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Wonder Woman! Wonder Woman!

All the world is waiting for you

And the power you possess

Fighting for your rights

In your satin tights

And the old red white and blue.

I tell you, folks, they don’t write theme songs like that any more (although I must confess to always having been slightly baffled by the lyric ‘Get us out from under Wonder Woman’). Well, time passes, and some things change, and some things don’t. Expectations seem to have been riding high for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman movie, for a number of reasons, but – I hope this doesn’t constitute a spoiler – the film itself does not concentrate much on hosiery, satin or otherwise, the jingoistic nature of Wonder Woman’s costume has been toned down, and the references to feminine emancipation are handled with considerably more subtlety.

It is a fact that here we are in 2017 and there has never been what you could honestly call a hit movie based on a superheroine – there hasn’t even been a genuinely good one that just didn’t catch on with audiences. Personally I think the fact that most previous cracks at this sort of thing were generally quite poor and often rather patronising movies is largely to blame, rather than prejudice on the part of audiences, but there does seem to be a real desire for a female-led comic book movie that’s actually good. The same could also be said as far as DC’s movie project goes – the previous three films in the current cycle have their staunch defenders (vsem privet, Evgeny), but in terms of both critical success and box office returns, they are lagging a long way behind their arch-rivals at Marvel. So Wonder Woman has the potential to either kill multiple birds with one stone, or just perpetuate multiple ongoing injustices. Lotta pressure, there.

One way in which the new movie is very much of a piece with the rest of the current DC cycle is the fact that it often takes itself rather seriously – the actual codename Wonder Woman has clearly been decreed to be too frivolous and it’s not until relatively deep into the closing credits that the actual words come anywhere near Wonder Woman the movie, which I must confess to being slightly disappointed by.

Nevertheless, there is much good stuff here, opening with Wonder Woman our heroine, Princess Diana’s childhood and education on the mystical island paradise of Themiscyra, home of a race of immortal warrior women, the Amazons. The Amazons have a historic beef with Ares, the Olympian god of war, and are constantly anticipating the day he will return to plunge the world into perpetual conflict and slaughter.

Well, when a plane breaches the mystical barriers surrounding the island, it seems like the day has come – piloting the vehicle is American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine – not too bad, for once), and pursuing him are some angry Germans. In the outside world it is 1918 and war is ravaging Europe. Diana can’t help but suspect that Ares is somehow responsible for the brutal conflict in the trenches and beyond, sponsoring the work of an unhinged chemical weapons expert known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya). Availing herself of a god-killing weapon left to the Amazons by Zeus, she agrees to take Trevor back to the outside world if he will help her track Ares down.

Europe in 1918 proves a bit of a shock to Diana, as do the inhumanly callous attitudes she discovers amongst the senior military figures she meets. However, she makes a connection with Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), an advocate of peace talks, and with his help she, Trevor, and a small band of others head over to the trenches of France in search of the warmongering general Ludendorff (Danny Huston), her goal being (to coin a phrase) to stop a war with love…

Virtually the only element of Batman V Superman that everyone agreed was any good was Gal Gadot’s appearance as Wonder Woman, and it seems that this was not a one-off fluke, for I am delighted – and, I’ll confess, rather surprised – to report that Wonder Woman is pretty much everything you want from a summer blockbuster movie – it has appealing performances, action sequences that genuinely thrill, jokes that are actually funny, and a few bigger ideas for audience members who are not hard-of-thinking. Crucially, it feels like the work of people who’ve really taken the time to get to know this character and figure out what makes her distinctive, rather than just reducing her to a gloomy cipher plunged into a morass of cynical desolation.

I suppose Gal Gadot has an advantage over some of her colleagues, in that she isn’t going to get compared to numerous predecessors in the way that, say Ben Affleck or Henry Cavill are – although this isn’t to say that Lynda Carter’s iconic performance as Wonder Woman doesn’t cast a sizeable shadow – but even so, Gadot gives a winning turn here, easily carrying the movie, with just the right mixture of steely determination and charming innocence.

I suspect that the decision to move Wonder Woman’s origin back twenty-five years to the First World War was primarily the result of a desire to avoid comparisons with Captain America, another origin story about an idealistic, star-spangled hero. There is still a slight resemblence between the two movies, but on the whole the choice works, tapping into the popular conception of the First World War as an ugly, pointless slaughterhouse bereft of any moral justification. The film is quite careful to point out that Diana is not there to fight the Germans as such, but is in opposition to concept of war itself (which isn’t to say there aren’t some rousing scenes of her charging machine guns, flipping over tanks, and so on). One problem with the whole ‘superheroes at war’ concept, especially when it’s done historically, is how to explain why they don’t just win the war in two or three days flat and thus turn the whole thing into alt-history. Wonder Woman negotiates its way around this rather gracefully.

This is not to say the movie is completely immune to the flaws which superhero blockbusters are traditionally heir to – in addition to being rather obscure, Dr Poison is a somewhat underwhelming villain who doesn’t contribute much, there are signs of the narrative coming a bit unravelled in the third act in order to keep the pace going, and so on – but it does manage to contrive one very neat plot twist, and it does a commendable job of feeling like a movie in its own right rather than just a franchise extension – it’s not stuffed with cameos and plot-points there to set up half a dozen other coming attractions.

I have occasionally been accused of being biased in favour of Marvel’s movies and against those of DC, which honestly isn’t the case. If anything, I love DC’s stable of characters slightly more than their Marvel counterparts, and I really do want the new DC movies to hit the same standards as the Christopher Reeve Superman films or Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. This is the first film in five years to really come close, and the first to bear comparison with the best of Marvel’s output. If Wonder Woman is representative of what else DC have planned, Marvel finally have serious competition in the comic book movie business. Wonderful.

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I’m hearing a lot of talk about ‘superhero fatigue’ at the moment – the notion that somehow people are going to get sick of seeing a new comic-book movie come out, on average, about once every two months. Hmmm, well – having lived through many years when there were no decent superhero movies to speak of, once every two months strikes me as being just about right. You’ll notice I said ‘decent’, because the likes of Steel, Catwoman, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace have always been with us. Provided the standard stays high I see no reason why people will stop watching.

That’s a big assumption, though. Quite what dark art Marvel Studios have employed to produce so many movies in a row without a significant misstep I don’t know, but – and I’m aware this assertion is going to be met with bared teeth by some people – if you want to see how this sort of thing probably shouldn’t be done, you can always take a look at DC’s recent movie output, for they haven’t released an entirely unproblematic film since The Dark Knight Rises, four years ago. Still, you can’t fault their determination, for they’re at it again with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad.

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It sounds like a winning premise: with Superman indisposed (i.e., and spoiler alert, dead) following the end of Batman Vs Superman, and Batman and Wonder Woman off the scene, the US government is concerned about who’s going to pick up the slack if another giant alien monster goes on a rampage. The solution comes from ruthless government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) – get a bunch of the villains previously defeated by Batman and other superheroes, fit them with remote controlled explosives to ensure compliance, and deploy them as a deniable task force of superpowered operatives.

The collection of nutters thus assembled is led by top soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and includes ace marksman Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), human flamethrower El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), atavistic cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), immortal sorceress Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), and the Australian villain Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), whose main superpower is being a ridiculous national stereotype.

Others in the US government are uneasy with the idea of entrusting national security to ‘witches, gangbangers and crocodiles’ (they forget to mention ridiculous national stereotypes and people whose only apparent superpower appears to be acting like a homicidal pole dancer), but soon enough a crisis erupts with a giant supernatural entity on the loose in Midway City (Hawkman has clearly been clearly slacking off) and the Squad are rushed into action. But there is inevitably a wrinkle – the Joker (Jared Leto, giving us a very Frank Miller-esque take on the character) wants his girlfriend back, and is drawing up plans to get involved himself…

Is it overstating things to say that DC’s movie division seems to wobble from one crisis to another in a perpetual state of omni-shambles, with virtually every news story about them featuring the words ‘urgent talks are in progress’? Well, maybe. But there were apparently heated discussions after the relative underperformance of Batman Vs Superman, and even before that suggestions that this film was being reshot and reedited to give it more of chance of hooking the audience that made Deadpool such an unexpectedly big hit.

It certainly has the whiff about it of a film that has gone through extensive surgery in the editing suite: key plot beats are critically underdeveloped, and the structure of the film is odd and lumpy, often at the expense of the storytelling. Most of the Squad are given fairly detailed introductions, especially if they’re played by an A-list star, but then just as they’re about to go off on the mission, a brand new member turns up with no introduction at all (and a frankly rubbish superpower) and you just think ‘This guy is clearly just here as cannon fodder who will die in the next ten minutes’ – and he does! Not that the film couldn’t do with losing a few characters – super-obscure superhero Katana turns up, played by Karen Fukuhara, and does pretty much nothing at all. (Fukuhara says she wants to ‘explore the character’s back-story’ in the sequel, and it’s easy to see why: she has virtually no back-story here and is essentially just another national stereotype.) You could even argue that the film would be significantly improved with the Joker completely excised, for he has nothing to do with the main plot and just capers about bafflingly on the fringes of the film.

No chance of that, of course, for DC are clearly fit to bust, such is their desire to get their universe up on the screen in the mighty Marvel manner. I have to say I think there’s something deeply weird about this movie being made at all, at least now. This version of the DC universe hasn’t done a standalone Batman or Flash movie so far, and yet they seem convinced there is an audience dying to see a film about second- and third-string Batman and Flash villains in which the heroes themselves barely appear. I suspect the Joker is probably the only major character in this movie which a mainstream cinema-goer will even have heard of, which is probably why he’s in it.

Then again, there probably is an audience dying to see this kind of film, it’s just a very small audience of comics fanatics. One of the key moments in the development of the modern comic book movie was the failure of Batman and Robin in 1997, which the studio apparently decided was not because it was simply a bad movie (to be fair, I still think it’s better than Batman Forever), but because it managed to alienate the core comic book fan audience. This audience is lovingly courted at great length these days, and you could argue that with Suicide Squad we see a movie made solely to gratify it, and which has started to forget that the mainstream audience is the one which actually turns a film into a genuine blockbuster hit.

Still, given an arguably less-promising premise than that of Batman Vs Superman, David Ayer does an impressive job of keeping the film accessible and entertaining, even if it feels more like a handful of really good moments scattered through a rather generic and predictably murky superhero film. Will Smith earns his top billing, bringing all his star power to bear as Deadshot (the film predictably favours Smith over some of the others), while no doubt Margot Robbie’s game performance will win her many fans. Too many of the other squad members are one-dimensional – I would have liked to see rather more of Captain Boomerang in particular, but they seem to have realised such a wacky character is a terrible fit for a film striving desperately to be dark and edgy, and he barely throws a boomerang or gets referred to by his codename throughout.

In the end, Suicide Squad is a bit of a mess on virtually every level: it’s arguably a bad idea to do this movie at all at this point in time, and its structure and storytelling are both rather suspect, to say nothing of its oddly inconsistent tone (most of the time it plays like black comedy, but some of its most effective moments are when it takes its characters seriously). As an ensemble piece, it doesn’t really work either, being too strongly skewed in favour of certain characters. That said, it’s not an un-entertaining mess, with some amusing and effective moments along the way. I didn’t come out of it wanting to hunt down and exact vengeance on the director, which was the case after Batman Vs Superman. This wouldn’t really qualify as a ringing endorsement under normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances: we are in the odd world of DC’s movie output, and they do things differently here.

 

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‘Batman Vs Superman is where you go when you’ve exhausted all possibilities. It’s somewhat of an admission that this franchise is on its last gasp.

In case you’re not familiar with the source or context of that quote, it’s from noted comc-book movie writer and director David Goyer, explaining in 2005 why it was decided not to go with Wolfgang Petersen’s proposed film of that title. Eleven years is a geological age in Hollywood, of course, which is why Goyer now has his name on the script of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the crucial second instalment in DC’s attempt to establish a franchise featuring its own roster of superheroes. Nevertheless, does something about this strike you as a little off? It may well.

BvsS

BvS (I can’t be bothered to write the full title out every time) is the follow-up to Man of Steel, and as before is directed by Zach Snyder. I’m going to cut to the chase here: as a movie it seems to be the result of two distinct creative agendas, neither of them exactly surprising. Firstly, DC have been casting envious eyes upon the massive critical and (particularly) popular success of the Marvel Studios movies over the last nearly-ten years, and want a slice of the same cake. So BvS has the job of singlehandedly jump-starting a similar enterprise, introducing a slew of new characters and concepts (something which, you may recall, Marvel split across three or four movies).

Secondly, it – like every other Batman film of the past 30 years – is utterly preoccupied with Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which features a grim, brooding, slightly unhinged Batman in an everyday story of how to make slightly fascist social views acceptable for a young and liberal audience. The climax of Miller’s book is a spectacular showdown between Batman and Superman (here presented as a tool of the corrupt establishment).

Whatever your opinion of Frank Miller’s politics, he is undeniably a great storyteller when he’s on form, which is not something I’m sure anyone has ever said about Zach Snyder. Hmm. Well, the movie opens with a brief, portentous recap of the Kryptonian attack on Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel, in which we get to see Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) trying to save some of the bystanders and generally being appalled by the chaos and destruction the aliens have caused. This makes him miserable for the rest of the movie, as if Batman isn’t usually miserable enough.

Flash forward a couple of years and we learn that being miserable has made Batman even more brutal and savage in his war on crime than usual, to the point where Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is quite outraged by what he sees as unjustifiable terror tactics and unchecked vigilanteism. This at least takes Kent/Superman’s mind off the fact that his various super-deeds have proved rather controversial, because good deeds can sometimes have bad consequences (yup, this movie is that morally profound). This makes Superman miserable for the rest of the movie, too.

Also fairly miserable is brilliant entrepreneur/scientist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who considers the presence of Superman on Earth to be an affront to human supremacy. To this end he has laid his hands on some interesting green rocks extracted from one of the destroyed Kryptonian ships, in the belief they may have interesting effects on Superman.

(Also hanging around the plot is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who, to her enormous credit, isn’t miserable at all and actually seems to be enjoying herself.)

Or, to put it another way, the standard structure for this kind of story goes as follows: two superheroes meet for the first time. There is, inevitably, some sort of misunderstanding, and the two of them take each other on. However, they soon realise they’re on the same side and join forces to deal with the genuine, much more significant threat.

That’s a classic structure (and one which I adhere to myself when running superhero RPGs, for instance) – it’s done properly in the first Avengers movie, for example. However, it kind of presupposes the hero-on-hero action will be happening in the second act, which is at odds with the desire to do Dark Knight Returns on the big screen – there, the hero-on-hero stuff is the climax. The film has to compromise, which means it doesn’t really do either story justice.

And, architecturally, the mashing of structures unbalances the whole movie. This is a long film (and it certainly feels like it), and with the big battles all held back for the third act, it struggles to find things to do for much of its running time. In the end it settles for lots of brooding, apocalyptic dream sequences, heavy-going quasi-theological discussions, laborious setting-up of planned future movies, and characters glaring miserably at each other, prior to a final half-hour or so made up almost entirely of things going boom.

The real victim of the mangled plotting is Lex Luthor, who seems to have half-a-dozen schemes going on simultaneously, not all of which make complete (or even partial) sense. Or, to put it another way, his plan is to frame Superman as being responsible for various terrorist atrocities, get his hands on some Kryptonite to kill him with, blackmail him into killing Batman to further besmirch his good name, and then breed a giant half-Kryptonian monster to batter him to death. Now that’s what I call multi-tasking. To put it yet another way, Luthor is basically just a plot device rather than an actual character, which is why a talented actor like Jesse Eisenberg has to resort to an array of tics and quirky mannerisms just to give him any kind of identity. As it is, the character still doesn’t convince.

As you may have gathered, once it’s (reluctantly) finished trying to be The Dark Knight Returns, the movie has a go at being (spoiler alert) The Death of Superman, complete with a CGI version of Doomsday. Even this is not that interesting to watch, due to Snyder’s preferred aesthetic of everything that’s not actually exploding being grim and gloomy – although, to be fair, once the three heroes team up to fight the monster it actually starts to feel more like an actual superhero film (plus the only two proper jokes in the film are both near the end).

Actually, I would say that the glaring problem with BvS is not that the structure of the film is wonky – other blockbusters have got away with as much – but that the tone of the thing is so relentlessly depressing. Oh, God, it’s so horrible that Superman is flying around saving people and averting disasters! It’s so awful that Batman is fighting crime in Gotham City! The whole thing is literally this ponderously gloomy – there’s none of the joy or colour or imagination of even a so-so superhero comic. Are DC doing this just to be different from the slightly self-mocking and frequently goofy Marvel movies? If so, then distinctiveness arguably comes at too heavy a price.

You could also argue that a mainstream audience most likely hasn’t read The Dark Knight Returns and isn’t going to get all the references to it here (there are, of course, many), and isn’t going to recognise this conflicted, adversarial take on these two iconic characters. (I have to say the film kind of misses the point of DKR, too: you’re firmly on Batman’s side in the Miller book – his Superman is a compromised, arrogant figure – whereas here the Kryptonian is essentially an innocent party being roughed up by a headcase.) Certainly, the big thing – the colossal thing – BvS has going for it is that it puts Superman and Batman on the big screen together for the first time. But for some reason Zach Snyder seems to think he can only do this by making them essentially unrecognisable – Superman is a guilt-racked, despairing victim, Batman is a vicious, paranoid loon.

A friend of mine has written quite an impassioned piece in defence of BvS, saying he found it quite heartwarming to see the two characters come together and interact with each other, and that you shouldn’t criticise it just because it deviates from the minutiae of comics lore. I understand entirely where he’s coming from on the first point, but the movie doesn’t just get the little details of comics mythology wrong, it completely fails to grasp what makes these two characters so iconic and beloved.

(The only thing about the movie which is even vaguely successful is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, but here they have the advantage of not having to compete with numerous other recent on-screen versions of the character, plus she isn’t actually in the film that much outside of the climactic battle.)

To understand all is to forgive all, or so the theory goes. I suppose it’s possible to understand the reasoning behind the creative choices the makers of BvS made – the perceived need to be tonally distinct from the Marvel films, the hope of launching a slate of further spin-offs, the desire to (once again) borrow liberally from The Dark Knight Returns, the importance of ‘being taken seriously’ (whatever that means in this context) – but does that excuse the film-makers making such a botch of a premise with so much potential? I have to say I think the answer is no. There’s probably an argument to be had over whether this is just a disappointment or an actual disaster, but what’s inarguable is that it really could and should have been much, much better.

 

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It is the Earth Year 2013, which by most people’s reckonings makes it 75 years since 1938: and so only an idiot would have bet against Warner Brothers, owners of DC Comics, bringing out a movie to celebrate the anniversary of the first publication of Superman. (I suppose one must be slightly surprised there isn’t another Batman movie on the cards for his 75th next year.) This is, by any reckoning, a prestige project and DC, quite wisely, appear to have surveyed recent adaptations of their properties and seen that by far the pick of the crop are Zach Snyder’s version of Watchmen and Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies.

Man of Steel, consequently, is directed by Snyder and produced by Nolan (also involved is David Goyer, doyen of comic book movie scripting), and is refreshingly unencumbered by the need to reverence the quartet of Superman movies made by the Salkinds between 1978 and 1987. (I don’t want this to be an extended series of swipes at Superman Returns, which I reviewed back in 2006 anyway – but suffice to say it was bloated, dull, and too interested in paying homage to its predecessors. Though Brandon Routh was good in a tough role.)

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Playing Superman this time around is British actor Henry Cavill (his nationality caused a bit of a fuss when he was cast, as I believe I mentioned), though we don’t get to meet him for a bit. The film-makers pick and choose which bits of the Superman legend to explore in detail and one of the areas they really go to town on is the last days of planet Krypton. Not only is Krypton falling to bits, but it is also wracked by civil war, with supreme head of the military General Zod (first name, one hopes, Neil) attempting a coup. (Zod is played by Michael Shannon.) With all this going on it is just as well that top Krypton boffin Jor-El is played by Russell Crowe, as this makes him a bit more of a bad-ass than any of his previous incarnations. (Crowe gets an impressive amount of screen-time for someone who technically dies in the first fifteen minutes of the movie.)

Once all the shooting and shouting and emoting between Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer, whose supposed obscurity I was making wisecracks about only last week – hey ho) is over, it is pretty much business as usual as Superman origin retellings go. Our hero is launched off towards Earth while still a babe, while Krypton goes bang killing everyone apart from the occupants of its maximum security plot device (there’s such a thing as making a prison too secure).

From here the movie skips over most of Clark Kent’s infancy and boyhood in Kansas with his foster parents (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner), though we are treated to key flashbacks later on. As the story proper opens he is a lone drifter going from job to job, wondering who he is, trying to find his place in the world, and occasionally propping up the odd collapsing oil-rig should he find himself in the area. For his alien heritage means that he ‘can do things other people can’t’ (he has the gift for understatement too). Little does he realise his search for his own origins will attract the attention of others – possibly welcome attention, when it comes from ace reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), almost certainly not when it comes from hostile survivors from his own planet…

Well, this is a somewhat idiosyncratic take on the Superman legend, but on the whole a successful one. The story’s handling of some of the classic elements is slightly baffling, and the structuring of the plot occasionally feels a bit peculiar – for example, one of the main beats is the arrival on Earth of vastly powerful aliens who demand that Superman is handed over to them… which would surely have had more dramatic potential had the people of Earth actually known Superman was there (he’s still operating incognito at this point). Likewise, if this movie forms the basis of a franchise (the signs are good), it’s really going to pummel credibility for Superman to have any kind of secret identity as Clark Kent – not only does one key character already know, but it’s hardly difficult to work out given much of what goes on here.

Then again, this is a film which is fighting hard to avoid any of the traditional Superman tropes that people might be inclined to think of as twee or old-fashioned. The clue is in the fact that this movie is called Man of Steel, rather than some variation on Superman – it’s a looong way into the movie before our hero picks up that particular title. The pants-outside-the-trousers component of his uniform has likewise vanished, and he appears to be wearing some futuristic version of chain mail rather than the usual tights (this is somewhat ironic given how many Robin Hoods are amongst his forebears). In short, the film is trying very hard to be a serious, mature piece of work. It’s still a film about a flying man in a cape, so there’s a limit to how successful the film-makers can be with this approach, and I for one would have preferred to see them treat the story with a slightly lighter touch and insert a little more comedy – but I expect wall-to-wall CGI and brooding seriousness is what the focus groups wanted.

It’s certainly a fabulous-looking movie: the production design seemed to me to be stuck in a slightly post-Matrix groove, but it’s still convincing and coherent. And anyone who has been waiting decades to see a fully-CGI’d Superman really do his stuff should be very happy: the protracted scenes in which Superman and the US army do battle with Zod and his minions are as spectacular and destructive as spectacular and destructive can be – I was pleasantly reminded of Independence Day at quite a few points in the course of the movie.

If this means that the performers occasionally seem a little swamped by what’s going on around them, that’s one of the pitfalls of making this kind of film. Michael Shannon is still impressively ferocious as Zod, while Russell Crowe brings every bit of his considerable presence to the film. Henry Cavill probably struggles a bit simply because of the nature of the script: given the delineation between Superman and Clark Kent doesn’t really exist in this particular story, he doesn’t get the same chance to show his range that some previous Supermen have had. He is still very convincing as this most modern of icons.

Then again, this is a very modern Superman film, with a strong sense of its own identity, and very distinct from every other version of the character I can think of. Reports suggest that this is just the first step in an (understandable) attempt by DC to repeat the success of Marvel Studio’s series of films about their characters. Quite how subsequent films based on Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and so on, will slot in around this one I’m not entirely sure. On its own terms, though, this is a solid movie: I don’t quite see where future installments are going to go, and there are a few things about the plot of this one I’m not wild about (not least the way it is resolved) – but this is one of the strongest blockbusters of the year so far. And, in terms of its identity as a Superman film – I don’t think it’s by any means perfect, but neither can I think of any obvious ways in which it could be better. Impressive entertainment.

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There are keenly-anticipated films, and then there are films with a genuine buzz around them, and then there are films people are desperately excited to see. And then there’s The Dark Knight Rises.

The first breathlessly agitated articles about Christopher Nolan’s final Batman movie started appearing nearly eighteen months ago – I should know, I wrote one of them myself. Even four months ago, respectable magazines were writing articles on the movie discussing the serious issue that some people were worried the antagonist’s dialogue might be completely unintelligible. Even in a perfect world, this film would still have received virtually blanket media coverage on its opening weekend.

This, of course, is usually a recipe for crushing disappointment, as many people who went to one of the midnight showings of Prometheus would happily tell you (and, judging from what I’ve seen, would do so at great length). Nevertheless, some kind of minor miracle has been achieved, because The Dark Knight Rises is… satisfying. I know that sounds like damnation by the faintest of praise, but it really isn’t. Thinking about this film the word I come back to time and time again is ‘satisfying’, and I think this is not something to be underestimated.

Ten years ago, a mysterious organisation calling itself the League of Shadows attempted to recruit vengeance-hungry orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to become one of its elite assassins. Wayne broke away from the League and transformed himself into the masked vigilante and defender of Gotham City, Batman, killing his former mentor.

Eight years ago, Batman’s attempts to save Gotham were critically imperilled when the city’s heroic DA was driven mad and went on a killing spree before ultimately dying. To protect the dead man’s reputation and his work, Batman framed himself for the man’s actions.

No one has seen Batman since that night, and Bruce Wayne has become a crippled, embittered recluse. But Gotham is, it seems, a much more hopeful city. Dark forces are gathering, however – morally-ambiguous jewel thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is amongst the least of them, but quick to catch Wayne’s attention. Much, much more of a threat is the masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy), another former member of the League of Shadows, who’s in town pursuing a machiavellian scheme of his own. Even if Batman returns to confront Bane, does he still have the ability to defeat him? And is Bane simply just following orders in expectation of getting a paycheck…?

One can understand the reluctance of Christopher Nolan and his team to make this final return to the world of Batman, given their massive achievements with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and the less-than-stellar record of many third instalments in series. Just making a good movie would have been a significant success; making one as good as this is a stellar achievement.

The Dark Knight Rises has the same virtues as Nolan’s other movies: effortless technical grace and polish, a very intelligent script, strength in depth in the cast list, and the overall sense that while this may be a major studio production, that doesn’t mean the film has to assume the audience is composed entirely of morons. One has to commend DC for giving Nolan the latitude to make the film he wanted to make (completely free of the stereoscopic scourge, as well), even if this means letting him do some slightly surprising things to the characters and setting.

This is not to say that Nolan cuts loose entirely from the existing Batman mythology, as many characters from the previous movies return, and a number of iconic scenes from the most famous Batman comics are brought – here it comes again – very satisfyingly to the screen. Impressively, he even manages to largely rehabilitate Catwoman, following the number done upon her reputation by Pitof and Halle Berry – although Anne Hathaway doesn’t have quite the obvious intelligence or wit to completely nail the character.

The film’s powerhouse performance and most memorable creation is, however, Tom Hardy’s Bane. Following a possibly-dodgy start to his career playing the Picard clone in Nemesis, Hardy has been steadily popping up in recent films, always threatening to give a magnetic, movie-stealing performance. Here I would say that finally happens. Hardy’s physical presence is imposing, but his vocal performance is even more remarkable, giving the character an almost-Shakespearean delivery without making him feel corny or hammy. I’d say there’s quite a big difference between the comics Bane and Nolan and Hardy’s version, but if anything the film-makers have improved on the original this time.

(As to whether there are any surprise appearances in this film from other notable Batman villains, either from the earlier movies or new to this one – well, the film-makers have decided to keep quiet about this, which seems to me to be an eminently sensible plan and an example I will be following.)

I could spend quite a long time going through all the things which are great about this movie, even just the performances: Michael Caine as Alfred, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an idealistic young cop, Tom Conti in a cameo role I’d better not spoil. Hans Zimmer’s score is rousing stuff, if perhaps a bit too fortissimo in places: some of the dialogue gets a little drowned out. Nolan also feels much more comfortable integrating comic relief into the story, something which occasionally felt a bit awkward in the past.

One of the most striking elements of this film which I do feel deserves a fuller mention is the level of its social commentary. All of the Nolan Batman films have had interesting things to say about the difference between law and justice and the real consequences of someone like Batman operating, but there’s a long sequence towards the end of this film which seems to me to be saying very sharp and unusual things about current politics and economics. Throughout the film the people in the firing line are stockbrokers and bankers and businessmen, who are nevertheless not presented tremendously sympathetically. (This is clearly a film fully aware of the economic realities of life in 2012 and how this has shaped people’s attitudes.) Bane’s organisation basically presents itself as the militant wing of the Occupy movement, intent on bringing about some degree of social justice and redistribution of wealth – but, as this is Bane’s organisation, we know that they are in the wrong. Even the ‘morally flexible’ Catwoman realises this. And yet the film refuses to offer easy answers or pat solutions: it’s mature enough to suggest, as these films always have, that the world is a complex place which does not lend itself to such things.

Lots of stuff blows up, too, of course, orchestrated with Nolan’s customary verve. Perhaps the great achievement of this series has been the way in which it has blended intelligent themes and characterisation with the demands of a blockbuster superhero movie (I notice a cliche developing: the hunt for a clean, renewable energy source is a crucial plot point here, as it was in The Avengers, and a couple of movies prior to that – and, while we’re on the subject, watching The Dark Knight Rises back to back with The World is Not Enough might prove an illuminating experience in some respects).

I imagine one of the pleasures to be had when returning to this film will be to admire Nolan’s legerdemain in setting up the conclusion. All the elements are there, in plain view (sometimes jarringly so), and yet come the end of the film he manages to arrange them in a manner which is both ingenious, quite moving, and – yet again – very satisfying as a genuine end to the story (suffice to say, Batman does something he’s never done before). The real trick is that the film presents something which is very definitely a proper ending, but still makes you want to revisit this world and see what happens next to the characters: but it would be brave of a director to attempt to follow in Nolan’s footsteps so closely, and brave of DC to let them try.

However, however, however. The Dark Knight Rises is cleverly written, strongly acted, flawlessly realised and directed with indisputable virtuosity – but for all of this it is still quite a difficult film to honestly connect with – for all of its many satisfactions, the overall impression I got was of a vast, intricate, high-powered, precision-tooled machine: a phenomenal piece of engineering but quite hard to engage with emotionally for an extended period of time.

I suppose this has been true to some degree of all the Christopher Nolan films that I’ve seen – perhaps the sheer scope of his imagination and ambition prevents them from having a genuine human centre. Even so, Christopher Nolan is still arguably the most exciting director working in the world today, and if he finds a way to invest his movies with authentic heart a place amongst the all-time greats is his to be had. The Dark Knight Rises is proof enough of that – Nolan has made a terrific film on so many levels, and one which deserves to be remembered as that and that alone.

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Yes, I know, regular readers are probably just used to me coming here and writing about films; and yes, I know, I should really be revising for the final exam of my diploma course. As far as the latter goes, thank you for your concern; and as far as the former goes – well, there should end up being a good deal more new non-movie material on here soon, so consider this an attempt to ease you into this gently, because I’ve been moved to write about something different tonight.

Normally I wouldn’t bother, but there are so many angles on this story I feel I’m going to need some space to address them all, to do with social attitudes and the nature of comic-book storytelling and the way they (often clumsily) intersect. As surely everyone is aware at the moment, the issue of sexual orientation is a bit of a live topic in the US currently, most prominently with Mr O coming out in favour of same-sex marriage. I don’t pay much attention to American social politics but it seems to me that Obama’s declaration seems to have raised a standard of sorts, which progressive media types are hustling to gather round.

That this movement had reached the comic book industry was indicated when it was announced that so-incredibly-obscure-he’s-never-been-in-a-movie gay member of the X-Men Northstar was to marry his boyfriend. I’m not really going to talk about this, except to say that if you’re going to use comics characters to comment on serious real-world issues, then a) you might want to think about using characters the average person has actually heard of, b) the whole ‘serious real world issue’ thing is kind of undercut when the character involved has previously come back from the dead at least once, and c) Northstar always seems to me to be an example of the worst kind of token character, required to personify the whole of the gay experience at the expense of depth and credibility (back in the 1980s, when AIDS was widely-perceived as the major gay-related issue, plans were afoot to have Northstar die of the condition – now that same-sex marriage is the hot topic, who else but the same guy should come racing forward at Mach 10 (oh yes, I’ve done my research) to help the publisher generate some topical publicity?).

Anyway, where Marvel lead, DC inevitably follow, and whispers have been doing the rounds for a bit that one of DC’s big-name capes was about to be retconned as secretly gay (I choose to use the word retconned rather than outed to reflect the rather cheap and shallow nature of this exercise in treating characters like playdough, to be mashed about and remoulded on a whim).

I feel obliged to point out, even though it should ideally go without saying, that I am not against diversity amongst superheroes (or indeed any other group of fictional characters), whether we’re talking gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or whatever. I think the treatment of sexuality going on here has a lot in common with the handling of race in the 1980s, for reasons I will expand upon in a bit.

No one seriously expected it to be Superman, but there was a surprising, and arguably quite naive, belief in some quarters that it was going to turn out to be Batman. Personally I thought Steel might fit the bill rather well. But no: recently the word came out: DC’s gay superhero was going to be… Green Lantern!

Except it isn’t, quite. Well, it is and it isn’t. DC’s fictional world is not what you’d call metaphysically simple and contains a number of parallel realities. In the main one of these, where Clark Kent is Superman and Bruce Wayne is Batman in the present day (at least I assume they still are, I haven’t checked this week and DC does enjoy fiddling with these things), the Green Lantern is Hal Jordan and still pretty enthusiastically hetero, so far as I can make out. In one of DC’s alternate worlds, the Green Lantern is a guy called Alan Scott, and it’s this version of the character who’s been retconned.

There have been several major Green Lanterns in the character’s 70+ year history, and Alan Scott was the original, created by Bill Finger and Martin Nodell. He’s not an absolute favourite of mine, but he was always a likable, solid character, despite the hoops writers seemed intent on putting him through in the 90s and early 2000s. This is a character with a long and respectable history.

Except… the Alan Scott who’s gay isn’t strictly speaking the same one. The original Alan Scott fought in the second world war, was heroically active for well over half a century due to various kinds of magical intervention, had a wife and a couple of kids who were minor heroes in their own right. The Alan Scott in the news has a sort of vague similarity to this guy in all sorts of ways, but it’s clearly not actually the same character in any meaningful way: he’s a reboot in the same way the version of Captain Kirk in the most recent Star Trek movie, or Professor X in X-Men – First Class, were not the same people as the originals.

So, for ‘one of DC’s big-name characters is going to be revealed as gay’, read ‘an alternate version of one of DC’s big-name characters, who’s actually an essentially brand new reimagining of that character, is gay’. Not quite the bold step it’s being advertised as.

Then again, in terms of DC’s major characters, who were they going to choose? If they’d chosen a really big name character like Batman or Wonder Woman, that would have a serious impact on potential media uses of that character in future – you couldn’t have Batman gay in the comics and straight in the movies without drawing an absolute hurricane of flak from people rightly seeing the character’s sexual orientation in any given medium being dictated by commercial concerns. And, to be perfectly honest – and putting aside issues of continuity with the character’s previous relationships and behaviour – I think it would just be a tacky and insulting thing to do anyway – it would imply that sexuality somehow exists in its own compartment, the contents of which can be swapped out at any time with no impact on the rest of someone’s personality. Batman’s straight! Oh, look – now he’s gay! Don’t worry, it doesn’t make any difference to who he is! What, none whatsoever?

If only life were so simple. Well, it probably is if you’re written with the depth of some comic-book characters, but once again we’re talking about serious real-world issues here which deserve a little more contemplation.

As I said, I’m reminded of how racial equality was handled in comics in the 1980s. The big companies gradually became aware that their non-white readership was not as well-served for characters as it might be, and the result was to – ever so subtly – make some superheroes a bit more black. Dubious as it is to reveal a character has been gay, astounding revelations that a character is not of the ethnic group everyone believed are a complete non-starter, and so the preferred route was to create a new black character and palm an existing superhero role off on them. So, for Marvel, we had James Rhodes’ stint as Iron Man, while for DC it was once again Green Lantern’s role to fill diversity quotas – the existing character of John Stewart had his role in the book considerably bumped up. (There was also a black, female version of Captain Marvel in the Avengers for a bit.)

The 1980s exercise in tokenism seems to me to have primarily been driven by the profit motive, and I wonder if the same is true of its present day equivalent. One might wonder why they’re bothering at all, except perhaps on commendable ideological grounds, or if not that, then why they don’t just create some brand-new gay characters to show their solidarity with the cause. Well, think about it this way – which of the following press releases is going to get the most attention – Green Lantern is Gay or Brandnewcharacterman is Gay?

And the fact remains that the most recently-created comics hero to achieve any kind of traction and recognition-value with the general public as an individual is Wolverine, dating back to late 1974. Most new characters of any kind fail to make much impression even with the comics-buying audience – anyone else remember Xero, Aztek, or the Sovereign Seven? Brand new characters come and go like mayflies: the industry is dependent firstly on big names like Green Lantern, as they’re the only books that consistently sell, and secondly on profile-raising stunts like announcing a venerable and much-loved character is gay, because there is no bad publicity. DC’s support for equality may very well be commendable – but both this and the form it takes are both very firmly motivated by solid commercial reasons.

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The colour green, so my researches on t’internet have revealed, has many and various symbolic associations – with immortality, with nature, with love and with financial prosperity. Most significantly right now, it is also famously the colour of envy. Given the truly colossal revenues raked in by the various movies spawned by Marvel Comics over the past decade and a bit – and here I’m thinking of the legion of blockbusters based on X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and so on – it would be deeply surprising if their long-time rivals at DC Comics weren’t a striking verdant shade right now. The only successful movies DC have put out in the same time period are the two Christopher Nolan Batman pictures – massive popular and critical hits, to be sure, but even so…

Well, not surprisingly, DC are having another crack at big-screen success, in the form of Green Lantern, directed by Martin Campbell. Campbell, as you may know, directed two of the best Bond movies of all time, in addition to the brilliant TV thriller Edge of Darkness, so he can do the business – even if a SF-themed superhero fantasy seems a bit of a departure for him. I, as you probably don’t know but will soon be painfully aware, used to be a pretty hard-core Green Lantern fanboy. My search for a particular back-issue (the infamous #51 of the third series) is a running joke for my family. So this could turn into a bit of a bumpy ride. Oh, well, can’t be helped…

Green Lantern boils down to being the story of brilliant but irresponsible test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) whose devil-may-care antics cause all kinds of problems for his boss and sharer of unresolved sexual chemistry Carol (Blake Lively – cripes, that actually seems to be her real name). But things change when a gobbet of green energy plucks Hal off the streets and transports him to the side of a dying alien cop (Temuera Morrison, briefly), recently crashlanded thereabouts. The cop is looking for someone to take over his job, to which end he bequeaths Hal a green lantern. Why? you may be wondering. Well, let the man himself explain, in the words of the original comic:

‘A green lantern… but actually it is a battery of power… given only to selected space-patrolmen in the super-galactic system… to be used as a weapon against forces of evil and injustice…’

Well, that’s that sorted out, then. (The dialogue in the movie isn’t quite as hokey as the stuff John Broome was writing back in the 50s, but it’s a close thing.) The lantern comes with a matching ring, the wearing of which gives Hal the power to summon up anything he can think of (in any colour he wants, as long as it’s green) as well as fly through space. All these powers will come in handy as the giant space nasty that mortally wounded the cop is heading for Earth, preceded by a scientist (Peter Saarsgard), whose exposure to the cop’s corpse gives him enormous psychic powers and a bit of a swelled head…

Well. From being green-lit to hitting the screen, the gestation period for one of these enormous summer movies – which this definitely is – is about three years, which means that Green Lantern got the go-ahead just about the time that the first Iron Man was racking up some serious revenue. It’s very hard to shake the suspicion that the latter is responsible for the former. All of these movies are very similar in their structure, of course, but the characters, their development, and relationships in this film are all terribly familiar.

Of course this shouldn’t matter, and it really wouldn’t if the story was involving and witty and well-played. One of Green Lantern’s main problems is that the script is trying to do too much. The fictional GL universe is a vast and complex one with a lot of detailed back-story, and to me the movie tries too hard to include it all. Rather than letting the story open with Hal so that audiences can learn about things just as he does, everything kicks off with a sonorous voice-over talking about alien immortals and the green energy of willpower, and the fear-monster of the lost sector… I knew all this stuff already and it still seemed a bit over the top to me. Lord knows what newcomers will make of it – the villain’s not the only one who’s going to end up bulging at the occiput, I suspect.

It’s a fairly busy plot with a lot of different threads and not all of them really pull their weight (I apologise for that horribly mixed metaphor). I suspect a lot of them are here just to tickle the happy buttons of the Green Lantern fanbase, who are a dedicated bunch: a previous attempt to make this movie was abandoned when news of the project was greeted with bared fangs online (but then it was going to be a comedy, starring Jack Black). So we get voice cameos from Geoffrey Rush as Tomar-Re and Michael Clarke Duncan as Kilowog, and a just-about-in-the-flesh appearance by Mark Strong as Sinestro, including three well-known comics characters when the film only needed to use one of them to tell the story. (The ultimate bad guy is Parallax, not the original version – obviously – nor, so far as I’ve kept up with these things, the retcon that replaced him. So they’re really just using the name, then.) That said, the movie focuses very much on the core iteration of the Green Lantern character. The power comes from the ring, which has been worn by many characters down the years: Hal Jordan is the highest-profile of the main Green Lanterns but also (I would argue) the least interesting. No sign of the Alan Scott, Guy Gardner, John Stewart or Kyle Rayner versions here; perhaps one of them will make it into the sequel which this movie takes some pains to set up.

For me, however, the biggest problem with this film is that – well, parts of it are set in California. Parts of it are set elsewhere in Space Sector 2514, in the Lost Sector, and on the planet Oa at the heart of the universe. But events most frequently occur somewhere close to that peculiar realm known as the Uncanny Valley. The what? you ask, again. Well, basically, you know when you see a CGI picture that’s just a little too perfectly rendered to actually feel realistic? When it looks so real it feels fake? That’s when you’re in the Uncanny Valley.

There are great chunks of Green Lantern where practically everything you see on screen is CGI, up to and including Ryan Reynold’s costume and mask. The film looks astounding even in 2D, but you never buy into it and forget you’re watching a movie. For a film about a fairly obscure character with a silly name (I once asked Garth Ennis and John McCrea why they cracked so many jokes at Green Lantern’s expense during his guest-appearance in Hitman #s 10-12, and they basically said ‘because he’s inherently ridiculous’) you need to ground everything in reality, not keep constantly kicking the audience out of the film by throwing a new improbable-looking alien vista or creature at them.

And spectacle does take place of story to some extent. A lot of the plot unfolds via the mechanism of characters making expository speeches to one another with vast CGI landscapes in the background. There’s relatively little ring-slinging action in the movie, and it’s certainly not what you’d call a breathless thrill-ride. The focus on character brings its own rewards, of course, and Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively do well (even if Lively does seem a tad decorative).

Green Lantern is amusing and aesthetically pleasing up to a point, and the story hangs together well enough, but it’s sprawling and talky and a bit too much in love with its own universe to really satisfy as a superhero adventure. And I say this as someone who already knows the mythos and was thus in no danger of suffering info-dump overload. Newcomers may just find it a very thin and rather familiar story, swamped by rinky-dinky visuals and too many characters with funny heads. It’s not actually a bad movie, it has nice performances and a certain visual novelty to it – but it’s not close to the standard of the best of the Marvel films. Not DC’s darkest night at the cinema, but a long way from its brightest day, too.

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