Monday, July 23, 2012

The 'I Already Spoke About Some Summer Offerings, So Here's the Comic Movies to Avoid Redundancy' roundup

Well, I've been putting this entry off for a while now.  Not because I wasn't certain of it, but because I had to wait for this last piece to fall into place for it to be ready.

That's right.  In the vain of last year's summer writeup, I decided to do something similar this year.  This at first presented a small problem, as I've already spoken in degrees on some of this summer's offerings in past entries already.  It dawned on me later that I have not, however, sounded on three of the big moneymakers of this summer.

So, in following up on our last entry here at the Third Row, it's time to sound off on this summer's comic book movies.  Big budgets, big names, big hype, big expectations and, surprisingly...actually some fairly big payoff this time around.

But I get ahead of myself...let's do this!

Three movies later, two successful, and the Ang Lee movie is STILL a sore spot.


The idea that's been four years and five movies in the making.  Well, technically four with The Incredible Hulk being done on Universal's tab instead.  In terms of cinematic gambles, this was one of the biggest rolls of the dice since New Line took a chance on Peter Jackson for Lord of the Rings.  In short, this movie had some SERIOUSLY big shoes to fill.

...which is why you can imagine everyone's relief when it not only did so, it did so with a vengeance.

The resulting movie is probably one of the most fun summer blockbusters to come along in years.  It's weird to try and find some way to sound off on this movie without repeating something that's already been said several hundreds of times over, but there's a reason for that.  As a big-budget popcorn film, this movie just worked on every level.  The script was solid with the dialogue flowing at a great pace, and coming from someone like me who has a love-hate relationship with Whedon's writing, that's saying something. The cast are all the top of their game, including new addition Mark Ruffalo in a show-stealing turn as the third man (and so far best) to be Bruce Banner/The Hulk.  Really, there's not much I can say here without running a loop you've all heard before.  Everything just clicked right.  This was a classic Hannibal Smith "I love it when a plan comes together!" moment where everything fell into place perfectly.  Kudos to Marvel for putting all their chips on this one, cause it paid off in spades.  Hopefully they can keep up the momentum from here, but even if they don't, people are gonna remember this high point for a good long while to come.

The Amazing Spider-Man Drinking Game
Every time Peter does something that should bite him in the ass as far as keeping his identity secret, take a shot.
WARNING: The Third Row takes no responsibility for any alcohol-related deaths caused by playing The Amazing Spider-Man Drinking Game.  Play responsibly.


You know, looking back, it's pretty surprising to realize how much of an underdog this film was compared to the other two offerings.  Both The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises were the result of a lot of buildup and previous movies leading into them with a lot of expectation from fanbases.  In between we had Sony rebooting the Spider-Man franchise after Sam Raimi torched the bridge and several old growth forests around it with his version's third film and being met with a lot of people wondering why they bothered.

The end result, while admittedly a pretty obvious bid by Sony to keep their rights, was actually better than I was expecting.  Admittedly, of the three offerings this summer, I will still say it was probably the weakest...but considering what it's running alongside, the odds weren't exactly in its favor.  That said, this isn't to say the film itself is bad.  A few issues, which we'll get into shortly, but some worthwhile strengths too.

As far as positives, the casting is largely well picked.  While I told myself not to spend too much of the film comparing it to the Raimi versions, one thing I will concede between the two is that I like Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker better than Maguire's.  Likewise, Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben makes for a great supporting role.  The other strong performance goes to Rhys Ifans, taking over as Kurt Connors to finally give fans their awaited chance to see The Lizard on the big screen.  The actual Lizard is kind of underwhelming, but in his scenes as Connors, Ifans genuinely gives the character a sense of sympathy that the first incarnations only really seemed to achieve with Alfred Molina's turn as Otto Octavius.  In general, the casting even beyond these few holds up well.  The two other really noteworthy contributions being Emma Stone stepping in to fill the previously underutilized role of Gwen Stacy and Denis Leary as her police captain father and the movie's resident 'is he really a hero' skeptic.  While the two don't knock it out of the park as hard as the above three, they both carry their weight on the film and each manages to pull some good moments out of the material they're given.

The biggest stumbling block of the film is mainly in its overall story and execution.  While I can see why they chose to just reset and restart from scratch, and I do like some of the things they've changed for this version, the fact is, it's still an origin story we've already seen played out fairly recently.  Some of the elements it handles well, such as Peter's grief after Ben's death , but other times, it feels a bit more, for lack of a better word, mechanical.  In particular, despite the strong performance from Ifans I mentioned earlier, his overall role in the movie, and as a result, much of the second half, winds up mainly feeling arbitrary to give the film a more recognizable villain beyond just the thug that killed Peter's uncle.  The sad part being that Peter's manhunt for Ben's killer actually made for the more interesting conflict in the long run, even if it was then discarded about halfway through.  I will admit though, I do like the fact the killer is still out there.  Keeps Peter's mission going, even if I think the film dropping it just felt like they couldn't figure out where to go with it.

Really, that's one of the other things that wound up bugging me the more I thought about it.  When this movie uses something well, it uses it very well.  At the same time, when it doesn't, it stands out hard.  Alongside the above-mentioned awkward fit for Dr. Connors, Sally Field feels somewhat wasted in her role as Aunt May.  While the film gives us a strong sense of how Ben helped Peter grow into the man he is, May's contribution feels mostly pretty lacking and largely reduced to just being a voice of concern over Peter's secret life.  It's almost like she got handed a different script mid-way and they had her working off an old after school special on any number of substance abuses.  It's a shame really, with some better writing, she really could have made so much more of this character.  Unfortunately, you play the hand you're dealt.

Overall, it's a film I feel kind of mixed on.  On the one hand, the story itself has been done before and better, and in a way feels like, rather than go right into new territory, they're simply revisiting the origin because it's expected of them.  Which in and of itself I wouldn't mind, were it not for the fact it proceeds to hit several marks in a succession that feel less natural and more like they're trying to recapture the effect of the first Raimi film, with the success or failure of each largely hinging on how well the actors handle the reheating process.  Given the knowledge that Sony was risking losing their bid to the rights for Spider-Man, it makes it hard to look at the film and not see the obvious bid to get a film out there as quick as possible to re-up their rights claim before Marvel buys it back from them.  Despite this, there are still good elements within the film, largely as a result of the actors involved.  So while I feel like I should come down harder on this, I still can't help but see the potential in it to become better than it currently is.  As such, I'm going to reserve some of my judgment to see where they take this in the sequels.  Hopefully when they aren't in as much danger of losing their copyright hold they will be able to handle the later films with less of a 'by the numbers' feel and actually focus on handling the stories better.

Also, I do hope they at least find a better balance regarding how often Peter loses his mask in the sequels.  For a kid being treated as a vigilante by the cops, he is NOT doing terribly well at hiding himself.  I mean, I realize they want face time for Garfield, but there's a line here, Sony.

I'd be lying if I said that, after the voices from TDK and the advanced trailers, I was somewhat hoping we'd get a Batman vs Bane growl-off scene.
Sort of like an extreme death metal concert minus the other instruments.


It's strangely appropriate that this film and The Avengers both came out in the same summer and almost under the same timeline.  It was around this time four years ago that both were laying the groundwork for this fateful moment (2008 seeing the releases of Iron Man and The Dark Knight.)

Also, like the Avengers, this movie had a LOT riding on it.  Especially after how much of an impact '08's TDK made with people.  It was with this in mind I knew I was going to have to see this one as soon as possible, if only to avoid the fact the web was going to be spoiling this movie in almost record time.

With all this expectation, it took a fair amount of self-restraint to keep my expectations reasonable.  When all the dust settled and the credits finally finished rolling, if I had to find a single word to describe the movie, it would be satisfying.

Which sounds kind of low-key, admittedly, but really, that about says it all for me.  I didn't go in expecting the greatest movie ever made.  I didn't go in expecting it to surpass the almost 'lightning in a jar' reaction Nolan's last Batman outing got.  In fact, I made it a point not to compare it too closely to the first two films.  The more I look at them, each feels hard to compare to the others given how they each address the universe and ideas of the overall series.  I simply went in expecting a finishing piece to the Nolan Batman trilogy.

What I got was a finale I walked away from ultimately happy with.  I won't say it was the best movie ever, or a complete masterpiece, cause there were some minor things that I will admit could have been done better (but I will bite my tongue on those in the interests of spoilers.) 

Despite those, the film really did succeed where I was hoping it would - in providing a suitable follow up that continued to build on the world Nolan and his team had made and continued to push some of the thematic ideas that really warmed me up to this version of Batman in the first place.

In particular, this film's addressing of a theme in place from the first movie - the dividing line between simply being a man and becoming a pure ideal.  Again, I won't say too much since I don't want to be that guy, but I was really pleased with how the film continued to build this to the conclusion it takes things to.  While a couple of the other themes didn't quite hold up as well by comparison, I was very happy to see they stuck with this one to end.

Alongside this, the cast continue to handle their work well.  For as much as we all joked about Christian Bale's 'gargle with a handful of gravel' voice in TDK, Nolan did dial back the modulation for this movie, and otherwise his performance as Wayne and Batman continues to hold up even as this film takes the character places that the movies had previously never gone to.  Likewise, returning favorites Michael Caine and Gary Oldman continue to deliver solid performances as Alfred and Jim Gordon also showing new shades of the characters that had never been addressed in prior filmed incarnations.  As far as the new cast go, the general watermark of quality has been maintained.  Despite the general mixed reactions with some of the announcements, such as Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle and our first look at Tom Hardy as the masked Machiavellian strongman Bane, the two prove themselves well-suited for the roles, especially as they've been envisioned in this version.  In particular, the dynamic established between Hathaway and Bale makes for some pretty memorable moments that really make her take on the character stand out.  Though if any of the new cast really can be said to make a major impact, it would be Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Gotham police officer John Blake.  As the movie's token 'normal' person, he provides the movie a grounding element, and its through his eyes that we really appreciate just how much the Batman has become legend to the people of Gotham.

All in all, the film wraps everything up in such a way as to give everything a sense of closure while still giving the idea that life goes on within the universe.  When the lights came back up, I felt, as I said above, a strong sense of satisfaction.  Is it going to sweep any awards shows?  Probably not, however it still is as good an ending to the saga as I could ask for and I wish the cast and crew well on where they go from here.  It's been an interesting ride and one I'm glad I took.

As comic films went, I have to say, this has been a good summer, really.  Not a lot of offerings, but what there was has generally been good, if a bit awkward in the second case.If I had to pick a's hard to really say.  Based on pure entertainment, the Avengers takes the prize, hands-down.  At the same time, however, I look at The Dark Knight Rises and feel like this will be the one film of the three that will stay with me the longest and make the biggest impression on me in the long run.

This isn't to dump of Amazing Spider-Man.  Rather, again, I feel like that's more a case of still trying to live up to its potential.  I'm hopeful they will hit a better stride with a sequel from here that will make the bumps now worth it.

...treasure this moment of cautious optimism from me, kids.  These times are fleeting.

In closing, let me just say two last things.

First, a congratulations to the studios for taking a couple of really big chances on these films and actually managing to deliver when it came to game time.

and second, an additional congratulations to the cast and crew of TDKR for finally breaking the
'third movie curse' that has been kneecapping comic movie franchises left and right since the days of Superman.   It's been a long road getting to this point, but let's hope with the curse now broken, other part 3 installments will finally be able to continue the good momentum built by their first two as well.

...I promise, next week we'll go back to digging up things from the odder end of the spectrum again.

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