Batman, Lara Croft & Arrow: The Christopher Nolanization of Pop Culture

We all have something in our childhood years that we feel nostalgic about or, if we’re not quite old enough yet to get past the urge to reject our childhood years, a little ashamed of them. (If you’re not even that old yet, it’s okay. You’re still allowed to read this post.)

For me, it’s comic books. For about a decade, until I started college, I was obsessed with comics the way a junkie is obsessed with hypodermic needles. This was in an earlier era when comics weren’t quite as adult-oriented as they’ve become in recent years and Stan Lee was just inventing Marvel’s Silver Age line-up of heroes. In fact, if it weren’t for Lee, I probably would have stopped reading comics by age 12, but Spiderman put the hypodermic back in my vein. He had all the same problems I did. He was a geek, he was out of place with his contemporaries, he had no idea what to do around the opposite sex, and he kept having to deal with erections, by which I mean tall buildings that could only be surmounted by shooting a sticky web-like substance into the air and soaring off through the skyscrapers like Tarzan swinging through the treetops.

Batman Begins

You’ll believe a bat can fly.

We all have to grow up, though, and eventually I outgrew comics. The funny thing is, comic books kept refusing to let me outgrow them. And no one except perhaps the genius at Marvel Studios who figured out how to reassemble the Avengers has had more to do with this than Christopher Nolan. I don’t know whether the credit should go to director Nolan, his writer brother Jonathan, or frequent comic-book-movie scripter David S. Goyer, but when the movie Batman Begins came out in 2005, it made me see comic books in a whole new light. Until then superheroes existed in their own cartoon universe, where a peculiar set of rules insisted that they wear spangly costumes, battle supervillains who actually saw themselves as villains (all writers should make note of this immediately: real people don’t think of themselves as villains) and rely on science fictional tropes for about two-thirds of their plot devices.

Nolan asked a question that, with a couple of exceptions (notably Alan Moore in Watchmen), nobody had really asked before: If there were superheroes in the real world, what would they be like? If they wore costumes, why would they wear them? If they fought villains, what would those villains be like? Nolan tackled perennial favorite Batman, an obvious target because his lack of superpowers made him one of the most realistic of superheroes, and put him in a film noir universe where his bizarre activities made sense, his costume and fancy set of wheels had genuine utility, and the villains rarely bothered to dress up in Halloween costumes before threatening the eternally fragile peace of Gotham City. He even gave the villains realistic motivations: Ra’s al Ghul really believed he was going to save the world from crime — from Ra’s al Ghul’s viewpoint he was the hero and Batman was the villain — and the Scarecrow (who never actually called himself that, at least as far as I recall) was just a clever experimental psychologist on the payroll of a crime boss.

It all made sense and not the loony kind of sense that Tim Burton’s Batman had made. It only took a little suspension of disbelief to accept that Nolan’s world was real. It was dark, it was exciting and Christian Bale’s unexpectedly charismatic performance held it together like the glue in Spiderman’s web spurter. Batman Begins left me gasping in my seat when it was over and Nolan never equaled it in the remaining two movies of his trilogy, which were just bloated and pretentious rehashes of the original. It didn’t matter, though. Nolan had created a new paradigm and it has slowly but surely begun to stick. (Some credit should go to Bryan Singer for his more realistic depiction of the X-Men in the early 2000s, but — let’s face it — those movies just weren’t as good as Nolan’s.)

Arrow

The hoodie that launched a thousand arrows.

Now we’re beginning to see the Nolan approach take root in other gardens, comic book and otherwise, and until it becomes an overdone cliche I expect to see more of it in the future. The most obvious example is the series Arrow on the CW network, which might as well be called Green Arrow Begins. Even in the late 1950s, the superhero Green Arrow had been DC comics own cut-rate clone of the more successful Batman and he’s proved himself to be an apt candidate for the Nolan treatment. Like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, zillionaire Oliver Queen disappeared for several years, became tough and expert in exotic methods of fighting, then returned to clean up crime in his home town. (Gotham City is now Starling City, but not much else has changed.) His costume, at least until the most recent episode, is little more than a hoodie with some greasepaint under his eyes to make him unrecognizable even to friends — improbable, but only a little — and his only superpower is those tricked-out arrows, which aren’t much more fantastic than the gadgets Lucius Fox stuffed in Bruce Wayne’s utility belt. And the villains, even the more over-the-top ones, feel noirishly real. The show itself is little more than a slickly executed soap opera, but I’m glad to see superheroes treated realistically on television at all — Smallville, for all its attempts at realism and the brilliant performances of John Glover and Michael Rosenbaum as Lionel Luthor and his prematurely bald son Lex, was still more than a little silly — and I’m even more thrilled to see that the producers are apparently spinning off a second series based on a far greater superhero, the Flash. (I was actually rather stunned to see that their visualization of the Flash’s origin almost exactly matched my memory of the origin of the Silver Age Flash in the 1956 Showcase #4, with the quite reasonable addition of an out-of-control particle accelerator to replace the original lightning bolt.) If they can Nolanize the Flash at least as well as they’ve Nolanized Green Arrow, the producers have my kudos and a permanent setting on my DVR.

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider

Arrows — for the tomb raider who has everything.

Perhaps the most surprising result of Nolanization is the new version of Lara Croft in the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider video game series. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Tomb Raider games. Lara Croft, a female Indiana Jones, has never been much more than a Barbie Doll with guns and improbable athletic skills. The games have always been mildly diverting and more than a little frustrating every time Lara fails at her trademark circus act of jumping from vines to ledges and climbing walls while shooting wolves and falling to her screaming death. But the reboot, which takes us back to Lara’s teenage years (which bear a remarkable resemblance to the backstory on Arrow, with Lara shipwrecked on a remote island crawling with AK-47-wielding bad guys), is surprisingly realistic. The carefully rendered graphics make Lara seem real and deeply human, and her sexiness is now just an incidental part of her character, not something for horny teenage boys to stare at while following her curvaceous buttocks down endless cavern hallways.

Tomb Raider 2.0 is a big game and, at last count, I was only about 37 percent of the way through it. (The map screen tracks your progress through the story.) If the rest of the game holds up as well as the first part, though, I look forward to the series that will inevitably follow and seeing Lara grow out of her teenage insecurities into a character realistic enough for someone like Christopher Nolan to make a movie about. (Let’s face it: The Angelina Jolie films weren’t exactly Lucasfilm productions.) I wouldn’t mind seeing the Nolanization of some other classic video game characters, though Super Mario Begins might be carrying things a bit far. Bethesda Softworks has already created their own Nolan-like world in the Elder Scrolls series, where in games like Skyrim the interactive environment seems about as real as a fantasy universe could.

We all need cartoons when we’re kids and sometimes we need them when we’re adults too. They provide a means of depicting the world with the absurdity that it deserves far too much of the time. But cartoons also have to grow up and if Batman, Green Arrow and Lara Croft can do it, I fully expect the Powerpuff Girls one day to star in a Sex in the City reboot. There’s a deep charm in the idea that the fantasies of our childhoods can mature even as we do and that Lara Croft can reinvent herself as a real person.

Well, a real person who can still jump from ledges, swing on vines, and climb walls while shooting at wolves. Some things should never change.

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Trailer Scenes: Why the Parts of Some Movies Are Greater than the Whole

In some comment thread I was reading recently about Joss Whedon’s movie version of The Avengers, a commenter pointed out that some scenes in the film looked like they came straight out of a Transformers film. I nodded in happy agreement, because despite my deep love for Whedon’s writing, directing and producing, I long ago noticed that The Avengers looked much more like a Michael Bay movie than anything I’d expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, full of fights, explosions and action sequences, each of which probably cost more to make than all 14-episodes of Firefly. And then the commenter added, “But I guess such trailer scenes are necessary when you’re making a blockbuster.”

The Avengers poster

Trailer Scenes Assemble!

Trailer scenes! What a perfect phrase for summing up everything, or at least a large fraction of everything, that’s wrong with mainstream Hollywood movies today.

Anybody who’s spent much time watching film trailers (and now that you can find them on YouTube, I’ve become more addicted to trailer watching than I am to TV watching, though not quite as addicted as I am to video games) has doubtlessly noticed that in 90 percent of cases the trailer is better, often much better, than the movie it’s flacking. And in zero percent of cases is a movie ever better than its trailer; the best you can hope for is that it will be equally good. One reason for this, of course, is that the trailer is shorter than the film and the trailer editor has the luxury of selecting all the best scenes and leaving out the junk. Another reason is that trailer editors have gotten really good at exploiting the post-production mechanics of filmmaking — editing, fades, pacing, sound effects, music — to create a mini-movie with its own dramatic arc, from the slow rising action at the beginning to the larger-than-life climax to the final punchline button (often after the title of the film has been shown) that leaves the audience laughing.

But it had never occurred to me until I saw that term “trailer scenes” that some directors are putting scenes in movies not because they really belong there but because they’ll look so mindbogglingly good in the trailer. God, I must have been dense not to think of that.

In fact, this explains something I started noticing many months ago, which is that when I surf past a movie on cable that I found only mediocre in the theater, I’ll often find myself riveted by it in a way that I wasn’t when I watched the whole thing from the beginning. That’s because I’ve skipped over all the boring filler that was used to string the trailer scenes together and jumped into one of those moments that was intended all along to work better on its own than when weighed down by lousy exposition, improbable premises, weak dialog and padding designed to make the movie long enough to justify its ticket price. I’ve stumbled right into the middle of a trailer scene.

Indeed, I’m starting to suspect that some movies are nothing but trailer scenes strung together by hastily written bubble-gum scenes, a phrase I just invented because they resemble pieces of bubble gum that have been chewed so many times that they now have the adhesive property to hold the trailer scenes together while simultaneously being elastic enough to stretch to whatever length is required to keep the trailer scenes safely distant from one another. (Trailer scenes are expensive to make, so you need some long, cheap scenes to hold them together.)

A perfect example of this kind of movie is Prometheus, which I happened across last night while we were trying out the new cable box that our cable company sent us. I was sorely disappointed in Prometheus when I saw its theatrical release. Much of it was barely coherent. (The name Damon Lindelof in the writing credits should have been a tip-off, as any viewers of the later seasons of Lost should know.) Yet when I saw that immense horseshoe-shaped spaceship rise out of the mountain, crash land, and improbably roll over Charlize Theron (who, unlike Noomi Rapace, didn’t have the sense to run in a direction perpendicular to the line along which the spaceship was rolling), I couldn’t look away. No, it didn’t make any more sense than it had the first time I saw it, but now I didn’t have to sit through the monotonous, nonsensical setup. I could just enjoy the coolness of this…trailer scene.

I had the same feeling a few weeks ago when I surfed across The Dark Knight Rises. That’s a better film, but it’s still full of bloated bubble gum scenes and ominous, throbbing Hans Zimmer music. (Don’t get me wrong. I love the music Zimmer does for Nolan, but it gives a false sense of dramatic credibility to scenes that don’t really deserve it.) The Dark Knight Rises had seemed to go on forever in the theater, but watching chunks of it on cable was fun. I was making my own trailer while cable surfing, skipping to other channels when the slow scenes came on, skipping back to Dark Knight Rises to catch the neat stuff.

Some movies just aren’t meant to be watched whole. As much as I love Joss Whedon, The Avengers is one of them. It’s another movie that should be cable surfed, but only for the best scenes (which in this case aren’t the weirdly Michael Bay-ish action scenes — the movie’s real trailer scenes — but for the cute character interaction bits that come in between the trailer scenes, because that’s the sort of thing Whedon does best). Watching SHIELD headquarters rise out of the water and zoom away on helicopter blades — okay, that’s still pretty exciting. Whedon can do a great trailer scene when he puts his mind to it, which is why Marvel/Disney is having him do the next Avengers film too. I just wish he weren’t devoting so much of his talent to this sort of action movie lately (and I’m really looking forward to the Whedon-produced Agents of SHIELD on ABC this fall, where Whedon hands the showrunning duties over to his brother Jed and a couple of other writers), because TV shows and movies about interesting human beings and the relationships between them are still what he does best.

Not all movies that have great trailer scenes are bad movies. Occasionally you hit a truly inspired one. Inception, by the same director who gave us the bloated Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan), was a dazzling Rubik’s cube of a film, a fascinating puzzle for the viewer that grows better through repeated viewings and that also happens to have a lot of great trailer scenes that actually are an integral part of the story. That’s a rare and amazing thing, yes, but it’s nice to know that it can actually happen.

Poster for Gravity

Gravity: Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Another movie with amazing trailer scenes that I think is going to pay off in the theater is Alfonso Cuarón’s upcoming Gravity. I say this not only because films like Children of Men have led me to trust Cuarón as a director, one who can both capture character moments and rise to stunning technical challenges, but because it’s already started getting excited notices from film festivals. Yes, it has some eye-popping trailer scenes, but I think they’re merely going to be the hook that draws the viewer into a movie that stands on its own merits, not just the merits of whatever would-be movie director edits its trailer scenes together.

Welcome to the Planet: Man of Steel

The movie Man of Steel has been getting a lot of bad press. It receives a 55 on Metacritic, which at the very least is unimpressive. Three of my friends told me they hated it — one said it gave him a headache — and only one told me he liked it. I deliberately skipped the weekend showing, suggested to Amy that she wouldn’t want to go with me and waited until I could catch it at a seven dollar bargain evening showing in non-IMAX non-3D.

My bad. I loved every freakin’ minute of it.

Man of Steel Poster

Man of Steel, Planet of Clay

I’ve been steeped in the Superman mythos since before I was old enough to read. I’ve watched George Reeves play him, Christopher Reeve play him, Dean Cain play him, Tom Welling sort of play him, Brandon Routh play him and now Henry Cavill play him. They all deserve kudos for a job well done. I’ve read about him in Superman Comics, Action Comics, Superboy Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane comics, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen comics, Justice League of America comics and watched him team up with Batman in some godawful stories in World’s Finest comics. (Me, I have the world’s finest memory for useless pop trivia.) I’ve seen every Superman movie since the first Christopher Reeve one except Superman 4, which I’m afraid to see. I thought they steadily went downhill. I guess it’s possible that Superman Returns, the last Superman film before this one, was an improvement on Superman 4, but it’s hard to imagine. Bryan Singer, after two rather bland X-Men films, directed Superman Returns like a man who didn’t even understand how movies work. Its rhythms were wrong, its casting was botched (though Routh was pretty decent even if his career died with it), and scene after scene was completely tone deaf. And it had Kate Bosworth as an ultra-bland Lois Lane. Gag me now!

This movie is better than any of the ones listed above.

It’s hard to be better than the first Christopher Reeve one, I’ll admit. It’s dated now, but it holds a special place in my heart for that charming first night in Metropolis sequence (“You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”) and for Christopher Reeve’s revelatory performance, which he never outdid. This one, though, actually manages to be better. I’ve heard a lot of people say that the Krypton sequence is boring and too long and that the climactic battle is exciting and too long. I don’t agree on either count. I remember the same complaint about the Krypton sequence in the first Reeve movie, too, and this one is much better. Yes, overly long climactic battles have been a problem in movies for a while now, because they generally exist only because the producers want audiences to feel they got what they paid their ridiculous ticket prices for and that they, the producers, got what they divvied up the movie’s ridiculous budget for. In this case, though, the movie earns its long climactic battle because the battle is the heart of the movie. It’s not just its climax; it’s what the movie is about.

Director Zack Snyder, who say what else you will about him directs what are probably the most visually stunning popular movies currently being made, along with producer/writer Christopher Nolan and co-writer/comic-book-movie-wizard David Goyer, are going for a true epic here and I can’t think of any other story in all of comic book mythology that deserves the epic treatment more than this one does. Certainly it deserves it more than the second and third Nolan Batman films, which were just bloated rehashes of the pitch-perfect Batman Begins. And even those were modest little art films next to truly fruity epics like DeMille’s technicolor version of The Ten Commandments and William Wyler’s 1959 remake of Ben Hur. Now those were movies that really went over the top, so far over the top that at times you couldn’t see them without binoculars.

I don’t have to tell you the Superman backstory, do I? Just in case, it’s about how the planet Krypton is dying, the visionary scientist Jor-El shoots his baby son Kal-El off in a spaceship toward earth just before his whole world literally falls apart, the baby is adopted by a rural Kansas farming couple with the last name Kent who name him Clark, and somehow earth’s yellow sun (Krypton had a red one) gives the child superpowers, allowing him to grow up to be a superhero who takes the secret identity of a newspaper reporter. (Forgive the run-on sentence, but I really wanted to get that out of the way fast.)

Man of Steel is about how Clark Kent/Kal-El — he’s almost never referred to as Superman in the movie — comes to terms with being a man of earth instead of what he was born to be: a man of Krypton. He feels like he doesn’t belong here, that he’s different, that he’s an alien, probably because he is an alien and he is different. And yet he’s also been raised on earth by a really decent pair of earth parents and earth’s ways are the only ways he knows. The movie is about how he learns to accept himself for what he is, a person who belongs here and has a role to play in our planet’s society, which come to think of it is a struggle that a lot of us who were born here have had to go through too.

In a way, the movie is also a remake of the first two Reeve films, with the Krypton and Smallville sequences from the first one and the battle against the three Kryptonian supervillains, led by General Zod, from the second. This time, though, General Zod isn’t merely an evil twit who wants to conquer earth, have the President of the United States kneel before him and — oh, yeah — kill  Kal-El, son of Jor-El. This time he’s a man with an important mission and it’s a mission you kind of understand. You can see why it would mean so much to him. You can even sympathize with it. But you can also see why Super–er, Kal-El absolutely has to stop it!

It’s a meaningful conflict. It’s an incredibly meaningful conflict. And, though I don’t want to spoil anything, on both a literal and symbolic level the climactic battle represents Kal-El’s struggle to finally reject Krypton and fully embrace being a child of earth. That’s what the whole film’s about and why the battle deserves every minute that it gets. It didn’t strike me as being the slightest bit excessive.

And, oh yeah, the movie has what I think may be the most perfect final line I’ve ever heard in a film, but I wouldn’t dream of telling you what it is.

The casting is excellent. Amy Adams makes a terrific Lois Lane who gets to do a lot more than Lois usually does, which is swoon over Superman, write newspaper stories about him and try to figure out his secret identity. This Lois is actually involved in the action and gives significant assistance to Kal-El in his battle against Zod and company. She also doesn’t have to figure out his secret identity because she’s in on it from the beginning. This is a brand new Lois who isn’t just there for Superman to save and smooch with (though he manages to do both of those too).

And then there’s Henry Cavill as Clark/Kal-El. It’s hard to top Christopher Reeve’s performance as Superman. He not only convinced you that Superman could charm both Lois Lane and the entire planet, but he convinced you that, yes, just putting on those Clark Kent glasses and changing the way he combed his hair really did turn him into a completely different person. But Henry Cavill matches him blow for blow. Reeve played Superman with a wink at the audience; Cavill never winks once. His Clark/Kal-El/that other guy manages an even more amazing feat, one just as good as leaping tall buildings in a single bound. He makes the character seem grounded in reality and that’s exactly what this movie needs. Every time Snyder, Nolan and Goyer seem in danger of taking the film over the top all they have to do is cut to Cavill and he manages to do what needs to be done.

He brings the movie, yes, right back down to earth.