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2 Stars Movies

Batman: Year One copies the comics but doesn’t capture what made the them classics

The film buffs at Criterion Cast recently took a break from their usual discussion of the likes of Ozu, Godard, and Cox for in their year-end podcast review of the 2012 year in movies. Rather surprisingly to me, they talked up Batman: Year One and Dredd as two underrated 2012 releases. I had been happily ignoring both, but checked them out on Netflix and was soundly disappointed by both.

I used to be a big comics fan, but haven’t followed them in years. It seems both Marvel and DC Comics have since started animation factories cranking out adaptations of some of their more famous stories.

I’m sorry to say that Batman: Year One is inferior in every way to the original comics from the 1980s (which I believe I still have copies of somewhere). It takes a number of liberties from the source material, about which I’m ambivalent. Movies are movies, and comics are comics, and any adaptation from one to the other ought to make as many changes as the artists/writers/filmmakers/whatever wish. But a necessary question that immediately follows is: what was it about the source material that made it worthwhile in the first place, and how can it be preserved? Or at least translated or transformed to be equally exciting in another medium?

The Batman: Year One movie failed to capture much about the comics that has made them classics. At one point in the movie, a character tosses a photograph onto a table, rendered in David Mazzucchelli’s art style from the original comics. Intended as an homage, it merely emphasizes the unimaginative and bland animation style.

Without the timelessly stylized artwork, all you have left is Frank Miller’s hardboiled writing and plotting, which looks a little thin in the cold light of day.

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3 Stars Movies

A god walks among us in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns

It’s probably my own fault for buying into the hype, but Superman Returns left me cold. There’s not a lot of drama implicit in the story of an omnipotent alien from another planet, and I just can’t buy the “god walks among us” metaphors. Spider-Man is a real, troubled human being burdened with great responsibility; Batman is a human being wracked with guilt and obsessed with revenge; Daredevil is a literally broken man overcompensating for far more than just his disability. With Superman, it’s just plain hard to relate to an alien, even if he suffers such petty human problems as unrequited love.

An obvious point of conflict is conspicuously absent: instead of any jealousy or anger from Richard White (James “Cyclops” Marsden), he simply acquieses to his romantic rival. It’s more like Superman to be above & beyond mere mortal jealousy; what makes White so noble? Perhaps he’s intimidated by Superman’s sheer potency. Just as the character is defined by nepotism (he’s the Daily Planet’s editor-in-chief’s son), Marsden is Bryan Singer’s X-Man star who was conspicuously erased very early in Brett Ratner’s X3. Hmm…

Another disappointment: whereas Spider-Man 2 exuded a strong sense of New York, Superman Return’s fictional Metropolis is a blank, generic city without character. It’s a timeless locale – the present, yet nostalgic – where when a superhero returns from across the galaxy to save them, the citizens all run out and buy newspapers.

As for the cast, Parker Posey wins for best screen presence. While Kevin Spacey gurns, hams, and scenery-chomps, she scores laughs with mere looks on her face. There was a lot of concern over the casting of a relatively inexperienced former soap star for the lead, but I thought Brandon Routh was just fine. Kate Bosworth (made up to look like Rachel McAdams), however, is was too young to be plausible as a star journalist with a five-year-old kid, and to be at all appealing to (yes I have to say it again) an omnipotent alien from another planet. Points detracted for dull, overhyped outtakes of Marlon Brando’s mumbled improv bullshit, and shafting screen legend Eva Marie Saint with about 5 minutes of screen time.

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3 Stars Movies

Fascism by Common Consent in James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta

For all the negative buzz regarding V for Vendetta writer Alan Moore’s total disavowal of James McTeigue’s adaptation, I was surprised to find that the film kept far closer to the book than I expected. Closer, in fact, than the two other travesties of Moore’s comics, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s better than both, if by itself still not very good.

It’s impossible for me to imagine how I would have reacted had I not read the book several times, but I suspect I would have had very mixed feelings either way. When it comes to movies based on comics, it’s the prerogative of every fan to obsess over “what they changed.” So let me point out a few changes I feel illustrate how the filmmakers either misunderstood or deliberately warped some key themes that make the book what it is.

Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta
“The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous.”

First, the dystopian state of Great Britain as seen in the film is in a far less desperate state than in the book. The book opens with Evey at the absolute end of hope, her parents dead and herself alone, blacklisted and unable to survive. She makes a misguided and pathetic attempt to prostitute herself, runs afoul of the corrupt police, and is “saved” (in more ways than one) by V. Her susceptibility to V’s seduction is much more plausible if she herself is already a victim of the state. In the film, as played by Natalie Portman, she’s a rather happy person with a regular job, and her encounter with V is motivated by a redundant invented character called Deitrich. Every theme Deitrich represents is already covered by the character Valerie (which is, incidentally, lifted almost unaltered from the book).

But perhaps the biggest deviation is the very nature of the fascist state Great Britain has become. In the book, it’s something that just happens; a form of order that arises out of the chaos following a nuclear world war. In the film, the great societal disruption is a conspiracy machinated by a cabal of shadowy old white men, who then step in and profit from the reconstruction. Of course, the filmmakers are obviously reaching for an analogy to the Bush Administration, Carlyle Group, Halliburton, etc. While that may make the story of the film relevant to today, it obscures a more powerful point of the book: it’s far more scary when fascism arises out of the common consent of the people, as it did with Nazi Germany.

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