At the Movies: the Spider, the Bat, and the Summer of Superheroes

During the past decade or so, the “summer movie season” that once began on Memorial Day weekend–as does almost everything else “officially” summer, despite the fact the season doesn’t officially start before June 20th–has shifted its opening to early May, and superheroes have had a lot to do with that. 2012 has been a particularly “super” season at the movies, starting with Marvel’s The Avengers (which I saw three times), and hitting critical mass this month, with a revisit to the origins of Spider-Man and the conclusion of the “Dark Knight” interpretation of Batman’s story.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN poster download (via official movie site)

The Amazing Spider-Man
Rated PG-13
Action/adventure, drama (2012)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field
Written by: James Vanderbilt, Alan Sargent, Steve Kloves
Directed by: Marc Webb

Synopsis, via

The Amazing Spider-Man is the story of Peter Parker, an outcast high schooler who was abandoned by his parents as a boy, leaving him to be raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Like most teenagers, Peter is trying to figure out who he is and how he got to be the person he is today. When Peter discovers a mysterious briefcase that belonged to his father, he begins a quest to understand his parents’ disappearance – leading him directly to Oscorp and the lab of Dr. Curt Connors (Ifans), his father’s former partner. As Spider-Man is set on a collision course with Connors’ alter-ego, The Lizard, Peter will make life-altering choices to use his powers and shape his destiny to become a hero. — (C) Sony

I’ve seen The Amazing Spider-Man twice. After the first viewing, I really wasn’t sure I had much more to say about it besides “Andrew Garfield is so freaking adorable!” so I didn’t say anything, but seeing again made me give it some more thought (although I still think he’s adorable).

Spider-Man is probably my favorite of the comic-book/movie superheroes, but it’s not so much Spidey I love as it is Peter Parker–super-nerd as super-hero. That said, I was as dismayed as many fans by the idea that Spidey was being “rebooted” within a decade of originally making the leap to movies; on the face of it, it seemed pointless and cynical. And it’s probably still rather pointless, honestly–I’d probably still say “no” to the “Is this movie necessary?” question that continues to accompany The Amazing Spider-Man–but I don’t see it as cynical any more. It strikes me as quite the opposite, actually; I find Spidey/Peter Parker’s story works more on an emotional level than many of the other superhero tales, and this take on it doesn’t misfire on that score.

There’s only so much you can do in retelling a superhero origin story; they started how they started, and some details are fixed in the canon. Peter Parker will always get his powers from a spider bite (although the spider is usually “genetically altered” now rather than “radioactive” as a concession to a change in the scientific times), and he’ll always be dealing with the loss of father figures. But you can tweak the details. The Amazing Spider-Man presents some new backstory about how Peter came to live with his aunt and uncle, and mines the comic-book history to pair him up with his real high-school girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (he didn’t meet Mary Jane Watson until years later). These relationships are my favorite parts of the Spidey story, and my favorite parts of The Amazing Spider-Man; Peter and Gwen are convincing and charming in both their attraction and their awkwardness. Credit the casting–both Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are so freaking adorable, but they’ve got much more than that going for them as actors, too, and thanks to them, I thoroughly enjoyed both viewings of The Amazing Spider-Man.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES poster download (via official movie site)
The Dark Knight Rises
Rated PG-13
Action/adventure, drama (2012)
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard
Written by: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, David Goyer
Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Synopsis, via

It has been eight years since Batman vanished into the night, turning, in that instant, from hero to fugitive. Assuming the blame for the death of D.A. Harvey Dent, the Dark Knight sacrificed everything for what he and Commissioner Gordon both hoped was the greater good. For a time the lie worked, as criminal activity in Gotham City was crushed under the weight of the anti-crime Dent Act. But everything will change with the arrival of a cunning cat burglar with a mysterious agenda. Far more dangerous, however, is the emergence of Bane, a masked terrorist whose ruthless plans for Gotham drive Bruce out of his self-imposed exile. But even if he dons the cape and cowl again, Batman may be no match for Bane.. — (C) Warner Bros.

Batman/Bruce Wayne is a superhero with a lot of baggage, and baggage seems to accompany the movies about him too. The Dark Knight was made slightly darker by its legacy as Heath Ledger’s last film (and made stronger by his outstanding work in it). The Dark Knight Rises–the “epic conclusion to The Dark Knight Trilogy”–and its scenes of a besieged Gotham City will be sadly associated with a shocking episode of opening-weekend violence. And I’ll be honest: the shootings in Colorado did color some of my reaction to seeing the film just a day after they took place, but not as much as I was afraid they might.

I’ll also be honest in saying that as much as I do have an emotional attachment to Spider-Man and Peter Parker, I don’t have one to Batman or Bruce Wayne, and the approach Christopher Nolan has taken with the characters in the Dark Knight series really hasn’t helped foster one. Brooding intensity is the hallmark tone of these movies, and it works very well for them. However, I tend to prefer a little more balance of light and darkness, and the stakes in The Dark Knight Rises don’t exactly tip it toward the light.

In consideration of the spoiler-phobic among us and the fact that this film’s been out for less than a week as of this posting, I won’t discuss too much of the plot. But the stakes are indeed high. Bruce Wayne has become a recluse and Batman hasn’t been sighted in Gotham for eight years, but thanks to the laws passed in the wake of Harvey Dent’s death, he’s really not needed, as thousands of criminals and would-be criminals have been taken off the streets during that time. But that’s about to change with the arrival of the formidable mercenary Bane and his lawless “army,” who promise to “return Gotham to the people”–before they obliterate it with a nuclear weapon. Batman is about to be forced back out of the shadows to, once again, protect his city.

It’s an intriguing premise, and it was one of the aspects of the film that made Bruce Wayne/Batman more interesting to me than he’s ever been before (and Christian Bale less bothersome to me, although I still can’t explain why he bothers me at all). For me, two new characters contributed to the “more interesting” factor as well: Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (never actually referred to as “Catwoman”), a character whose skills, smarts, and shifting loyalties made her fascinating to watch, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s police office John Blake, seemingly the last person in Gotham who still believes in Batman. However, I’m sorry to note that I did not find the villainous Bane very interesting at all, and for me, the movie worked more in spite of him than because of him.

I think that as it reaches its finale, The Dark Knight Trilogy’s ending was ultimately satisfying, but as a series, its middle installment is strongest (call it “The Empire Strikes Back Syndrome”). If you were planning to see The Dark Knight Rises, I hope you won’t be deterred from going to the theater by what happened in Colorado…but if you’d rather wait it out, watch your DVD of The Dark Knight again in the meantime. 

(Or just see The Avengers one more time–it’s probably still playing somewhere.)

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