Tag Archives: superheroes

Link Dump: #46

This week’s kitty is from the ’80s horror classic Night of the Creeps, which gave us Tom Atkins as a zombie-killing cop with an unforgettable catchphrase (“Thrill me”). If you’ve seen the movie—or, really, any horror movie—you know that misfortune awaits this kitty. So let’s just appreciate its brief, non-undead appearance here. And then appreciate some links:

We had one outstandingly weird search term this week: “Чарли Кауфман пьессы,” Russian for “Charlie Kaufman pessy.” Yeahhh. I don’t know what to make of that. But it’s weird.

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The Dark Hype Rises

By Andreas

The forthcoming conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, isn’t really a movie anymore. It’s an ad campaign sprawling across time and space that might just metamorphose into a movie somewhere down the line. It’s a monotonous buzz slowly rising in volume as we approach July 2012. Hell, it’s a presidential candidate in a vote-with-your-wallet election, greedily nabbing up real estate in your head in order to make you forget you ever heard the word “Avengers.” (Does this make it the Sarah Palin of superhero movies?)

First a Bane image, then a teaser poster, then another Bane image, teaser trailer, and most recently the “Catwoman” photo you see above. Each one’s an event, even though it’s a fraction of a fraction of the movie itself. It garners endless speculation and whets nerdy appetites everywhere. Why is Anne Hathaway dressed like that? Did she steal Batman’s motorcycle? We want to know! But wait: if every single chunk of publicity bric-a-brac is accorded “event” status, will there even be any “event”-ness left when The Dark Knight Rises is released to theaters?

If you, like me, follow pop culture news sites on a day-to-day basis, you’ve seen each one of these no-context photos analyzed, appraised, critiqued, and celebrated, as if they were ambiguous scriptural tablets passed down from the heavens. As if piecing them together at the right angles could give us a little window into Christopher Nolan’s brain. If you’re like me, you’re probably also suffering from pretty severe teaser fatigue right about now. Maybe studio PR folks have found a way to speed up the “adoration, backlash, anti-backlash backlash” cycle of fandom by advertising for years in advance, so that the finished product is practically an afterthought.

That way, no one will remember a time before The Dark Knight Rises. Will it be good? we’ll ask in July 2012. Bad? Won’t matter: it’ll be a fact of life. Although I must admit, the ad campaign for The Avengers might be even more diabolically clever: releasing countless feature-length preludes like Thor and Iron Man 2 across this summer, last summer, and the summer before, converting movie theaters themselves into giant, revenue-generating billboards. With both upcoming movies, a droning onslaught of scoops and insubstantial teasers has drained away my curiosity as an a priori superhero nerd.

At this point I hardly care if I get to either movie in the theaters. The Dark Apathy Rises.

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Link Dump: #33

What the musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors lacks in kitties (this is the only one, shown for a second during the opening number; of course our immediate reaction to seeing a kitty not related to the plot of the movie is to pause to get a screenshot for the link dumps) it greatly makes up for in blood-thirsty, alien plants and sexy, doo-wop trios. With that said, please enjoy these musical (read: totally not musical at all) links!

Alas, we had a drought of truly weird or awful search terms. The only one that really stood out to me was “mom and dad eat the babysitter pussy” because honestly, that’s fucking gross. It’d be odd without “pussy” at the end, but that one word puts it over the edge. Honestly, WTF.

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Memento, Batman, and Beyond: Notes on Christopher Nolan

With this Friday’s release of Inception, director Christopher Nolan will add one more entry to his increasingly compelling oeuvre. To celebrate this blessed event, and Nolan’s status as one of the most intriguing directors now working in mainstream American cinema, I’m participating in the Christopher Nolan Blogothon at Things That Don’t Suck. I’ve seen three of Nolan’s films – Memento (previously written about here), The Prestige, and The Dark Knight – and found much to recommend all three (as well as some common faults), all of which makes Inception easily my most-anticipated wide-release film of the summer. So here, in somewhat piecemeal form, is my take on the career of Christopher Nolan. (Also note that given the nature of Nolan’s films, this piece is almost entirely spoilers.)

1. “John G. raped and murdered my wife.”

Khan once said that revenge is a dish best served cold. This doesn’t hold true for Nolan’s protagonists, who crave immediacy in their payback: for them, it’s the hotter the dish, the better. Memento‘s Leonard Shelby wants to wipe out the semi-mythical “John G.” as soon (and, perhaps, as often) as he can, willfully altering his own “evidence” to expedite the consummation of his bloodlust. Angier and Borden in The Prestige let other motivations like love and professional success take a back seat to revenge, until both men are consumed by their own labyrinthine, continent-spanning death traps. And Batman, of course, is on a quest for revenge so storied and complex that it has transformed into a nocturnal heroism, as he projects his response to his own familial tragedy onto the criminal class worldwide.

With his brother Jonathan, Nolan has built these criss-crossing stories of stimulus and response, cause and effect, the two of which are often confused. Obfuscation abounds on every level of his films, whether diegetically embedded in the film’s subject matter (Leonard’s brain injury, The Prestige‘s stage trickery, Batman and the Joker’s exchanged illusions1) or in the Nolan bros.’ layered and intentionally duplicitous screenplays. These tendencies prevent us from ever answering the question “Who started it?” and strand us on a morally relative battleground. All we really have is the knowledge that a woman (Leonard’s wife, Angier’s wife, Rachel Dawes) died, and the characters’ subjective assertions that the guilty party must be punished. Should Batman have saved Rachel instead? What knot did Borden use? Is John G. to blame for his wife’s death, or is it Leonard himself? Unable to obtain satisfactory answers, Nolan’s anti-heroes toss aside the questions and get revenge.

2. “How about a magic trick?”

Even after the rest of the film would seem to have dispelled its mystery, I still love the contextless opening image of The Prestige: dozens of top hats lying in a field. Whether or not you know the image’s real place in the film, it produces, like the whole of Memento, a sense of being temporarily thrown off-balance and forced as a viewer to ask yourself, like Leonard Shelby, “Now, where was I?” As Nolan’s stories grind on inexorably, even mechanically, it becomes easy for us and the characters to lose track of where we are amidst the dense twists and turns of the narrative. But like a dove out of a handkerchief, some resolution emerges from the story’s logic, usually with a disconcertingly fatalistic thrust. Leonard, for example, trustingly follows his tattoos’ guidance, but the audience doesn’t learn until the end/beginning that he’d predestined his own beginning/end all along. And all it takes is an explosion and a pep talk for the Joker to turn Harvey Dent from a White Knight to the monstrous Two-Face.

Thus, it’s their own pathological obsessions that, when coupled with a myopic unawareness of the broader picture, undo these flawed men. As the Joker says with reference to the cops and criminals of Gotham City, “they’re schemers… schemers trying to control their little worlds.” The Joker and Memento‘s Teddy can see beyond themselves, and sink their teeth into the protagonists’ drives and delusions. Angier and Borden attempt to pull similar tricks on each other, but are too caught up in their own fixations to realize the pointlessness of their mutual grudge (and both end up paying for it). Between their slippery subjectivities, the inevitability of their characters’ fates, and the bitterness of their finales, Nolan’s films mark him as one of the most consistent latter-day masters of neo-noir.

3. “Do you know how I got these scars?”

Nolan’s greatest triumph has been his ability to carry these predilections over into giant-budget superhero filmmaking. In a genre where anonymity is king, where authors in print and film are expected to defer creatively to the characters’ ongoing sagas, Nolan turned out an unusually personal and unexpectedly great work. For all its obvious blemishes and political superficiality, The Dark Knight is still an impressive example of an intimate story told on an epic scale. Rather than letting them be a hindrance or become the substance of the film2, Nolan plays with all the trappings of the superhero lifestyle, either in a light action-movie way or by working them into dramatic conceits (like the hero/archenemy rivalry). He also directs performances that are subtle variations on broad archetypes – embattled Dark Knight, incorruptible White Knight, paternal butler (with some riffing on Michael Caine’s 1970s screen persona), culminating in Heath Ledger’s villain-to-end-all-villains.

Why is Ledger’s Joker so compelling? Is it the sloppiness of his makeup, the griminess of his hair, or how the costume design somehow makes his cartoonish purple suit believable? Is it his voice, which sounds like Bugs Bunny3 doing an impersonation of Daffy Duck, or how he can dart from Groucho-style one-liners to threats of mass murder without taking a breath? Is it his proudly anarchic, amoral ethos, his unwillingness to commit to a single back story, or is it how Ledger has so knowingly incorporated these multitudes into his cheap vaudevillian persona? Whatever it is, he’s the class of criminal that Nolan’s Gotham deserves, because he’s the missing link in the director’s dark vision of humanity. In my review of Memento, I described Carrie-Anne Moss’s Natalie as “damaged [and] secretly predatory.” This, I think, gets at what unites these three films: portrayal of individuals as the sums of their damages, as an accumulation of scars tissue4 and conditioned responses. All of which makes Nolan a perfect match for Batman.

4. “Don’t trust his lies.”

This brings us to Nolan’s future, which starts on Friday. It feels so right that Inception‘s characters will hazard into the geography of the mind, since that’s the terrain that Nolan’s been circling around all these years, albeit more metaphorically. His films, by and large, explore the distortions imposed by fallen men onto their own realities, and that space between perception and truth. From the looks of the trailer, Inception will see Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and others (!!!) entering that space and working around those distortions. With that cast, that premise, and the directorial prowess behind it, this is one journey I’ll be shelling out $8 to take. And you know I’ll be taking notes to see what Inception adds to my understanding of Nolan’s style.

Thankfully, as well, Nolan’s future will continue in July 2012 with the release of the as-yet-untitled Batman 3. Whether it’s in the form of comic-book operas or ambitious stand-alone projects, I hope we hear a lot from Christopher (and Jonathan) Nolan in coming years. Many of the trends I’ve cited, like the nonstop obfuscation and the mechanical natures of his scripts, can negatively impact the finished films, but at his best – as, I’d say, represented by Memento‘s hard-boiled cunning and The Dark Knight‘s action-packed grandeur – Nolan has directed some of the smartest, most exciting commercial cinema of the 21st century. So, thanks to Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck for providing an excuse to write this piece, and now I turn it over to you, dear reader. Am I ridiculously overrating Nolan’s work? (Maybe.) What am I missing? Penny for your thoughts.

1By which I’m referring to the multiple Batmen, the decoy Batmobile, Gordon’s faked death, the Joker’s constant lies and disguises, and the minions-as-hostages ploy during the climactic showdown.

2Cf. Joel Schumacher’s 1998 anti-opus that enabled Nolan’s entrance to the franchise.

3While mentioning Bugs, I must also mention Ledger’s Looney Tunes-style cross-dressing turn as a hot nurse – an interlude I spent marveling at how convincingly (and attractively) he pulled the outfit off.

4And since superhero comics are intensely melodramatic, psychological wounds are always externalized, as with Two-Face and the Joker, the latter of whom has only his face as a record of his past. As Gordon asks, “What’s he hiding under that makeup?”

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Saturday Theme Songs: Powerpuff Girls

The Powerpuff Girls, maybe along with Dexter’s Laboratory, epitomized everything good about Cartoon Network’s output in the 1990s. Maybe some of their shows were a little too repetitive, or sophomoric, or smug, but the channel was committed to producing original and interesting cartoons for our generation. Like the decades-old cartoons they once aired, Cartoon Network took a more absurdist approach to animation. Unlike, say, Fox Kids or Kids WB, which were more action-oriented and toyetic with only a few exceptions, Cartoon Network’s roster as a whole was premised around either very unusual situations, or twisted adaptations of familiar scenarios. Dexter’s Laboratory and Courage the Cowardly Dog were both totally new and bizarre; The Powerpuff Girls was a fresh, humorous look at one of the oldest concepts in cartoon history – the superhero.

The show is based around a historical gender divide: little girls are supposedly gentle and demure, while superheroes (i.e., men) are tough, powerful, and sometimes brutal. Craig McCracken knew better. He plays on the old cliché of girls as being made of “sugar, spice, and everything nice,” but then adds Chemical X, which derails any and all expectations. The girls maintain their “girliness” – in fact, when Professor Utonium is knocked against the wall, it happens in a burst of hearts and stars – but it’s still very compatible with their superheroism and violent acts. Kick-Ass‘s Hit-Girl was nothing new; the Powerpuff Girls have been doing the same routine for years.

As if to underscore the girls’ comfortable fusion of girlish innocence and manly violence, there are gender divisions within their ranks. These are all communicated from :33-:41 in the video solely using musical leitmotifs and the girls’ unchanging facial expressions. Blossom is marked as the standard, the perfect balance of power and puff. Bubbles and Buttercup, meanwhile, represent the opposite poles within the girls’ unusual range of gendered behavior – the giggly maiden and the sneering tomboy. Nonetheless, both of them take equal pleasure in savagely beating up villains. The way that their rogues gallery is presented and then dispatched hints back at their origins as the “Whoopass Girls”; they may be little girl superheroes, but they’re still willing to take out Fuzzy Lumpkins with more than a little sadism.

The opening abridges a lot of the show’s psychological complexity, especially as the girls’ childish outlook is put up against Townsville’s harsh realities. (This would most often happen with their greatest foe, Him.) But it gets across a pretty good one-minute synopsis laying out the show’s huge appeal. They’re extremely violent superheroes, but they’re cute little girls, and they’re served up with a very ironic edge. So boys, girls, and jaded college students can all find something to enjoy. As effective as the opening may be, though, I actually enjoy the closing theme more, mainly because it’s a full-blown song by the Scottish band Bis. Enjoy!

What about you, dear reader? Have any fond Powerpuff Girls memories?

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The Avengers, Batman, and superhero auteurs

I don’t talk about film news that often, but there’s been a nexus of superhero movie headlines that I couldn’t ignore. Recently we’ve had both directors and release dates announced for The Avengers and Batman 3: Joss Whedon and May 2012 for the former; the returning Christopher Nolan and July 2012 for the latter. So, why don’t we ponder for a moment the ramifications of these announcements?

One big reason I usually don’t talk about film news is because there’s so much speculation and industry politics involved; to be honest, it gets pretty boring. I don’t especially care about the financial angle, and therefore tend to ignore Variety-style announcements about budgets and contracts and so on. But this is big news, on a cultural level. And it’s especially interesting because of the contrast between these huge, highly anticipated projects. Whedon’s Avengers movie will be the final result of a giant, corporate engine turning out a half-dozen superhero movies to set it up; it’ll be the full realization of Paramount/Marvel’s ambitions, and filmmaking on an epic scale.

Meanwhile, Nolan’s Dark Knight follow-up will still be the mainstream of a corporation, in this case Warner Bros. But it looks like it’ll be based much more in the decisions of creative individuals, namely Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan. I might be oversimplifying how much of a binary this is, especially since I have no idea how much of an authorial imprint Whedon will leave. But this much I know: Whedon will be picking this project from where Jon Favreau, Louis Leterrier, Joe Johnston, and Kenneth Branagh left off. Nolan came in and revived a disgraced franchise through the strength of his talent and ideas. If you can’t tell, I find myself increasingly drawn to Christopher Nolan, and how well he’s maintained his creative integrity while directing big-budget action epics.

I’m not too well-acquainted with Whedon’s work, but the man’s admittedly a nerd deity and one-man sci-fi/horror empire. Still, I’m very curious about how this will translate into working on Marvel’s franchise-defining mega-project. To sum up: this news raises lots of questions about the place of the director in superhero movies. Questions that interest me as a fan both of superheroes and auteur cinema. Like comics, superhero movies have often been classified as below art simply by virtue of their subject matter, and I think Nolan’s helping to change that by taking Batman very seriously, and by giving his films the qualities you’d expect of any good/great movie. The Dark Knight had solid – sometimes extraordinary – performances, a labyrinthine narrative of anarchy and revenge, and some amount of thematic weight. This is the blockbuster action movie striving toward something higher.

So expectations are understandably high for Batman 3, as well as Nolan’s upcoming Inception. I’m skeptical about whether The Avengers will achieve similar crossover success, but anything could happen. Mainly I’m impressed by the sheer coordination necessary to get this project into the air. By the time it’s released, it’ll have 6 different feature-length origin stories behind it, so it’ll have a lot to live up to as well. And with such a huge, diverse ensemble… well, this movie should ample opportunity to become a sprawling chaotic mess. I won’t deny it: I love an enormous, well-told story. I love small, personal stories better, but I can’t resist something if it’s overwhelmingly huge, like the LOTR and Star Wars trilogies. Batman 3 will probably have a monopoly on intelligent, brooding superheroes in 2012. So come on, Whedon: dumb or not, impress me with a story so nerdy in flavor and epic in scope that I’ll have no choice but to enjoy it.

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Saturday Theme Songs: X-Men TAS

I love many things. Among them: ’90s cartoons both good and bad, and themed series of blog posts. So I figured, why not combine those loves, and write a themed series of blog posts about cartoons from the 1990s? Better yet, why not designate a day for these posts, forcing me into blogging consistency? (This idea was shamelessly stolen, as usual, from the blogging habits of Final Girl’s Stacie Ponder.) And since, in my childhood, the day on which I mostly commonly watched said cartoons was Saturday, I figured this would really tie the theme together. Ergo: Saturday Theme Songs. Ideally, I’ll post a video (see above), then a paragraph or two of explanation, and everyone’s all the more nostalgically happy. (If you weren’t a child in the ’90s, I’m sorry, but I may try to diversify chronologically.)

So, we have X-Men: The Animated Series, one of my favorite cartoons from elementary school, and one which I stand by. The reasons why are all there in the opening sequence. It fully realized the diverse ensemble from the comic books; it had kick-ass, if occasionally ridiculous, animation (e.g, LASERS everywhere!); and of course there’s that wordless, effective, and unforgettable theme song – interspersed with the sounds of Wolverine’s claws and more LASERS. This sequence does as well as any Wikipedia article in introducing new viewers to the show, and even conveys a sense of its wide-ranging (if also a little ridiculous) emotional pallette and epic conflict.

Rewatching this opening just makes me fall in love with X-Men all over again. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but that’s part of the point, as it is with much superhero media; it wouldn’t be the same without mutants fighting killer robots amidst lots of LASERS. There’s a reason we call it “cartoonish.” But it’s more than just the ridiculous, flashy, excessive awesomeness. This show has everything that a 7-year-old with artistic designs could want. It’s got all types of characters imbued with fantastic powers, giving plenty of opportunities for audience identification and onscreen drama. (I can still recite some of the complex relationships that formed within the X-Men.) And it’s wildly imaginative, with a number of well-developed story arcs delving into time travel, space pirates, alternate dimensions, dysfunctional (mutant) families – i.e., everything I was interested in as a child. (Fuck yes, alternate dimensions.)

And, believe it or not, the show even had moments of great writing and intense poignance. It may look like the same old superhero nonsense, and to some extent it carries over many of the nonsensical superhero traditions, but I’ll continue to defend the pathos and grandeur of the sprawing X-Men mythos. And, in my opinion, the animated series was one of the best-ever translations from a comic book title to TV. This was a kid’s show, broadcast in the mid-afternoon, that addressed institutionalized oppression, bigotry, and harrassment in most of its episodes. It talked about self-loathing, police states, and political assassinations. It presented a black woman and a disabled man as dependably wise and badass authority figures. And it taught a generation of children how to react when you learn your father is a space pirate. X-Men: The Animated Series, like its theme song, was clearly awesome.

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