Second Swing of the Hammer

So….

I went and saw Thor: The Dark World yesterday.  Thor was always my favorite comic book hero growing, probably due to my love of Norse mythology as kid that predated my comic-reading days

(Aside:  yes, I realize that Marvel's Thor deviates from actual Norse mythology, and I plan to have a blog post on that issue in the next few weeks.)

The plot concerns the return of the dark elves from their home of Svartalfheim (literally, "dark elf land"), one of the nine worlds which also include Asgard (home of the Gods), Midgard (Earth), Jotunheim (Land of the Giants, seen in the first Thor movie) and others.  The dark elves are headed by their semi-immortal leader Malekith, who seeks to undo the universe and return it a state of darkness, extinguishing non-dark-elf life in the process.

I wondered about the presence of Malekith, since the first Thor movie featured the Casket of Ancient Winters as a relic of the frost giants of Jotunheim.  In the comics, it belonged to the dark elves and Malekith, who used it to set free an ancient fire demon known as Sutur, who planned to set the nine worlds afire and usher in Ragnarok.  So elements of both movies are drawn from Walt Simonson's epic storyline, widely considered to be one of the best runs in the comic's history.

The movie has a series of convenient coincidences to propel the plot, such as Jane Foster's unlikely involvement in the world-breaking events, which seem like just a good reason to get her back with Thor.  At the end, Malekith is of course defeated (what, this is no spoiler!) through a fair display of deus ex machina, but it's a comic movie, so okay.  There are some clever surprises and a few neat sequences, including Thor's hammer trying to return to his hand while is tumbling between worlds, causing erratic flight corrections to hammer's path.

Dialogue was serviceable, the best of which is the non-stop yakking between Thor and Loki, which varies from fraternal to bloodthirsty.  Tom Hiddleston plays Loki with an impressive intensity of emotions, as previously.  Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin with much less reserve and spends a lot more time chewing the scenery.  Sif and the Warriors Three are back and have about as much impact as they did in the first movie.  There are some early hints of a love triangle between Sif, Jane, and Thor, but that was quickly discarded in favor of the action.  It's too bad because two minutes of development could have made that aspect much more interesting for the characters.  Darcy & Erik Selvig (who played a pivotal role in the Avengers), also return – again – with minimal story impact.

The real star of this film, though, is Chris Hemsworth.  He plays Thor with confidence, he appears to both be growing into the role and as an actor, and I think he is probably the number three guy which the public associates a comic book character, after Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) and Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) – which means he can milk this for a long time.  As of last night, Thor 2 has pulled in about $150 million domestically and $330 million overseas.  I'd say Hemsworth has established his bona fides as a superstar.

And I have to say, I am amazed at just how well the Marvel movies have turned out over the past 10-12 years.  Sure there have been misfires but short of Nolan's Batman trilogy, the DC comic movie universe has been almost a complete failure.  Ironic since the DC comics themselves are often considered to be better written.

Of course, I stayed through the credits to watch Marvel's preview stinger, which will be totally non-sensical to anyone who isn't a comic fan, but (highlight for spoilers) I bet money it points to next year's Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and it was cool to see Benico Del Toro as the Collector. So there is that.

Overall, I was satisfied.  It was pretty typical comic book fare.  Fans of Marvel's movie-verse will eat it up, others may be left wanting.

Hammers away.

But a kiss can be even deadlier… if you mean it.

So….

Tonight, SyFy channel had a handful of the old Batman movies on.  Not the 60s versions but the Tim Burton / Joel Schumacher ones from the 90s.  And I sat here watching them, I realized how titanically bad Batman and Robin is as it puked all over my screen.  I mean, I knew it was bad, but I don't remember it being 200-car-pileup bad.  This is back when George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman were at the height of their careers and for some reason, they chose to participate in this half-baked abortion of a film.  It was also the last meaningful vehicle in which Alicia Silverstone had any starring role and effectively terminated what had been a budding career.  We all know Christopher Nolan resurrected the franchise a decade later with his Christian Bale-led Batman series (peaking in The Dark Knight) but this one really left a sour taste in many mouths.

But the other thing I realized how much of a superior film Batman Returns really is.  In fact, it is the best Batman movie that's been made.

I know the fanboys and general movie going audience is gaga over The Dark Knight, and with good reason.  It's a great movie, with a good acting and a well-paced plot.  But as a comic book movie, it's not quite as good as Batman Returns.

One, the more I watch these movies, the more I am convinced Michael Keaton was a better Batman than Christian Bale.  Keaton came across as more self-assured.  Bale's Batman was totally shaped by Alfred, Rachel Dawes, and Ras Al-Ghul.  He never felt like his own man, and his weakness was all about following conflicting guidance from his mentors.  Keaton's Batman exuded quiet confidence in himself; his doubts all came from questioning his place in the world at large and dealing, head-on, with the demons between his split existence.  To me, it was more compelling.

Two, while Heath Ledger's Joker was a villain par excellence and was a truly awesome film performance, he – like Jack Nicholson's Joker in the earlier film – really overshadowed the hero in the movie.  That may have something to do with the Joker, as he is widely regarded as the single best villain in the comic book world.  On the other hand, Danny Devito's Penguin took the character away from the film viewer's memories of Burgess Meredith and his dapper, tuxedo-wearing jewelry robber, and turned it into a creepy, lecherous child murderer.  Unlike the Joker, the Penguin was unquestionably the antagonist in the movie.  He was fiendish and, at times, pitiable, but there was no doubt:  the Penguin was bad.  He never won over overtook the title character with the audience.

Three, Batman Returns had the perfect female foil.  Never cared for Katie Holmes.  Maggie Gyllenhaal did a better turn as Rachel Dawes (and is better looking) but the character always had an air of smug self-righteousness that made me dislike her.  I mentioned Uma Thurman.  She had absolutely nothing to work with as Poison Ivy; stilted dialogue and lousy costumes.  Nicole Kidman and Kim Bassinger had little to do in their roles, save look pretty and be rescued.  But Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman really shone.  She played the role to the hilt:  a broken woman with a single-minded obsession with revenge against those who had wronged her.  Her rapid mood swings and tortured ramblings as Selina Kyle only added to the character's depth.  Frankly Anne Hathaway's attempt at Catwoman was a hollow imitation.  And no, it did not hurt that Pfeiffer was stunningly beautiful and wore the leather suit like a second skin.  Meow, indeed!

Fourth, the plot was perfect.  It was a blend between the whimsical nature of the comic and the more-serious, darker Batman stories of later times (first popularized by the comic The Dark Knight Returns).  All of the devices and henchmen used by the Penguin follow a circus theme but it was almost satirical, mocking the silly origin of such decoration when employed by murderers.  While the Penguin's plot to take revenge on Gotham City was over the top, it did not have the Rube Goldberg quality of the Joker's chaos plots in Dark Knight; from a feasibility standpoint, the Penguin's plot was probably more realistic (up until he employed the army of penguins with rockets on their backs).  The political and business corruption as represented by secondary villain Max Schreck was a foil to Bruce Wayne as much as the Penguin and Catwoman were a foil to Batman – and both plotlines converged perfectly at the movie's climax.  And of all seven Batman movies (four in the 90s, and three Nolan films), Batman Returns shares with Dark Knight the honor of being the only movies that do not end on a high note.  Life ain't always fair, especially in comics, so that was refreshing to see a bittersweet ending.

Last, the dialogue.  Much is made of the great lines in The Dark Knight, but truthfully, most of them belonged to the secondary characters:  Joker, Alfred, Rachel, Jim Gordon, or Lucius Fox.  In Batman Returns, the best lines occur directly between Batman/Wayne and another character, making the main character a participant (not a recipient) to the most effective lines in the show.  The twisted mistletoe and kiss lines (as in the post title), which are reversed by Wayne and Kyle at opportune moments, were fantastic.

Not a popular opinion, I understand, but I just think Batman Returns is the superior film.  If I have to model one of these movies to write a thriller that escalates and keeps the audience guessing the outcome, I might model Dark Knight.  If I really wanted to write a movie with superior characters and a more realistic plot, I'd have to go with da Penguin movie.

As always, your mileage may vary.

An Unexpected Review

So ….

Even in my desert oubliette, we still get a little bit of culture over here – and in this case, "culture" would refer to being able to see new releases at the same time as in the States.  So I was able to take in "The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey" this last week.  Bottom line?  If I had to throw a "tl;dr" tag on this one, I would say that if you were devotee of Lord of the Rings, you would probably enjoy this one too.  If not, you might get bored.

I'll start with the negatives.  For one, it was waaay too long – and I say this as someone who still respects and honors Tolkien as the Godfather of the genre.  Peter Jackson took the 1200 pages of the Lord of the Rings series and stretched it to about 11 hours, in the extended versions.  The Hobbit is only 300 pages and at the rate of the first film, is on track for around nine hours of viewing time.  Naturally, this results in new material having to be added to fill in between gaps in the book.  I don't think a filmmaker has to be a slave to the source material and I don't mind new interpretations – but adding material for the purpose of drawing it out seems pointless.  Just tell the story.  Highlight for spoiler:  the scene with the stone giants was the absolute worst offender, having no impact on the film, other than to slow the pacing and show off special-effects wizardry.  It could have come out and saved eight minutes, without any harm.

And with all that screen time, the characters come across as cardboard-ish.  There are thirteen dwarves; even before the movie, I could have named all twelve (pause while you collect yourself from the revelation that I am a nerd).  But by watching the movie, you really don't get to know them very well.  Thorin, the leader and king in exile, is sketched out better than most but spends most of the film in a perpetual grumpy state.  He doesn't quite chew the scenery but close.  Just not enough time was devoted to character development.

Now having said all that, I will note a few positives.  The cinematography was unbelievable.  The Hobbit looks even better than the Lord of the Rings series; the vistas of New Zealand are absolutely breathtaking and the CGI effects blend flawlessly.  The goblin-infested mines in the Misty Mountains, the expanses of the Shire, Rivendell, the interior shots of Erebor (the Lonely Mountain) were all visually appealing.  The musical score was another success, and well-metered:  it was low-key at the right times and epic when needed.  I also have to say I enjoyed seeing the old actors from LotR return.  Ian McKellen (Gandalf) has noticeably aged and appears more withered than before – but Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) is, if anything, even more beautiful and regal than in the previous movies and does not appear to have aged a day.   And on whole, I enjoyed the translation of the musical numbers from the novel.  The singing dwarves added much-needed moments of levity to an otherwise bleak and depressing film.  The action was interspersed with exposition and chatting at the right intervals, so it paced fairly well.  I give the whole thing a B.

There are two more Hobbit movies scheduled:  The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and There and Back Again (2014).  At the end of the day, I think the three movies could have been compressed into two.  Despite that, I'll probably still be in line to see them both, and end up with them on DVD.

Just 'cause.

The First Avenger

Mixed feelings today … I left my phone in my car, so I missed a chance to head downtown with a couple friends for a few beers.  But afterwards, instead of sitting around doing nothing, I went to see Captain America, so I made lemonade out of the lemons.

The plot of Captain America opens in the heady days of WWII, and concerns a young man named Steve Rogers – an underweight weakling with lots of health problems – who feels a strong sense of patriotic duty, but is betrayed again and again by his poor health, which keeps him from enlisting.  He meets Dr. Abraham Erskine, who tell Rogers that he can make him into something more.  A screening process and some experiments later, Cap is born.

Cap vies with head of Hydra Johann Schmidt (ably played by sure-thing villain-actor Hugo Weaving), revealed to be (highlight for spoilers) the Red Skull, one of Cap's oldest enemies and one of the most persistent and troubling villains in the Marvel Universe.  Along the way, there is plenty of action, explosions, and ever a few clever one-liners.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Col Phillips, the Army officer in charge of the special research division that gives Cap his powers, with the same terse wit he employed as Agent K in Men In Black.  Hayley Atwell is a servicable Peggy Carter; though her character was thin and predictable, Atwell does the best with what she has … but she is clearly intended as eye candy.  Cap's role was actually well-written and Chris Evans milks it for every high and low, every cheer and angst possible.

Cameos from the Marvel universe abound, for those who know where to look.  And, as always, an bonus scene awaits anyone who can sit through the credits to the very end (and who doesn'tt have to run to the restroom).

All in all, it was rather enjoyable and it was the plot line was basically faithful to the Cap's origin in the comics and subsequent transplant to modern times.  I enjoyed the mixture of myth and science employed in both Cap's creation and the weapons and devices employed by Hydra.  Fantasy or science-fiction?  Like a lot of comics, it's science fantasy.

The stage is certainly set for the Avengers next summer.   My bet is the Super Bowl for the first major commercial / trailer.

Whosover holds this hammer ….

"… if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor."

So reads the entire quote, straight from the original draft of Journey Into Mystery #83, the 1962 comic which introduced us to the Marvel version of the Norse-mythology-inspired Thor.  Fifty years have passed since that fateful summer.  I’ve been a fan of the character for many moons – probably because it was a natural meld with my fantasy/sci-fi reading schedule.

I bring this up since the movie version of Thor hit the theaters about a week ago.  Thor is the latest segment in the Marvel studios build-up to The Avengers next year.   I had some down time on Monday so I decided to take it in.  To answer your unspoken question, no, I did not put on a red cape, winged helmet and carry a claw hammer with me.

Those stay in the footlocker.

The titular character is a prince of Asgard, the realm of the Gods.  Nestled in the branches of the cosmic tree Yggdrasil, Asgard is connected to the other parts of the ‘Nine Realms’ – including Midgard (Earth) and Jotunheim (realm of the giants) – by Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge.  (An explanation of the realms can be found here.)  Thor and his brother Loki are in line for the throne of Asgard; Thor is eventually chosen by his father Odin but an intrusion by frost giants leads to a series of ugly events, resulting in Thor being cast out of Asgard.

I won’t post any spoilers but readers of the comic can probably guess the major turns of plot; they aren’t all that surprising.  The acting is passable, and the script is Shakespearean to a fault.  However, I give the special effects a superb grade; the visuals of Asgard and the cosmos around it are painted in a wonderful palette and are a visual feast.  The characters are believable and quite likable; Australian actor Chris Hemsworth (as Thor) is sure to provoke some speculative eye-narrowing in the female viewers (or as Mrs. Axe put it, "Oh yeah, he’s hot!").  The dialogue flows well, serves the greater purpose, and in general, no words are wasted.

Familiar characters from previous Marvel movies – Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Gregg Clark as SHIELD Agent Coulson – reprise their roles.  Perceptive fans of the Marvel universe might just spot some other well-known characters in the background.  Oh, and always, make sure you stay until after the credits for a bonus scene.

Overall, I enjoyed Thor quite a bit.  I think the gold standard is still The Dark Knight, and even though I am a massive fan of the character, Thor wasn’t quite that good.  It didn’t break any new ground in the comic movie genre but it is solid, entertaining fare.

I give it a B.  Non-fans of comic movies can pass.  If you enjoyed Iron Man, I ‘spect you will enjoy this one too.

Captain America is out in a month, The Avengers next year.  Hell, next year also has The Dark Knight Rises, and the Spider-Man reboot.  The future is so bright, I need to wear shades.

Was I the Sucker?

Today is a break from my plotting series.  In case you are wondering, yes, it is because I am struggling with the next part.

So …..

Today I went and saw "Sucker Punch," the latest from director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen).  I’ve been eying this one for a few weeks.  As I posted on my Facebook account, it had three ingredients that engage my attention:  cute girls in skimpy outfits, plenty of explosions and action, and lots of guns and swords.  I figured:  how bad could it be?

Well, it wasn’t a total implosion but it was rather forgettable.

The story centers around a young girl who goes by Baby Doll (we never learn any of the girls’ real names).  After her mother dies and leaves Baby Doll and her young sister her inheritance, the girls’ stepfather loses his mind.  He attacks them, killing the younger girl.  Baby Doll attempts to blow his head off with the family pistol but is hauled to a mental institute for her trouble.  (All of this is established in the first five minutes of the movie).  With the help of a corrupt orderly, the stepfather arranges to have Baby Doll lobotomized, in order to claim guardianship of the family fortune.

To deal with her imprisonment and imminent trauma, Baby Doll escapes into varying levels of fantasy, including a lot of hack-n-slash action sequences involving dragons, evil giant samurai, steam-powered clockwork German soldiers (don’t ask), and shiny silver robots that spark when cut with a sword.  Baby Doll meets her mentor – played by Scott Glenn, who must have unpaid gambling debts that led to accepting this role – who tells Baby Doll what they need to escape.

*** SPOLIER WARNING!! ***  Do not highlight the next block unless you want the spoilers.

At first, it seems Baby Doll has imagined herself into a seamy burlesque house, where the other characters are showgirls who are also employed by the club owner as prostitutes.  (The club owner is the corrupt orderly in the "real" world.)  Baby Doll becomes a dancer of first magnitude, who is being saved for virginal purchase by the High Roller, who is to arrive in a few days (the lobotomizing doctor in the "real" world).  In her dance, Baby Doll finds she has the power of her imagination; as her dance instructor says, "what happens in this world, you control." 

Baby Doll and the other girls (Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber, and Blondie) conspire to escape.  The action sequences become Baby Doll’s ways of coping with their actions; a dance for the Mayor – who is an orderly always seen flicking his lighter – provides an opportunity for Amber to steal the man’s lighter, which the girls use to start a fire to cover their escape.

Of course, the club owner discovers the plot.  Three of the girls are killed, leaving Baby Doll and Sweet Pea to attempt an escape on their own.  In the end, Baby Doll sacrifices herself so Sweet Pea can escape.  Back to the real world.  Baby Doll is lobotomized but the orderly’s crime is uncovered, leading to the downfall of him and the stepfather.  I think …. and I can’t stress enough that this was just my interpretation …. that the end of the movie reveals that Sweet Pea was truly the one telling the story and that the entire thing was driven by her imagination.  Scott Glenn becomes the bus driver carrying her home, so apparently, even after her escape, Sweet Pea is still coping by controlling her fantasies.  Fade into the sunset.

No, it is not revealed if the other girls were actually dead, or if Sweet Pea simply imagined their death to advance her story.  No, Baby Doll’s ultimate fate is not revealed.

*** END SPOILER WARNING ***

The fight scenes were decent and the CGI was top-notch but I think we’re getting jaded, as it is just a variant of what we’ve seen again and again since Matrix‘s bullet time.  One battle scene that stood out went on for five minutes without a camera break but simply spun and covered the action from different angles, and did so smoothly.  That was pretty neat.  The steampunk-ish feel of one of the fantasy worlds was intriguing.  The opening sequence was told without any dialogue (voice-over narration were the only words in the first 5-6 minutes of the movie) and I appreciate that kind of experimental storytelling.  And the girls were all cute in their own ways.

Beyond that, I think I could have done better.  I went with Rob, a guy I work with.  When it was over, he asked me, "Is that what an LSD trip is like?"  I had no good answer.  The plot was paper thin and the resolution will confuse too many people.  As one might expect, the acting quality was average at best, atrocious at worst.  Scott Glenn laid out the girls’ situation each time like he was briefing a group of gamers attempting a brand new mission on Halo.

Was I the sucker, then?  Nah, I guess not.  It wasn’t the worst movie I’ve seen but it won’t find a home on my action DVD shelf, either.

Okay, Zak Snyder.  That’s two in a row that were disappointing:  this and Watchmen.  Three strikes …. well, you know the rest.

[Edit:  Per above, I did not mean to imply I could have written something better but that I could have made a better use of my movie time.  Maybe I could have written something better  – but then I read some things I’ve written and think the proverbial thousand chimps randomly hitting keys would have me beat in five minutes.]