Category Archives: The Great Superhero Movie Project

Movie Review: Watchmen (2009)

Watchmen (2009)Watchmen (2009)

Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Carla Gugino, Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode, Stephen McHattie, Robert Wisden and Max Headroom.

Directed by Zack Snyder.

It is 1985. Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as President of the United States. America and the Soviet Union stand on the brink of nuclear war. Only the awesome power of Dr. Manhattan, a being who some postulate is more god than man, keeps the nations from annihilating one another. The masked heroes who once patrolled the streets have retired; only the enigmatic outlaw vigilante known as Rorschach remains. When an unknown assailant throws sixty-seven-year-old Edward Blake through the window of his thirtieth-floor apartment, Rorschach turns up at the crime scene to investigate. Before he retired, Blake’s secret identity was the government-sanctioned hero known as The Comedian, and Rorschach suspects that Blake’s death may be a sign that someone is gunning for former heroes.

Watchmen is based on a twelve-issue mini-series written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Originally released in 1986 and 1987, Watchmen is considered by many to be one of the most important comics ever created, and a work that couldn’t possibly be translated to film.

Watchmen is an interesting beast: a movie I thoroughly enjoyed, but which I can envision various people not liking at all, for various reasons.

  • It’s too long. Since the resurgence in popularity of superhero films around the turn of the century, the average entry into the genre has been just over two hours in length. ((A sampling of thirteen of the most popular (or at least prominent) films in the genre reveals an average running length of 125 minutes.)) The Dark Knight, which I found to be about 40 minutes too long, clocked in at just over two and a half hours. Watchmen adds another eleven minutes, with a running time just seventeen minutes shy of three hours. That’s a long time to be sitting in a movie theater without an intermission.
  • It’s too short. The DVD release of Watchmen will include a whopping forty minutes of additional footage, and that’s before the animated Tales of the Black Freighter is added to the mix. That’s all material cut out of the original comic book, material that fans of the source—at least those fans who wanted to see the allegedly “unfilmable” story brought to screen—are eager to see.
  • There’s not enough action. Watchmen opens with a rather lengthy fight between Edward Blake and an unknown assailant, but after that it’s mostly a bunch of people talking for the next hour; this isn’t a movie for an audience used to seeing a big battle every seven to ten minutes. The problem is exacerbated by trailers that show lots of the very butt-kicking that we’ve come to expect from our superhero movies, setting expectations for an action-packed thrill ride with costumed heroes laying the smackdown on an endless parade of thugs, punks and ne’er-do-wells.
  • There’s too much violence. For a movie with only a handful of real action sequences, Watchmen is chock full of violence. Bone-crunching, blood-spraying violence that’s graphic enough to earn an “R” rating several times over. Zack Snyder implies very little, preferring instead to show the sometimes-nauseating results of the brutality right up there on screen; “subtle” isn’t a word that enters into Snyder’s vocabulary here. The violence isn’t all perpetrated in the name of justice, either. There are some very disturbing moments in which the heroes do terrible things to one another and to the very people they are ostensibly protecting.
  • It’s not a proper superhero movie. Even the darkest of our superheroes—Batman, for those who are keeping score—has a line he refuses to cross. No matter what the villain of the week did, no matter how many innocent people died at his or her hands, The Dark Knight isn’t going to intentionally kill the bad guy. Oh, sure, he might elect not to save someone from an untimely demise of their own making (see: Batman Begins), but he’s not going to take that life with his own two hands. The heroes in Watchmen, on the other hand, routinely torch the bad guys with flamethrowers, break their necks, or simply make them explode into a spray of blood and gore with a gesture. To make matters worse, the good guys sometimes kill innocent people, too. Next to the likes of Rorschach, The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, Batman is about as dark and gritty as The Greatest American Hero.

In spite of all this, I liked Watchmen. A lot. I’ll happily purchase the extended six-disc ((This is probably an exaggeration. Probably.)) Director’s Cut on DVD because I do want to see what Snyder left out of the theatrical cut, but I’m glad he did save it for the DVD release because I really, really had to pee by the time the end credits rolled, and another forty, twenty or even ten minutes in the theater would have resulted in disaster. 

Everything else—the lack of non-stop action, the ultra-violence and the despicable acts perpetrated by the so-called heroes—I was fully prepared for when I walked into the theater. I’ve read the mini-series at least a half dozen times over the past twenty years, so I was well aware of the sort of things these flawed—sometimes very deeply flawed—people do when given the means to do pretty much whatever they want. I was a little surprised to see just how much of the gruesome aftermath of violence Snyder was willing to splash up on the screen, but considering the source I don’t feel it was excessive.

In most respects, the film holds true to the comic book.  The resemblance of the cast to their illustrated counterparts is nothing short of astonishing, and some scenes are lifted (lovingly) directly from the page to the screen; it really is like seeing one of Gibbons’ panels come to life. Some story elements have been changed, perhaps for purposes of simplification, but the core ideas and themes appear—to me, at least—to be intact. 

I was a little worried about how the characters of Rorschach, The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan would come across, but for the most part I was satisfied. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach is absolutely brilliant, delivering the vigilante’s stilted dialogue in a manner that stops just shy of becoming corny; no mean feat. Jeffrey Dean Morgan manages to make Edward “The Comedian” Blake both a vile, despicable bastard as well as a frightened, damaged and ultimately tragic man, while the transformation of Billy Crudup into the blue-skinned, white-eyed Dr. Manhattan is nothing short of stunning.

It’s almost unfortunate that those three characters are so brilliantly realized in the film, as it casts something of a shadow over Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman). Nite Owl is my favorite Watchmen character, probably because I enjoy heroes who use brains and gadgets to fight crime, and because I admire the way in which Dan Dreiberg has embraced the owl theme in his costume, weapons and Archie (short for Archimedes) the owlship. I’ve always thought Bruce Davison would be my ideal Dreiberg/Nite Owl, but he’s a bit past the age where he could realistically play the role. Wilson does a fine job, and Akerman fills out the Silk Sceptre’s rather scanty costume well, too. Neither have quite the presence of Rorschach, but that’s to be expected; of the characters, it is Nite Owl and Silk Spectre who most closely fit the classic image of the superhero, and their alter egos are the least damaged of the bunch. Approaching something that could almost be called “normal”, they are thus the most out of place in the world of Watchmen.

Movie Review: The Spirit (2008)

The Spirit (2008)The Spirit (2008)

Starring Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Louis Lombardi, Jaime King, Paz Vega, Sarah Paulson, Stana Katic and Kevin Arnold’s dad.

Directed by Frank Miller.

Confession time: I have never read Will Eisner’s The Spirit.

I’m glad I got that off my chest, even though my Geek Cred may have taken a bit of a hit, especially with my Comic Book Geek brethren. I should point out, however, that I don’t consider my dearth of experience with the character (and Eisner’s work in general) a drawback when it comes to the Frank Miller-directed film version of The Spirit. In fact, my nigh-complete ignorance of The Spirit and his exploits gives me a singular advantage over True Fans: I didn’t just watch a character near and dear to my heart ruined on the big screen. ((That will have to wait until Captain America: The First Avenger premieres in 2010.))

As a non-Spirit-fan, I actually had high hopes for Frank Miller’s film. I enjoyed the visual style, characters and story of Sin City (which Miller wrote and co-directed) as well as the spectacle that was 300 (directed by Zack Snyder, but based on a Miller graphic novel), so I expected that unleashing Miller’s style on The Spirit would be a lot of fun.

Visually, I was not disappointed. The Spirit has a very similar look to Sin City: mostly dark with (sometimes shocking) splashes of rich, vibrant color, the end result is something that looks like it jumped straight off the pages of a gritty graphic novel. ((Such as, say, Sin City.)) Every frame is a treat for the eyes, masterfully assembled with strategically-placed, high-contrast elements that bring an almost surreal sense of depth to two dimensions.

And then they had to go and screw up the whole beautiful tapestry by adding characters and a plot.

Gabriel Macht as The Spirit is…forgettable. There’s not really a whole lot going on behind the domino mask that’s going to leave much of an impression. He performs a running monologue in gravelly tones ((As an aside, it was one of these monologues that really drove home just how discombobulated The Spirit is. Here’s our hero, walking through the muck after an encounter with The Octopus, looking stern while his inner voice complains about the bitter cold wind of the city stinging his face…and around him snow drifts gently to the ground, not even the slightest breeze disturbing the flakes as they fall.)) and occasionally drops a line that was good enough to make it into the trailer, but beyond that…well, I guess he looks okay without a shirt on, but that’s not really a big selling point for me.

Eva Mendes as Sand Serif is pretty much the same as Eva Mendes as every other hot dame she’s played: a whole lot of eye candy that turns out to be nothing but empty calories. ((See also: Ghost Rider.)) The woman looks good, and the high-contrast visual style accentuates every curve of her body. Unfortunately, Sand Serif is a speaking role, and that’s where the whole thing falls apart.

I’d expect a wooden performance from Eva Mendes, but I hold Scarlett Johansson to a higher standard, which made her wooden performance all the more disappointing, especially since she wasn’t given anywhere near the camera-fondling Miller gave Mendes (and Paz Vega, whose part and costume were both quite small). Johansson, as Silken Floss, has the unfortunate distinction of sharing nearly every scene she’s in with one Samuel L. Jackson, and perhaps that’s why she comes across as a little stiff.

Time for another confession: Samuel L. Jackson is pretty much the only reason I ventured out at 10:30pm on Christmas to see The Spirit. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Jackson because he will agree to do a role just because it sounds like fun; ((See also: Snakes on a Plane.)) and it’s not difficult to see that Sam Jackson is having all kinds of fun playing The Octopus. But I’m not sure Frank Miller told Samuel L. Jackson what kind of movie he was making. This may have something to do with the fact that I suspect Frank Miller did not know what kind of movie he was making. Based solely on The Octopus, I would classify The Spirit as camp, approaching pure farce; and if that’s what the movie was supposed to be I wouldn’t have a problem with the over-the-top campiness of Jackson’s performance.

Except that Samuel L. Jackson is the only person gobbling up scenes like a starving man at the Hometown Buffet. To make matters worse, The Octopus goes through more wardrobe changes than Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde 3: I Can’t Believe They’re Still Making Sequels to Legally Blonde. The Octopus is first a pimp, then (for no apparent reason) a samurai, then a doctor/scientist, then (again, for no reason) a monocle-wearing Nazi General, then a pimp with a smaller hat than the first pimp. His on-screen antics elicited various audience members to blurt out on not one, not two, but three separate occasions, “What the [expletive]?” It’s fun to watch the man enjoy himself, but at some point you can’t help but wonder if he realizes that there are people making a movie around him.

And then there’s Morgenstern, the rookie cop played by Stana Katic. For reasons known only to…well, hell, probably no one, she speaks at roughly twice the volume of everyone around her. After the first two lines, I was reminded of Steve Carell’s character in Anchorman, who blurted out “Loud noises!” and “I love lamp!”, but at least he had an excuse for yelling: everyone else was, too.

Add characters that seem relatively normal (Ellen Dolan, played by Sarah Paulson, possibly the only truly sane person in the entire film) and those that are never really explained (Lorelei, played by Jaime King, some sort of Death-spirit who may or may not be entirely a figment of The Spirit’s imagination), and those that are just plain bizarre (Logos, Pathos, Ethos and many more, all played by Louis Lombardi), a hopping foot-head (that’s not a typo) and a scene that gives new mean to the term “rib-sticking”, and The Spirit is a giant mess that just can’t decide what it’s supposed to be. All kinds of nice to look at, but that’s about it.

Movie Review: Ghost Rider (2007)

Ghost Rider (DVD)Ghost Rider (2007)

Starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Donal Logue, Peter Fonda, Wes Bentley, Laurence Bruels, Daniel Frederiksen, Mathew Wilkinson, Brett Cullen, Matt Long, Raquel Alessi and General Thaddeus E. “Thunderbolt” Ross

Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

If you had asked me two years ago who I thought should be cast as Johnny Blaze, Ghost Rider’s stunt-cycling alter ego, Nicolas Cage would not have been high on the list of possibilities. For starters, Cage’s hair(piece) is the wrong color. True to his name, the comic book Blaze has fiery orange hair. Unfortunately, the only actor I know of whose hair even approaches orange is Carrot Top (and yes, I’m being generous with the word “actor” here). Apart from being uncommon, orange hair just isn’t going to look right outside the pages of a comic book.You might not think that hair color is all that important when it comes to casting a superhero (much less his alter ego), but ask yourself if you’d want to see Bruce Wayne as a redhead or a blond Clark Kent.

Denis Leary has what I consider to be a reasonable real-life approximation of Johnny Blaze’s hair, both in terms of color and style.When Blaze first appeared in 1972, he was definitely a product of the time, and his hair was a bit longer than Leary’s, but I still think the styles are reasonably similar. Alas, like Nicolas Cage, Denis Leary is at least fifteen years too old to play Johnny Blaze, regardless of how appropriate his coiffure might be.

Johnny Blaze, Ghost Rider
image-547
Too old or not, right hair color and style or not, Nicolas Cage is Johnny Blaze on the big screen, though not right away. When Ghost Rider begins, Matt Long plays a much younger Blaze, a carnival stunt cyclist who sells his soul to Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) in order to cure his father’s cancer. Barton Blaze (Brett Cullen) is cured, all right, but Mephistopheles arranges for the elder Blaze to die in an incredibly lame motorcycle crash the very next day. Yeah, Mephistopheles is a bit of a bastard, but that’s what you get for trucking with demons.

After his father’s death, Johnny runs away from everything, including his sweetheart, Roxann Simpson (Raquel Alessi). Blaze crashes his motorcycle at a crossroads where he meets Mephistopheles, who — apart from having a name that’s a pain in the ass to type — informs the young man that he will be called upon to serve the demon sometime in the future.

Years later, Johnny has become a world-renowned stunt cyclist and Roxann has become Eva Mendes. Roxann has also become a television reporter whose wardrobe consists almost entirely of low-cut, cleavage-revealing outfits that also happen to hug her shapely derrière. Roxann re-enters Johnny’s life as he is preparing to attempt a record-setting 300-foot motorcycle jump in a packed arena. Though Blaze does not normally give interviews, he makes an exception for his childhood sweetheart, possibly because she is enticingly back lit, wearing a very, very tight-fitting dress and just happens to pose like a runway model whenever the camera is on her.

Meanwhile, at a bar in the middle of the desert, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the demonic son of Mephistopheles, kills a bunch of badass bikers and summons his entourage of fallen angels. Blackheart intends to retrieve a contract that the original Old West Ghost Rider stole from Mephistopheles a hundred and fifty years ago.

Mephistopheles learns of his wayward son’s plan and decides to intervene; he pays a visit to Johnny Blaze and calls forth Ghost Rider, transforming the stunt cyclist into a fiery-skulled Spirit of Vengeance and his motorcycle into a supernaturally-fast, flaming chopper.

While Ghost Rider battles Blackheart, Johnny Blaze struggles to gain control over the Spirit of Vengeance and turn his curse into a force for good. He is aided by the mysterious Caretaker (Sam Elliott), who has extensive knowledge of the Ghost Rider legend, not to mention some of the most manly facial hair ever seen in the history of motion pictures.I believe that Sam Elliott may be the only human being who could actually grow hair on his eyeballs if he wanted to. As the Caretaker, Elliott sports a beard that climbs so far up his cheekbones that it very nearly flows into his eyebrows. The Caretaker tells Johnny that if Blackheart successfully retrieves the contract of San Venganza, the demon could bring about Hell on Earth.

Ghost Rider is the rock and roll superhero movie. Nicolas Cage may not be the ideal Johnny Blaze and Eva Mendez may be little more than eye candy but when the sun sets and the Spirit of Vengeance awakens, the soundtrack cranks up to eleven and the visuals tear up the screen. The special effects are extravagant without being cheesy, the action is unapologetically over the top and there are flames everywhere.

On the incredibly arbitrary 27-point KJToo rating system, I give Ghost Rider a very respectable 22.

Rocking Out: 9
Ghost Rider (Score) @ Amazon.comAustralian rock band Spiderbait provides an excellent cover of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” that plays in one scene when the Old West Ghost Rider gallops across the desert alongside the motorcycling modern-day Ghost Rider. The song — which plays again over the ending credits — is an obvious choice for the movie, but the Spiderbait cover keeps with the hard rocking mood. At present, only the score for the movie is available on CD, but I would imagine that Spiderbait’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky” will soon be available on either a soundtrack disc for the movie or on one of the band’s future releases.

Hell’s Angels: 7
At the bar in the desert, Blackheart summons the Nephilim, three fallen angels who take the form three of the four elements: Gressil (Laurence Breuls), earth; Abigor (Mathew Wilkenson), air; and Wallow (Daniel Frederiksen), water. Each of the Nephilim is realized very nicely, and one of my favorite special effects in the movie is the ever-dripping Wallow wiping his left eye away with one finger, only to have it reappear a second later. Ghost Rider (who represents fire, the fourth element) faces the Nephilim in combat one at a time through the course of the movie. They would have scored higher if they hadn’t been so easy to defeat.

Fuego del Corazón: 6
Perhaps love makes the world go ’round, but it has an opposite effect on Ghost Rider; thanks to some painfully bad acting and a lack of chemistry between Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes, the love story sucks energy out of the movie. Any time the two strike up a conversation, it is stiff, awkward and artificial. Roxann lacks depth and consistently comes across as a pretty, pretty twit, which doesn’t do anything help build a believable love story with real impact to the plot as a whole.

Movie Review: Ultimate Avengers 2 (2006)

Ultimate Avengers 2 (DVD)Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise of the Panther (2006)

Starring Justin Gross, Grey DeLisle, Michael Massee, Marc Worden, Olivia d’Abo, Nan McNamara, Nolan North, Andre Ware, Dave Boat, Fred Tatasciore, James K. Ward, Jeffrey D. Sams, Dave Fennoy, Howlin’ Mad Murdock and Luke Skywalker.

Directed by Curt Geda and Steven E. Gordon.

Before I launch into my review of Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise of the Panther, I want to mention that my seven-month-old son, Kyle, loves the Ultimate Avengers series, as evidenced by this photo. ((I’d say he eats it up, but that would be going too far.))

And another thing: if spoilers make you want to smash puny humans, you may want to stop reading now.

Rise of the Panther is the sequel to Ultimate Avengers: The Movie, which was based on The Ultimates a re-imagining of Marvel Comics’ popular long-running series, The Avengers. If you were a fan of The Avengers or other Marvel (Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.) titles between the mid-1960’s and the turn of the century, these aren’t quite the heroes you may be used to.

The story continues where the first Ultimate Avengers movie left off: after defeating the alien Chitauri, Captain America is haunted by events from his past, Hank and Janet Pym continue to have marital difficulties, Thor is rebelling against his father, and Bruce Banner is imprisoned in a special S.H.I.E.L.D. holding cell to ensure that the Hulk will not wreak further havoc.

Unbeknownst to the heroes, Herr Klieser—the Chitauri shape-shifter who has taken the guise of a Nazi officer—survived his encounter with the Avengers. Kleiser has surfaced in Wakanda, a small, insular African nation not unfamiliar with the alien invaders. Kleiser clashes with T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda who—in the guise of the Black Panther—also acts as its protector. T’Chaka is killed in his encounter with Kleiser and his son, T’Challa, ascends to the throne.

T’Challa travels to the West to solicit the advice of Captain America. The Avengers are only too eager to eliminate the Chitauri threat in Wakanda, but all outsiders are treated as enemies. T’Challa risks losing the throne if he allows the Avengers to set foot on Wakandan soil.

The Avengers, aware of the threat the Chitauri represent, are determined to help the Wakandans fight off the alien menace. This leads directly to the Avengers getting their collective butts handed to them on a vibranium platter by the crafty Wakandans.

To make matters worse, Kleiser masquerades as the Black Panther in order to gain access to the Avengers’ ship. The Chitauri causes all kinds of trouble before escaping in a small landing craft just before the ship is destroyed. The Avengers go limping home with a major morale problem, Janet Pym in a coma and Iron Man needing some serious body work.

Eventually, the Wakandans come to their senses, thanks largely to the giant Chitauri ship that parks itself directly over the country and covers the sky with a translucent green membrane from which descend thousands of ships and multi-legged ground assault vehicles.

Of course, the only way to defeat the Chitauri mothership is to fly into the belly of the beast and cut out its heart. There are two analogies to this: the assault on the second Death Star and Will Smith’s assault on the mothership in Independence Day. In this case, Iron Man is the Milennium Falcon and Hank Pym is Jeff Goldblum. Or maybe Iron Man is Lando Calrissian, the gamma cannon is a computer virus and Hank Pym is Nien Nunb. It’s also possible that Hank Pym is Pinocchio, but then things start to get complicated. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s been done.

In the end, Hank Pym sacrifices himself just to show Janet that he’s a real hero, the Chitauri are defeated, Thor defibrillates Iron Man with mystical lightning and an Uru hammer, Bruce Banner hulks out and escapes his prison, and Captain America starts macking on the Black Widow. Hello!

All in all, Rise of the Panther isn’t bad. The animation is on par with the first installment, if not a little better; the voice acting is just as good, but the story could have been stronger. I’m also noticing a pretty significant departure from the story presented in the comic books (though I am a few issues behind on The Ultimates 2, as I’m waiting for the next trade paperback to be released), particularly in the areas of “babes with whom Captain America is hooking up” and “heroes who are not breathing anymore.”

There is no commentary track on the DVD, nor is there a trivia track such as there was on Ultimate Avengers: The Movie. Special features include a featurette on The Ultimates with commentary by creators Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada and others, “The Ultimate Gag Reel,” which contains some amusing “outtakes” from Ultimate Avengers: The Movie, the “What Avenger Are You?” DVD-ROM game, ((This appears to be identical to the game that was included on the Ultimate Avengers: The Movie DVD, right down to the fact that I’m Iron Man. I. Am. Iron Man.)) and first looks at two upcoming Lions Gate/Marvel animated features: Iron Man and Doctor Strange.

Movie Review: Superman Returns (2006)

Superman Returns (DVD)
Superman Returns (2006)

Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint, Tristan Lake Leabu, Marlon Brando and Skeletor.

Directed by Bryan Singer.

If there’s one thing that bugged me about Brandon Routh as Superman, it was the forehead curl, that little spiral of hair that—along with the lack of glasses—completely differentiates Superman from Clark Kent. Over the past several months, I’ve heard my fellow movie geeks tear the new supersuit to shreds, declaring that the shade of red used in the boots and cape are too dark, the boots themselves appear to have been stolen from Wonder Woman, and the supersymbol on the chest is too three-dimensional. But I was fine with every aspect of the new Superman’s look except that forehead curl; the damn thing looked out of place on Routh, even in the very earliest images Warner Brothers released. On screen, it looks like a piece of black ribbon candy. Clearly, Superman is using some sort of Kryptonian pomade.

Hair aside, Routh is an excellent Man of Steel. When the Last Son of Krypton speaks, his voice is so reminiscent of Christopher Reeve in the same role that it’s enough to send chills down my spine. As Clark Kent, Routh doesn’t remind me of Reeve quite so much, but still gives a good performance; once it’s up, up and away time, however, he’s simply stunning.

Yes, Brandon Routh is Superman. Unfortunately, the plot of Superman Returns is Kryptonite. [WARNING: If spoilers are your Kryptonite, you may not want to read further.]

Continue reading Movie Review: Superman Returns (2006)

Movie Review: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

X-Men: The Last Stand (DVD)X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Starring Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin, Kelsey Grammer, Rebecca Romjin, James Marsden, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Ellen Page, Bill Duke and Big Chris.

Directed by Brett Ratner.

I saw X-Men: The Last Stand at the gloriously restored Pic Theater ((I’m taking some liberty with the word “gloriously” here. There was a fire at the Pic a couple of years after I graduated from high school, and the theater was closed for a while. I don’t believe the theater was modernized at all during its renovation/restoration/repair; the theater is almost entirely unchanged since I saw Bram Stoker’s Dracula there three times back in 1992, except that the balcony is now closed.)) in Hancock, Michigan with my wife and two of my siblings.

The Pic is a very humble theater, a single-screen relic with no stadium seating, digital projector or THX-certified surround sound. Across the Portage Canal, the Pic’s sister theater, the Lode, now sports three screens and, up the hill at the Copper Country Mall, Carmike Cinema has five. None of these theaters rival the Cinemark or Regal multi-plexes scattered across northeast Ohio, but the Pic is the last place I would have expected to see the first of the so-called summer blockbusters.

As it turns out, the venue in which X-Men: The Last Stand was playing was the least of my worries. Like an unstoppable juggernaut, the creative forces behind the film had trampled the franchise underfoot leaving only devastation and ruin in their path. If only Bryan Singer hadn’t been too busy directing Brandon Routh’s spit-curl in Superman Returns, maybe he could have spared me this pain.

If you’d rather have X-Men: The Last Stand spoiled for you the old-fashioned way—in a theater, by Brett Ratner and company—then you may not want to continue reading. ((If you do go this route, you’ll want to stick around for the zinger after the end credits.))
Continue reading Movie Review: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Movie Review: Ultimate Avengers (2006)

Ultimate Avengers (2006)

Starring Justin Gross, David Boat, Grey DeLisle, Michael Massee, Nan McNamara, Nolan North, Fred Tatasciore, Andre Ware, Marc Worden and Princess Jehnna.

Directed by Curt Geda and Steven E. Gordon.

Ultimate Avengers, based on the Marvel comic series The Ultimates, is the first animated film produced by Marvel Comics and Lions Gate Films. It was released directly to DVD, and a sequel is slated for release (also direct-to-DVD) in July 2006.

Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe updates some of their classic superheroes (Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men and The Avengers), retelling their origins in a more modern day setting. Some might say the Ultimate universe is Marvel’s way of milking their old standards one more time. After all, how many times can you re-tool the story of a kid getting bit by a spider? Personally, I think the concept works pretty well, and I’ve been collecting some of the Utimate collections as they are released in multi-issue trade paperbacks.

Ultimate Avengers does a fairly decent job of following the basic story set out in The Ultimates comic book, with a few minor and a couple not-so-minor differences. On the “minor” side of things, the comic book version of Thor, the tree-hugging son of Odin, has a goatee; his animated counterpart does not. Not a big deal. The movie, on the other hand, has an alien threat, something not in the first few issues of the comic book. I admit to being a bit behind on collecting The Ultimates (I actually have more issues of The Ultimate Spider-Man), so it may well be that the aliens are introduced later.

One thing I was really hoping to see in Ultimate Avengers was an exchange between Captain America (Justin Gross) and Bruce “The Incredible Hulk” Banner (Michael Massee). In an incredibly irresponsible move, Banner allowed himself to become the Incredible Hulk, despite the fact that the Hulk is an uncontrollable menace. Captain America and the rest of the Ultimates have gone through hell to stop the Hulk’s rampage, and Cap is helping Bruce Banner out of a huge crater in the middle of the city. “We should get someone to look at that gash on your head,” Cap says. “What gash?” Banner asks, nonplussed; his forehead is unblemished. As a reply, Cap kicks Banner in the head. ((I’m paraphrasing this, as I think I’ve loaned my copy of The Ultimates to someone.))

As portrayed in Ultimate Avengers, Captain America would probably never kick Bruce Banner in the head, no matter how much Banner deserved it, and it was pretty obvious from the start that the exchange wasn’t going to happen, but I was disappointed that it didn’t, nonetheless. The battle between the Hulk and the Ultimates/Avengers was there, but the events that incited it and the manner in which it concluded were different from those in the comic book.

Differences aside, Utimate Avengers does tell the story of how the supergroup is formed (including Captain America’s final battle in World War II, which left him frozen in ice), and it establishes the alien threat that appears to be the basis for the animated franchise. It touches on some of the basic drama between the various characters (Hank and Janet Pym have a troubled relationship, Thor really wants nothing to do with the Ultimates, Bruce Banner is a tortured, self-centered genius, and almost everyone Captain America knew is dead), but isn’t as edgy as its comic book counterpart.

As far as animation goes, Ultimate Avengers was about average. Most of it is traditional cel animation, with the occasional computer-generated tweak here and there. The style is less cartoony than the current crop of DC animated series, reminding me more of some of the recent X-Men and Spider-Man animated series. The voice-acting was decent, but the Nick Fury character in the comic book is so clearly based on Samuel L. Jackson that poor Andre Ware really had to fight an uphill battle to make the character his own.

The DVD contains a history of the Avengers, clips fans submitted in response to a casting call Lions Gate did in late 2004, a couple of trailers, a DVD-ROM “What Avenger Are You?” game ((I most resemble Iron Man. This may or may not be because I chose “Robotics” as the career that most interested me. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m an alcoholic, billionaire playboy with a bad heart.)) and a trivia track, which is basically the Pop Up Video version of the movie. The history of the Avengers focuses heavily on the classic Avengers and Kurt Busiek’s New Avengers, but very little on The Ultimates, which is rather disappointing. I haven’t watched the entire trivia track yet, but I do know that Captain America’s first appearance was in Captain America #1, way back in 1941. Actually, I knew that without the trivia track, but those are the sorts of tidbits that pop up on the screen. ((The trivia track really needed another pass through proofreading. Watching the first twenty-five minutes or so of the movie with the trivia track turned on, I saw about a dozen spelling errors and an instance where one popup contradicted one that had appeared earlier.))

All in all, Ultimate Avengers isn’t bad. I think Cap could be a little edgier, and the non-alien storyline in the first few issues of the comic book allows the characters and their relationships with one another to take the forefront, but I don’t think a horny Hulk chasing Betty around Manhattan would quite fit the tone (or the audience) of this particular animated movie.

Movie Review: Fantastic Four (2005)

Fantastic Four (DVD)Fantastic Four (2005)

Starring Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans and Julian McMahon.

Directed by Tim Story.

I’ve been trying on and off to borrow a bootleg copy of the 1994 Roger Corman version of Fantastic Four. ((Directed by Oley Sassone and produced by B-movie king Roger Corman, the 1994 version features Joseph Culp (son of I Spy star, Robert Culp) as Doctor Doom and stars Alex Hyde-White as Mister Fantastic, Rebecca Staab as the Invisible Woman, Michael Bailey Smith as The Thing and Jay Underwood as The Human Torch. Alex Hyde-White, interestingly enough, began his career playing a young boy in the two made-for-TV Captain America movies. Rebecca Staab has been in a number of soap operas, including The Guiding Light. Michael Bailey Smith has done a lot of B-movies and television appearances, and is playing the Michael Berryman role in the upcoming remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (The video cover for the original version features a bald, wide-eyed Michael Berryman. To me, it is one of the most instantly recognizable movie posters of all time.). Jay Underwood played the lead in Disney’s Not Quite Human movies, based on a series of books by the same name.)) This version was never officially released, and Marvel’s Avi Arad claims to have acquired the original print of the film just so he could burn it. This, of course, makes me want to see it all the more. for well over five years now. I’ve never heard a single positive thing about the Corman version, but I figure if I can sit through The Star Wars Holiday Special, I can sit through just about anything.

If you heard any of the early buzz on the new version, you might have expected it to be every bit as horrible as the one made eleven years ago. When the first trailer was released a few months ago, some fans reacted as though Marvel had committed some form of sacrilege.

(Some spoilers ahead…)
Continue reading Movie Review: Fantastic Four (2005)

Movie Review: Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Begins (DVD)Batman Begins (2005)

Starring Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson , Linus Roache, Ken Watanabe and Roy Batty.

Directed by Christopher Nolan.

In 1997, Joel Schumacher pounded the last nail into the coffin of the Batman franchise. When compared with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Schumacher’s Batman & Robin is an outright travesty; the grisly demise of a series that had been on a steady decline since its first sequel in 1992.

What went wrong? Well, Jack Nicholson’s scene-stealing turn as the Joker set the tone for the series. The villains became more important than the caped crusader himself. The villains were cast, it seemed, solely based on how they were performing at the box office. Danny Devito and Michelle Pfeiffer (Penguin and Catwoman) in Batman Returns were followed by Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey as Two-Face and The Riddler, respectively. The portrayal of Two-Face was dreadful, but the final insult was Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mister Freeze in Batman & Robin, a performance that was more campy than anything offered by the 1966 version of the dynamic duo or their cadre of villains in Batman: The Movie.

Also, each installment expanded on the quirky visual style of Batman until the costumes, sets and vehicles looked patently outlandish. The batsuit worn by Michael Keaton in 1989 was revolutionary, marking a departure from the image of superheroes as grown men running around in tights. Unfortunately, by the time George Clooney donned the cape and cowl in 1997, the costume had become something worse than tights. Batman and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) had rubber nipples on their body-armored chests. The batsuit — and the entire Batman franchise — had become a joke.

Now, eight years later, the Batman franchise has been resurrected with Batman Begins. The Burton/Schumacher Batman is nowhere to be found here. The batsuit has been completely retailored and the Batmobile traded in for something with a little more urban commando chic. From top to bottom, Batman has gotten a much needed makeover.

(Minor spoilers follow…)
In terms of coffee, the 1960’s Batman is a skim milk vanilla latté with a shot of raspberry syrup. Tim Burton and Michael Keaton’s first outing in 1989 is a light roast with half-and-half and two sugars. Batman Returns is the same cup of coffee with a little more half-and-half and three sugars. By the time Val Kilmer dons the utility belt, the franchise has switched to decaf.

Batman Begins is dark roast served black. No cream. No sugar.

For the first time, Batman is truly the Dark Knight found in the comic books and graphic novels. Director Christopher Nolan lets Batman (Christian Bale) be dark, and does so without apology or counterpoint. The villains aren’t madcap clowns in colorful costumes, they’re as dark and disturbed as the hero himself. Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), for example, is a doctor who dons a burlap mask when he conducts experiments with hallucinogenic drugs on his patients. A guy like that, to paraphrase Bruce Wayne, has issues.

Since Batman Begins is an origin story, there’s a good deal of build up to the final reveal. Thankfully, Nolan doesn’t let the story of how and why Bruce Wayne becomes the Batman get boring (for an example of the wrong way to do this, see Ang Lee’s Hulk). In fact, Bruce Wayne’s training under the tutelage of Ducard (Liam Neeson) and Ra’s Al Ghul’s (Ken Watanabe) Order of the Shadow not only keeps the story interesting, it provides an excellent crescendo to the Dark Knight’s debut in Gotham.

Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham intending to finish the work his father began: healing a corrupt Gotham. Unfortunately, in the twenty years since Thomas and Martha Wayne were gunned down in an alley, Gotham has been steadily spiralling into chaos. Organized crime is rampant and corruption has all but taken over the justice system. Only a few people, such as Sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), still struggle against the crimelords and corrupt judges who are driving Gotham ever deeper into ruin.

No man can repair the damage done to Gotham, but Bruce Wayne is determined to become more than a man. Batman Begins tells the tale of how Bruce Wayne uses every resource at his disposal to become a legend. Drawing on a childhood accident that left him with a paralyzing fear of bats, Bruce becomes what he fears in order to strike fear into the hearts of the criminals who are destroying the foundation of Gotham. It is this exploration of darkness, fear and anxiety that keeps the movie interesting at the beginning and propels it through to the end. Bruce Wayne faces his fear, becomes his fear, and ultimately proves that the compassion some consider to be his greatest weakness is, in fact, a strength in and of itself.

Christian Bale brings a good mix of humanity and cold, steely determination to the roles of Bruce Wayne and the Batman. Wayne is, however, a little too quick to discard the playboy millionaire façade when confronted by his childhood friend, the earnest Rachel Dawes. This might be a sign that Bruce hasn’t yet fully embraced his dual roles, but more likely it’s a bit of sloppy writing that lays the foundation for the one remnant of the old Batman franchise that Nolan and company didn’t do away with: Batman revealing his secret identity to the girl. This was probably the single biggest disappointment in Batman Begins. Bruce needs to save face with his old friend, so he lets her in on the secret. It didn’t have to be this way, and would have created an interesting dynamic for future installments if Rachel had gone on believing that Bruce was the shallow millionaire playboy.

Rachel herself isn’t a very engaging character. Whether that’s a testament of Katie Holmes’ acting ability or just some more sloppy writing, I’m not sure. Whatever the case, when Rachel was in danger, I wasn’t concerned about her wellbeing because I liked the character, but rather because she was clearly so important to Bruce Wayne.

The rest of the supporting characters aren’t so bland. Morgan Freeman provides many of the movie’s more humorous moments as Lucius Fox, a former board member of Wayne Enterprises now whiling away his time in the basement, looking after the company’s now-defunct weapons manufacturing section. He occasionally exchanges barbs with Earle (Rutger Hauer), the trustee of the Wayne fortune and head of Wayne Enterprises. Earle’s role is relatively minor, but I wouldn’t count him out of future installments.

There’s also Alfred Pennyworth, the Waynes’ loyal and ever-present butler, played by Michael Caine. Alfred is an intrinsic character in the Batman history, and Caine does an excellent job of portraying just how deeply he cares for the Wayne family, even when the family consists of only Bruce.

And then there’s the Batmobile, the design of which can be described in three words: urban commando chic. Unlike previous incarnations, the new Batmobile looks formidable. It’s part Humvee, part Knight Industries Two Thousand and all bad ass. In terms of stylistic choice, no single aspect of this movie had as much make-or-break potential as the Batmobile. I was somewhat nervous about how radically different it looks from anything Batman has previously driven, but quite pleased with how it worked on screen. Batman isn’t about subtlety, and the Batmobile doesn’t appear to have a subtle bolt in its chassis. Yet, when stealth is the order of the day, this behemoth of a vehicle can sneak with the best of them. The only sticking point is the somewhat silly means by which the driver shifts positions when accessing the Batmobile’s onboard weapons systems.

The Batmobile is a perfect representation of just how much Christopher Nolan has distanced Batman Begins from the Burton/Schumacher films, and it worked surprisingly well. I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed the Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard soundtrack. Despite the lack of a distinctive Batman theme (such as the one Danny Elfman created for the 1989 Batman), the orchestral score worked very well. Also, there are no pop themes for this movie. No Prince or R. Kelly or Jewel tunes that would undermine the tone, and that’s a good thing.

For those more familiar with the Adam West and Michael Keaton versions of the caped crusader, Batman Begins may seem overly dark and excessively edgy. For those of us who have read the graphic novels and comic books featuring Batman over the past twenty years, this new film version is exactly what we’ve been waiting for. It has its weak points (every movie does), but they are far outweighed by the power of the Dark Knight’s true debut.

Movie Review: Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Spider-Man 2 (DVD)Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Starring Toby Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy, Daniel Gillies, Dylan Baker, Bill Nunn, Cliff Robertson, Willem Defoe and Satipo.

Directed by Sam Raimi.

I think Spider-Man 2 is a flawed gem where superhero movies are concerned. In terms of action, I think it far surpasses its predecessor. It also does a very good job of moving the story along and developing the characters. Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius is far more interesting and sympathetic than his comic counterpart has ever been. Spider-Man 2 is, I think, about as faithful an on-screen representation of a comic book superhero as has been seen to date. At times, though, it seems that Raimi and company have performed the task of translating the ink-and-paper characters to the screen too well.

Spider-Man has always been about a guy who is, deep down, very unsure of himself. He has been given incredible powers but he is constantly aware that they are both a gift and a burden. Peter Parker lives in fear that his enemies will discover the true nature of his connection to Spider-Man and use his loved ones as leverage in their evil schemes. Never mind the Green Goblin, Kraven the Hunter, Doctor Octopus or the Lizard, Spider-Man is his own toughest foe. Add to this the fact that he is beloved by some and reviled by others (including Peter Parker’s best friend, Harry Osborn), and Spider-Man is about ready for weekly sessions with a psychoanalyst.

The problem with Spider-Man 2 comes when all of this angst and turmoil gets thrown up onto the big screen. Peter Parker is suffering the downfall of maintaining a dual identity and everyone around him is aware of the results: he can’t keep a job, his grades are slipping, he’s always late, always tired. When not swinging through the streets, saving innocent children from evil traffic and generally struggling to make New York a better place for everyone, the man behind the mask is forced to endure a seemingly endless parade of concerned friends and family offering their analysis and advice. It is the over-long, overwrought speeches that make the action-free scenes of Spider-Man 2 difficult to watch. Peter is preached to by everyone from his personal physician to Doctor Octavius, from Mary Jane to (worst of all) Aunt May. The first movie had its overly-earnest bits of dialog, but the sequel really turns up the volume.

This type of stuff works all right in three panels of the comic book, but it’s just too much for the screen. That’s not to suggest that Peter’s problems be “dumbed-down” for moviegoers, just the opposite. Stop beating us over the head with it, or at the very least use a softer hammer.

Spider-Man 2 is, as I said before, a flawed gem. The action scenes are consistently brilliant, imaginative, well-executed and fun to watch. J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson made me laugh out loud every time he was on screen, as well he should have, and there were some absurdly comedic moments scattered throughout. Some of these worked (the elevator scene) and one would have worked better if it had been a bit shorter (Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head). In the course of the movie I saw the potential for at least two villains with which Sony and Sam Raimi could assault the web-slinger in future installments. I found the movie to be largely satisfying. If the speeches had been toned down a bit, the flaw in Spider-Man 2 might not have been so noticeable.