Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Batman Movie, or, Why I Expect More from Summer Movies Now

Summer is the time for the big dumb US of A blockbusters. I know this and so I try not to get too excited about the movies released from late May to late August, as they are inevitably fair to middling with the occasional pretty good moment bubbling up from the CGI muck. Don’t get me wrong: I like a good explosion just like the next guy, assuming the next guy isn’t a fat, drooling, moron whose knowledge of cinema doesn’t extend beyond the superhero/rough cop who plays by his own rules/Angelina Jolie T&A movie. So while I spend the humid Chicago months chocking down crap in the name of 90 plus minutes of escape, I am not one to trip over myself running to praise some mediocre and all-too expensive “film.” Intellectually, we often want prime rib though we occasionally crave White Castles. White Castles, while tasty if you’re in the mood, is not anything to celebrate. It’s fast, quick, thoughtless junk with only transitory appeal. And, as anyone who ever ate there knows, it doesn’t stay with you for very long.

I saw the Batman movie. I loved it. I was six once and I loved all things Batman, including the Adam West TV show. I still have my Batman squirt gun and plastic Batmobile from when I was a wee lad. Though this makes me somewhat predisposed to liking the Batman movies, I never went beyond the second Tim Burton film, as that one sucked and I could only guess the subsequent exercises in campy homoeroticism were not going to be much better. I did look forward to Christopher Nolan’s rebooting of the franchise back in ’05 and was very pleased with the results possibly because no one expected too much from a Batman movie at that point. I thought the way he utilized Scarecrow was fucking refreshing and I loved the origin story—which is usually the most annoying part of a superhero movie.

This being the case, I was excited enough about the new Batman film, though the months (a year, actually) of hype was getting on my nerves in ways I had not imaged possible. My roommate is a geek and loves to spend hours online reading about movies that are barely in the can. He had watched all the Comcast previews and short bonus features (available before the film was released much less pressed to DVD) and collected enough copies of Wizard with Christian Bale or Heath Ledger on the cover to insulate stately Wayne manner. It wasn’t easy, but I did my best to avoid all the hype these last few months, as no film can survive such anticipation.

I saw the movie and I loved it. There’s enough quasi-philosophy and sociopolitical musings to make me happy. It rises above the average blockbusting empty-headed video game with actors that one is likely to see on every other screen of their local cineplex. It has the violence (and then some), the chases, the gadgets, the explosions, and it has the love triangle, the unstoppable evil, the shaky alliances, and all of the other traditional storytelling devices, but it also reaches past what I’ve been conditioned to expect having endured the utter failure that is the latest Indiana Jones movie and the thoughtless and fun Iron Man. There’s a moral center to the movie, one I want to believe in, and though it is easy to expect the jaded when you’re watching a film set in the most negative of urban dystopias (or if you, like me, witnessed a random ass-kicking shortly before entering the theater) it is nice to consider the inherent good in what Mark Twain called the damn human race. But the bad guy in the movie muddles that up, and while some folks wish to focus on the moral positives in the movie, making a case for the inherent good in all of us, others see the Joker as a sign of man’s ongoing potential to do evil. J. R. Jones of The Reader summed it up by suggesting that Batman sees the polar extremes of good and bad while the Joker understands the gray area better than anyone else. I was awed by one pivotal moment of the movie that struck a blow for the positive, but I can’t shake off the truth that, in the film’s conclusion (without giving much away, those 3 of you in the country who haven’t seen it), the characters bury. It’s a messy little world we live in, and it’s all up there on the screen like a big effects heavy version of Dostoevsky with capped vigilantes and carnival super-villains.
Compared to the rest of the noise being sold as cinema this summer, The Dark Knight soars far above. Hellboy II is a rocking good time, and a love story to boot, but its big kicks come from the Pan’s Labyrinth effects and likeability of the cartoonish hero. Iron Man, while entertaining and featuring stellar acting from my favorite recovering junkie, does very little of what the Batman movie does in regard to way it deals with current political climates. And, as I said already, the Indiana Jones thing was just shit. I would have given up on the summer movies altogether were it not for The Dark Knight. I don’t know that this is a good thing, really. I was all ready to just turn off the brain and enjoy the shot-‘em-ups (except for Wanted—I refuse to see a movie where someone stops a bullet with another bullet). Now I will expect more. And I’ll probably be disappointed.