Monday, July 30, 2012

"Beyond The Dark Knight" - The Future of The Batman Franchise and DC Superhero Movies In General

Every story has to have an end of some sort. This year has seen the end of many stories, some good, some bad, some simply okay. However, the one that everyone will undoubtedly remember will be the end of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy which ended with The Dark Knight Rises. Now, we are standing on the edge of one story ending and another beginning. It's only logical  to think about the future after the ending of one of the best comic book movie adaptations ever filmed. Everyone else is talking about it, so I decided to throw my two cents in for good measure.

This is a SPOILER filled entry so if you haven't seen The Dark Knight Rises (shame on you if you haven't) go see it then come back.

So The Dark Knight Rises marks the last Batman film to be directed by Christopher Nolan with Christian Bale as The Caped Crusader. If you've read my review of the movie you know that I loved the heck out of this movie a lot. It's always a special event for me when Christopher Nolan comes out with a new movie, the guy is my kind of director/storyteller. Sure, he may have his flaws, but he can craft one hell of a movie despite that. The Dark Knight Rises is by far his biggest movie to date, and it delivers a satisfying conclusion to the Dark Knight legend. However, that conclusion now leaves us wonder where we go from here.

It's obvious that Warner Bros. has no intention to put away the cowl and cape for any extended period of time. It doesn't make any logical sense why they shouldn't, Batman is really their only successful superhero vehicle, apart from Superman who is getting a reboot with Man of Steel next year. Then there's The Avengers...

With the success of The Avengers it's only logical to think that Warner Bros. is looking to get a slice of the superhero team up pie with their line of DC superheroes in a Justice League film. The only issue with that idea is that Nolan's Batman has just finished and if the studio is looking to do a reboot they'd need at least five years (which is around the same time the first Spider-Man came out before the reboot). However you slice it, though, whatever their plans are for Batman they've got a lot to live up to in order for it to succeed.

First, you have Nolan's Batman movies, which have become the ideal that every filmmaker strives to when filming their own superhero movies. Numerous times, Iron Man 2 was said to be the "Dark Knight" of the Iron Man movies. However, I don't remember Batman getting drunk and eating doughnuts in a giant doughnut... The fact of the matter is that there are few people who can fill Nolan's very talented shoes, but that won't stop people from trying to fill them. With luck, they'll get someone with ambition and a creative flair to make the next Batman movie, someone who is willing to take risks and not just play it safe and make a watered down version of The Dark Knight.

Second, you have The Avengers. It's very obvious that The Avengers have influenced how superhero films are made, it's not just about the one superhero living in his own bubble anymore, it's the entire universe that character inhabits as well, and the other superheroes and villains that live in it as well. It would be too easy for Warner Bros. to just copy what the Marvel movies did, i.e. make entertaining fun "summer" action movies with little substance and character. Now, don't take this the wrong way. I loved The Avengers, and I rather enjoyed the Marvel movies that led up to it. However, if Warner Bros. dares to be smart, they'll steer clear of making "Marvel movies with the DC logo stamped over it" and instead make their own cinematic universe with it's own tone and feel. This is where I take you to how, I think, they could go with Batman and a DC Cinematic Universe.

1. Don't reboot Batman, make it a sequel.
The Dark Knight Rises is the end of Bruce Wayne's journey as Batman. Both Nolan and Christian Bale have expressed this very clearly. Bale won't return as Batman, and Nolan isn't directing another Batman movie. However, The Dark Knight Rises does leave the story open ended with the promise of a future.

That future is John Blake, aka Robin John Blake.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character in the film inherits the Batcave at the end of the movie. The last shot is of him discovering the Batcave in a similar manner to how Bruce Wayne discovered it in Batman Begins. Don't believe me? Well check out this video from youtube user mavman1994 who compared the two scenes here.

The film builds up the idea that Blake is Wayne's sort of protege, like all the Robins that have appeared in the comics. The scenes of him and Blake discussing the nature of Batman as a symbol and the fact that literally anyone could be Batman is important because it sets up the potential for Blake to become the next Batman. In the very comic books that inspired the film, when Bruce Wayne is horribly injured by Bane, it's Robin who is then tasked to take on the mantle of the Batman in his stead. So it makes logical sense that this "Robin" will do the same thing here.
But he could just be Robin, or even Nightwing, you ask? Do you really expect Warner Bros. to make a movie for just Robin or Nightwing? If that doesn't convince you then how about another scene from the movie?

Remember how Commissioner Gordon discovers the bat-signal has been repaired at the end of the movie? Well it certainly wasn't a bird signal was it?
With this in mind, and the fact that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is quickly becoming a big star and a go-to guy for action movies these days, it'd be much easier, and better in my opinion, for Warner Bros. to just do a sequel series to The Dark Knight trilogy with Gordon-Levitt as Batman. While we've already seen how Blake inherits the Batcave we have yet to see his transformation into the Dark Knight himself. That would be and interesting origin tale to explore in a potential sequel with Blake struggling to become the next Batman. I'd sure as hell watch that if they made it.

2. Set the other DC characters in Nolan's Dark Knight Universe.
You know what makes Christopher Nolan's Batman movies so distinct from other comic book adaptations? It's dark and gritty. Yes, I used those words, the words every Hollywood executive likes to throw around when they're talking about rebooting Spider-Man or The Fantastic Four. It's just a simple description for a more complex idea: the fact that Nolan made a world that has a guy who dresses up as a bat and beats up criminals in the late hours of the night but still feels like it's no different than our world.

Sure, it is still ridiculous when you look at it, but every Nolan movie still has that level of spectacle that makes it larger than life. However, it is much more serious than any of the Marvel films. Where Nolan's movies feel like they're grounded in real life, the Marvel movies have their heads in the clouds. Bruce Wayne is like Tony Stark, both are billionaire playboys who are heroic underneath, and both are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. However, Bruce Wayne is a serious man who takes his duty as Batman seriously, Tony Stark is Robert Downey Jr. chewing the scenery. Both are good in their own right, but you'll never hear someone say Christian Bale should have acted more like Robert Downey Jr. That's what make both series of films so great and unique.

So let Marvel make the fun, popcorn flicks full of over the top action and Whedonesque dialogue, they've made their claim to that form of storytelling. However, Warner Bros has their own format that can make them stand out against the Marvel movies. It's already evident that they're doing this with Superman, the Man of Steel is being produced by Christopher Nolan, and looks a heck of a lot like a Nolan movie even thought it's being directed by 300 director Zack Snyder. This a good thing, because if they can pull off a Nolanesque Superman movie then you can easily place him in the world of Nolan's Batman.

So what does that mean for the other DC superheroes like Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, who aren't really the most grounded characters in the DC roster of superheroes? Well, for the Green Lantern movies the only ideal plan seems to be a reboot like how the Hulk got a reboot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No one liked Green Lantern, and if Warner Bros is able to ground that character in the Nolanesque world of Batman and Superman, which is a tall order indeed but workable considering the fact that if Superman can be grounded in the world why can't the Green Lantern? Wonder Woman presents less of a challenge because it would be very easy to make her an engaging and interesting character. There was already an attempt to make a television show for the character, which was sadly scrapped, but perhaps it was to make way for the silver screen?

In any case, I'm certain that grounding the characters in Nolan's Batman universe is possible, but incredibly difficult.

3. Still be fun.
The Dark Knight Rises proves that Nolan's Batman universe is more than capable of being fun despite being set in a very realistic and gritty world. Every Nolan movie had its share of fun moments, like Gordon's admiration of the tumbler in Batman Begins, The Joker's pencil trick in Dark Knight, and all the hilarious character moments between Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne in Rises. I never expected a Nolan Batman movie to hang a lampshade over Batman's knack for a dramatic exit by having him turn to talk to Catwoman only to have her disappear on him. And all he says is "So that's what that feels like..." in a slightly amused tone.
It was a little bit of brevity that didn't take you out of the film, and it was very much appreciated.

4. Focus on characters and theme.
Every Nolan movie was full of deep and memorable characters. Batman Begins gave us an interesting look into Bruce Wayne as a horribly damaged person who is angry due to the loss of his parents. He learns to focus that anger, and fear, and turn it against his enemies. The Dark Knight had The Joker, the epitome of chaos and anarchy, who clashed with Batman's ideology of order and logic. The Joker just wants to see Gotham burn, not because he believes it's the right thing to do, but because it's what he just does. Even at the end of The Dark Knight, Batman tries to rationalize The Joker's plot to blow up the ferries as an attempt to "prove everyone is as ugly as (him)." However, we will never know if this was true or not because The Joker is insane, and insanity needs no logic. The Dark Knight Rises brought us back to Bruce Wayne and his dilemma of a life after Batman and his desire to protect his city, while also bringing in Bane who is the exact opposite of Batman in every way.

For any other Batman movie beyond The Dark Knight, if they go with my proposed route, John Blake's transformation into Batman and exploring his drive to fight crime would be great to focus on. For Superman, it looks like Man of Steel is looking to explore Clark Kent's feelings of being an alien from another world with superpowers, and where he belongs in life. This could be a great change of pace for a character who is really boring, in my opinion. When you're bulletproof and can shoot lasers from your eyes it's hard to really get invested emotionally.

For Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, well, until we see what happens we'll just have to wait and see what they do...

It's going to be interesting to see where the future takes us, I'm just hoping that it doesn't suck like Green Lantern did...

Friday, July 20, 2012

"The Legend Ends" The Dark Knight Rises review

The time has come once again for the last installment of director Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy. Undoubtedly one of the best comic book film series of all time, Nolan and company had a lot to live up to after the ridiculous success of The Dark Knight. So does The Dark Knight Rises fall prey to dreaded threequel-itus? No chance in hell!

The Dark Knight Rises is one of the best films of the year. Everyone in this movie was at the top of their game and it shows when you watch this movie. It is safe to say that this is Christian Bale's best performance as Bruce Wayne, a vast improvement over what we got in The Dark Knight (I always felt like The Joker stole the show). Whether he is in the cowl and cape or not Bale was always great to watch.

That isn't to say the other members of the cast weren't great as well. Michael Caine gives a heartbreaking performance as Bruce's butler Alfred. Marion Cotillard is masterful at playing the multiple sides to her character, Miranda Tate. Gary Oldman gives us a Jim Gordon who is plagued by the guilt surrounding the lie about Harvey Dent's death. Morgan Freeman is always enjoyable as Lucius Fox. However, it's Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy who truly give memorable performances as John Blake and Bane respectively.

Gordon-Levitt continues to become one of my favorite actors and John Black quickly became one of my favorite characters in this film. Obviously his best scenes are with Bale as the two characters' relationship is one forged out of an understanding about the anger that comes with losing a loved one. Blake sees through everyone's BS, including Bruce Wayne's, and is determined to do what is right.

Tom Hardy is down right terrifying as Bane. Every scene he is in he carries a gravitas that only a few movie villains in the past have been able to pull off, including Darth Vader. From the very get-go Bane is a force to be reckoned with. The movie builds up the inevitable first confrontation between Batman and Bane, and when it finally goes down you know Batman doesn't stand a chance. Every scene with Bane beating people up you see the brutality behind every punch. I'd even go so far as to say that Hardy's Bane surpasses The Joker as one of the most terrifying villains in The Dark Knight movies. This is because, while The Joker is a great mental foe for Batman, Bane is both mentally and physically superior to Batman.

Speaking of fights, this movie has a ton of 'em! Each and every one of them more grander than the last. There is one between Bane and Batman which I consider to be one of the best fight scenes in a movie for a very long time. It's clear that Nolan has definitely taken some of the criticism about previous Batman fights to heart. You feel each and every punch, hear Batman struggle to land solid blows on Bane with all of his might, and it is all so epic!

The story is an interesting mix of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. There are tons of aspects found in Begins that is here in Rises. In fact, the only thing that really returns from the previous film is the lie about Harvey Dent. Everything else feels like a much grander version of Begins, and that is perfect for what this movie needed to be. While the film can sometimes jump around rather quickly, leaving some slightly confused, it doesn't detract from the story all too much.

However, of all the Christopher Nolan Batman films this one is notable in not feeling like a Nolan movie. Sure, his touch is visible in every frame of film and the IMAX shots are astoundingly beautiful. However, the story is not what I've come to expect from Nolan. This is slightly a good thing because it gives The Dark Knight Rises a very unique identity like the previous films had.

This movie seems lighter than the others, despite how dark the story is, and that can be attributed to how epic the movie feels. But it's not just that, there are numerous scenes in this film that are genuinely hilarious yet don't stand out as being brevity for brevity's sake. My favorite joke is one between Catwoman and Batman, if you've seen the film you know the one I'm talking about, and it was a great joke.

I wish I could go into more detail but I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone. So I'll move on to another subject: the effects.

This is the most special effects heavy Nolan movie we have seen yet. We have Batman's new vehicle, aptly named The Bat, buildings and bridges being blown up, and of course that football scene. And every single one of them looks great. Not once did I catch myself thinking everything was CG, I was in the moment for the whole movie.

Of course, Nolan likes to keep things practical, and the practical effects in this movie are a spectacle to behold. The prologue with Bane, which everyone has no doubt seen by now, hijacking that plane is something straight out of a Bond movie. The hordes of people battling in the streets of Gotham while Bane and Batman duke it out on the steps of the courthouse. It would have been so easy to go CG for such complicated scenes, yet every single person you see on those streets is real and it conveys the epic scale of this movie like no movie, not even Lord of The Rings, possibly could.

So what did I think of the ending? Was is fitting, was it good, was it bad? Was it Mass Effect 3 all over again?

No, the ending of The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to Nolan's Batman trilogy and you will be pleased, and at some points positively surprised at how this movie ends.

Go and see it, you will not be disappointed.

I give The Dark Knight Rises 4 Batarangs out of 5 for a fitting end to one of the best comic book movie series of all time.

Monday, July 16, 2012

TV Reviews: Breaking Bad "Live Free or Die"

Breaking Bad is probably one of the best television shows to ever grace the small screen. Reaching the heights of shows like Game of Thrones it is truly a captivating show to watch. If you're like me and loved Bryan Cranston in Malcom In The Middle then his transition from TV dad to TV badass was unprecedented. So it's clear to see that I am a huge fan of this series.

And this series' previous season was probably one of the best on television at the time. The proverbial game of chess between Cranston's Walt and his drug kingpin boss Gustavo Fring (played chillingly by Giancarlo Esposito) was full of twists and turns and the stakes were the highest they have ever been on the show. The way that season ended was probably one of the best season finales to date. So how does the season five premiere "Live Free or Die" hold up in the face of that mind blowing season finale?

It holds up rather well in fact. As the episode begins with a flashforward, which has become a staple of the series, of Walt with a full head of hair and a beard now living under a false identity. Immediately everything has become interesting as you wonder just how the hell Walt ends up at that point. However, we must return to the present and see the fallout of Walt's victory over Gus.

The way this plays out is rather fast paced, more so than the show normally is, as Walt, Jesse, and Mike (who managed to survive the events of season four) team up to erase the surveillance footage from the super-lab that Gus had stored on his laptop. The story jumps from Walt realizing this as a loose end to immediately racing out to the desert with Jesse to catch Mike in order to figure out where Gus kept the footage. It is a bit jarring but for the sake of time it is acceptable. Of course, how Walt and Jesse go about erasing the footage was probably the most memorable aspects of this episode.

The main problem facing them is that the DEA has already gotten a hold of Gus' laptop and there is no way to steal it from the evidence room. The resulting argument between Walt and Mike on how to approach this situation, with Jesse trying to tell him his idea about using magnets to erase the hard drive in the background, was my favorite scene in this episode. It is hilarious and shows how far Jesse has come since the first season as he is the one who comes up with the winning idea despite being in the same room with resident genius Walter White. The looks on Walt's and Mike's faces upon hearing Jesse's proposal is priceless. What follows is even more awesome.

To start, if this idea doesn't get its own show on Mythbusters I will be extremely disappointed because this is right up their alley.  So, the guys plan to use a powerful magnet to erase the footage without even stepping inside the building it's being held in. What they do is rig up an old Uhaul van with tons of car batteries and magnetize it. The resulting scenes of them testing it with a laptop and then actually using it are just down right awesome. Of course, not everything goes according to plan  and, like every other episode of Breaking Bad so far, it has unforeseen repercussions that will no doubt come back to haunt the characters.

The B-story of this episode falls to Skylar and her reaction to Walt's "big win" over Gus. I found Skyler was rather irritating in this episode as she became distant, once again, (or as Walt Jr. called it in season three "bitchy"). At this point it seemed like a step back for the character, though it also makes a kind of sense. Walt has definitely changed, and that change is scary. For the rest of the episode he is in full blown Hiesenberg mode as seen with his confidence after the guys' "big heist" and the commanding attitude he had towards Saul. I can understand why Skylar would be scared of Walt, but it just feels too much like it did in season 3, and Skylar has grown since then. And, if anything, she should know by now that everything Walt does, just as she did with Beneke and his tax problems, is for the family.

Speaking of Beneke, he's alive! After that hilarious fall last season I figured we would see the aftermath (had I not been led to believe that he had been killed by the fall mid-hiatus). It was surprising to see him in that hospital bed. Of course, despite what he tells Skylar, you know he won't stay quiet for long!

Needless to say, Breaking Bad is back and the season premiere was ridiculously awesome.

I give "Live Free or Die" four blue crystals out of five for a truly entertaining season premiere.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Netflix Reviews: "Ink"

If there is a must see movie on Netflix, it is Ink. If I had to choose one movie in all the movies on Netflix for you to watch it would be Ink. This is one of those films that transcends being just another movie and is a genuine experience to behold. It is right up there with films like Lo as being one of the most memorable movies I have ever watched. It is original, simple yet complex at the same time, and at its core has an emotional anchor that manages to ground the fantastical elements in this movie and make them matter.

To call Ink one of the best movies I have ever seen is an understatement. To call it a masterpiece is like calling the Mona Lisa a painting. To put it simply: Ink is why I watch movies. Of all the gems on Netflix, Ink is the crown jewels. There isn't enough good things I can write about this film.

Of course, despite this movie being one of the best films I have ever seen, the particulars of how I came across it is rather ironic. Ink was put into my queue with the intention of riffing on what seemed like yet another lackluster science fiction fantasy movie. It didn't help that during my first time watching it I was actually going out of my way to riff on this movie in the most horrendous way possible. Of course, at first glance, Ink doesn't really have much going for it in the looks department.

Most of the special effects in this movie could be easily recreated on my bootlegged copy of After Effects. That isn't to say that the effects in Ink are terrible. On the contrary, they work for what the movie is going for and are actually rather imaginative. It's the simplicity that gives them its charm, even if they do appear cheap they work.

The biggest hurdle to overcome however are the makeup effects in Ink. While they aren't horrendous the titular character Ink has one glaring aspect that is bound to make anyone laugh at first glance. Ink has the largest nose ever created for film that looks like someone tried to recreate Mr. Burns' vulture-esque snout in real life. It was the crux of many jokes I made about this movie on my first viewing. However, as the story progressed and I began to learn about Ink's tortured past, the large nose became a part of the character and showed just how twisted Ink's spirit had become through self-loathing and despair. Once again, it worked because it made sense in the context of the story.

The story, in of itself, is the main reason why I love Ink. It is original yet simple despite its more mind-bendy ideas. The premise revolves around the existence of spiritual beings known as the Storytellers who bring good dreams to people as they slumber and provide them with positive emotions to help them live better lives. The Storytellers aren't alone, however, there is another group called the Incubi who are their polar opposites who spread despair and nightmares with their very presence. The battle between good and evil here is played out while we sleep with the Storytellers standing guard over us.

Into this world arrives Ink, a lost soul who has been twisted by despair and has become a force of evil who desires to become an Incubus in the hope that they can relieve him of his never-ending pain. In order to become one, however, Ink must kidnap the soul of a little girl and bring her to the Incubi. However, the Storytellers are hot on Ink's trail as they try to rescue the girl from his clutches. The only hope the little girl truly has, though, rests on the shoulders of her estranged father whom the Storytellers realize is her only hope to wake up from the nightmare world of the Incubi.

I won't go any further into the plot because I hope to have piqued your interest enough to watch this movie. Needless to say, Ink is a very unique film to behold.

The idea of the Storytellers and Incubi isn't so much as told to us as it is shown. The first scenes in the movie show us the basic rules of the world of the Storytellers and how they work. It is clear enough to visually understand that you really don't need exposition. That doesn't mean that there isn't exposition to help people understand. There is just enough for people to understand how this world works.

There are some aspects in the movie that are kept in the dark until you get much further into the movie. One example is the introduction of Jacob the Pathfinder. Jacob is a very interesting character because he comes off as a sort of Yoda-like character with an infinite amount of wisdom who is wrapped in a layer of crazy. He is effectively blind, shown via the electrical tape covering his eyes, but is able to sense what he calls "the beat of the world" which allows him to navigate and is also the source of his powers. However, all of this is left for the audience to make sense of as time goes on because there is no one in the movie to explain exactly what a Pathfinder is. It can be irritating at times though by the end enough is shown to understand. In the end, you come to like Jacob because he has some of the more interesting lines in the movie and is an integral part of one of the film's more memorable scenes.

However, the most important characters in the movie are Ink, the little girl Emma, and her father John. All three of which are skillfully portrayed. Then there is Leiv, a Storyteller who comes to Emma's aid and tries to understand Ink's motivations and dissuade him from delivering Emma to the Incubi. Their journey is the emotional heart of this film and the primary reason why it manages to be so successful.

Follow this up with some really well shot fight scenes that carry weight and drama behind them and you've got a movie that manages to stand up next to great science-fiction/fantasy films like Inception. While it may not have the same budget and spectacle like a film like Inception it has what matters: heart and emotion.

This is the only movie that has ever made me cry, and that is something to say after I watched Wall-E without shedding a single tear. I'm the kind of person who doesn't cry at the end of Old Yeller because it just seemed like the logical next step after a dog gets rabies. When I watch Titanic I'm angry, not sad, when Leo Dicaprio freezes to death because he didn't have the common sense to find his own piece of floating debris to sit on. So understand that when I say that Ink managed to make tears stream down my face and pull the cobwebby strings on my heart that that's saying something.

That is why I think Ink is one of the best films I have ever seen and that is why I recommend, no I demand that you put it in your instant queue.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Netflix Reviews: "The Stuff"

Yet another interesting gem you can find on Netflix. The Stuff is a fun sort of "invasion" movie that borrows numerous ideas from other films like Invasion of The Body Snatchers, Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, and numerous others and mixes them together into a rather satisfying treat. This is a film that reminded me of the days I used to read R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books when I was in elementary school. It has a light heart for such a grim story, much like most of Stine's books, and reminds me a lot of the slime saga of books in the series. If you enjoy horror movies with an extra serving of campy goodness The Stuff is right up your alley.

While the poster may fool you into thinking this is a straight up horror movie it is much more than that. It is a goofy take on the story of Invasion of The Body Snatchers replacing invading aliens with the titular Stuff. There are numerous instances in the movie that are more camp that horror. Such as the inclusion of numerous hilarious advertisements for The Stuff as its popularity grows. However, it is Garrett Morris' "Chocolate Chip Charlie" who practically steals the show with his over-the-top performance which you can't help but love.

The premise is fairly straightforward with numerous sub-plots that come together as the movie progresses. To begin, a group of men discover a strange substance seeping from the ground that they discover is unbelievably delicious. Naturally, they start to sell the substance, which they simply call "The Stuff," and it becomes a national phenomenon. However, not everything about The Stuff is great, as our protagonists soon learn as it begins to gradually take people over.

The protagonists include David, an industrial spy sent to discover the secret behind The Stuff; Jason, a young boy who hates The Stuff for a very good reason; and the small band of people who help them reveal the truth about The Stuff to the world. However, the most memorable character in the movie, I found, was Chocolate Chip Charlie a junk food mogul who is so hilarious and over-the-top he's up there with some of the more memorable loony characters in film and television like Jack Sparrow and Cosmo Kramer.

The horror elements here, while being very 80's, are still fun to watch. The Stuff is a film where the more ridiculous the effects are the better they are. There are numerous effects shots that, while being horrendous, you can't help but enjoy for their clever implementation. There are some better effects in the movie, but not many, and I can't go into them for the sake of spoiling the movie. Needless to say, though, it's fun to see squibs explode that have been loaded with white yogurt instead of blood for a change.

However, it's not all horror and camp here. The Stuff actually manages to examine our culture's obsession with junk food and the ramifications of popularizing substances that, while tasty, aren't exactly good for you. While it doesn't take a genius to really see the subtext it still provides an interesting subject to ponder on as you munch on your bag of Doritos.

While The Stuff may not be appetizing to everyone, it is definitely a treat to watch.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

"Do Whatever A Spider Can" - The Amazing Spider-Man (Video Game) Review

When it comes to movies and video games, there are two super hero franchises that stand above the rest. One is Batman, who has seen a remarkable comeback thanks to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and has changed how superhero games are made with the Rocksteady games Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. The other is Spider-Man who pretty much launched the long standing domination superhero films have over the box office thanks to Sam Raimi's films and is by far one of the most fun characters to play in a video game. Spider-Man 2, the movie tie in for Raimi's sequel, defined superhero games with an open world for players to swing in as the titular webhead. Every review you see for a Spider-Man game is almost guaranteed to mention the impact Spider-Man 2 had on Spider-Man games and other superhero games in general.

Since then, Activision, who has produced every Spider-Man game since the classic Playstation games in the late 90's, has continued to expand on that and make the next Spider-Man game even more innovative. This has had mixed results as most games just continued to use the Spider-Man 2 formula and just added their own plot to change things up (which isn't a bad thing, I have yet to run into a terrible Spider-Man game). However, every Spider-Man game has, at least, been entertaining to play.

If anything, it was Spider-Man: Web Of Shadows, that really perfected the structure of what a Spider-Man game should be like. It had everything, the sandbox city to swing in, numerous crimes to stop, and added a new combat system which utilized Spidey's powers and abilities to create a unique experience. You didn't just fight on the ground, you fought in the air and on walls and it was great and each style was unique in their own way. The best part about Web of Shadows was the introduction of the web-strike attack where Spidey could zip from enemy to enemy with his webs. It felt like how Spidey would really fight and it was satisfying to attack a string of unknowing bad guys in succession. If anything, Web of Shadows is by far the best Spider-Man game.

Then Beenox took over as the studio who developed Spider-Man Games. The result was Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time. While I, sadly, haven't played these games myself the reactions to these games were rather lukewarm. Unlike their predecessors these games didn't have you swinging through the city at your leisure, which was enough to put off many fans right then and there. So when the new Spider-Man movie was put into production Beenox was tasked with making the movie tie-in game and with it everyone was wondering if swinging would make a return. Thankfully it did.

 If anyone recalls my review of the film this game is based on some may expect this review to be a repeat of the same comments I made in that review. However, this isn't the case. In fact, The Amazing Spider-Man game is probably one of the few instances where the game is better than the movie it's based on. Story wise it is far more coherent and structured, though does suffer from some random occurrences but it doesn't detract from the story all that much, and manages to actually build a more interesting world than the movie did.

 Set after the events of the movie (which managed to spoil anyone who played it since it came out before the movie) we have Spider-Man faced with the aftermath of The Lizard's rampage through New York. There's a new CEO at Oscorp, Alistair Smythe, who is a leading researcher in robotics and nanotechnology. Smythe intends on removing all of Dr. Connor's research into cross-species genetics though it looks like Oscorp did some experimenting of their own with Connors' notes as there are more cross-species creatures including versions of Rhino and The Scorpion. Naturally, like with any evil corporation which takes pride in playing with genetics like a 10 year-old with photoshop, the beasties escape and Spider-Man has to deal with the resulting viral outbreak.

The game is pretty much a straightforward Spidey game from there on out. However, Beenox has managed to make the old gameplay mechanics seem new and fun. Taking some inspiration from Batman: Arkham City, this Spider-Man game features a similar camera set-up (with the camera tight behind Spidey's shoulder) and a similar combat mechanic. While some would say this game is merely knocking off what made Arkham City successful, I'd say this combat mechanic fits perfectly within the world of Spider-Man. In fact, combat is fairly entertaining as Spidey punches, kicks, and jumps around numerous enemies while dodging incoming attacks thanks to his spider-sense. If, anything, I'd say Arkham City's combat system seems to have been meant for a Spider-Man game in the first place.

Swinging through the city is back once again and the new camera set-up provides an exhilarating rush as you swing through the city. Though the mechanic has been tweaked somewhat, as in you're not truly bound to any of the buildings you swing on, this is meant to allow you to swing in a more visually satisfying manner and it pays off. Web-swinging has never been more fun.

Sadly, some elements from previous games haven't made their way into this one like wall crawling combat (though you never really have anyone to fight on the walls), but have now been replaced by another Arkham City inspired stealth system. Again, I personally feel that these gameplay aspects really fit perfectly into a Spider-Man game and don't see any problem in this (that's why I say "inspired" instead of "ripped-off"). In fact, it's actually more entertaining to see Spidey take out a mook with stealth tactics because he does so with that traditional Spider-Man wit. He will web down from the ceiling and playfully tap bad guys on the head with his foot before encasing them in a web cocoon and hauling up into the ceiling, and I laugh every time he does it.

However, Beenox has introduced a new mechanic that actually makes the game even more fun. It's called "web-rush." Web-rush takes you into a first person perspective, time slows to a crawl and you are free to scan the area for possible places for Spidey to zip to, collectibles such as comic books, and even enemies. It provides you with a new form of travel through New York that is even more visually pleasing than simple web-swinging. Web-rush also integrates Web of Shadows' web-strike attack system which is a relief because I loved that about WoS. 

While some will point out the similarities between this game and Arkham City, that shouldn't be a negative thing. After all, Arkham City was a brilliant game (one of the best superhero games I've ever played in fact) so having a Spider-Man game that is similar to it is actually a plus, in my opinion. Needless to say, it didn't disappoint me as much as it's film counterpart did.

I give The Amazing Spider-Man (The Video Game) 4 flying comic book pages out of 5. 

"Tangled In A Web" - The Amazing Spider-Man review

Spider-Man is one of the most pivotal cultural icons of the modern world. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't know who Spider-Man is. He's all over comic books, films, television shows, cereal boxes, music, and anything else imaginable. To say Spider-Man is one of the most important superheroes in history is an understatement.

It's safe to say that without Spider-Man we wouldn't have groundbreaking blockbusters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight. It was Sam Raimi's Spider-Man that began the reign of super-hero movies at the box office. Raimi's Spider-Man movies (sans the third one) are probably some of the best examples of superhero films. So, when Columbia Pictures decided to reboot the Spider-Man franchise there was no doubt that what would be produced had big shoes to fill, so to speak.

To reboot the Spider-Man movies, especially after the big successes of the previous films, was a tall (and ballsy) order. In a perfect world (one where I am supreme ruler of the universe), when faced with having to reboot Spider-Man, I wouldn't have redone the origin story. The reasoning behind this is the fact that EVERYBODY knows the origins of Spider-Man. Thus, there is no reason to return to the very beginning.

However, I was willing to give The Amazing Spider-Man the benefit of the doubt because they teased us with hints about the so called "secret" behind the origins of Spider-Man.  It offered something new besides the usual "power and responsibility" origins everyone is familiar with. Trailers hinted at the possibility that Peter Parker's parents, who left him with his aunt and uncle when he was young, were somehow linked to Peter becoming Spider-Man. However, trailers lie, and while there is plenty in The Amazing Spider-Man that does hint at an underlying connection between Peter's parents and how he became Spider-Man nothing truly comes of it. Which is something that truly disappoints me.

Instead, what is presented is pretty much what you saw with Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, just without the oodles of trademark Raimi cheese and more polished effects. While I still have my hangups about how this reboot seems to have popped up too soon after the last Spider-Man movie, having watched the first two movies recently I can admit that they have definitely aged with time, and not in a good way. However, while The Amazing Spider-Man is definitely much more serious in tone it is more erratic in story telling than its predecessors. It may be much less campy and more "dark and gritty" but it still feels as carefree and light hearted as the first Spider-Man. The fact of the matter is that The Amazing Spider-Man is just that: a remake of the first Spider-Man movie, with different aspects built upon a painfully similar story.

That isn't to say this is a terrible movie, not by a long shot. There is a lot to like about this new Spider-Man such as the performances in the film. Andrew Garfield, the new Peter Parker, is fantastic and manages to convey not just the angsty teen side of Parker but the brilliant scientist, and the snarky superhero. I'd even go so far as to say he is better than Tobey Maguire. Emma Stone is adorable as Peter's first love Gwen Stacy. Her best scenes are with Garfield as the two really pull off the cutesy teen romance really well. You also have Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben who I think could've been utilized much better in this film (I just like the fact I could make Illusive Man jokes in the theater). Denis Leary stars as Captain Stacy, Gwen's father, and almost steals the show. He's got some of the best lines in the movie and kicks some major ass. Then you have Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curtis Connors/The Lizard. If anything Ifans does manage to pull off the mad scientist role, however, I never really felt sympathetic to the character which really is a let down because that sympathy is what made The Lizard an interesting character in the comics. Really, Ifans never managed to make me feel sorry for Connors.

Another positive aspect of this film is the fact that it does bring forth plenty of new and interesting ideas, however, these ideas don't coalesce well enough to fit into a streamlined story. How they characterized Peter's transformation and how he changed as spider DNA intermingled with his was rather interesting. Him catching a fly and licking his lips like he was about to eat it was interesting. Indeed, Garfield's portrayal does have a lot of spider-like mannerisms in it. It definitely would have been an interesting take on the character had it been explored more. It would make sense for some of the instincts, not just the abilities, to cross over into Peter.

Another positive aspect of this film is that there are some truly creative scenes. My favorite being a scene where Spider-Man is searching for The Lizard in the sewers. He sets up a network of webs throughout the tunnels and then sits and waits until he gets a vibration from one of them, just like a real spider catching its prey. It was also great to have Spidey reclining back on his web to play a game on his phone while he waited because, if spiders could, they'd pass the time doing the same thing.

However, for every fun and interesting idea this film has there are also very questionable ones. While I enjoyed Garfield's portrayal of Parker I didn't like how this film turned him into more of a punkish skater. While it makes sense that he shouldn't necessarily be a stereotypical nerd, as he was depicted initially in the comics, because in real life nerds come in all shapes and sizes like everything else. It just didn't feel right to have him skating around. While it's merely a nit-picky part on my end there are also more troubling decisions made in this film. The largest one being how Uncle Ben's death is executed in this film.

 To be clear here, Uncle Ben's death is the most pivotal moment in the Spider-Man lore. It is what made Peter Parker realize that with great power comes great responsibility and what drove him to become Spider-Man. This is something that is, regardless of how many retconns and deals with the devil Spidey makes, that remains a solid fact. However, in The Amazing Spider-Man, Uncle Ben's death is pretty much pointless here. Sure, it plays out fairly similarly here. Peter lets a criminal go despite having super powers and it results in the criminal killing Uncle Ben. However, this film drags out a portion of this story, the part where Peter goes on a path of revenge to find his uncle's killer, and it results in a string of vigilante attacks as Spidey tries to hunt the guy down. That's all he does for the first half of the movie as Spider-Man he tries to catch the guy responsible. He doesn't even decide to do some actual super-heroing until he saves a child from a burning car. And with that, the main crux of the Spider-Man lore is rent asunder. Because Uncle Ben's death doesn't teach Peter to become Spider-Man, a man who uses his power responsibly, some kid in a burning car does.

I know it may sound like I'm just nerd raging here, and I'll even admit that it may be the case, however this was a story told so many times that people who know about Spider-Man just in passing know about the importance of Uncle Ben and his death. So, I ask you, how is it you can screw up something literally EVERYBODY knows about? I'd love to know, because the writers of this film obviously managed to do so.

The films also likes to jump from set-piece to set-piece without little or not background or establishment in place. People were doing things in places and I didn't know why they were doing what they were doing or where they were doing it. The Lizard spontaneously attacks a street during the movie even though everything had been pointing out the fact that he was actually supposed to be heading to a destination. Why did he make a pit stop to gas a city block? Then, after being told that The Lizard has launched a biological attack on New York, Captain Stacey doesn't reassess his pursuit of Spider-Man--whose crimes so far have been vigilantism, resisting arrest, and making the sides of buildings sticky--and divert his forces to stop the Lizard. Instead, he continues hunting down Spider-Man. Why? Because having a scene where Stacey pulls Peter's mask off in front of a bunch of cops would be awesome and dramatic  Sure, it looked cool, but in the end it was just an empty action set-piece. That's why I call this movie an incoherent mess. It had a ton of cool ideas for scenes but didn't seem to have a story to stitch those ideas together.

Now, I may be making this movie look like crap but I assure you it isn't. It's just not a great movie. Maybe I expected too much from this movie, but damn it I did expect more than what I got. However, that doesn't make it a crappy movie (like the movie(s) that were shown in the trailers preceding it...*cough*). I wasn't mad or angry when I left the theater. I was disappointed, because I expected more than what I got from it. It's, at face value, a solid super-hero flick. Most will enjoy it, I will just shrug at it.

Do I recommend you see it? Sure, you can. Though if you're a die hard fan of Spidey or are interested in seeing the so called "secret origins" of Spider-Man, you will be disappointed.

I give, The Amazing Spider-Man, 3 webshooters out of 5.