Movie audiences have long become accustomed to the summer being packed with blockbuster releases. We're used to nonstop parades of explosion filled movies with huge stars utter quips. But now it seems the summer tentpoles have taken on a new focus: superheroes. All the biggest films this summer have been superhero movies, and they have succeeded in spades. Part of me is very excited about this. I love the medium of comics and think that there's real value to be found in a type of story that is often dismissed as childish escapism. But on the other hand, it bothers me that people give these types of stories a chance on screen, but not on the page. It's not like we're even asking them to read a book that's full text, it's mostly pictures and more akin to a visual medium like film. Seeing Dark Knight Rises make $160 million while the Batman comic only sells about 200,000 copies is irksome to me. But I digress. This summer was headlined by three huge superhero movies featuring some of the most popular comic character ever: The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man. I have no idea how the stars aligned so that all of these came out so close together, but it certainly made for an interesting movie summer, leading to lots of fanboy arguing about which will rule the box office. And now I've seen all three movies, so here's my thoughts.
This one is tough for me to review. It makes me feel a little guilty. I know that I should try to review this movie in a vacuum, but that's completely impossible in this case. It was only ten years ago that we got the first movie version of Spider-Man, so there is no way you can watch this one and not be thinking of the Sam Raimi version. It should be noted that I would consider Spider-Man 2 to be one of my favorite films of all time.
Amazing Spider-Man retells the origin of Spider-Man, making it a fairly similar film to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. We go through pretty much all the same motions: raised by aunt and uncle, visits Oscorp, gets bitten by fancy spider, uses power for personal gain, fights with Uncle Ben, fails to stop robber, Uncle Ben dies. The problem with this one, at least for me, was it felt very much like going through the motions. It just feels like something they had to get out of the way in order to get to the main plot of the film. There are a few changes, but ultimately mostly to build a more grounded in reality tone (much to my chagrin, he does NOT become a pro wrestler). The most interesting of the changes is that he does not catch the guy who killed Uncle Ben. The search for the killer is what leads him to becoming Spider-Man. This creates an interesting arc in the film as Peter slowly realizes that the shouldn't be doing this for vengeance, but rather for justice. It's a clever idea that isn't really normally explored in the Spider-Man lore, but it isn't really used to much effect in the film.
And that's one of my big problems with the film, it has a bunch of things that it starts and just doesn't really use. There are quite a few plot points that are brought up and then just dropped throughout, and it really makes the film feel choppy and poorly thought out. It seemed like there was quite a bit of material left on the cutting room floor (which is surprising, since the film is already 2 hours, 20 min), and they either needed to leave in the footage and make the film feel more complete, or cut out all the excess plot points they never really resolve. The middle ground that they hit just didn't do it for me in the least bit. The weirdest is the dance that they do around the relationship between Peter's parents (and their mysterious disappearance) and Dr Curt Connors. I guess they are saving most of it for a sequel, but still it doesn't really do the movie much favors to have so few bits and pieces for something they seem to be building up to be the crux of the film.
The other big problem with the film for me is the tone of it. Sam Raimi really was the perfect director for Spider-Man, as he was able to keep the spirit of the first film in line with the comics, light and snappy, but serious when it needs to be. There was such a great sense of wonder and fun that Raimi movies exhibited, and that's not really present here. Ever since The Dark Knight was such a huge success, it seems that movie studios have really tried to push superhero movies to be darker and edgier because "that's what sells," but they fail to miss the point. The reason that worked with The Dark Knight is because Batman in the comic is a lot more dark and broody. Trying to put that tone into something so breezy as Spider-Man just doesn't really work. The film still creates a lot of lighter moments, but it never really gets the balance right, which makes it feel like a bit of a schizophrenic film.
All that said, I still mostly enjoyed the film. There were at least two scenes that really worked for me, hitting me in my inspirational superhero spot perfectly. Also, the cast for this was really solid. I don't know if Garfield was better than Maguire (I think I like Maguire's version better, but maybe Garfield does a better acting job), but Emma Stone is way better than Kirstin Dunst. For all intents and purposes, her Gwen is the same as Dunst's MJ, and she's way more charming in the role. I'd still be willing to check out a sequel (Sony says they want a trilogy - how surprising), and hopefully by then they can learn from their mistakes and create a more cohesive movie.
One thing is for sure about this film, Christopher Nolan has become a hell of a blockbuster filmmaker. While the action in his first Batman was by far the least interesting part, looking very choppy and oddly choreographed, Nolan now knows how to create a viscerally engaging film. The action and stakes build and build and suck you in so much that you really will be at the edge of your seat. The scope of this film is much, much bigger than previous ones and really acts as one long intense ride.
The weird thing about the film is that, once the movie is over, it becomes very easy to pick apart little weird things within the film. There are lots of plot points that just seem off, and decisions or actions that seem completely unrealistic or too coincidental, but are necessary to give the film the tension and magnitude it reaches for. The Dent Act passed in honor of Harvey's death puts away all the criminals? ALL the cops are sent to explore Gotham's sewers, then get trapped down there? Bruce Wayne makes it back from his physical trauma and hellish prison just in time to take it to Bane and stop his plan? There are many more examples within the film that give off the same level of oddness, but I don't want to go too far into spoiler territory with it. I guess it really is the sign of a great filmmaker when I can cognitively recognize all the faults in the film, but still be viscerally entertained so much by it.
One thing I didn't expect from this film is that it is much more of a sequel to Batman Begins than to The Dark Knight. While they do mention Harvey Dent a couple times, and use his character to haunt Jim Gordon, the Joker and his murderous rampage are never once mentioned. This could definitely have been out of respect for Heath Ledger, but it still makes the film feel just a little discontinuous when watched right after TDK. Instead, the film picks up on the thread of the League of Shadows from Batman Begins, with Bane as a extremist outcast from the group looking to destroy Gotham. As a character, Bane is equal parts over the top and completely menacing, and I'm not really sure how they pulled it off. His cadence and speech patterns are overdramatic, but they end up giving an air of gravitas to his villainous monologues. He is equal parts physically and mentally formidable, keeping more in tone with the comic book version of him.
The other big thing that I did not see coming was that this was a much more uplifting film than I expected, possibly Nolan's most optimistic yet. While the threat definitely goes further destructively than it did in TDK, it never really seems to go to that deep dark place that the Joker wanted to make Batman confront. The darkness in this movie is more the kind that is put in place to make the hero's rise up seem that much more inspiring. The ending is also much more powerful that I thought it would be, providing a happy ending to the whole Batman universe. It's really about the power of the symbol of Batman and its relationship with the entire city of Gotham. I'm really glad that Nolan wanted to give the series a close, because that's something you almost never see in ongoing comics. There is no way you could do an ending like this in the ongoing Batman title, so it's good to see that another medium can give us that sort of closure. If I had to rank the Nolan Batman films, I would say that this one was better than Batman Begins, but pretty far behind The Dark Knight. Still a great and engaging film, but just too many weird inconsistencies to elevate it to the level of Dark Knight.
I can only imagine what is going on in the development meetings for superhero movies now. For the past four years they've been trying to push for a darker tone in films to attempt to rekindle the success of The Dark Knight, then a movie like The Avengers comes along and completely changes the paradigm. In that same gap of time, Marvel released five movies all building towards this year's big event film The Avengers. While they do deal with serious subject matters, from WWII to the morality of weapons manufacturing, none of the movies have the grim tone of The Dark Knight, opting instead for a light and breezy tone more in line with most comics. The Avengers was the culmination of this big plan, structured more like an 'event' comic book than a traditional superhero film, and ended up dethroning The Dark Knight's position on the top grossing films list.
With Marvel starting to take the reigns of their own properties, they took lessons they learned from their years of comic book publishing and applied them to film. They planted seeds in each of the different films that unified their film universes and built to an eventual crossover. Certain characters or items appeared in multiple films, often just at the tail end of the credits, building anticipation for the next Marvel movie. It was a wonderful marketing strategy, and really did a great job of making the film universe feel as cohesive as the comics universe. As a result, The Avengers may be the most successful film at capturing the feeling of a comic book on screen.
The greatest strength of the film stems from writer/director Joss Whedon. He really was the perfect person to choose to direct a film like this. While he hasn't had much experience in film, he has written comics before (including one of the most critically successful runs on X-Men in history), and also has experience working with ensemble casts on various TV shows he's run. His signature snappy dialog fits perfectly into the universe Marvel has created, and gives the film a more fun tone throughout. And that's really what makes this film such a pleasure to watch: it's a pure joy from start to finish. No matter how grim the situation gets, characters still have quips that make you smile without defusing the dramatic tension of the film. Even though the film is so long, just about 2 hours and 20 minutes, it never drags too much and feels brisk throughout. The final stretch of the film is an absolute joy, with one of the most exciting and well shot action sequences I've seen in quite some time, featuring the Avengers fighting throughout the city, defending it from an otherworldly invasion. This is what superhero action is all about.
It will be interesting to see where superhero movies go from here. Marvel has their plan laid out for the next few years, announcing release dates for their "Phase Two" films, which are a combination of sequels and films featuring new (and more obscure) characters. DC has stated that Man of Steel, which comes out next year, is likely to be their only superhero film for the next few year. They hope to be able to possibly either reboot Batman or work on a Justice League movie. It seems that they want to just jump right into the latter, without putting in all the work that Marvel did to build up to the Avengers, which I don't think will really work well. Rebooting Batman is okay, as long as they don't feel the need to redo the origin story. I would like to see something a little less grounded in reality and more in line with the universe of the comics, similar to the Arkham video game series. I know various other superhero movies are being fast tracked, some to avoid the expiration of their rights (Fantastic Four and Daredevil), and some to capitalize on moderately successful films (X-Men: First Class and Amazing Spider-Man). I really think the key to any film adaptation is to find a tone that stays true to the original character. That's what made the Batman and Avengers so strong, and THAT should be the lesson that studios take, not to necessarily try to mimic the most recent success story in comic book movies.