hayward play the pair of forbidden lovers who stage an elaborate escape to their own private beach, and the two young actors simply dazzle together. Gillman’s delivery of Anderson’s surreal, staccato script suggests a closeness with the style that could only be achieved by listening to Coen Brothers films in the womb. And Hayward has the subtlety, simplicity, and panache to play a greatest hits Bond Girl. Just give her time. Bruce Willis was surprisingly sweet and lonely, and his withholding paramour Frances Mcdormand was bliss in her nighty, ugg boots and speakerphone included, natch. It was nice seeing Ed Norton in such a kind, boyish role. I wish he’d do more like this.
Anderson films always feature children seeking reconciliation from their parents, but some play off drier and more brittle than others. His greatest work, of course, is the Royal Tennenbaums, which is complex and harsh and deep but also gives the audience a feeling of resolution and emotional development. Moonrise Kingdom is his best film since. Sam and Suzy find their way, and in the process, so do the misguided adults who affect to teach them a lesson.