I rented The Dark Knight yesterday to have a second look at it. In honour of the occasion, here's a look back at spandex cinema. Hard to believe it's been thirty years!
Superman (1978) Superman's a good enough movie, but sometimes it gets an easy pass. It's pretty goofy. Its real triumph was the casting of Christopher Reeve. For years, the airheaded tone of the Superman franchise blinded all of us to just how ideal and excellent he was in that role. Entertainment Factor: moderate. Cinematic worth: meh.
Superman II (1980) For my money, this is the most watchable Superman film. Mind you, it's not a Superman film as much as a Superman comedy. Entertainment Factor: a little better than average. Cinematic worth: a little less than meh.
Superman III (1983) This one's got more cringe-worthy comedy per square inch than any film franchise has EVER had to endure. Jar Jar Binks has nothing on Richard Pryor. Entertainment Factor: little when sober. Cinematic worth: none whatsoever.
Supergirl (1984) Apparently, all that "camp" deserved to spill out into a completely other movie. Entertainment Factor: are you kidding? Cinematic worth: actually in the negative, as the celluloid wasted here might've let the comparative masterminds making Conan The Destroyer shoot additional footage of Olivia D'Abo's breasts.
Superman IV : The Quest For Peace (1987) Did anybody actually ever see this film? Just a quick glance at the production stills for this one can make me throw up in my mouth a little. And what about that bad guy in the yellow pajamas and the metal band hairdo? Entertainment Factor: nil. Cinematic worth: a genuine curiosity.
Batman (1989) A baby-step into the new age of superheroes. Warner Brothers clearly had little or no serious interest in crafting an actual story here. They simply handed the film over to the egos of Tim Burton, the late Anton Furst, and Jack Nicholson. Entertainment Factor: surprisingly little, in retrospect. Cinematic worth: it's a viable cultural artifact.
Captain America (1991) And Fantastic Four (1994) Direct to tape atrociousness. The budgets here are non-existent. I spend more to trim my pets. Entertainment Factor: pure camp. Cinematic worth: less than nil, except perhaps as filler for IMDB.com.
Batman Returns (1992) This has better action, better comedy and better pacing than the original. Of the first four Batman flicks, this is the one that can still be watched without molar ache, but it's far from excellent. Entertainment Factor: surprisingly moderate. Cinematic worth: little.
Batman Forever (1995) Big egos come back with a vengeance as Jim Carrey's agent lets Carrey and his disturbingly tight Riddler getup off the leash to "steal" what little show there is to begin with. Petty larceny, to be sure. Joel Schumacher takes over as director, infusing into the proceedings just what the Caped Crusader has always cried out for: neon flair, neon flair, and more neon flair! Also, possibly, Val Kilmer was unconscious for the duration of the shoot. Entertainment Factor: nil. Cinematic worth: nil.
Batman and Robin (1997) Wow, this one can actually make you nostalgic for Jim Carrey and his emerald package. Batman And Robin holds a dubious distinction: it's the first, and so far only movie to force me out the cinema door after as little as ten minutes. At least it castrated the villain Bane, who apparently really meant something to the taste-impaired comic book afficianados of the horrid nineties. Unfortunately, it almost did the same for George Clooney. Entertainment Factor: only in watching Clooney reliving it in interviews. Cinematic worth: only in watching the many excellent films Clooney starred in and/or produced in the ten years since, presumably out of guilt.
Spawn (1997) The Schumacher films and this piece of dreck hit around the same time. It should surprise noone to learn that for most of the nineties the mainstream comic book industry was scummy, irredeemable, charmless, and just plain awful. Entertainment Factor: nil, except for the footage of Martin Sheen in his Grecian formula dye job. Cinematic worth: nil.
Men In Black (1997) and Mystery Men (1999) Not really superhero movies, per se, but based on comics nevertheless. These lightweight but enjoyable films were the anti-matter to the three films listed above them. Entertainment Factor: mild. Cinematic worth: nil, except for launching quite a number of notable careers.
Blade (1999) And Its Sequels. Blade slipped through the cracks into fairly respectable film territory by being adapted from a property without costumes or, for that matter, readers. To this day I'd be willing to bet that the majority of people who have seen all three so not know that Blade is a comic book superhero. Entertainment Factor: some. Cinematic worth: slight, because the original Blade movie did make room for...
X-Men (2000) If the '78 Superman was the proverbial fish struggling out onto shore, and the '89 Batman was its first, clumsy breath, then in Darwinian terms X-Men is the oppossable thumb. However bland it appears in retrospect, inspired casting and surprising restraint from its director conspired to make X-Men the world's first truly unapologetic superhero movie. This huge step forward came from the most over-wrought, over-worked, over-marketed comic book franchise in the medium's history. Entertainment Factor: moderate. Cinematic worth: like Burton before him, after hitting big as the new talent in town, Bryan Singer managed to make a superhero movie a step up for him.
Spider-Man (2002) For the first time ever, a superhero looks not at all ridiculous in broad, unfiltered daylight and on un-stylized sets. That might not seem like a huge step forward, but it was essential to this film's stupendous success. Adding to the sense of "real life" was Spider-man's likability and believability as a character. What else explains everyone's ability to overlook Willem Dafoe making little to no sense as an unmotivated villain traipsing around New York in shiny toaster parts? Entertainment Factor: more than moderate. Cinematic worth: brought Sam Raimi out of hiding after For The Love Of The Game.
Daredevil (2003) A perfect example of how mediocre talents and a lack of confidence in the source material can conspire to expose every weakness of the superhero genre. This is an unbuttered, un-mustarded ham sandwich of a movie. Entertainment Factor: very little. Cinematic worth: none.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) People in love with Alan Moore's touchy genius rightly despise this movie. Casual movie goers were content to just think of it as mindless, disposable junk. Entertainment Factor: very little., except in watching nerds turn apopleptic when discussing it. Cinematic worth: butt of jokes.
X2 (2003) Hopefully we've all noticed by now that, when it comes to superheroes, No. 2 is really No. 1. Superman II, Batman Returns, Spider-man 2, The Dark Night, the list goes on and on. X-Men 2 is layered, serious and exciting, if a little bloated. Entertainment Factor: high. Cinematic worth: there.
Hulk (2003) Ang Lee is a top talent, but obviously with Hulk he felt he was playing in a sandbox. Building action and establishing tension obviously did not content him as directorial goals, so he turned the whole thing into a bizzaro Doctor Phil episode. Also, Bana and Connelly are like frickin' zombies in this. Beautiful, beautiful zombies. Entertainment Factor: the killer poodle was cool, if strange. Cinematic worth: will always be a curiosity in Lee's stellar resume.
Hellboy (2004) And Its Sequel, The Golden Army (2008) What do you get when you tie together Men In Black type hijinks with Blade type occultism and action? You get Hellboy. You also get watchable and disposable in equal quantities. Entertainment Factor: moderate. Cinematic worth: Del Toro doesn't have anything to live down; neither does Mike Mignolia, the comic's creator.
Spider-Man 2 (2004) Top flight action and top drawer jokes. That's the secret, folks. Don't believe me? Witness the sheer tonnage of needless filler in this film and then wonder to yourself how it can still be so enjoyable. Living proof of Howard Hawks's maxim: to make a good film are you need is three great scenes and no bad scenes. Entertainment Factor: high. Cinematic worth: definitely as high as Raimi is capable of climbing.
Batman Begins (2005) Well, it only took ten years for Batman to transfer from the hands of the dismissive and demented (Batman Forever) to the sycophantic and venerating (Batman Begins). The film is so loaded with talent that it threatens to sink under its own weight. Christopher Nolan doesn't help matters by seeming to fear that if his film displays even the slightest note of charm, rampaging nerd herds will find him and kill him. Entertainment Factor: high, but considerably hampered by lumps of melancholy suitable for a Tennessee Williams's heroine. Cinematic worth: high, almost half as high as its diehard fans propose.
Fantastic Four (2005) And Its Sequel, The Rise Of The Silver Surfer Marvel's premiere super team are supposed to be a) a tight knit family of b) extra dimensional explorers who are c) engaged in cosmic adventures. So how do you make a boring film out of that set-up? Casting actors with the temperature and texture of tapioca is a great way to start. Then it's just a matter of having them say nothing except clichés and cheap jokes. Only the presence of Jessica Alba in a skin-tight outfit keeps anybody paying the slightest bit of attention. Entertainment Factor: practically nil. Cinematic worth: definitely nil.
Superman Returns (2006) Wow, way to make a sluggish, drab film out of a character dressed in primary colours. Some truly daft casting and script decisions haunt this one straight into shoulder shrugging territory. Entertainment Factor: mild. Cinematic worth: even milder.
The Punisher (2003), Elektra (2005) and Ghost Rider (2008) The dregs. "Plug a star" projects, alternately made by stars who felt this is what they should do (Thomas Jane), what they had to do (Jennifer Garner), or what nobody could stop them from doing (Nicholas Cage). Interestingly, all three of these "star vehicles" revolve around unsavoury antiheroes. If nothing else, that impaired logic ("hmm... unsavoury and obscure character... sounds good for a star...") proves that the producers involved in these films had even less notion of what they were doing than the Fantastic Four people. Entertainment Factor: nil. Cinematic worth: nil.
X-Men : The Last Stand (2006) We enter Return Of The Jedi territory with this one. \We see characters we like carrying on in an uninspired and unconvincing film. The lights come up, everybody scratches their heads and goes home. Entertainment Factor: moderate, actually. Cinematic worth: like we need more proof that Brett Rattner and the folks at 20th Century Fox are the absolute middle of nowhere?
Spider-Man 3 (2007) See above. Only this time we're not in Return Of The Jedi territory, so much as Matrix III overload. Too many ingredients, too much going on, and no reason for any of it. If X-Men 3 is weak filmmaking, Spidey 3 is lazy filmmaking. Its director, producers and stars just didn't care about what got put into the pot and it really shows. Entertainment Factor: some. Cinematic worth: nil.
Iron Man (2008) Jon Favreau takes a page out of Bryan Singer's X-Men handbook and hews his film to the bone in accordance with science fiction and action basics. Given that, and a serviceable script, all that was needed was for the casting to work. Boy, did the casting work. Entertainment Factor: high. Cinematic worth: ask Robert Downey Jr. when he's NOT dead in five years.
The Incredible Hulk (2008) Wedged between the charisma of Iron Man and the sturm and drang of The Dark Knight, Big Green went a little overlooked and under appreciated. Loaded with so much more Marvel lore than Iron Man, and outfitted with the sleekest plot and pacing of any superhero film to date, The Incredible Hulk lacked only for respect. To be fair, the Hulk is hardly the most engrossing character. This is the superhero film that needed the bummer ending, not Dark Knight. Bruce Banner is supposed to be the definition of the haunted hero. Entertainment Factor: more than it's given credit for. Cinematic worth: not too much, admittedly.
The Dark Knight (2008) Too good to call yourself Batman II, huh? (Or is that Batman VI?) Oh, okay, I guess you ARE too good to call yourself Batman II. Once again, director Christopher Nolan is playing a guitar with only one string. Still, he plays it so well, and is backed by such talent, who is not impressed? Also, Nolan managed to whip some of his action sequences into discernible shape this time, much to the relief of my eyes and adjoining frontal lobe. Entertainment Factor: high. Cinematic worth: Nolan gets top marks for getting all those people talking Oscar for a movie that, at its core, has Christian Bale wearing moulded plastic and huffing and puffing like a drag queen with a cold.