Monday, May 28, 2012

Batman Begins

Batman Begins (4/5)

In a pivotal moment in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is ordered by his mentor Ducard to execute a man from a small village who has been accused of killing his neighbor because he coveted his land.  Wayne demurs, telling Ducard that the villager deserves to be tried for his crimes before punishment is meted out.  If we merely execute the man, Wayne argues, without a procedure in place to check our baser tendencies for retribution, then the result is not justice but rather retribution.  The question of where we draw the line between justice and vengeance becomes the core theme of Christopher Nolan’s first foray into the Batman mythos, and it is a question that seems particularly suited to the character of Batman.  It is also a question that had been all but ignored in the years following the September 11th attacks.  In many ways Batman Begins is the quintessential post-9/11 film that manages to smuggle moral quandaries into a big budgeted blockbuster when the larger discourse surrounding terrorism seemed content to ignore basic questions of justice. 

Tellingly, the villains of Batman Begins are an international terrorist organization by the name of the League of Shadows and headed by a mysterious character Ra’s al Ghul.  It is later revealed that the League of Shadows has been around for centuries and exists to level empires that have become too big for their britches.  But before the League of Shadows reveals themselves as the villains, they first serve as a training organization for Bruce Wayne, a billionaire driven by the death of his parents to travel across the globe in an attempt to understand the world of criminals from the inside out. 

Perhaps one of the most brilliant moves that Nolan makes in the film is to spend nearly half of the movie on the training and origins of Batman.  When Nolan’s Batman film was release, it had been nearly eight years since the disastrous Batman & Robin, a film so poorly received that it single handedly killed of the multi-million dollar franchise.  Where Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin attempted to resurrect the camp and humor of the old Adam West Batman series (although Schumacher’s film didn’t have one-tenth of the whit of the 1960s TV show), Batman Begins endeavors to shroud the superhero’s origins in as much realism as possible. 

The film cuts back and forth between Wayne’s training with Ducard and his lost years dealing with the death of his parents.  In recounting Batman’s origins, Nolan decides to include one of the most controversial figures in all of Batman’s seventy year history: Joe Chill.  Plenty of Batman nerds (myself included) have argued about whether or not the murderer of Thomas and Martha Wayne should even have an identity.  Those of us who prefer the anonymous mugger version of the story claim that because the murderer is never caught, any criminal, whether it’s an everyday bank robber or one of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, can serve as a stand in for the man who killed Batman’s parents.  I’ve often found myself on the anti-Joe Chill side of this argument, but Nolan’s treatment of the character has forced me to rethink my position.  Instead of a low life scumbag who murdered two people for a handful of cash and some jewelry, Joe Chill is portrayed as a desperate figure who turned to crime in the midst of an economic recession.  And his killing of the Waynes looks more like a man who acted out of fear than sadism. 

By transforming the motivations for Chill’s crime, Nolan expands the question of crime from the actions of individual actors to notions of systemic economic and ideological circumstances.  In fact, when the League of Shadows reappears in the film’s climax, it is explained that the organization first attempted to level Gotham by leveling its economy, causing the recession that lead to criminals like Joe Chill.  This is an astute account of how terrorism works.  Many forget that one of the chief goals of the September 11th attacks was not merely the indiscriminate killing of innocent people; it was also an attempt to embroil the foreign wars in order to bleed us dry with deficit spending.  By emphasizing the economics of crime and terrorism, Batman Begins asks us to question the root cause of violence. 

The first half of Batman Begins is so well crafted, so methodical in its pacing, that it’s almost a shame that Bruce Wayne has to suit up in the second half.  Batman’s origins are so compelling that Nolan could have done the entire film without a single appearance of the cape and cowl.  (In fact, I’ve always felt that a TV series that followed Bruce around the world as he trains to become Batman would be a big hit).  The second half of the film is decidedly overstuffed, and it suffers from a glut of villains, a problem most superhero franchises don’t run into until the sequels.  Batman faces off against the League of Shadows, Gotham’s crime boss Falconi, and the deranged Scarecrow.  Any fan of the comics has to object to the inclusion of the Scarecrow in this film.  While his psychological obsession with fear and terror fit neatly within the themes of the movie, the Scarecrow is such a strong villain that it’s truly a shame he doesn’t receive the sole spotlight.  This may be a complaint reserved for comic book geeks, but as a member of this group, I must object.

Nolan also struggles when filming action sequences.  He uses so many quick cuts that it is nearly impossible to see what is going on.  At times this is intentional, such as when we are supposed to see Batman’s hit and run techniques from the point of view of the criminals themselves.  But there are scenes later on that use the same choppy camera work for no particular reason.  At one point Batman has to fight four different ninjas, which sounds like the coolest thing ever.  But unfortunately Nolan slices and dices the fight choreography, making the entire thing nearly incomprehensible. 

But perhaps the film’s single most glaring misstep is Katie Holmes’s tone deaf performance as Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes.  Whenever Holmes attempts to be charming she tends to smile with half of her face, which can be downright frightening.  But in her defense, she is given some of the film’s worst lines of dialogue.  Even Katharine Hepburn couldn’t deliver the phrase “Some of us have work to do” without sounding like a stuck up prick.  Superhero films have not always been kind to their female characters, and Batman Begins perpetrates this boy’s club tradition.

Batman Begins is a much more uneven film in its second half than in its first half, but it still manages to meld big summer action with surprisingly nuanced questions of how we understand terrorism.  When Wayne refuses to executed the villager accused of murder, he asks us to question how far one can go with retribution before you become the very object you are fighting against.  How many indefinite detentions, indiscriminate aerial bombings, extrajudicial executions can a nation participate in until it is perpetuating the same kind of violence it has sworn to stop.  Batman Begins proves that when those in the media stops asking tough questions, popular culture can sometimes smuggle them into the public debate under the guise of entertainment. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Dark Knight of the Soul

Batman is the greatest superhero.  Sure, there are some other contenders.  Spiderman’s mixture of everyman foibles and web slinging escapism absolutely put him in the running.  Wolverine’s blue collar attitude also has his promoters.  And we might even throw a nod to Superman because he started this whole crazy mess to begin with.  But, for my money, Batman is still tops. 

            Batman has reigned as the greatest superhero thanks to two important elements: 1) the introduction of a “why” and 2) his malleability.  Batman was the first superhero in the golden age to explain why he decides to dress up and fight crime.  Where other superheroes spent entire issues explaining the origins of their powers, Batman didn’t have powers to begin with, so Bill Finger and Bob Kane decided to give him a motivation.  Michael Chabon explains the importance of the question “Why” in his classic novel about young Jewish comic book writers, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier &Clay:

                                    “The question is why.”
                                    “The question is why.”
                                    “Why,” Joe repeated.
                                    “Why is he doing it?”
                                    “Doing what?
                                    “Dressing up like a monkey or an ice cube or a can of fucking corn.”
                                    “To fight the crime, isn’t it?”
            “Well, yes, to fight crime.  To fight evil.  But that’s all any of these guys are doing.  That’s as far as they ever go.  They just…you know, it’s the right thing to do, so they do it.  How interesting is that?”
            “I see.”
            “Only Batman, you know…see, yeah, that’s good.  That’s what makes Batman good, and not dull at all, even though he’s just a guy who dresses up like a bat and beats people up.”
            “What is the reason for Batman?  The why?”
            “His parents were killed, see?  In cold blood.  Right in front of his eyes, when he was a kid.  By a robber.”  (94-95)

Finger and Kane were the first people who realized that a comic book character could have an interior life.  Batman is the first psychologically conflicted superhero.

            But being the first doesn’t also make you the best seventy years later.  Employing a “why” has been put into practice for plenty of superheroes since Batman, and has lead to Spiderman’s wonderful mantra, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Batman is also the greatest superhero because he is so malleable.  So long as a handful of necessary elements are put into place, an artist can make Batman his own in a manner that is unheard of for other superheroes.  There is no Batman; there are merely a bunch of Batmen.  Because Batman’s story may be told and retold with variation again and again, he never becomes stale.  And different versions, sometimes even when they conflict in their retelling or ideological point of view, seem perfectly legitimate.  It doesn’t break the mythology if the killer of the Waynes escapes justice or if that killer, Joe Chill, is later caught by the police.  Both are acceptable retellings that may transform, ever so slightly, the meaning of Batman’s origin, but, ultimately, they don’t break the Bat. 

            So why am I talking about Batman?  Well, as many of you know, there happens to be a new Batman movie coming out this summer.  It’s a little, independent piece called The Dark Knight Rises.  (It seems as if everything rises in movies these days: machines, apes, Cobra).  Well, in the next few months I want to take a look at the two films that lead up to the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  I remember enjoying Nolan’s work on Batman, although I haven’t watched The Dark Knight since it was in theaters several years ago.  I’m also a fan of Nolan’s work in general, to varying degrees.  On the internet these days Nolan is either hailed as an artistic God and the true inheritor of the mantle of Stanley Kubrick (yes, there are people who think this), or he is decried as an overrated hack.  Well, for most of us he is neither.  He has made some great films and some uneven films (although he has yet to make a terrible film).  I also don’t believe that his version of Batman is definitive.  It is the creation of a singular artist, but it is also nothing more than a single perspective among many.  In my views I will try to look at how Nolan transforms the Batman mythos to reflect Western anxieties in the decade following 9/11.  But if my interpretation isn’t up to your liking, then all I can ask is, “Why so serious?”

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Avengers

The Avengers (4/5)

            Well, it’s finally here.  Many of us have been waiting for this moment for years, some for even decades.  But despite the bumps along the ways, and fears that we may never see its realization, us fans finally have what we have wanted for so long.  I’m talking, of course, about Joss Whedon’s first time helming an existing property in a major motion picture.  As much as Whedon fans have enjoyed his original work over the years, many of us have wondered what he could do not only with preexisting characters but also with the backing of a major budget and the epic panoramic screen of the multiplex.  Oh, and of course the film itself happens to be The Avengers, the most anticipated movie of the last ten years or so.  And I’m happy to report that no one other than Whedon would have been able to pull off a film with this scope and this huge cast of characters. 

            As you might guess, this review will be Whedon centric.  Plenty of people have dissected The Avengers from the point of view of comic book fans or critics of summer blockbusters.  But I would like to approach it from the perspective of one entry within Whedon’s larger oeuvre.  I have a long history with Whedon’s work, starting in high school when I first started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on a lark.  The concept of transforming a poorly received film into an ongoing series appeared to be such an idiotic idea that I decided to tune in order to witness some schadenfreude.  But eventually I found myself sucked into the story of a group of teenagers struggling simultaneously with adolescents and the supernatural, both elements of the show serving as metaphor for the other.  Not only did Buffy provide a surprisingly accurate view of growing up, but it also dipped into narrative experimentation.  Like many TV shows from the 90s, Buffy was acutely aware of genre conventions and subverted them whenever it could.  From then on I was a devoted fan of Whedon’s work, from his spin off series Angel to the cult classic Firefly to his work in comic books. 

            And of all the elements Whedon is most known for, the one that makes him most suited for an Avengers film is his ability to handle a large cast of characters without letting anyone slide into the background.  Whedon once said that he had to add more characters to Angel because he had such a difficult time writing for just the three principle actors.  It’s also not uncommon for ancillary characters to become series regulars in his shows.  So if anyone is capable of balancing out four superheroes who had previously anchored their own films along with a good helping of backup characters, it is Joss Whedon.  The Avengers combines elements from many of the previous films.  The Iron Man movies initially introduced the idea of “The Avengers Initiative,” first in a post-credit scene from the first film and later in the sequel SHIELD and the Avengers served as an entire subplot that nearly derailed the movie.  The MacGuffin, here known as the tesseract, was first introduced in Captain America and has a connection to the Norse Gods that filled out the mythology of Thor.  And the main villain, Loki, is of course the adopted brother of Thor himself.  Of all the previous Marvel movies, The Incredible Hulk is the least essential.  But with a new casting (Mark Ruffalo replaces Edward Norton) audiences have an opportunity to become reacquainted with the green guy. 

            The basic plot of the film is relatively straight forward with only a few curves thrown in for good measure.  Loki wants to steal the tesseract so that he can lead an invading alien force that will take over the Earth.  Without too much plot to get in the way, Whedon is capable of focusing his energy on the story’s core pith: the friction between the heroes.  A lot of the film’s drama comes from the fact that these characters don’t belong together.  Their personalities and ideologies just don’t fit.  In most comic books this means that the heroes have to fight before they team up, and in true comic book form when Thor tries to extract Loki from SHIELD custody and take him back to Asgardian jurisdiction Captain America and Iron Man team up to stop him.  Likewise, Captain America, who is a man out of time, continually brushes up against Tony Stark.  This makes sense, since Steve Rogers is a veteran of World War II when it was necessary for the individuals to sacrifice himself for the greater good, but, as Iron Man, Tony Stark doesn’t do anything without first considering his own ego.  And in the midst of all this tension lies Bruce Banner who is liable to Hulk out at any provocation. 

            Whedon is able to steer the film towards the interpersonal thanks to a few tricks he learned back in his Buffy days.  In the episode, “The Yoko Factor,” the gang captures the punk rock vampire Spike only for him to psychologically manipulate each of Buffy’s friends in order to get them to turn on one another.  The point of the episode is that these tensions have existed for some time, and it only took a little spark for all of the resentment between friends to ignite into hatred.  Similarly, in The Avengers, Shield manages to capture Loki who then proceeds to sew seeds of distrust among the newly formed super group.  By making the tensions between the Avengers a weakness the villain can exploit, Whedon is able to clearly illustrate these characters for the audience while keeping the plot moving along.  The story doesn’t need to stop in order for us to get to know these characters.

            If Whedon is known for one authorial tick, then it is probably his use of witticisms and word play.  The team dynamic allows him plenty of space to incorporate some of his well known dialogue.  The film trades in lots of quips between heroes and has a sprinkling of snark without going overboard.  Critics of Whedon’s writing find his dialogue to be treacly rather than charming, and while I mostly disagree with these critics, it’s certainly true that not all of Whedon’s verbal jabs land properly.  This is especially true when Whedon isn’t present to carefully direct his dialogue’s delivery (see Halle Berry in The X-Men).  But like an athlete who does his best work in front of millions, here, when the world is watching, Whedon’s humor absolutely shines.  And he has found a great ally in Robert Downey Jr. who is known to insist on making his own improvements on his scripts (the “Shwarma” joke was apparently all his idea).  In fact, Whedon is confident enough in his humor to momentarily take a break from the action to show us a Shield agent playing Galaga on a multimillion dollar computer when his boss isn’t watching.  A joke that wouldn’t work if he didn’t trust that his audience shared his own bizarre sense of humor. 

            In addition to his use of repartee, Whedon’s also well known as a pop culture feminist, which in practice means he likes to watch an attractive lady beat up guys much bigger than herself.  Here Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) serves this particular purpose.  Several times throughout the film, Black Widow uses others’ perception of her as an emotionally fragile creature in order to, jujitsu-like, convince her enemies to spill important information.  What might be first seen as a weakness becomes a weapon.  Whedon is clearly within the ideological confines of third-wave feminism, which seems to maintain that women can both serve as sexual objects while simultaneously kicking ass.  And there’s some legitimate criticism to this approach to feminism, but Whedon generally gets away with it because he’s able to write strong, interesting female characters.  We learn that Black Widow has a history with another SHIELD agent, Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner and, unfortunately, not given much of a role).  And when he is taken by Loki, Black Widow, in a role reversal, is allowed to become his savior.  Third wave feminism suits Johansson, an actress who most directors seem unable to do anything interesting with.  Arguably, this is her best role since Lost in Translation.

            But if there is a single major theme of The Avengers, then it is the question of the place of the individual within a larger community.  While making a pit stop in Germany, Loki takes the time to make a crowd of people bow before him while he pontificates on the useless notion of freedom.  And if the parallels between Loki’s philosophy and fascism aren’t clear enough, an older gentleman in the crowd decides to stand up and all but call Loki Hitler (obviously this fellow has never heard of Godwin’s Law).  But the Avengers have their own problems formulating a cohesive group.  Each character is in some manner or other cut off from the larger society, whether it is Bruce Banner’s rage or Tony Stark’s ego.  These are individuals who are marked as outsiders, a favorite theme of Whedon’s work.  But their very survival, and the survival of the world, is dependant on the ability of these individual parts to interlock.  Whedon represents the eventual coming together of these heroes in the final battle with a single shot that moves around the city in order to let the audience see how these characters work together as a cohesive unit.  For Whedon the answer to forced unity is not pure individuality, but rather a volatile mixture of the singular within the communal.

            But Whedon hasn’t lost his healthy distrust of governing bodies.  Without giving too much away, in addition to dealing with an alien invasions, the film’s heroes must also contend with the unclear motives of SHIELD, the quasi-military/quasi-intelligence agency that first assembled the Avengers.  Not only do members of the Avengers accuse SHIELD of attempting to create weapons of mass destruction, but the organization also purposefully attacks a civilian target for the “greater good.”  In fact, Whedon’s portrayal of SHIELD may have been too subversive for the U.S. military who cited its portrayals as a reason why they refused to cooperate with the movie by lending military equipment, an offer they regularly extend to films that represent the armed forces in a much more “patriotic” light. 

            For the most part the movies produced by Marvel have been, by necessity, studio films in the classic Hollywood tradition.  Superhero movies have become so popular that most studios have banished any ultra stylistic auteurs who, early on in the superhero craze, put out some of the more distinctive films in the genre.  The likes of Ang Lee and Sam Raimi were deemed too idiosyncratic to helm multi-million dollar films.  That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some interesting superhero films in the last few years, but it does mean that singular visions have been replaced by the work of handy craftsmen.  When you watch Tim Burton’s Batman, you immediately recognize that this can be nothing but the work of Tim Burton The same could be said about Nolan’s Batman series, thanks to the fact that they were first made when superhero auteurs were still in vogue.  (It’s unlikely in today’s environment that the studio would give Nolan as much free reign as he wielded).  Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (a title that would make more sense than Marvel’s The Avengers) attempts to derail this trend.  While Whedon is still constrained by the visual and narrative template established previously in earlier Marvel movies, he still manages to create a film that speaks with his own artistic voice.  This is especially impressive when you consider the fact that he was entrusted with an astronomical budget.  Maybe from within the deafening confines of the studio system, a singular voice can make itself heard after all.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Kabletown Takes Over Hulu

            Just the other day the New York Post reported that the online streaming website Hulu is now considering restricting access to its cache of streamable episodes to only those who already have a cable subscription.  On some level this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Over the past year or so, Hulu has quietly restricted access to several of its shows.  Episodes that you could once watch the day after airing can now only be accessed a good week or so after they hit the airwaves or cable box.  Hulu also introduced the idea of Hulu Plus, a service for more devoted fans of television and movies that would grant access to a backlog of older shows and a good number of films.  Neither one of these moves was unreasonable.  It makes sense that Hulu would want to make people wait for their favorite TV shows in exchange for the convenience of watching them whenever you wanted.  And given time, Hulu Plus might have turned into a viable alternative to Netflix.  But both events signaled that Hulu was looking for more ways to increase revenue from its website.

            But you could tell that Hulu’s corporate backers were getting a little antsy about potential customers “cutting the chord.” More and more people preferred waiting a week or so for the shows they loved instead of shelling out nearly a hundred dollars a month for a handful of decent TV shows.  For a long time cable companies had convinced people to subscribe to nearly a hundred choices at ridiculous rates when most people only watched four of five channels.  For years consumers have been demanding an a la carte model where they could choose a limited number of channels for a reduced rate, but it wasn’t offered because cable companies have near monopolies in many cities.  But the internet changed all that.  Now you could get anything you wanted, legally or illegally.  At first, like the record companies, the entertainment industry freaked out about piracy.  But eventually they came around, and decided that they if they couldn’t police the internet, then at the very least they could corral viewers to legal websites where they could make some money off of ad revenue.  Those waiting for an a la carte way to watch television could now do so.  If you subscribe to Netflix and wait a little bit for your more recent TV shows, or watched the basic channels using an antenna, then you could pretty much watch whatever you wanted and do so legally.  Only the most impatient viewer could complain. 
            So what went wrong?  Viewers got what they wanted all along and the media companies made a little bit of money.  What’s the problem with this arrangement?  And why would Fox, NBC, CBS, and ABC want to limit access to shows online that people can already get for free through the airwaves?  If anything, websites like Hulu give these companies a leg up on their cable competitors.  The answer comes when you look at who owns stake in Hulu.  One company, Comcast, also owns NBC.  In other words, they both produce television content and provide a means of delivering that content to people’s homes, and the most profitable means of doing both is by selling expensive cable subscriptions.  In fact, it might make more sense for NBC, one of the lowest rated of the major networks, to continue to offer free streaming services online in order to get the upper hand on their competition.  Of course, this analysis changes when you consider that Comcast is more concerned with the bottom line of its entire company rather than NBC alone. 

            But how did we get to this place?  For many it might seem (and, arguably, should seem) strange that a large corporate conglomerate is allowed to both serve as the creator of content and manage how that content gets into the homes of its customers.  If these companies were split, then it might create healthy competition.  Thanks to the internet, NBC could provide an alternative source for their content, and Comcast would have to court its customers with better options and prices in order to keep them from canceling their cable subscription.  In the end, the consumer would win.  There was a lot of controversy surrounding the FCC’s approval of the Comcast/NBC merger.  Perhaps the most damning aspect of that deal occurred several months after the FCC approved the melding of these two corporate giants.  A member of the FCC who had voted to approve the deal, Meredith Baker, received a cushy job at Comcast, the same company she was supposed to be policing.  While this may not have been illegal (although, arguably it should be), it sure as hell was unethical and showcases ways in which the line between the American government and the corporate world have been blurred.  Here is what California Democrat, Maxine Waters had to say about Baker’s free ride:

Baker’s move to Comcast, Waters said, “further confirms my suspicion that the [FCC]’s merger review — in cooperation with the Department of Justice — was overly politicized and rammed through in blatant disregard for the agencies’ responsibility to the American people. In addition to the Obama administration’s appointment of [the head of] NBC Universal’s former parent company, General Electric’s CEO Jeff Immelt, to his new economic panel the same week the Comcast-NBC merger was approved, Commissioner Baker’s resignation and frequent criticisms against the FCC’s review process underscores the pressure and influence the combining companies exerted over federal regulators. At every juncture, Comcast and NBC Universal set the terms of the merger’s approval as they co-opted civil rights organizations with philanthropic donations and pressured the administration to grant the approval in exchange for ‘innovation, investment, and job creation.’”

Waters’s words seem downright prophetic now.

            But perhaps one of the best critiques of this deal was its constant skewering on the NBC produced show 30 Rock.  Even as the deal between Comcast and NBC was going through in the real world, in 30 Rock’s heightened reality there was a corporate merger between NBC andKabletown, a corporation from Philadelphia that looked a lot like another corporation from Philadelphia, Comcast.  Eerily enough, Kabletown took over NBC on 30 Rock on the exact same day that Comcast took over NBC in our universe.  In the episode “It’s Never Too Late for Now,” Jack Doneghy, the head of NBC, must negotiate with Kabletown over licensing fees, that is, how much it will cost for the cable company to broadcast their product.  Liz Lemon, the ostensible heroine whose stance for what’s right almost always ends up getting bowled over by the corporation she works for, quizzically asks, “But aren’t NBC and Kabletown the same company now? That seems like a pretty big conflict of interest. Why would the government even allow that merger?”  To which, Jack replies, “It’s okay. Don’t worry. You just keep watching Bridalplasty.”  What I’m trying to say here is, haven’t we all just been watching Bridalplasty all this time?  Haven’t we?