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The Dark Knight movie review

The Dark Knight will inevitably be compared to Tim Burton’s Batman, but while both movies share plot elements and a common villain, they are worlds apart in the fabric of their storytelling. Tim Burton’s Batman was the Batman as myth, as the battle within a comic book universe brought to life with larger than life heroes and villains in the stylized world that exists between the panels of a comic book and the imagination. Christopher Nolan’s Batman is something else entirely, Batman as he might exist in the real world, a world that is grimly real and ruthlessly relevant yet philosophically ponderous. Both movies exist in separate universes, they are two ways of looking at Batman, as myth and man.

The Dark Knight easily exceeds Nolan’s first effort Batman Begins, showing us a Batman who is still learning the tools of his trade while at the same realizing that the fight against evil will not be easily won and that if he wants to fight it, he will have to become something larger and darker than he has been until now. In Batman Begins, his enemies, Scarecrow, Ra’s Al Ghul were men with an agenda. In The Dark Knight he faces madmen. The rule of the mob, the battle between crime and law is about to give way to a war of myths and archetypes, a battle that will involve everyone in Gotham and that will carry a terrible cost. That is the slippery edge Batman has stepped into it, and it is the abyss that Michael Caine’s Alfred warns him about.

The Dark Knight is Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke transposed to a storyline that has more in common with 7even and its preoccupation with the tension between order and disorder and human limitations in the face of chaos. Like Tim Burton’s Batman and unlike Batman Begins where the villains were barely a presence, the villains rule over The Dark Knight, from Dent’s bright ascent and fall, to the Joker, who is always on screen, even when he is unseen. But in Christopher Nolan’s universe the villains themselves are demystified and the masks often don’t hold up. The Scarecrow emerges as a petty criminal making a deal in a parking complex, the Joker is a violent thug who on screen has more in common with a Tarantino character than the Clown Prince of Crime and though Aaron Eckhart does his best, his Two Face is never really more than an emotionally upset Harvey Dent. The flip side of Nolan’s realistic take on Batman is that there is no real room in it to make the monsters and freaks that populate Batman’s universe believable.

This realistic take on Batman has its strengths, from Lucius Fox’s casual dismissal of a blackmailing attempt by a lawyer who has found out the real identity of Batman to a visit to China and a skyhook extraction. It allows Nolan to fill the screen with a believable large scale Gotham that is not at all stylized and is completely plausible. Yet it makes the masks and capes that much harder to accept. Chaotic editing of the action scenes, which are surprisingly infrequent in a comic book movie this long, doesn’t help matters either. In the final take, The Dark Knight is more 7even than it is a comic book movie, a dystopian police thriller with a man who dresses in a cape and mask as a supporting character.

There is no question that the Nolans deliver on the script, The Dark Knight is more of a companion to their starting effort Memento, than to Batman Begins, a painstaking look at a city and at three men searching for themselves in the face of a brutal monster who has chosen to embody the forces of chaos. Nolan brings Chicago as Gotham to life long after the point where New York City could no longer plausibly reflect the grim urban center of an American crimetown. The twists and turns keep coming as the Joker pulls off one plot twist after another making him a nemesis not only for Batman but for all of Gotham and for humanity itself. In comic books and comic book movies the villain’s threats against the rest of the city or the world are often a sideline to the battle between superhero and supervillain. In The Dark Knight it is the threat against the people, the ordinary people without capes and masks, that counts. Batman is a sideline to the real drama, the human drama.

Many people will go to see The Dark Knight for Heath Ledger’s performance, but Ledger is easily overshadowed by the rest of the cast. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman sparkle with good humor and seasoned wit in their small parts. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes a good substitute for Katie Holmes’ more inexperienced and naive Rachel Dawes. Aaron Eckhart plays Harvey Dent as every inch the reckless but shining knight in a two piece suit that he should be and more. He can’t really sell him as Two Face, but it’s not clear that anyone could. Gary Oldman serves as the emotional and moral center of Batman, carrying the weight of everyone’s choices, and serving as the ordinary man who represents the human middle ground between the extremes of Dent, Batman and the Joker. Christian Bale continues to oversell his Batman, piling on the harsh vocals, but looks much more comfortable in the part than he did in Batman Begins. Heath Ledger though is the movie’s weak point, delivering an uneven and erratic performance that is painfully awkward in the beginning but grows increasingly confident and smoother toward the second half as he becomes more comfortable with the role. Had Ledger lived, reshoots would have likely improved the final product. As he did not, we’re stuck with what we have. Because of the timing of his death Ledger will no doubt get an Oscar nomination, he may even get the golden statue posthumously, whether he deserves it is another matter.

There is no question that The Dark Knight is a powerful cinematic event. I doubt that it will stand as the final interpretation of Batman and I suspect strongly that after Nolan, Batman will revert closer to his comic book roots. But at the same time the comics and the movies have been influenced in waves by each interpretation and reinterpretation as Nolan’s Batman will emerge in the comics and add to the accreted mass of snapshots whose whole is the iconic character of the Batman.

Iron Man movie review

iron man movie posterMost superhero movies look to cast an actor who can vanish inside the suit and the persona of a classic comic book character while getting drowned out by a 100 million dollars worth of special effects. Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t vanish inside the suit, he owns the suit and everything around it, pulling off a performance in Iron Man that has more energy than any of the movie’s many action scenes or special effects.

But Iron Man doesn’t stop with a charismatic performance from its main star, it runs on three great performances, fueled by the screen presences and pitch perfect acting of Downey, Paltrow and Bridges, and the movie’s energy is powered by their quirky meaning-laden interactions. Director Jon Favreau tops it all off by planting them in a movie that has its own nervous energy where things seem to constantly be on the verge of going wrong, only to be salvaged at the last minute.

Tony Stark’s blatant self-confidence is challenged by disaster after disaster as he attempts to take charge of Stark Industries and clean up his own messes in a superpowered suit, which time after time fails him or comes off as inadequate to the task. With a hole inside his chest, Stark goes off on mission after mission equipped not with the stoic heroism of conventional superheroes, but with a mixture of thrill seeking overconfidence and the inner demons of his own guilt leading him into situations he isn’t remotely ready for. But audiences don’t need to cheer on Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark or root for him, he does all his own cheerleading too.

If Downey was an unconventional choice to play Stark that paid off beautifully, Jeff Bridges was at least as unconventional of a choice to play villain Obadiah Stone. Bald, bearded, bulking; Obadiah is a long way from the Dude, equally at home being casually amiable and casually menacing, he’s the believable Ballmeresque CEO you see grinning on the covers of magazines and stabbing everyone in the back in the boardroom. Along with Terrence Howard’s straight man Colonel, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts completes Stark’s triad of human connections, taking a seemingly thankless sidekick role and investing it with human vulnerability, empathy and humor to make her Stark’s true other half.

Most of Iron Man’s key action scenes can already be seen in the trailer, a common failing of many action movies, but unlike those movies, Iron Man is invested in a lot more than its action scenes. The real movie is not in the fights or the special effects, it’s in the complete package tied together by the three main characters and held up heroically by Downey. It’s in that restless coolness that he brings to the table that makes watching Iron Man an adventure, the way great action movies are meant to be. It’s in that sense of daring unpredictability that the best action movies from Indiana Jones to James Bond have unleashed on audiences and Iron Man rides that unpredictability right down to its final moment, a complete shocker and yet absolutely in line with every single thing Tony Stark has done throughout the movie.

Where so many comic book movies get it wrong, Iron Man gets it right, going beyond the suit to the man. Any 200 million dollar summer blockbuster can toss special effects at the screen but no amount of money can buy the energy and the drive that connects Iron Man back to the great blockbusters of the 80’s. With Iron Man Jon Favreau demonstrates that he is on track to be the rightful successor to Steven Spielberg, and Robert Downey Jr comes back in a big way. Iron Man is more than just a great comic book movie, it’s a great movie. Period.

Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker Novels

Though they become legends after their deaths, the problems of the old Empire continue to resound well into the future where Owen and his companions may be worshiped as gods but the worm within the apple always waits for its hour. Thus begins the final novels of the Deathstalker series as the Madness Maze calls to itself a new series of companions, another Deathstalker, the greatest diva in the universe, an unstoppable psychotic, one of Random’s Bastards and a deranged homicidal dinosaur known only as Saturday.

Throughout the Deathstalker novels worlds rise and fall again and rise and fall again, smashed down in epic battle scenes littered with body parts and oceans of blood. The Deathstalker novels are humorous and sometimes hilarious without ever being cutesy or losing their edge. They may convey ideas about the nature of power without ever being preachy or pushing an agenda, as Terry Pratchett all too often does. Instead the Deathstalker novels are simply a no holds barred space opera, bloodier than anything Howard could have imagined and yet all too human, featuring superheroes who bleed inside and outside just like the rest of us.

The Deathstalker Saga by Simon R. Green

Superheroes, Vigilantism and their Moral Codes

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Right and Wrong in Halftone Colors

A superhero may fight crazed villains, towering monstrosities and mutated super-geniuses, but along the way the hardest battles are usually with himself and with some of the big questions. Golden Age and Silver Age comics might take it for granted that a man could put on a costume, remain entirely stable and sane and be accepted by the military and law enforcement as an axillary member of their team.That assumption still pervades many titles, but rarely with the same glib self-assurance as before. The X-Men represented the ultimate alienated superheroes, mutated and despised and persecuted, by the very people they were trying to help. But increasingly many superheroes fall in the same category. After all beneath his bright cape and All American color scheme, what is Superman really but an alien from another planet? What is Daredevil, but a human with a mutant power. Or Spider Man for that matter? What is Batman but a borderline schizophrenic in freakish costume?

A man or a woman, in costume, can no longer expect to have a comfortable relationship with the rest of society.Nor can we expect such a person to be too well grounded sometimes.

Cut off in this way a superhero then has to make his own moral decisions and set his own rules? What is justice? Can you kill a villain, or only incapacitate him and deliver him to Arkham Asylum? Uncomfortable questions for unstable superheroes begin arising.

How many times has Batman hunted down and imprisoned the Joker, only to have the Joker escape again and resume killing people. How many lives would Batman have saved, had he killed the Joker, instead of repeatedly capturing him? And doesn’t the same go for so many of Gotham’s other villains? The Joker is certainly the worst with a body count in the thousands if not the hundreds of thousands by now, but he’s certainly not alone.

Guided by an ethos that says “Spare your enemy because you are better than him” and “extend your hand to the lunatic mad scientist as he’s falling off a cliff after the explosion of his laboratory”, are the superheroes really living by a sane moral code?

But what is the alternative? Superheroes step out on a limb by becoming freelance police officers. Most do not also choose to become judge, jury and executioner as well.

Primarily superheroes fill gaps in abilities and powers by conventional law enforcement forces and the military. Superheroes may fight organized crime that is too ruthless and deeply embedded for law enforcement to deal with. They may and do fight villains who have superhuman abilities, that are beyond the conventional abilities of police forces to combat. They may fight extrasolar entities who come from outside our solar system to wreak havoc on earth, which is beyond the ability of ordinary military forces to combat.

Stepping beyond such auxiliary roles into confronting and destroying villains, puts superheroes outside of society altogether, no longer merely aiding, but either denying outright the laws and values of society or claiming the right to supersede them.

The integration of superheroes into a society remains a point of contention, reflected in numerous storylines including Marvel’s recent Civil War storyline. Legislation is often passed that restricts or limits superheroes and what they can do, such as the Keene Act in Watchmen. Superheroes are already very strange and different, a superhero who ruthlessly kills crosses the line into outright terrifying.

Superman is an alien with virtually unstoppable powers. A Superman who dispensed freelance justice, would no longer be a partner, but a tyrant. There is only so far outside society’s rules a superhero can step and still be any different than the villains he or she fights.

It is no surprise that those heroes who step over that line and become murderous vigilantes, most prominently, are all too human. Consider Rorschach in Watchmen or Marvel’s Punisher. Frank Castle is a former police officer, with no superpowers but his guns and grenades. (“Who needs superpowers when you have a hand grenade?” asks a character as a superhero association in an issue of “The Tick.”)

While Frank Castle lives and fights in a world filled with superheroes, men and women who in theory should be capable of squashing like a bug, The Punisher holds his own.Garth Ennis’ “The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe” even famously shows him hunting down and killing all the superheroes of the Marvel Universe including Spider Man, Wolverine and Daredevil, after a superhero battle results in the death of his wife. Garth Ennis has always rather famously overestimated The Punisher’s abilities and has traditionally been comfortable with rough men in guns, rather than superheroes, something he demonstrated equally well in his run on Hitman.

Loosely based on the Mack Bolan novels, Frank Castle is essentially a men’s adventure cliche, in his own costume and focuses on the violence minus the sex. A killing machine with no principle besides killing the bad guys. As he finds them. Frank Castle’s moral code is law and order, absent the trickier questions. He is the logical end result of the vigilante hero. Morality must come from the inside or the outside. As the comic book universe has grown darker and its heroes more alienated, their morality is no longer the confident projection of social norms, but must come from within.

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