Iron Man vs. Batman Begins [Spoilers, probably]

Last Wednesday was superhero twofer day. First, the Nick, Dark Bambi and I went to see a preview screening of Iron Man. I was hopeful from seeing the previews, and I was excited by the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, as I’ve always liked Robert Downey Jr., ever since his sidekick role in Back to School. I liked the satirical portrayal of arms dealers in the preview, but I was afraid the movie would devolve into a jingoistic battle of the all-American hero armed with superior weapons of mass destruction taking on the evil Muslim terrorists. While I concede all of the political points made by Aaron Mesh in his review of the film, I guess my standards are much lower for superhero popcorn flicks. I was pleasantly surprised to see that killing brown people isn’t the primary narrative thrust of the movie. In fact, it is the American arms sellers who are the ultimate evil in the film. There is a scene with terrorists terrorizing Afghani families, and I really appreciated the film showing that the terrorists are a minority in a society of regular people just trying to get along. There is even a sympathetic portrayal of a Afghani scientist working alongside Tony Stark in captivity.

Gwyneth Paltrow was OK as Tony Stark’s assistant, but her acting just falls apart at the end. There are several scenes where she’s standing around trying to act scared talking into a headset. I guess she doesn’t do a good job of acting when she only has a headset to play off of. (This is in stark [ha-ha] contrast to Robert Downey Jr. who does a great job of playing off of inanimate objects throughout the film.) I was disappointed to see Pepper Potts as the love interest, as my early childhood exposure to Iron Man was when he was dating the fabulously sultry and deadly Bethany Cabe, who would make a far better foil for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark than mousy Gwyneth Paltrow.

I was disappointed that the final battle scene in the movie has Stane and Tony Starks de-masking mid battle so you can see them emoting, which directors apparently consider necessary in the climactic battles in superhero movies so the actors can properly practice their craft without the interference of masks, but which I just find silly. (Hey, in ancient Greek tragedy, didn’t they wear masks the whole performance?)

Iron Man does look as cool as possible. In fact, I think its the first time I thought the movie version of a comic character looked better than the comic book version. They really did a good job on the special effects with this one, even if I didn’t buy Robert Downey Junior knocking out the suit after a few weeks in his private lab. Much less at a desert campsite. Since Jon Favreau has two sequels planned, I am looking forward to seeing where he takes Tony Stark. We know from the comics that Tony’s battle with alcoholism lies ahead.

Anjali joined the Nick and I for the second part of our superhero-twofer and she and I finally saw Batman Begins on DVD that night. In general I never watch videos or DVDs, because I only want to see films on the big screen. I made an exception for this film since I missed its theatrical release and Anjali and I are planning on seeing the sequel this summer. I really liked Christopher Nolan’s Memento, and figured that his take on Batman would be hard-hitting, dark and scary. Certainly not cheezy. Christian Bale did OK as playboy Bruce Wayne, but the first appearance of the Batman was laughable to me. Bale’s hoarse whispering from behind the bat cowl only elicited groans from me, not any sort of fear or awe. Why whisper in a raspy voice? I don’t find it intimidating or threatening. Just silly. “I’m Batman.” Indeed.

The movie radically changed all sorts of details from the Batman comics, and while I don’t think a film has to slavishly adhere to the comics continuity, I do think the changes should serve a purpose and not just be done willy-nilly. The myth of Batman is of the perfect, self-actualized man. A man who has trained his body and mind to their highest potential. We never Nolan’s Batman use his brain at all. Batman is supposed to be a scientist, inventor, and genius of advanced technology and organic chemistry. In this film Batman is a frat boy with some martial arts skills who turns to Lucius Fox for every kind of technological fix he needs. That is a fundamental derivation from the Batman myth. Batman created everything he needed, he didn’t turn to another genius inventor whenever he needed a technological solution to a problem. They changed Spider-Man in the movies in the same way. In the comics Peter Parker was a genius who created his own web shooters and web fluid. In the movie they make these an organic part of his powers, he doesn’t invent anything. I find it interesting that the geeky adolescent boys who have supported these characters in comic book form for many decades delight in the brainy, tech-y side of these characters, but no doubt in order to make these characters appeal to a dumb-ass, mainstream audience, they remove the genius inventor side of the character, and just make them punch people. Granted, Peter Parker is still portrayed as brainy in the movies, but not a super-genius.

In Batman Begins we see Bruce Wayne live with thieves, and even become a thief, to understand them, but he never becomes any sort of investigator or detective. Batman is a master detective, the “world’s greatest detective.” We don’t get any sense of that.

One thing I did appreciate about the film was the way Christopher Nolan tried to give you the thieves’-eye view of the Batman as a frightening figure who appears out of the darkness and tortures you or beats you senseless. I liked that he tried. It could have been far more effective. These scenes should have been filmed to create far more fear in the viewer, like a good horror movie where the viewer identifies with the crooks, and dreads what might be in the shadows hunting them.

Mostly I was really underwhelmed by the direction. I found the camera angles boring and typical. While I liked the Batmobile’s design, and it actually seemed practical, I found the chase scenes totally uninvolving. The Batmobile racing around on rooftops really didn’t do it for me. In general I like Gary Oldman, but I really think his portrayal of Jim Gordon fell flat. I didn’t buy a lot of his dialogue. It’s like he was trying so hard to get his American accent down that he forgot the put any life into the role. Katie Holmes was awful. I’ve never seen her in a movie before, and couldn’t understand for the life of me why they cast her. She has a really odd, unattractive look, with the right side of her face pulled into a lopsided grimace, making it appear stuck in some sort of paralyzed tic. The kissing scene at the end was completely creepy. Easily the scariest thing in the film.

I liked how Nolan tried to make the Scarecrow a character that was actually scary, because that is the last thing I have ever found that character, and while they found a sufficiently creepy actor to play him, I found the drug scenes to be pathetic. Shaking the camera a lot does not a scary scene create. Some of the scenes with worms were cool, but all of the drug scenes could have been directed with far more creativity and intensity. Wasted opportunities for the most part. I was really shocked at how amateurish and TV-movie-from-the-’80s the direction felt. I’m amazed at all the positive reviews. Then again, I HATED Burton’s first Batman film, and never bothered to watch any of the others. Bale is a better choice than Michael Keaton, but they are both not the right actors for the job. I thought Kim Basinger was such a bad choice in the ’80s Batman, but Katie Holmes actually makes her look good by comparison. Ugggh.

Going right from Iron Man to Batman Begins, I thought that Batman Begins was going to be the better film, but even though it is a fairly predictable popcorn flick, I thought Iron Man did a much better job of actualizing a comic book character than Batman Begins. I am still looking forward to The Dark Knight, if only because I liked the Joker’s card scene at the end of Batman Begins. Appropriately creepy, and I liked Gordon’s speech about escalation, implicating Batman in the creation of any future supervillains that might emerge. We shall soon see if the sequel does any more for me than the highly-disappointing first film in the series.


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