Who’s afraid of the big black bat?

Here’s an article I wrote for TAKE ONE about how Batman has been re-interpreted down the years, and asks if it’s time to move on from Christopher Nolan’s take on the character:

If Christopher Nolan’s phenomenally successful adaptations of DC’s enduring caped crusader have taught us anything, it’s that some characters belong in the shadows. Cinema audiences just can’t seem to get enough of Batman, the darkest of superheroes. In the two film franchises he has starred in so far – Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, which concludes this month, and the original series begun by Tim Burton back in 1989 – he’s been at his most popular, and best, when literally and figuratively shrouded in darkness. Indeed, so successful was he that for years it seemed as though the only comic-book adaptations that could generate success at the box office were those whose central characters were either as morally conflicted or as psychologically scarred as Bruce Wayne. Yet the difference between these two approaches is vast: night and day, you might say. There are different flavours of dark, and, as successful as the current Batman series has been, a change of direction might now be in order.

Full article: Who’s afraid of the big black bat? | TAKE ONE

Review: The Avengers (2012)

Avengers Assemble posterBefore we start, let’s get the title out of the way: in the UK, it’s supposed to be called Marvel Avengers Assemble, which is such a hideous mouthful I’m going to ignore it completely (from now on at least).

The story: Earth’s mightiest heroes are brought together by S.H.I.E.L.D., an agency dedicated to protecting Earth from the threat of invasion. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) must battle with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who leads an invading force of aliens with the intention of taking control of the planet.

Marketing pedantry aside, The Avengers is the film we’ve all been waiting for since 2008’s Iron Man first hinted at such a team-up. It’s been the holy grail for comic-book fans for decades: a film universe equivalent to that of the comics, where superheroes not only co-exist but join together to take on a superior foe, or alternatively beat seven bells out of each other. Or preferably both.

There have been hints at such a prospect before. Joel Schumacher’s Batman films (*shudder*) made mention of  Superman and Metropolis, though fans prefer not to remember this (or indeed his films). Then in the early 2000s Warner Bros attempted to jump-start both their DC superhero big guns with Batman vs. Superman, an epic to be directed by Wolfgang Petersen from a script by Andrew Kevin Walker. This was scrapped when separate reboots were chosen instead; and, needless to say, don’t expect Clark Kent to turn up in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series any time soon.

The main obstacles to a gigantic Marvel superhero mash-up have always been legal ones. The company had in the past made deals with different studios to adapt specific characters. Thus, Spider-Man lies with Sony and X-Men and Fantastic Four are locked in at 20th Century Fox – and studios are notoriously protective of their properties. But this changed when Marvel set up their own independent financing. As rights began to revert back to the company, several of their characters came back under the same roof and a team-up project became a legal, if rather unlikely, possibility.

But pipe dreams finally began to turn in to reality when in 2008 Iron Man featured a post-credits tease with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, who in the comics is in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. This obviously sent fans in to something of a tizzy, and sent a clear signal to Marvel that an Avengers movie was worth pursuing.

The Avengers are of course a team of Earth’s greatest superheroes. Except they’re not; they largely consist of Marvel’s second (or even third) tier of characters, the ones you find after you get past the aforementioned crown jewels like Spider-Man, X-Men, or Fantastic Four. Only the Hulk could be considered a true A-lister; Iron Man has been popularised by two blockbuster films but was largely unknown to the masses before then, while Thor and Captain America only have a single film to their names, both of which – though financially successful – mainly served to set up the story seen onscreen here. The remaining two characters, Russian spy Black Widow and ace archer Hawkeye, only had minor roles in previous Marvel films and were certainly unknown outside of comic geek circles, mainly because they don’t really have any noteworthy superpowers.

So it’s greatly to Marvel’s credit, as well as that of writer-director Joss Whedon, that this project is the success it deserves to be. After all, trying to fold several characters with such varied backgrounds – a billionaire in a hi-tech flying suit of armour, a man who transforms in to a giant green bodybuilder, a defrosted WWII super-soldier and a Norse demigod wielding a magic hammer – in to a single universe is no easy task.

But by laying the groundwork so far in advance, with Samuel L. Jackson popping up across most of the films (he’s only absent from 2008’s The Incredible Hulk) dropping hints about bigger things to come, audiences had plenty of time to get used to the fact that they were watching characters that shared a larger onscreen world. The softly-softly approach has clearly paid off, with huge public demand for this epic culmination. Just take a look at the early box-office returns for proof – £15m+ in the UK alone.

The film itself is a fast-paced, action-packed delight: from start to finish it’s a blockbuster that treats its characters and its audience with respect. The action is suitably grand and thrilling but never deafeningly so (Michael Bay could learn a lesson or two here). This being a Joss Whedon film, there’s wit and humour to spare which makes it palatable to Marvel newcomers without alienating longtime fans. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which try to sit within the real world as far as possible, The Avengers is a comic-book film and proud of it, and as such it’s perfect summer entertainment. That’s not to say there isn’t drama and suspense – certainly plenty of that – but Whedon finds exactly the right balance, letting the humour naturally permeate the breathless action sequences. All the main characters get their moments in the spotlight (though Captain America and Thor are pushed to the background a bit towards the end). Hell, even the 3D isn’t bad.

If one was to nitpick, the humour did occasionally undercut the threat that Loki was supposed to present, and the film might have benefited from easing up its pace a fraction every now and again. But when you’re having this much fun, why quibble? I can’t wait to see it again – surely the ultimate seal of approval.

[xrr rating=4/5]

Friday Favourites: 10 sequels we should all pretend don’t exist

A few weeks back I suggested ten films that deserved a sequel but sadly never received one. The flip side of this would be a list of sequels that were made, but shouldn’t have been. This is a much harder task, given the sheer volume of sequels that disappointed or just didn’t measure up to the original; but here for your reading pleasure are a few of my choices of follow-ups that not only disappointed but utterly stained the film from whence they sprung.


Batman & Robin poster

1. Batman & Robin (1997)

Easy one, this. A genuine contender for Worst Sequel of All Time: a pun-drenched, painfully poor script from Akiva Goldsman; headache-inducing camerawork; the camp, dayglo production design; and a cast that couldn’t be more ill-suited to their characters. Result: franchise crash and burn (until Christopher Nolan’s 2005 reboot, anyway).


2. Aliens vs Predator: Requiem (2007)

Regular readers will know of my love of the Alien franchise, so this really was a heartbreaking moment for me. Regardless of whether you count it as a sequel to the original tetralogy or its immediate predecessor, AvP, this is a follow-up so genuinely unpleasant (tedious characters, tedious plot, nasty action) it just shouldn’t be watched. Even the studio realised this, hence the film’s cinematography being so dark it’s practically unwatchable anyway.


3. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

How the mighty have fallen. That Richard Donner’s original comic-book masterpiece should have given birth to this load of cheap old tat is unthinkable. Christopher Reeve is reliably excellent as usual, but he’s the sole reason for watching this poor excuse for milking a cash cow dry. Two words – Nuclear Man. I mean, what? Incidentally, what is it about part fours that consistently make them so much worse than any other sequels?


Jaws: The Revenge poster4. Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

Speaking of which, here comes another part four from 1987 that shits all over its classic 1970s forefather. Witness the inept direction and nonsensical plot: the way it tries to replay key moments from Spielberg’s film but completely fails to make them work. This is the film about which Michael Caine famously commented he hadn’t seen, but he had seen the house that it built – surely the only positive thing to emerge from this travesty.


5. Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

I don’t even remember what Exorcist II was about. All I can remember was a) it was a bizarre mess; b) there were quite a lot of locusts;  and c) Richard Burton popped up. Probably best just to leave it there, to be honest.


6. Omen IV: The Awakening (1991)

Oh hello, another eye-gougingly awful part four. Seriously, if you’re a filmmaker asked to take on a third sequel to a great original – just leave well alone. This film was in fact a TV movie, an attempt to resurrect the Damien franchise that should have been left dead and buried after part three. Miraculously, it reached some cinemas in Europe. I pity the fools that paid money to watch its miserable attempts to stir up terror.


7. The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior (2008)

In which a warrior rises, apparently. Yes, I did watch this. No, I shouldn’t have. I quite enjoyed the first film – a bright and breezy sword-and-sandals actioner which tipped its hat to the slightly camp fantasy adventures of the 80s typified by Conan the Barbarian/Destroyer and the like. This direct-to-dvd follow-up looks like an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, but on a lower budget. It does however win points for its hysterically funny giant invisible scorpion at the end, which looks like it might have been created on an Amiga 500.  But what’s with all the pointless Greek mythology references?


Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End poster8. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)

If I’ve learnt one thing from this article, it’s to fear sequels that are released in a year ending in 7. They are certain doom. Still, at least it wasn’t a part four (On Stranger Tides – which, in point of fact, was slightly better than part three). At World’s End was a near three-hour long barrage of noise, gloom, CGI action and general melancholic tedium. Despite the high volume levels, it’s the closest I’ve ever come to nodding off at the cinema (not counting the Alien Trilogy all-nighter, which saw me briefly flag at around 6am in the middle of Alien 3).


9. Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

Steven Soderbergh’s sequel to his highly enjoyable 2001 caper remake is a textbook lesson in How To Destroy Everything People Liked About The First Film. Here, the plot isn’t clever, it’s stupid; worse, it cheats by going back on itself and changing the rules. The plot point about Julia Roberts’ character looking quite like Julia Roberts is also gobsmackingly irritating, to the extent that you want to punch the film repeatedly in the face. ARRRRGH! *punches film in face*


10. Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)

Let’s finish with another part four, shall we? Going down the prequel route, this unwanted drivel purports to show us how Norman Bates became the man we all loved to be scared of. In doing so, the film completely misses the point of Hitchcock’s classic original: that horror can be found lurking in the most ordinary and benign situations – even behind the eyes of a seemingly nice young man like Norman. Just awful.