Batman, Iron Man, and other Superhero Films

I’ve recently been watching a few superhero films, including the new Iron Man 2 (more on which later).

I’m not even going to pretend that this is a ‘review’; it’ more of a rant or ramble, with reviewish elements. I never really have that much to say about visual media. But anyway, it may be of interest to some. So, here is a list of 12 superhero films, from best to worst, in my opinion (and bearing in mind that I’ve seen some of these in the last week, and others not for a year or more):

Batman Returns

Batman (1989)

Return to the Batcave: the Misadventures of Adam and Burt (Ok, technically this is a ‘superhero film film’, but I felt like mentioning it anyway)

Batman Begins

X-Men

Iron Man 2

Spiderman 2

Batman (1966)

The Dark Knight

Spiderman

X-Men 2

Iron Man

X-Men 3

Clearly, I haven’t seen too many superhero films – in particular, I’ve avoided most of the really terrible ones. However, a few things on this ranking may be controversial:

Batman vs Batman Returns

I admit that could go either way. I accept that Returns is a more mangled film, lacking the strong, clear structure of the original, and lacking the commanding presence of the Joker – moving on to other villains seems a bit of an anticlimax after that. However, in my view the second film is better, on account of the brilliant performances of DeVito and Pfeiffer, who, unlike Nicholson in the first film, are actually given compelling roles to play (Walken is good as well, but his character seems perpetually on the sidelines, never really made use of properly). Pfeiffer, in particular, offers a far more interesting and ambiguous potential love interest than the forgettable female lead of the original. That said, I’d have to watch them both again to be sure.

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X-Men vs X-Men 2

The second film is maybe a little more exciting, but too much of it feels like an excuse – it’s as though the scriptwriters said ‘how can we twist the plot to get as many thrills out of this film as possible?’ rather than ‘how can we make this plot as exciting as possible?’. The result is a film that is polished and passable, but that at times feels shallow, directionless, and even manipulative, not to mention even more emotionally and politically heavy-handed than its already-unsubtle predecessor.

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Iron Man: Why so low?

Why DON’T others rank it so low? I struggled to see what was good about this film. It’s not appalling – it belongs on a different list from X3 – but there’s so little good to say about it. There is, without exaggeration, a glaring plot hole every 47 seconds, and a cliché every 64. There are some pretty explosions, but I’ve seen a lot of those by now, in a lot of films. There are some fight scenes, but the total invulnerability of the character saps all tension out of them – the only place he can get hurt in is the final confrontation, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen (three other gripes about the ending: how dull is it to have the villain have the same gimmick as the hero; the villain’s lines in the boss scenes are taken directly from computer game bosses, down to the last ‘grrrrrarrrrgh’; and IT MAKES NO SENSE). Often it feels like such wish-fulfilment, and such violent wish-fulfilment, that I felt embarrassed to be watching it. It felt masturbatory. The comedy elements were funny, but were overdone and damaged the emotional integrity of the film (such as it was), and grew predictable and tired by the end. The treatment of Pepper Potts was pathetic, verging on the misogynist – I felt angry for her and I’m not even a woman (she’s introduced as a strong, capable, independent woman, but it seems all she does is tie shoelaces or the equivalent, and at the slightest quiver of danger she becomes a quailing, idiotic damsel waiting for a hero – while at the slightest smile on the dashing hero’s face she becomes an idiotic, lost-for-words simpering bimbo. I will never understand why Hollywood insists on its women being either frightening harridans or else, not to put too fine a point on it, helpless little children with pretty breasts and nice legs). The one redeeming feature of the film was the outstanding performance of Robert Downey Jr, who made the weakest jokes smile-inducing and was constantly charismatic. I think it’s that performance that swept so many people off their feet and stopped them noticing the film’s many, many flaws.

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Batman Begins vs Batman

Batman Begins is a good film; but it’s nothing special. The balance of the film is not quite right – the monk-training takes too long, as well as being ridiculous. The tone of the film is troubled – the Gotham elements are suitably dark and brooding, but the monk business is a bit too silly to fit in. However, there are often silly elements to origin stories, and I accepted that, hoping for a darker follow-up. The villainry is surprisingly impressive – Cillian Murphy projects a presence greater than his physicality would suggest possible, while Neeson brings solidity to what could otherwise be a laughable role. The two big flaws in the film are the plot, which lacks any integrity or forward motion, and Christian Bale. Bale is not a bad actor, but he is miscast; he lacks the flamboyance and confidence to convince as a billionaire playboy, but he is too normal, too pleasant, to convince as the caped crusader. He stands in sharp contrast to Michael Keaton in the Burton films – Keaton may not be as good an actor, and he often seems wooden – but in these films, that’s the point. Keaton’s easy smile and emotionless eyes give a persuading, realistic view of the sort of man Batman would be: bluntly, he’s an unhinged psychopath, who is only on the ‘good’ side because his personal demons happen to push him in the right direction. Nolan’s film also lacks the panache of Burton’s gothic noir fantasies.

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The Dark Knight: not that good

Everything that is wrong with Batman Begins is MORE wrong with The Dark Knight. Bale is more out of place: the hyper-angsty billionaire-next-door everyman can get away with being a man who is beginning to be Batman, but a “Dark Knight” he isn’t. The tone of the film is even more muddled – it is more outrageous, more fantastical, more manipulatively blockbustery than the Burton versions, but the popcorn adventure is wrapped in the guise of a realistic, dark, brooding, gritty film noir. Bollocks. Burton’s excesses worked better, because when the entire film is a fantasy, fantastic elements do not cause damage. Nolan’s version pretends to be something different – but there is nothing sophisticated or challenging about this film. The plot is more full of holes than the plot of Iron Man, and there is not a single thing that happens that is remotely surprising – I called most of the ‘twists’ about five minutes in advance, and from the moment I watched the done-ten-times-before-totally-predictable-not-entirely-thought-through opening bank robbery, I knew it wasn’t going to be a great evening. Morgan Freeman is criminally wasted, pottering about with little plot use and no actual acting required, and Oldman isn’t treated much better (while the pointless cameo from Murphy is just frustrating). The film’s redeeming features are the performances put in by Ledger and Eckhart, both of whom are fantastic – and strangely, I didn’t agree with some that the end was an anticlimax, or that the two plots didn’t mesh, although it was a waste of Eckhart’s character.

But even Ledger wasn’t really that good. Oh, he was good, certainly, fantastic – but not THAT fantastic. On a par with Murphy in the first film, I think, except that he gets a lot more time to himself to show off. Eckhart is better, and Nicholson, Pfeiffer and DeVito were all better the first time around. The problem is, Ledger is given almost nothing to do the entire time – you could take his performance from any one scene and put it in any other scene and it would not be amiss. There is no subtlety, or variety, or even plain believability to his role, leaving him hamming the same note again and again throughout the film. It’s a powerful note of menace, almost an avatar of chaos, and in a better-plotted, more dramatic film he could have been terrifying – but he’s not given the chance to show what he can do. What he can do in this film is not as much as Nicholson could do in his time in the role – Nicholson isn’t an avatar of anything, but he’s a convincing maniac. I do believe that the concept of the Joker is better in the Nolan film – upgraded from random terrorist to existential threat (albeit with a very unconvincing entrance from nowhere), making him more thematically important in the Batman universe – but I don’t agree that the performance is better. I think a lot of the performance people now rave about came only after they heard that he had died. Take away the myth of the tragic death, and we’re left with an affecting but ultimately shallow and uninteresting villainy; take away Ledger’s performance altogether, and we’re left with a total mess of a film enlivened now and then by Eckhart; take Eckhart away as well, and the whole thing would be downright awful.

This is why it is a worse film not only than Burton’s Batman, but even than the ’66 Batman – a camp, ridiculous autoparody, true, but endearing, cultic, funny and just plain enjoyable, though perhaps a bit predictable. Better to ADMIT to being light entertainment tosh.

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Iron Man 2: why so high?

Iron Man 2 is utter, total, complete, irredeemable nonsense. In that respect, it’s worse than any of the other films listed. The plot is nonsense – it’s inconsistent, incoherent, rambling, and horribly cliché. Certain elements are just agonising. Much of the film is best viewed as a hilariously awful sci-fi B-movie. This is its redeeming feature. It makes so little pretence to be good cinema – so little attempt at seriousness, at character development, at any vague semblance of sanity – that it’s impossible to pick away at all the little things that are wrong with it. It’s not a film, in the traditional sense – it has no story. What it is is a succession of loud, shiny, ridiculously over-the-top spectacles. And no, that’s not a way of saying that it’s a series of explosions and fight scenes – those were the boring bits. It’s a series of bravura performances in which Robert Downey Jr and Sam Rockwell try to outcompete one another in charisma, bravado and sheer acting genius. In the background, there are compellingly charismatic performances from Mickey Rourke (underused), Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson and Garry Shandling, while Gwyneth Paltrow is given far more to do than before, although she remains essentially pointless and incompetent (not, sadly, in an explicitly incompetent way, but in an ‘I’m a competent woman, but I’m just a woman, so I can’t cope, and should just let you deal with it because you’re a man and I know my place’ way). Rockwell is PERFECT as the anti-Tony Stark – a rival weapons developer who tries to be just as flamboyant and charismatic, but without the charisma or competence, and who as a result is unnervingly neurotic throughout (with more than a hint of a real-life Austin Powers to his demeanour, and glasses). Highlight: Rockwell’s weapons expo, with ranks of robots rising from the floor to the sound of ‘The Halls of Montezuma’, which feels halfway between a rock concert and a faith-healer sermon. When the film moves away from spectacle to anything resembling story or plot, it suffers badly, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t set itself up as a serious film (or, if it does, it does so so terrifically badly that it can be ignored), so it should enjoyed for what it is: a couple of hours of not-very-exciting, not-very-moving, really-quite-fun masterclass in scene-stealing. [And it has a fantastic double-pendulum toy, too, which steals its own scene]. Critics have said that this is nothing like The Dark Knight, and that’s exactly why it’s good: it’s not popcorn light entertainment packaged as something heavy and meaningful and dramatic, it’s just plain popcorn light entertainment. [I do worry that it won’t be as good on a TV, though – the sheer immensity of some parts is part of the fun] The original Iron Man shackled its flamboyance with the pretense of good filmmaking; if you go to Iron Man 2 expecting a good film, you’ll be appalled (as it seems many critics were), but as sermon on excess, it’s unexpectedly memorable.

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