Heroes on Film

And as part of my celebration of the super-hero, last weekend I watched a whole bunch of DVDs.

Iron Man (2008)

The character’s origin transferred from the Korean War to the ‘police action’ in Afghanistan, and early introduction of the Titanium Man to give old bucket suit somebody formidable to scrap with. I loved this when I caught it at the cinema, not least because of Robert Downey Jr’s larger than life interpretation of Tony Stark, showing how the character moves from scientific genius and playboy to a somewhat more caring and politically aware individual, while still retaining his ‘naughty boy’ will to mischief. Good back up from the rest of the cast too, especially Gwyneth Paltrow who is excellent as Pepper Potts, giving the character a presence I don’t recall from the comic. Great action scenes, with the viewer cheering Iron Man on as he tackles the Afghan warlord who is terrorising his own people and the calculating and treacherous Obadiah Staine (brilliant name for a bad guy). And yet, while still fun, the film didn’t quite live up to my memories, in the main I think because the things that were good about it had a ‘one time only’ appeal to them, and after that there’s nothing more substantial on the table, just the usual battles and moralising about the evils of big business/arms dealers, all of which I found rather obvious and, at times, close to trite, even while sharing those values. It didn’t, as with for example The Dark Knight or Watchmen, question or illuminate my core beliefs in some new and challenging way. It was great fun but not a great film.

The Fantastic Four (2005)

For a long while this was my favourite Marvel comic, and when I saw the film at the cinema I found it a huge disappointment, not least because of the way in which they conflated the origin of the FF with that of Dr. Doom, a needless corruption of the original, taking an archetypal monster and turning him into just another bit player from Bad Guys R’Us. I’ll concede that I enjoyed the DVD somewhat more, perhaps because I came to it without the high expectations I had in 2005, though Julian Mahon was still annoying as Doom, Jessica Alba totally unconvincing in this interpretation of Sue Storm, and Chris Evans got up my nose as brother Johnny (but, to be fair, I think Johnny Storm is supposed to get up people’s noses). Otherwise it was okay, with the plight of Ben Grimm the most interesting element, something that maybe could have made a good film on its own. Only okay though, and for Marvel’s flagship title just okay is not good enough. And even okay doesn’t describe the travesty that was the sequel, turning the monumental Galactus saga, one of the high points of the Marvel Age of Comics, into a badly written soap opera with sparkly bits – everyone involved with that film needs to find different employment.

Daredevil (2003)

Another high point of the Marvel Age was Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil, and after an account of the character’s origin that’s pretty much the story we get here, thirty plus issues of the comic condensed into an hour and a half of screen time. Inevitably there’s some loss of character and layering, as with the romance between Daredevil and Elektra, which grew naturally in the comic but here consists of him stalking her and martial arts as foreplay, while Stick is notable by his absence and the humanising subplot concerning the Kingpin’s wife falls by the wayside. The bones of the story remain though, and with the benefit of hindsight I wonder if Miller’s Daredevil years were a rehearsal for what was to come with Batman – there’s the same elements of darkness, tragedy and an examination of the role of the vigilante – while visually the film seems to owe much to the Gothicism of Tim Burton’s Batman. Ben Affleck is merely okay in the title role, but the rest of the cast provide splendid back-up, not least Jennifer Garner, who I usually don’t like at all but here she does the business, while Colin Farrell is larger than life and totally mental as the hired assassin Bullseye and Michael Clarke Duncan hits just the right note as the Kingpin of Crime (a step up from playing John Coffey in The Green Mile). I was surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed watching the DVD, as I don’t recall liking the film when I saw it at the cinema. Again, perhaps it benefited from lowered expectations.

Elektra (2005)

I didn’t catch this one at the cinema, though it wasn’t for want of trying – I turned up for a 10.30 showing to avoid the crowds, but unfortunately the projectionist didn’t turn up. Miller’s Elektra Saga was excellent as far as I can recall, but this film doesn’t do the character justice, is a flimsy mish mash of dull themes, pseudo-mysticism and conflicting ideas, slightly redeemed by some interesting super-villains, but too little, too late to make it work. My biggest problem is Garner, who played the character with conviction in Daredevil but here is back to her default setting, with a range of facial expressions that always make it look like she’s just been slapped and is fighting to hold back tears, no matter what emotion the scene calls for. And, in practical terms, she’s too physical to play Elektra, a character I remember as wiry, athletic, agile. I won’t say that I hated the film, but it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the others. Interestingly, out of all these Marvel films, this is the only one in which Stan Lee doesn’t pull a cameo, at least that I noticed, and perhaps that’s because he didn’t create the character (Elektra was Miller’s invention), or maybe he got tipped off the projectionist was a no show.

Okay, put me down for The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, Superman II, Watchmen and The X-Men.

What super-hero movies get the full and undivided treatment from the rest of you guys?

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7 Responses to Heroes on Film

  1. Was it that you saw the director’s cut of Daredevil on DVD? It’s quite a bit more substantial than the cinema version.

    I’ve been disappointed by most superhero films, but still found something to enjoy in nearly all of them, even duffers like Elektra, Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider and Spawn. You nearly always get to see something you haven’t seen before, which isn’t always true of mediocre films.

    Thor and Avengers were really important, I think, in that they’ve well and truly smashed the no-aliens rule that’s afflicted cinema superheroics and badly limited the scope of the stories they could tell. It’s crazy that in six films Superman and Supergirl didn’t encounter a single villain from anywhere other than Earth and Kryton. The people behind the X-Men films laughed at the idea of Jean Grey dying on the moon.

    My favourite superhero film is probably Unbreakable, but I’m very fond of the Superman, Blade, Spider-Man and X-Men films. The two Batman films were excellent, but I can’t quite think of them as superhero films. Green Hornet was good fun.

    • petertennant says:

      Good point about “Daredevil” – there’s a sticker on the case that describes the DVD as a ‘new uncut version’, but at only 99 minutes it doesn’t sound like the Director’s Cut, so that’s something I should watch out for (or maybe piece together the deleted scenes from the bonus DVD).

      I definitely regard Batman as a superhero, even though he doesn’t have any super powers, though the Blade films I’d tag as horror, despite the character’s comic book origins. I never thought of “Unbreakable” as s super hero film, though of course you’re right that it is – I guess I need the guy to dress in lycra for super hero validation 😉

  2. *Krypton – saw that the second I hit Post!

  3. I agree with Stephen on Unbreakable. Part of the joy of the film is not realizing it’s a superhero movie until you’re well into it. And I appreciated how Shyamalan downplayed Willis’ superhero abilities. Dunn’s bench presses while his son watches, the father asking for more and more weights, is one of those great, carefully paced scenes you don’t see often enough in movies. I really don’t know why so many people dislike Shyamalan. His stories are sometimes a little too dependent on surprise revelations, but he’s a great visual director. He knows better than most how to move a camera in a scene to gradually reveal more and more information to the viewer.

    • petertennant says:

      >>Part of the joy of the film is not realizing it’s a superhero movie until you’re well into it

      Or until somebody points it out to you. No lycra, no super hero – Rob, in my world things are very simple 🙂

      I used to love the guy, but now I’m completely off Shyamalan, afraid to say. He’s the only director where I’ve had problems at the cinema – “Signs” got broken up by a fire alarm in the middle of it, while for “Lady in the Water” they had the wrong lens on the projector or something, so that we kept getting odd angles on the screen and boom mikes creeping into view. Nobody was quite sure what was going on, if it was an ‘experiment’ or an accident.

      Both dreadful films. In “Signs” I detested the Mel Gibson character (now I simply detest Mel Gibson – saves time), the hypocrisy of abandoning his faith when the shit comes down after years spent telling others to suck it up, and the whole thing with an alien invasion sent to restore his belief. What utter bilge. And with “Lady” I don’t know where to begin. Puerile, self-indulgent drivel by the bucket load.

      Loved “Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”, while “The Village” was stylish and interesting, albeit ultimately unconvincing and flawed. But after the two clunkers above, I’m very reluctant to give him screen time.

  4. Pingback: The Not So Fantastic Four | Trumpetville

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