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Green Lantern (2011)

06/27/2011 4 comments

In brightest day, in blackest night
No evil shall escape my sight.
Let all who worship evil’s might
Beware my power, Green Lantern’s Light!

Green Lantern is a superhero movie directed by Martin Campbell, based on the DC Comics character of the same name created by John Broome and Gil Kane. It stars Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Mark Strong, Angela Bassett, and Tim Robbins.

Millions of years before Earth was even a twinkle in the universe’s eye, a group of benevolent, immortal beings called the Guardians figured out how to harness the green essence of willpower. Placing this power into magic rings, they formed an intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps, whose job was to patrol the universe and battle evil. One member of the Corps, Abin-Sur, defeated a fear-entity called Parallax and locked him away in a lifeless planet in the Lost Sector. An ungodly amount of time later, Parallax breaks free and attacks Abin-Sur’s sector, mortally wounding the Green Lantern and forcing him to run like hell perform a strategic withdrawal in order to warn the others. His ship crash-lands on an insignificant blue planet called Earth, and as he lays dying he commands his ring to find a successor. What it finds (and forcibly abducts) is Hal Jordan, a hotshot test pilot for Ferris Aircraft. Hal isn’t sure about the whole superhero thing, but decides that this magic ring is really awesome, and being a member of the Space Police sounds really cool. Unfortunately, humans are a relatively primitive race in the galaxy, and the rest of the Corps isn’t so sure about this loud pink monkey wielding a Green Lantern ring. Fortunately, Hal will soon have the perfect opportunity to prove himself to the others, because Parallax is headed directly for Earth.

Oh, crap.

I was not very familiar with the Green Lantern mythos before watching this movie. All I knew, really, was that the Green Lantern was some sort of space cop with a magic ring, who was vulnerable to the color yellow. Which in my opinion is a damn stupid weakness to have. Fortunately the infodump at the beginning of this movie gets Green Lantern newbies quickly up to speed, introducing them to the mythos of the Corps, who the hell Parallax is, and why we should be rooting for this hotshot fighter pilot with more balls than sense. The vulnerability to yellow has been updated to a vulnerability to the essence of fear, which opposes the essence of willpower wielded by the GLC. This makes a lot more sense, because if you have something that manifests your own willpower into reality, the only real limitation is your imagination and self-doubt. (Incidentally, in an earlier iteration of the Green Lantern, the vulnerability was wood, which somehow manages to be even dumber than a vulnerability to yellow). To give Hal a bit of background, a flashback sequence shows that his dad was also a fighter pilot who died in a plane crash, and Hal has been following in his contrail ever since, striving for Dad’s level of fearlessness, and to offer a mortal face to the Parallax threat, a lab rat charged with dissecting the body of Abin-Sur is infected with a bit of Parallax juice and turned into a psychic insane Elephant Man who wants the sort of powers Hal’s ring gives him.

Overall, the special effects used to bring the Green Lantern’s mythology to life were exceptionally well-done, from the advanced alien world of Oa that serves at the collective headquarters of the GLC, to the nearly photorealistic alien beings that dominate the corps (of whom I believe only Sinistro was an actual dude in makeup – maybe), to the portrayal of the will-made-material powers of the ring, best demonstrated in a great sequence where Hal saves the passengers of a crashing helicopter by turning the helicopter into a racecar and summoning a giant green Hot Wheels racetrack to guide it away from innocents at a party. Hal’s Green Lantern armor was also well-done, offering a new take on the hero-dipped-in-rubber look that had crashed and burned with Joel Schumacher’s attempt at a couple of Batman movies, by adding Tron lines to make it clear that the suit is composed of Hal’s will. Best excuse for no zippers ever, and Reynolds was in good enough shape to pull it off. My only complaint was Parallax himself, a force of ultimate fear and corruption that regrettably resembled a demonic octopus made of feces.

If you like superhero movies, and your interests lie slightly outside the core group of A-listers that have been so popular of late, watch Green Lantern. It captures the spirit of the mythos without spiralling off into absurdity, and it offers an action-packed origin story that’s perfect for a summer blockbuster.

Iron Man (2008)

06/09/2011 1 comment

Hello, ladies. Look at Tony Stark. Now look at your man. Now back at Tony Stark. Does your man look like Tony Stark? No. Can he smell like Tony Stark? Well, maybe. Is your man the heir to one of the most lucrative weapons manufacturing industries in the world? Does your man have three summer homes and 26 expensive cars? Look down. Look up. Where are you now? You’re at a party, with the superhero your man could smell like. Anything is possible with Tony Stark.

Iron Man is a superhero film directed by Jon Favreau, based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name created by Stan Lee. It stars Robert Downey, Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges.

Tony Stark is an engineering genius, rich playboy, and currently the head of Stark Industries, a military contracting company he inherited from his father. While his father’s old partner Obadiah Stane takes care of things stateside, Stark travels to Afghanistan to demonstrate the new Jericho missile, only to have his convoy attacked by terrorists on the way back to base. Stark is injured in the attack and taken hostage by a group called the Ten Rings, where he finds that a fellow hostage, Dr. Yinsen, has installed an electromagnet in his chest to prevent shrapnel from entering his heart and killing him. Raza, the leader of the Ten Rings, tells Stark that he can buy his freedom by building them a Jericho missile. Doubting Raza will keep his word, Stark instead builds a suit of powered armor that runs off an arc reactor he builds to power his electromagnet. During the course of his escape, Stark discovers the Ten Rings has weaponry built by Stark Industries. Shaken, he vows that Stark Industries will no longer manufacture weapons. However, he thinks his suit is neat and just needs refinement, so being a good little nerd he hacks away at the design in his workshop. When he discovers that more Stark Industries weapons have been delivered to Ten Rings, Stark realizes his new calling – to use his suit for good to atone for the destruction that Stark Industries has caused with its weaponry. Little does he suspect that someone close to him has other plans for his powered armor…

I will admit that when I first saw Iron Man, I wasn’t as familiar with this particular Marvel character as I was with, say, Spider-Man or the X-Men, and with most of these established characters there just too much continuity across too many alternate universes to justify trying to dredge up everything with their name on it. Fortunately, the movie offers a crash course in all things Tony Stark, and quickly gets the viewer up to speed, as befits a retelling of his origin story. He is at once arrogant and loveable, a charming rogue who had never needed to take any responsibility save publicity stunts and hobnobbing with the beautiful people. Fortunately, when reality slaps him across the face, he rises to the occasion, proving that under the fun-loving playboy lies a genuinely good heart. While the Ten Rings portion of the plot seemed to be banking on the Afghanistan War, the writing was tight enough that the terrorists never stumbled into Sterotype Land, making them seem like a genuine threat. Back on American soil, it was fun watching Stark’s personality simply bounce off the people around him, particularly in his interactions with his long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts, who acts in turns as a secretary, potential romantic interest, and mother figure to the wayward Tony. Their relationship is deeper than mere professionalism, but while they tease with romance nothing ever seems to come of it.

The story is exciting and action-packed, offering a first look into this budding superhero that never feels forced or artificial. Each event flowed naturally into the next, from the introduction of our disgustingly wealthy hero to his transition into a force for good, without sending him spiralling too far into brooding Batman Land. The plot was a lot of fun to watch, especially as he is tinkering with his original suit, trying to improve it, even as he tests of the various weapons and propulsion systems send him careening into walls. His first flight in the iconic red and gold suit offers shades of Icarus’ first flight; Stark enjoys the hell out of his newfound freedom, even as he learns about the suit’s critical weakness (which, like Icarus, he discovers by trying to fly a high as he can). Stark makes a fun, enjoyable superhero, in stark contrast to his DC counterpart Bruce Wayne. Iron Man fans will also notice a lot of nods to the various comics stories, like the proposed cover story that Iron Man is a bodyguard to Tony Stark, as well as early warning signs of his alcoholism.

Whether you’re a longtime reader of the Iron Man comics or a newcomer who really digs superheroes, I highly recommend Iron Man. Tony Stark offers a fun-loving superhero to the mix that you wouldn’t mind partying with, in between him saving the city.

The Dark Knight (2008)

06/03/2011 2 comments

In 2005, after the sheer goofiness of Joel Schumacher’s tenure in Batman movies, a little-known director named Christopher Nolan decided to retool to Batverse through a more real-world lens. His contribution was called Batman Begins, and it happily left its recent predecessors in the dust. In 2008, he directed a sequel to this retool, featuring his own take on one of the best-known and most frightening Bat-villains ever: the Joker. How did he do? Let’s find out.

The Dark Knight is a superhero drama directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the DC Comics character Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. It stars Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckart, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Gotham’s criminal underworld is currently facing pressure from two fronts: on the one side, a bank that the mob uses for laundering money has just been robbed by a band of hood led by a mysterious figure called the Joker. On the other side, Batman and Lieutenant James Gordon have just recruited idealistic district attorney Harvey Dent to dismantle the mob through legal channels. When their accountant, Lau, reveals that he has hidden their money and fled to Hong Kong to pre-empt the D.A.’s plan, the Joker crashes the meeting, offering to kill Batman for the simple fee of half their funds. Nothing happening, they say. Kill the Joker, they say. Whatever, the Joker says. A little tip to all future mob bosses: if a complete psycho offers to show you a magic trick, SAY NO. It might not help, but at least you tried. Needless to say, nobody is likely to argue with a man that just jammed a pencil into their boss’s eye socket. However, the Joker’s motives, insofar as he has any, seem to be unrelated to money or power, and rather based on the theory that anyone can be corrupted, even the legendary Dark Knight himself. When he sets his sights on white knight Harvey Dent as an object lesson in this, things take a horrifying turn that has Batman questioning his own role in keeping the city safe…

Let me start out my saying that prettyboy Heath Ledger has managed to pull off the impossible: he can be scarier than Jack Nicholson. His portrayal of the Joker in this film was no sadistic clown with a circus shtick, no merry giggler with a fondness for deadly laughing gas and explosives. He as completely frapping out of his mind. He was chaos – a spanner in everyone’s works, determined to make everyone as psychotic as him, convinced that all it takes is one sufficiently bad day to make someone snap. He laughs because life and death and our insipid little rules of human interaction mean nothing to him. The Joker is the iconic villain of the Bat-mythos. He’s meant to be scary. He’s one of the reasons clowns are scary. He’s the villain we love to hate, but can’t kill because he’s just too damn awesome. Ledger absolutely nailed it – which kind of sucks in a way, in light of the actor’s death, because there is little hope that anyone could replace him as the Joker in the Nolanverse.

In a mild contrast to the Joker, Eckhart’s portrayal as the tragic, fallen paladin Harvey Dent/Two-Face works not on chaos but on law – but law can be just as unforgiving as chaos. The Two-Face effects were well-done – not cartoony and extreme like the Batman & Robin portrayal, but realistically disturbing, looking like he actually had his face dipped in flammable chemicals and set alight. (Incidentally, the effects guys were going to have the burns look more subdued and more realistic, but test audiences were literally getting sick in the theaters, so they said, “Screw it – dial up the burns all the way!”) It is easy to draw parallels between Dent’s fall and the tightrope that Batman walks every day: “Look at how hard he snapped; if I’m not careful that could be me.” While Dent walked in the sunlight, Bats walks in darkness, meaning that his tipping point is potentially both thinner and murkier – how far does he need to go to keep Gotham safe? How far is he willing to go to keep Gotham safe? How far can he go before Batman himself becomes a danger? Nolan’s multilayered portrayal of good and evil (and all the shades of gray in between) gives the Bat franchise a depth and complexity that hasn’t been seen in a while; you can’t always tell who the good guys and bad guys are. Under the right circumstances, they can be the same person.

If you enjoyed the gritty “real-world” vibe that Nolan has imparter to the Batverse, and you like your heroes flawed and your villains terrifyingly plausible, check out The Dark Knight. It deserves a place in any Batman fan’s movie collection.

The Mask (1994)

04/16/2011 1 comment

Jim Carrey has always been a spaz. From his frenetic stand-up comedy routines to his chaotic stint as a member of the In Living Color troupe, he had already been labelled a human cartoon. Then in 1996, he starred in a movie that showed people how big a spaz he could be by turning him into an actual human cartoon.

The Mask is a superhero fantasy comedy film directed by Chuck Russell, based (generally) on the comic book miniseries of the same title by Dark Horse Comics. It stars Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Greene, Amy Yasbeck, and Richard Jeni.

Stanley Ipkiss is a loser. He gets no respect at work, he is a shy closet romantic, and he is regularly bullied by everyone around him. His only friends are his Jack Russell Terrier, Milo, and his co-worker Charlie. One night after being denied entry to the elite Coco Bongo Club and getting stranded in a broken-down rental car by the harbor, Stanley finds a wooden mask floating in the water. On a whim, he takes the mask home, and puts it on as a joke – and the mask tranforms him into a wild, chaotic trickster with reality-bending powers, manifesting as a live-action version of a Tex Avery cartoon character. While his life seems to be turning around now that the Mask has been unleashed, it is also going to get him in trouble with two groups: The police, who are investigating the Mask’s robbery of the bank Stanley works at, and gangster Dorian Tyrell, who had been planning to rob that same bank just before the Mask hit it, and who owns the Coco Bongo Club. Now Stanley finds himself trying to keep a very odd secret from those who would use the Mask for evil, while keeping his natural Jim Carrey-ness on a leash.

I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. The fact that Carrey’s portrayal of a human cartoon needed only minor CGI enhancement makes the movie that much funnier, but at the same time it offered a glimpse of his ability to play more subdued roles (well, relatively subdued). While Carrey as Stanley was more or less Just a Normal Guy, there were hints and twitches of Not Normal here and there, which only served as foreshadowing of what the Mask would be like, which was, personality-wise, Jim Carrey as a reality warper. Cameron Diaz also fared well in her first movie role as The Hot Chick, starting out as a love-interest/plot device before developing into a genuine character who actually serves a role in the climax beyond the Damsel in Distress. The other characters are borderline caricatures, from the annoying landlady to the bullying boss to the jerkass mechanics, but it works here, since they have to keep up with Jim Carrey in a comic book universe.

Once I heard that the movie had been adapted from a comic book series, I did pick up a couple issues of The Mask to compare. The comics (being from Dark Horse) are a lot darker, and the Mask is more dangerous and sociopathic than just a fun-loving trickster. Here, though, he’s a bit more audience friendly, making the Mask only as dangerous as its wearer, even as it unleashes new heights of hyperactivity that Carrey had previously only dreamed of. The Mask effects were excellent, earning the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects (it lost to Forrest Gump) and perfectly translating cartoonish superpowers to a live-action medium. Honestly, I think only Carrey would have had the energy to play a character like this.

In the end, The Mask is a fun homage to Tex Avery cartoons and an exploration to the limits of Jim Carrey’s sheer hyperactivity. It really doesn’t pretend to be much more than that, and it doesn’t need to be. I highly recommend it next time you’re looking for a good comedy – just sit back and watch the chaos unfold.

The Incredibles (2004)


“WHERE. IS. MY. SUPER. SUIT?”

Being a superhero is tough. You need to be everywhere, to do everything for everybody, and you need to maintain a civilian identity in order to protect yourself and your loved ones. Sometimes you make mistakes – unforgiveable ones.

Being a retired ex-superhero can also be tough. You need to be everywhere, to do everything for everybody, and you need to maintain a full-time civilian job to keep a roof over your head and to support your wife and 2.3 kids. And sometimes mistakes come back to haunt you…

The Incredibles is a computer-animated superhero comedy produced by Pixar and directed by Brad Bird. It features the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Jason Lee, Elizabeth Peña, and Samuel L. Jackson.

In a world where people called “supers” possess metahuman abilities, Mr. Incredible (Nelson) used to have a good thing going. Using his super-strength, he would save lives in his old stomping grounds of Municiberg, with enough time left over afterwards to court and eventually wed a fellow super named Elastigirl (Hunter), who can stretch her body into any shape. (I think there’s a fetish for that in Japan.) Mr. Incredible also has fans, among them a high-Intelligence low-Wisdom fanboy calling himself Incrediboy (Lee), who has no innate superpowers but builds James-Bond-like gadgets in the hopes of becoming Mr. Incredible’s sidekick. Mr. Incredible rejects his attempts, however, stating that he works alone. Eventually, though, frivolous lawsuits from injured bystanders make the world hostile for superheroes, forcing all of them to retire and take up civilian lives.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl live unhappily in suburbia as Bob and Helen Parr. Of their children, Violet (Vowell) can produce forcefields and turn herself invisible, and Dash (Fox) can run faster than the eye can see, but the newest addition, baby Jack-Jack, appears to be an average child. They are all forced to hide their abilities and masquerade as normal humans, a restriction that is starting to chafe on all of them, particularly Bob, who rankles at his desk job at an insurance company, has gained weight, and must sneak out with his best friend Frozone (Jackson, as himself), likewise forcibly retired and married to a woman only identified as “Honey”, to fight crime on the sly. When Bob’s boss refuses to let him aid a pedestrian getting mugged right outside their building, Bob loses his temper, causing him to get fired from what appears to be only the latest in a long series of civilian jobs. Before he can tell his wife that they will have to move again, he is contacted by a mysterious woman named Mirage (Peña), who offers him a chance to return to his old life as a superhero. He jumps at the chance, never suspecting that this decision will send him hurtling into a collision course with the fallen Incrediboy…

This affectionate deconstruction/reconstruction of the superhero movie was quite enjoyable, exploring the difficulties of being a superhuman in a mundane world, trying to live a normal family-oriented life when forced to turn your back on something you enjoyed. The respective powers of the Parr family make sense for their family roles: Bob is superstrong, allowing him to protect his family; Helen’s elasticity allows herself to stretch across the respective roles of homemaker, wife, and mom, as well as keeping up with her kids; superspeedy Dash is your typical hyperactive kid turned up to eleven, and the initially shy and insecure Violet uses her invisibility powers to hide from a male classmate on whom she has a massive crush. And Jack-Jack… boy howdy. When his powers finally manifest every mom watching the movie will be smiling and nodding.

The plot is also darker than Pixar’s previous films, coming right out and telling the viewer that being a superhero can really, really suck. It doesn’t shy away from the possibility of death; rather, Helen Parr comes right out and tells her kids that Syndrome’s minions will not hesitate to kill them, even though they’re just kids. Add to this the number of supers either killed on-screen or whose deaths are mentioned, and you’ve got what amounts to Watchmen, with a brighter palette. Syndrome is utterly psychotic, better filed with villains like the Joker than, say, Megavolt from Darkwing Duck, and his plan to make the supers obsolete, while smacking of disproportionate restribution, does have a genuine foundation in his past rather than being, “Hey, I’m a villain – I’m supposed to act like this!” Fans of DC and Marvel comics will find a lot of oblique references sprinkled throughout this movie as well, not least of which is a correlation between the Parr family and the Fantastic Four.

If you like self-referential, deconstructive superhero movies but don’t have enough anti-depressants for Watchmen (or if you have kids), try The Incredibles. It’s fun and serious in turns, but ultimately satisfies any superhero fan.