Tag Archive: Superheroes


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(A quick aside before I start my actual review. I am on a comically absurd amount of cold medicine at the moment and “high as a kite” is the best description of my state of mind. So, this review may be bad. My apologies.)

Occasionally, I will tell people that I think The Incredibles is the greatest superhero film of all time; they think I’m crazy. And when I say that the film adaptation of Watchmen is the only one that comes even close, they start looking for mental institutions to house me in. But, I also believe those two statements whole-heartedly, but having not seen The Incredibles since high school, I was worried that the film wouldn’t have aged as well as my exceptionally fond memories. Thankfully, it’s like fine wine. It’s only gotten better. With a dark and mature thematic complexity that manages to exceed even director Brad Bird’s earlier masterpiece, The Iron Giant. Though the film doesn’t reduce me to a sobbing, blubbering mess like Up and Toy Story 3, this earlier Pixar entry marked the beginning of the peak of Pixar’s new Golden Age and represents one of the finest children’s films of the 2000s.

More than any traditional comic book superhero film (even the best ones like The Avengers or Spiderman 2), The Incredibles not only captures the spirit of modern heroic storytelling and the grandiose mythology inherent therein, it becomes a meta-commentary on superheroes in general and both deconstructs and then reconstructs society’s need for heroes and those who are truly exceptional. With an explicit as well as implied body count that rivals Titan A.E., Brad Bird doesn’t shy away from examining the consequences of one of the most sadistic and evil villains in the Disney or Pixar canon. It creates a thrilling story that offers a lesson on the nature of truly being special without talking down to the audience or offering artificial, feel-good plaudits. The Incredibles succeeds as a spectacle-fueled children’s adventure tale as well as a philosophical examination of family and potential for the older members of the audience.

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In a situation not entirely dissimilar to Watchmen, The Incredibles takes place in a world where all superheroes have been forced to retire by a government and public distrustful of their powers and their place above them in society. Before he was forced into retirement, Bob Parr (Poltergeist‘s Craig T. Nelson) was the super-strong Mr. Incredible but now his job entails him being the opposite of hero, working as an insurance claims adjuster where he’s yelled at by his boss (My Dinner with Andre‘s Wally Shawn) for not screwing over their customers as much as humanly possible. Before Bob retired, he married fellow super, Helen/Elastigirl (Raising Arizona‘s Holly Hunter), and post-retirement the pair are not-so-happily married with three children, the ultra-fast Dash, the shy Violet (with Sue Storm’s powers from the Incredibles), and the seemingly non-super-powered infant Jack.

Bob does not adjust well to civilian life and whether he hates himself for his job or is simply bored sitting in his cramped car on his commute to work. And though Helen has come to terms with her new life, it’s clear that the life of a stay at home mom isn’t for her either and forcing her children to hide their superpowers is causing tensions at home as Dash acts out in class cause he has no way to vent his energy. Bob has even taken to, in a story meant to parallel marital infidelity, sneaking out with an old friend from his superhero days, Frozone (Django Unchained‘s Samuel L. Jackson), to fight crime while telling his wife he’s out bowling. But, when Bob gets an offer to break out of the doldrums of retirement, it’s not long til he discovers it’s a trap from a mistake from his past that has now put him and his entire family in danger.

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The voice performances from all of the principal leads are all (lame pun incoming) incredible. Craig T. Nelson’s career has been, to put it gently, non-existent since Coach got off television with only some small bit parts here and there, and it’s probably not much of a stretch to call Mr. Incredible the role of his career. He captures the frustration and ennui of an exceptional man forced into a life of mediocrity. Holly Hunter is an excellent and accomplished actress in her own right so clearly Elastigirl isn’t The Piano or Raising Arizona but she too finds herself railing against her domesticated lifestyle. And there are great supporting turns from Jason Lee as the villain of the piece and Sam Jackson as Frozone. Though, let’s face it, is it ever possible to hear Sam Jackson’s voice and not get excited?

Alright, you know what. I’m too buzzed on cold medicine to do this review justice right now. I thnk I’ve been working on it for like two and a half hours now and I’ve only written 800 words. I would usually have written two reviews of comparable length in that time. Needless to say, The Incredibles is not just one of the best children’s films of the last ten years but arguably of all time and few superhero movies get superhero storytelling as well as it does (if any). The movie is unremittingly dark for a Disney film and when many of its sugar-coated peers will start to fade into the mist of memory, The Incredibles will be around for a long, long time. I just wish I’d had the chance to review it when I was capable of stringing more than two coherent sentences together without subsequently staring at the ceiling for about five minutes in a medicinally-induced haze.

Final Score: A

 

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Adapting Superman to any medium, even his birthplace of comic books, is no easy feat. Superhero stories are fueled by epic conflict, but when you are nearly a god (though not to a Dr. Manhattan-level of omniscience/omnipotence), it’s hard to design scenarios where the odds aren’t seemingly stacked overwhelmingly in Kal-El’s favor. And, in the process, most film adaptations of the Superman mythos ignore the godlike aspect of the last son of Krypton. Director Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch) understands how crucial Superman’s world-shattering strength is to his character, and in the process makes the first Superman film that really grasps how powerful this man is. However, the film also constantly left me hungry for the vulnerable human element that I loved so much in Superman Returns.

Because, to Man of Steel‘s credit, there hasn’t been a Superman film yet that truly delivers the sort of world-rending sci-fi action on display in practically every action sequence of Man of Steel. Alongside The Avengers and Avatar, this movie may very well have some of the best fight scenes in recent memory. Man of Steel seemingly draws as much inspiration for its action choreography from Japanese anime as it does traditional Western comic book influences, and the high-flying Dragonball Z-esque theatrics were a delight. And, in true Zack Snyder fashion, the action of the film almost never lets up from beginning to end, which is ultimately a shame because I wanted more of an emotional connection with the characters on screen which it rarely delivered.

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After rampant destruction of its natural resources leads to the imminent destruction of Krypton, Jor-El (Les Miserables‘ Russell Crowe) is forced to send his only son, Kal-El (Henry Cavill), to Earth as the last chance for the Kryptonian race. And, so baby Kal-El lands on Earth where he’s discovered in a Kansas corn field by Jonathan Kent (The Untouchables‘ Kevin Costner) and the radiation from Earth’s yellow sun endows him with superhuman strength including super-hearing, x-ray vision, heat vision, and flight. His powers even gain him the attention of intrepid report, Lois Lane (The Fighter‘s Amy Adams). But when the genocidal Kryptonian General Zod (Revolutionary Road‘s Michael Shannon) arrives on Earth looking to make a new Krypton on Earth’s ashes, Kal-El, known now as Clark Kent, must answer the call to being a hero and become the Superman that Earth needs.

Though that plot seems simple enough (in many ways, Man of Steel is a conventional origin story in the very modern vogue style), the movie is fast-paced and entertaining enough to never feel like it’s dragging over its two hour running time. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the film rarely gives you time to breathe, and it’s all action, all the time focus ultimately becomes a tunnel vision obstructing us from getting a clearer view of why Clark would want to remain loyal to a humanity that was not always so kind and loving to him. Zack Snyder has a reputation as being all style and no substance, and sadly, it’s on full display in Man of Steel.

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Henry Cavill (and it’s difficult to sell just how important this is) looks like Superman should look like. He has that all American charm, good looks, and appeal, and I can’t imagine anyone having any complaints about his casting. His performance was nothing special, but it didn’t require him to do anything special either. Michael Shannon gave one of the better supporting performances for this blog in recent memory in Revolutionary Road and while clearly General Zod isn’t that kind of character, he made him appropriately larger than life. My only complaint in the casting of the film was Amy Adams who was as miscast as Lois Lane as Kate Bosworth was in Superman Returns.

I’m going to keep this review short because this is the first movie review I’ve written in like nearly two weeks now. I’ve been at Bonnaroo and writing articles preparing for Bonnaroo and writing articles for when I came back from Bonnaroo and working at the bar. This is my first day off in forever where I don’t have to go anywhere and I can just stay at home and enjoy myself. And that’s what I plan on doing. Probably going to play either The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite. If you’re in the mood for a bombastic, science fiction action spectacular, Man of Steel delivers and then some with some of the craziest action scenes I’ve ever seen. If you’re wanting any depth with your superhero tale, you’ll be disappointed.

Final Score: B

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. Long time readers may remember that I used to be a bartender a year and a half ago before I went on my sojourn to New York City to be a music critic. For whatever reason, I didn’t decide to do that again when I came back from NYC, but I’m back at it again. And if I do alright enough on tips this summer, I will probably make it a habit of going to be the big summer blockbusters that I’m interested in while they’re still in theaters. If I don’t get good tips, that won’t happen, but hopefully that’s not the case)

In superhero movies fandom, there is no more nerve-wracking moment than when new blood is infused into your favorite superhero franchise. This anxiety can be traced back to Joel Schumacher’s stewardship of the Batman franchise who utterly obliterated all of the good work Tim Burton had done to transition comic book films to the big screen or when Brett Ratner unleashed the horrific X-Men 3: The Last Stand after Bryan Singer’s excellent first two entries in the series. But, sometimes, new blood can bring a series back to life, and after the emotionally stunted and dull Iron Man 2, Shane Black brought his wit and smarts to the series to make Iron Man 3 everything you could want from a summer blockbuster.

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Shane Black is famous as being one of the most highly-paid screenwriters in Hollywood history, particularly when he set the record for highest payday for a spec script ever for The Long Kiss Goodnight. However, to most Americans, he most famous for penning the first Lethal Weapon movie (the best one) as well as The Last Boy Scout and for writing and directing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (his best film). And in so many different ways that it begins to border on insanity, Iron Man 3 is a Shane Black film through and through. Witty dialogue, a crackling sense of humor, a “buddy cop” dynamic, Christmas, and a love of bad guys carrying sub-machine guns, Iron Man 3 has all of the Shane Black staples and I loved the film for it.

After the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark is suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He can’t sleep, he has panic attacks, and he spends all of his spare time tinkering in his lab to the point that he’s made at least 42 versions of his Iron Man suit. And the stress and anxiety is tearing his relationship with Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow) apart. To make matters worse, a psychotic terrorist of unknown origins known only as the Mandarin (Hugo‘s Ben Kingsley) is causing destruction around the world. As Tony’s emotional state is disintegrating around him, a disgruntled biotech scientist (Guy Pearce) teams up with the Mandarin and brings the destruction literally to Tony’s doorstep.

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Iron Man 3 is nearly a point-by-point response to everything I hated in Iron Man 2. Whereas the latter was emotionally uncommitted, Iron Man 3 explores the frailer and more vulnerable side of Tony’s life and the price of his arrogance and general bastardry earlier in life. Whereas the latter’s action felt stale and unoriginal, Iron Man 3‘s set pieces are overflowing with excitement, originality, and a genuine sense of “stakes” towards the outcome. And where the first sequel felt dull and lifeless from beginning to end, Iron Man 3 is unequivocally hilarious from beginning to end, and it was rare when a scene in the film didn’t have my sister and I rolling in our seats with laughter from some great Tony Stark quip (or from a certain precocious kid but no spoilers from me).

Robert Downey Jr. gives one of his best performances since Zodiac as Tony Stark in this entry in the series. Perhaps because Shane Black helped coax Downey Jr. back into respectability with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but Shane Black helps Robert Downey Jr. tone down the mugging and incessant smirking that made Tony seem too one note in Iron Man 2, and we see this as a man who has confronted gods, aliens, and powers beyond his ken and the full front of his tiny place in the universe is bearing down on him, and through Downey’s performance, we see the full weight of this pressure. He still brings the laugh, but he also taps into something much deeper as well.

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Some have complained that while virtually everything else was great about Iron Man 3 (the action set pieces, the characterization, the dialogue, the performances), the actual story itself was kind of dumb. That may be true, but only in so far as Iron Man 3‘s ambitions are far different than say Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. With the exception of a general lambast of greed and hubris, Iron Man 3 has no political overtones (unlike the libertarian bent of Iron Man 2). In the best Shane Black tradition, it is simply an exercise in smart popcorn cinematic storytelling, and there wasn’t a minute of this film where I didn’t enjoy the action unfolding on screen.

If we can have a post-Nolan superhero world where people like Joss Whedon and (now) Shane Black can tap into some of the most treasured figures in American mythology (for what are superheroes except the ultimate American mythology) without finding themselves mired in overt political subtext and remember that superheroes can just be “fun” if they want to, then count me in. Because unless you’re Alan Moore, odds are that making your superheroes too serious will ruin what made us love them in the first place. Iron Man 3 may not have something grand to say, but you’ll have a hell of a time watching it unfold regardless.

Final Score: A-

 

What is there to say about Watchmen that hasn’t already been said a million times before? Easily the most celebrated graphic novel of all time, Watchmen isn’t just a seminal work in the burgeoning realm of graphic novels (that would ultimately allow other celebrated works like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man to exist), but it is simply one of the defining novels of the last 30 years. Simultaneously science fiction, political satire, mystery, superhero (the definitive supehero tale), psychological drama, and a massive deconstruction of every comic book that predated it, Alan Moore didn’t just write the premier superhero story of all time; he made it nearly impossible to look at any superhero tales before or after in the same light ever again. As a child, I was a huge comic book fan, but I grew out of it as I got older because for the most part, the average superhero story wasn’t maturing as I was. Then, my sophomore year of college, I saw that Watchmen was being released in theaters and I felt it was high time to read this story that every one kept praising, and nothing was the same ever since. It rekindled my love with the comic book genre (and produced a drain on my finances thanks to my new comic book addiction), and introduced me to what is simply one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

At its core, Watchmen begins as a murder mystery but to say its morph into so much more would only be scratching the surface of the various layers of this dense and complex novel. In an alternate U.S. history where superheroes are real (though only one has any actual superpowers and is therefore essentially a god amongst men) and Richard Nixon is seeking his fourth term as U.S. President after superhero involvement led to a U.S. victory in Vietnam, one of the world’s superheroes has been murdered. A caustic and darkly comic man known as the Comedian (one of two superheroes still legally allowed to fight crime) was thrown out of his apartment in New York by an unknown assailant and the remaining superheroes (retired or vigilante) are worried that someone may be gunning for former masks. The remaining superheroes include Nite Owl (an aging millionaire [the Batman stand-in] who spends his days reminiscing with one of his predecessors from the 1940’s, the original Nite Owl), Silk Spectre (the daughter of one of the original 1940’s superheroes who only got into the business to please her mother), Rorschach (a psychotic and violent crime fighter who refused to retire and sees the world in starkly black and white terms), Ozymandias (smartest man in the world and most financially successful of the superheroes as he cashed in on his name post-retirement), and Dr. Manhattan (a former nuclear physicist who was transformed into a godlike being that can alter the state of matter at will among many other powers after a lab accident disintegrated him). As Rorschach investigates the Comedian’s murder, the others deal with personal and psychological flaws until they eventually stumble onto a conspiracy that may destroy the world.

Let’s start with the artwork. This is going to be a long, long review, and I guess art seems like the logical place to begin an assessment of a comic book. I’ve read Watchmen in its entirety about 4 times now, and the simple fact that I notice new things (and a large number of new things) every time I read the book should be a testament to just how much detail is crammed into each individual frame of this story. Whether it’s Dave Gibbon’s artwork simply from an aesthetic view point, which can be both beautiful and terrifying (those who’ve been exposed to some aspect of this piece know how gruesome it can get) or its the many recurring visual motifs and symbols that frequent the pages, it is likely you will spend as much time parsing the images of Watchmen as you will reading Moore’s words (and ultimately that is where the true genius lies). It truly takes a special talent to keep up with the brilliance of Alan Moore, and I honestly can’t think of a better author and artist pairing than Moore and Gibbons in this work. If it weren’t for the fact that there are still literary types that can’t get fact that this is a comic book, I would personally guarantee that academics could spend as much time parsing Watchmen for all of the symbolism and deeper meanings that they could Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest, and Dave Gibbons’ art adds richly to the symbolic tapestry of this novel.

Next, the characters. As a grown-up comic reader, when I read a traditional Marvel or DC story, I would say that 75% of my enjoyment from those tales comes more from an attachment to the characters rather than the plotting itself, which is often cliche comic book material. There are so many fun and memorable comic book characters out there, and it takes decades of mythology to turn them into the beloved icons they are today. In 12, 28-page, issues, Alan Moore was able to craft the most complex and distinct characters in the history of the genre. With the possible exception of Silk Spectre (who movie or book remains the least compelling character in the story), these characters all have dense psychological profiles that are explored in-depth and they almost all seem to represent some specific philosophical archetype. Rorschach is the definition of a right-wing deontologist where things are either right or wrong. There is no gray area. The Comedian can also be called a nihilist because he sees how damaged and broken the world is and decides to be a dark mirror of the world. Ozymandias is more of a utilitarian though I can’t get into exactly what that entails without spoilers. Dr. Manhattan is an examination of how an all-powerful deity would view something as mundane as human life (which is to say with bemused indifference). Nite Owl doesn’t really represent one of these philosophies. He was just a bored playboy who had a romanticized fascination with the superheroes of his youth and wanted to follow in their footsteps (which isn’t to say he’s not as emotionally scarred as everyone else).

The way that Moore lays out the story manages to be even more dense (and beautiful) than the artwork itself. Eschewing a linear format, the story jumps all over in time and place, and there is one chapter told from the view point of Dr. Manhattan (whose mind exists outside the normal bounds of linear time) that is arguably the single greatest issue of any comic I’ve ever read in its masterful non-linear story and haunting tragedy. At the end of every chapter, Moore provides several pages of non-comic book material that are presented as either excerpts from books within the Watchmen universe or newspaper articles or similar diegetic material. About halfway through the book, you are suddenly introduced to an in-universe comic book called The Tales of the Black Freighter which seems oddly out of place at first until you reach the end of the story and you realize just how relevant it truly was. The most amazing thing about this comic is that in spite of all of its intellectual pretensions and ambitions (which it fulfills extrrordinarily well), it also manages to stand on its own as an entertaining and engaging superhero story. Even when the mechanics of its ending are a little odd (perhaps the only area where the movie was better), it doesn’t lessen the impact of this story’s brutal and shattering climax.

If you somehow haven’t read Watchmen yet, you have to. Even if you saw the movie and didn’t enjoy it (which a frustratingly large number of people didn’t), you should still read the novel as I know several people who are big fans of the book that don’t like the movie either. It’s one of the most important novels of the last 50 years. It’s really a shame that DC screwed Alan Moore out of the rights to these characters and that led him to sever all ties with the company because considering what he was able to accomplish with a brand new set of characters (though many of these characters are direct responses to certain obscure Silver Age comic characters), I can only imagine what he could have done with established heroes. His The Killing Joke story for Batman remains one of the definitive Batman tales along with Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and The Dark Knight Returns. I’m very glad that I chose to re-read Watchmen for this blog because each journey into that dark and twisted world reveals a little more of its secrets and I guarantee I still haven’t discovered all there is to know. Who watched the Watchmen? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I sure as hell know who’s telling everyone else they should read them.

Final Score: A+