Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Thoughts on: Batman, Super Heroes, Special Effects

I thought about writing up some kind of response to Sean Collins's short, anti-Batman Begins, pro-Tim Burton Batman comment from his recent Carnival of Souls post, but I realized I had already said most of what I have to say about that here. At one point I know that I had meant to mount a more detailed defense of Batman Begins against the specific criticisms Sean had raised in his original post on the movie, but I now figure I'll save any extended writing on that subject for when the sequel comes out.

I will add now that I think the Burton Batman suffers from the same problem as Byran Singer's Superman Returns: a script whose cleverness undermines something integral to the central character. In the case of Batman, making the Joker the killer of Bruce Wayne's parents creates nice narrative symmetry but it reduces Batman's crusade into a conventional revenge story and neatens everything up. The sense that Batman can never truly avenge his parents' death by fighting crime is completely lost because he actually gets to avenge his parents' death. Likewise, the big reveal in Superman Returns undermines any poignancy that the character has for being someone trapped between two worlds, two lives that are not reconcilable.


Seeing Sean describe the Burton Batman as his favorite super-hero movie got me thinking about my own favorites: Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man movies, the first three Superman movies (yes - even III), the three X-Men movies (yes - even The Last Stand), Ang Lee's The Hulk, Batman Returns, and Batman Begins. And Batman and Superman Returns, because, despite my problems with their scripts, they have something most of the other movies (except for The Hulk, where the script also has some "cleverness" problems) on this list lack: a sense of visual poetry and design that characterizes the best super hero comics. For the most part, super-hero movies have only achieved this sporadically (some of the moments in Superman II and III and the first two X-Men movies), instead focusing on a very literal use of special effects to convince us that a man can really fly.

One of the few poetic fx-driven moments in recent super hero flicks...

The two Fantastic Four movies offer the clearest example of what I'm trying to get at: I think they're both fairly enjoyable as lightweight summer spectacles, but the nature of their spectacle is completely within the domain of blockbuster action movie conventions and doesn't even try to achieve an ounce of the power, grandeur, and poetry of the Jack Kirby artwork from the original comics. The movies are as far from the comics as The Man of La Mancha is from Don Quixote.

Better movies suffer from this, too: as much as I like Spider-Man, there's something off-putting about the obvious transformation of Tobey Maguire in a Spider-Man costume to CGI Spider-Man every time he puts on his mask and starts to leap around. In some ways, the much lower-rent sub-Matrix effects in the first two X-Men movies have more integrity.

Considering the ubiquity of special effects and their central place in many comic book movies, I'm a little surprised that there hasn't been more of any effort to deal more systematically with the "poetics of sfx".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Re: That last paragraph--paging Scott Bukatman!