Register Monday | June 18 | 2018

Summer of the Superhero

From <i>Batman Begins</i> to <i>Sky High</i>, 2005 was a good year for geeks

I will not mask my affliction.

I could try to hide it by taking the film critic's usual high road, postulating on the reasons behind Hollywood's current fixation with superhero movies. Is it the great CGI that made it all possible? Is it the post-9/11 need for fantastical, escapist heroism?

But making grand cultural pronouncements would just be a prelude to my admission: I am one of those people. I grew up obsessed with superheroes, setting my alarm for 6:50 AM on Saturdays to catch the Hulk/Spiderman hour, reading Alpha Flightunder the covers with a flashlight, fantasizing for hours on end that I could fly, teleport or shoot beams of plasma from my fingertips. Some girls wanted to be invited to one of Emma's parties. Some guys wanted Jack Ryan to beg them to join a mission. I wanted to be an X-Man, probably more than I've wanted anything in my life. I tried to grow out of it, but I've failed. Instead of struggling, I have accepted myself for what I am, a comic-book geek.

Consequently, I had a little too much fun this summer. There were two huge comic-book movies and a mid-sized one, and I giggled gleefully through all three. However, even if I loved them, I was aware of their faults. For me, superhero movies are like beer; I'll drink whatever is put in front of me, but I know the difference between Bud Light and Guinness.

The last Batman movie, Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin, was worse than Bud Light. It was like drinking Milwaukee's Best watered down with piss. Grotesque and boring, I fell asleep while watching it (which I've never done before or since). And even though it made a lot of money-it would have been very hard not to, after the success of the previous three-it was so critically and popularly reviled that the series of films, started by Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, died.

Warner Brothers, which owns the character, decided to revive the franchise a few years ago, undoubtedly because of the success of the Spiderman and X-Men movies. They hired Christopher Nolan, the thriller master of Mementoand Insomnia, to direct the new film, which was to be based on Frank Miller's storyline from the graphic novel Batman: Year One. It's a sort of re-imagining of Batman's origin story, with his fighting skills coming from Asia and his desire to avenge his parents' death driving him. The result is Batman Begins, which surpasses Superman to become the greatest superhero film of all time.

Nolan rightly recognized that the draw of Batman is Bruce Wayne, a mortal consumed with sadness, anger and guilt. Tim Burton, in his two Batman movies, focussed on the dark carnival of Gotham City; his Batman was gorgeous, creepy and funny, but emotionally, it was as flat as bad animation. Nolan's film is a human epic that follows Bruce Wayne on a classic heroic journey: Destroyed by his parents' murders, he travels to Tibet to both punish and discover himself, and he returns home for redemption-which he finds as Batman.

While both Burton and Schumacher cast their films for box office and bombast, Nolan cast naturalistic actors to compliment his naturalist visuals. As Bruce, Christian Bale broadcasts subtle arrogance and quiet rage. His darkness is believable. It helps that he's more or less unknown; it was nigh impossible for audiences to accept stars like Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, all of whom seemed to be playing dress-up when they played Batman. Putting geniuses like Michael Caine (as Alfred), Gary Oldham (as Jim Gordon) and Liam Neeson (as Henri) in supporting roles gives virtually every scene heft and depth. And they make up for Katie Holmes, who comes off a little silly playing an assistant DA.

I didn't mind any of the silliness in Fantastic Four, however, which makes no attempt to be anything but something bright and loud to eat your popcorn in front of. Unlike Batman, the Four don't have logical reasons for being superheroes. They were created by accident when a cosmic storm bombards the space station where they were doing research; their DNA is re-sequenced and soon after they return to Earth, they develop powers. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) can stretch, his crush Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) can be invisible, her brother Johnny (Chris Evans) can become a human torch, and their friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) has turned into a big, strong walking rock. Also on the space station was Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), who turns into metal and starts shooting energy from his fingers. He's the bad guy and resembles his comic book character barely at all. They fight, stuff explodes, and they repeat the comic's iconic lines like Johnny's "Flame on!" and Ben's "It's clobberin' time!"

Other than Ben's struggle with being an ugly rock, there's not much you can do with the Fantastic Four's story to give it gravitas. So director Tim Story and screenwriters Mark Frost (who co-created Twin Peaks) and Michael France just provide the thrills. This is mostly done through the aforementioned CGI, Jessica Alba's bodacious ta-tas and Chris Evans' naked chest. It's all enormously stupid and fun. My only real problem with the movie was Alba, who looks nothing like Sue Storm (the Aryan goddess of the Marvel universe) and is a better actress when invisible.

As great as Batman Begins is and as entertained as I was by Fantastic Four, I enjoyed Sky High even more. A comic-book movie that is not based on a comic book, but rather on comic-bookish ideas, Sky High is a Disney family movie about a freshman at a high school for superheroes. Will Stronghold (Will & Grace's adorable Michael Angarano) is the son of the two greatest superheroes in the world, the Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston). Unfortunately, he doesn't have any powers, so the school relegates him and the other lamely powered to the lowly status of "sidekicks," making them objects of ridicule by the more powerful "heroes." Predictably, Will is worried about disappointing his parents, lusts after an older student and gets himself into a moral quandary when he suddenly develops his powers and becomes popular-it turns out that the popular kids aren't just snobby but they're evil, too. It's sort of like Mean Girls crossed with The Faculty. The story is taut, the message honourable, and everything is shot with a wholesome, Archie-Comics sheen. It was my adolescent fantasy come to life, with the only exception being that Will gets the girl rather than Kurt Russell. Because that would be a little pervy, even for superheroes.