So I’m just back from watching The Dark Knight with an audience of about five hundred reverent teenagers, some of them urgently muttering, “Yeah! Yeah!” during the more violent action sequences, and I can confirm that this film has indeed raised the bar as far as the quality of our summer superhero films this year.
Some might say that bar’s still a bit low, maybe you wouldn’t want to limbo under it, but I don’t know. When you consider the merits of The Dark Knight and Iron Man and Hellboy II, look at it this way: it’s hot and odiferous out there, the daily news is uniformly bad, and there are many, many people on the street showing lots of skin who hadn’t oughta do that, ever. So these movies might be sheer genius or ten kinds of crap mixed together—are we really any judge, when all we want is to sit in an air-conditioned theater, forgetting for a few hours that we’re all totally screwed? By that standard, they’re all great cinematic achievements, even Hancock.
However, making judgments is the name of the game here, so let’s start. How’s the superhero film experience adding up so far? Well, I couldn’t help but notice, while I was trying to forget we’re all totally screwed, that I was watching a series of movies about how totally screwed we all are. You wouldn’t think that would be the shared theme of so many popcorn flicks, would you? But they’re all working the angle of doom for our entertainment. Their collective verdict on America is the old gag, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It’s spiced up with various topical references to let us know the filmmakers are solemnly mindful of global warming, wiretapping, enhanced interrogation techniques, corporate malfeasance, and the whole recent can of worms.
The Dark Knight especially is getting reviewed as if it were some truly dark vision of our particular abyss. But don’t be fooled; that’s just the low-key lighting. This movie’s about as disturbing and dangerous as a Halloween party, with “Monster Mash” playing and candy corn for everyone. Good family fun, though. It absolutely makes you want to prance around in a Joker costume, a popular fashion choice in the audience I was with.
No, if you want disturbing, you’re talking Hellboy II. Don’t believe me? Wait, we’ll get to it. But first—
The Dark Knight
This is Heath Ledger’s show, as everybody knows by now. The Joker is always the flash character in Batman, anyway, and as the promos assured us early on, Ledger’s not exactly underplaying the part. In addition, maybe you heard, Ledger is dead.
This adds a morbid thrill to his every lisp, lipstick smudge, and greasy strand of hair. But even if he hadn’t kicked the bucket in that untimely fashion, we’d have loved him for this one. I never saw such a darling psycho. He skips like a girl, he lopes like Groucho Marx, he licks his lips like a nervous child about to confess something bad. He’s got a fussy twerp voice that’s ideal for delivering a series of aphorisms such as the already much-quoted, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.” There’s a scene in which he’s wearing a dress (don’t ask), walking away from a series of explosions he’s created, when he realizes his remote control isn’t functioning properly and stands there shaking it irritably and flapping his arms—well, I just wanted to hug him, that’s all.
There’s a ton of plot packed into two-and-a-half hours, but basically this one’s about Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) confronting the Joker (Heath Ledger), who’s wreaking havoc on Gotham City with his “better class of criminals.” Lots of other stuff about Bruce Wayne’s ex-girlfriend Assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes) and her current hookup, crusading DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), which need not concern us, because who really cares when Batman’s confronting the Joker? We can all watch that on continuous loop till we drop into our graves.
Gotta hand it to writer-director Christopher Nolan, (Memento, Batman Begins), he knows how to make use of Hollywood’s everything-money-can-buy aesthetic. Rich nutty goodness all over the place: colossal action sequences gorgeously shot, special effects that had the kids saying “Whoa!”, hordes of renowned actors practically tripping over each other in every scene. I mean, to give you an idea, Gary Oldman, who can do anything from Sid Vicious to Beethoven to Joe Orton to Sirius Black, is playing the honest cop Lt. Gordon, which doesn’t really require much more of him than that he wear a moustache, but he’s in there acting the hell out of it, giving that moustache significance. Morgan Freeman is basically there to demonstrate the cool props, the new batsuit and weapons and so forth. Michael Caine’s the butler Alfred, carrying trays of drinks and saying “Very good, sir.” That’s real old-school Hollywood luxury right there, the wanton burning up of top talent in great bonfires before your eyes.
Nolan and his co-writer brother Jonathan have thrown a lot of philosophical riffing into the blender. (This is also a time-honored practice of Hollywood genre filmmakers. They often write the subtext into the dialog, just so everybody will get it. Then, generally, nobody gets it. Anybody who mentions getting it is accused of reading too much into the movie.) There’s a lot of chat about the definition of a hero, the corruption of power, the Rights of Man, I don’t know what all, I lost track. By the end, there’s so much high-minded chat it’s getting to be tiresome, everyone explaining to each other what the scene means. The fifth time the Joker points out to Batman the nature of their symbiotic relationship, you’re starting to wonder if he thinks Batman is deaf.
There’s also a real pile-up of incoherent plot-and-action at the end, which is now a convention of the action film, as far as I can tell. But it doesn’t intrude much on the basic night-time joyride quality of The Dark Knight. There’s even a nice shot of the Joker doing just that, sticking his head out a speeding car window and lolling it around like a dog. The movie’s a real neo-noir all right, wallowing in darkness, thrilled with how bad we are, and getting such a kick out of our impending doom it cheers you right up.
That’s a bit different from Iron Man, the slap-happiest movie of the summer so far. American badness is the comic premise of the film, casually accepted, already long-established. Robert Downey Jr. is the clown prince of stars, a role he was born to play after allowing us to watch his candid Hollywood revels for years and years and years. Of course, in this film he’s playing another kind of star, a famously filthy-rich weapons designer named Tony Stark with a Babylonian bachelor pad in Malibu and his whole life run on the pleasure principal—but let’s not quibble. Same diff.
Downey knows this stuff from the inside-out, and you can tell by the way he natters on happily while people are talking to him, over and under and through their reasoned arguments about his deplorable habits, always on another wavelength, dipping in and flying out again. Nothing can reach him till he’s made uncomfortable, suddenly, by being thrust out of his posh element. Without his private jet and pole-dancing stewardesses, his lifestyle becomes, shall we say, socially awkward, sort of like it must’ve been when Downey crawled into a suburban child’s bed after a black tar heroin binge. Awkward. The mom kind of upset and all.
Supposedly what reforms Tony Stark is blowback, getting attacked with his own weapons while riding in a convoy through Afghanistan, getting taken prisoner by insurgents, etc., but Downey starts playing his character shift before the convoy is even hit. He’s sitting in the back of a limo clutching a Scotch-on-the-rocks, stiff and uneasy, looking out the window at the harsh terrain as if suddenly realizing his designer suit might be a little much, after all. That’s nothing to how mortifying it is sharing a cave with a saintly downtrodden Afghani political prisoner. No wonder he comes back to America and stages a lugubrious media sit-in announcing his repentance and reform. It’s the first thing any American star does, after the horrifying brush with poor-people reality.
The rest of the movie’s not bad, lots of action and a great Iron Man suit and everything, plus Gwyneth Paltrow returns to movies here as Pepper Potts, looking mysteriously better than she did before childbearing. But it’s the early part that’s great comedy. Americans, we’re so bad it’s funny!
Primo footage here with Will Smith as John Hancock, the angry street drunk/superhero. Watching the dailies in production must’ve been just terrific, hours and hours of Smith/Hancock throwing cars and cursing people and refusing to cooperate with attempts to “rebrand” his image by gung-ho PR man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman). Seriously, I could watch that for days.
However, there’s a lot of other stuff in the movie involving Charlize Theron as Ray’s wife Mary, and Hancock’s tragic “origin story” about doomed higher beings who sacrifice themselves to save humans who in turn despise them for it, and it all gets very fraught and Peter Bergian, as in, directed by Peter Berg. You know what that means. Shots suddenly angled from the upper-right-hand-corner kitchen cupboard for no discernible reason. Tone shifts from “Ha-ha-ha, that Jason Bateman sure is amusing,” to “Oh, my God, can anyone stop the bleeding?!?” Still, in a way, that’s entertainment, right? Right!
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Here we get Guillermo del Toro’s doing even more elaborate, big-budget, arty direction than on Hellboy I; it’s like a candy-apple coating over everything in sight. But if you can see what’s underneath that, here’s what you get: the continuing adventures of semi-domesticated demon Hellboy (Ron Perlman), based on the comic books by Mike Mignola. He’s got assorted troubles with live-in firestarter girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair), lovesick friend the fishman Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), hapless FBI bureaucrat Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), and new head of the Bureau for Paranormal Research Johann Krauss (voice of Seth McFarlane). They’re all grappling with the declaration of war on humanity by ancient forest dwellers headed by ruthless Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who’s threatening to unleash the legendary, unstoppable Golden Army. Got all that? See, it seems there was this pact to stay in the forests while the evil humans took the cities, and then the humans, being evil, broke the pact and paved over the forests too.
The confusing thing about this movie is that the nominal villain, Prince Nuada, is absolutely on the moral high ground and dead-right from the word Go, even deader-right than villains so often are in movies. But Hellboy and his friends keep killing off the righteous and fighting like crazy to save evil humanity, which continues to destroy everything worthwhile in the world. This means you have to watch the whole film backasswards, reversing all the terms of good and evil, in order to follow anything that’s going on, pretending up is down and night is day and so on. It’s not so hard to do since Bush/Cheney got elected the second time, we’re used to it, but—
Well, I can’t tell you how it ends, that’s a spoiler. I’ll merely say that of all the sick ideological stances that ever got enshrined in American life, and there have been several, this movie’s embraced the sickest. Much, much darker than the cheery Dark Knight.
You can contact Eileen Jones at email@example.com.
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