Thursday, July 26, 2012

Journey’s End

I have heard it said that there are only ten plots in all of literature. With all respect to whomever said that I submit that there is only ONE plot. The Journey. Think about it. Every book, comic, movie etc. asks you to take a journey with a character or characters from where they are at the beginning of the story, to where they are at the end. How they get there are plot devices, or as Hitchcock loved to call them…Maguffins. The Maltese Falcon was a maguffin. The STORY was about the journey that Sam Spade took and the changes he went through in his pursuit of the Black Bird. He could have been chasing ANYTHING. The STORY wasn’t about the falcon, it was about Sam.
And so it is with Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises.

Over the course of three films we have watched Bruce Wayne’s personal journey from an angry young man focused on revenge for his parents murder to someone whose dedication and conviction was so great that he would willingly die to protect his city. He went from (you’ll excuse the expression) avenger to PROTECTOR. It did not happen all at once, and it did not happen without consequence. And that is why the films in this trilogy, and DKR in particular work so well.

Nolan gave us a three dimensional protagonist. A real man who carried real scars. If Batman could exist in the real world, he would probably be very much as Nolan and Bale have envisioned him. We see a Bruce Wayne who feels his defeats both physically and mentally. A man who actually gave up on his alter ego after the events in Dark Knight and becomes a recluse for eight years. We see the physical toll that being Batman took on him and the rebirth he must go through for the Dark Knight to rise again.

Dark Knight Rises is not a great comic book movie. The Avengers is a great comic book movie. Dark Knight Rises is a great movie….period. The drama is very real. The tensions between Alfred and Bruce play intense and absolutely believable. This is not to demean the Avengers in any way. Avengers was a wonderful movie and perhaps the perfect comic book movie. But it was clearly comic book, specifically Silver Age, in it’s sensibilities. It was all primary colors and bright. The conflicts were superficial and the destruction was comic book destruction.

I LOVED the Avengers.

But by contrast, The Dark Knight Rises seems far more real. Nolan’s approach was to take a comic book character and put him in the real world (as much as you can ever put a comic book character in the real world). The color pallet of the film was almost sepia toned, relying far more on blacks, grays and browns. The images of destruction were far more disturbing than in the Avengers imagined and actually invoked memories of 9/11. The film had a gravitas that The Avengers did not because Nolan went out off his way to avoid CGC, 3D and primary colors. He went for grit…and got it in spades.
The Dark Knight Rises is not a movie I can say that I “love” in the same way as the Avengers. I admire it greatly. It moved me and completely invested me for the entire 165 minutes. It also disturbed me. It seemed…real.

Because of this, Bale’s reactions to the events of the film played more realistically his journey rang truer than it would have in a more comic book setting. Christian Bale has had his hits and missed in the first two films but he is spot on in the final chapter. Everything he says and does rings true.

One of the main reasons the film rings so true is the wonderful performance of Tom Hardy as Bane. I always thought of Bane as a second tier villain. Just a lot of muscle with a clich├ęd back story. He was no Joker! But, as played by Hardy, Bane combines the urbane evil of Goldfinger with the physical menace of Darth Vader. (I can almost hear him saying “No Mr. Wayne…I want you to die!”) Hardy’s Bane is an instant classic and is very much on par with Heath Ledger’s Joker.

For long time Batman fans it is easy to see that Nolan took elements from No Man’s Land, The Dark Knight Returns and Nightfall in crafting The Dark Knight Rises. But on the lighter side there was also a dash of James Bond, especially in the person of Bane and in the opening sequence of the film.

While there is a real tease for a sequel this film also, very satisfyingly, CLOSES Nolan’s story as well. Yes, Nolan COULD come back for a fourth film, but he doesn’t need to,

If there was ever a film based on a comic book character that should get Best Picture consideration from the Academy , it’s The Dark Knight Rises.

That’s 30!


Thursday, July 12, 2012

When The West Was Really Wild

It may be hard to believe for anyone born in the Star Wars/Star Trek era but there was a time that the movies, TV, radio, and yes even COMICS were dominated by Westerns. In the movie theaters we had John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Randolph Scott and Allan “Rocky “ Lane. On radio and TV there was Gunsmoke, have Gun Will Travel , The Lone Ranger and Bonanza. Zane Grey who specialized in novels about the old west is, to this day, one of the best selling authors of all time.
The popularity of the Western was at it’s absolute peak from the late 30’s through the mid 60’s. And comic books would feature a plethora of horse operas with titles like, Firehair, Rocky Lane, Hoot Gibson, Lone Ranger and literally hundreds of others.
As the popularity of Superheroes in comic books began to wane after WWII other genres began to push their way on to the stands. Crime, horror, romance, humor, war and Western comics would dominate until the late 1950’s when the spandex set would once again flex their meta muscles.

Popular “B” Western stars of the day all had their own titles. Such Saturday Matinee stalwarts as Hoot Gibson, Gabby Hayes, Tex Ritter, Lash LaRue and of course Hopalong Cassidy all enjoyed long comic book runs.
Hoppy in particular was all over the comic book landscape. In 1942 he appeared in Fawcett’s “Master Comics”. In 1943 he got his own title and also appeared in Real Western Hero (#70-75). In 1950 Hoppy showed up in “Six Gun Heroes”, that does not even count the comics that Hopalong Cassidy actor Bill Boyd appeared in! Yes Bill had HIS title too! Bill Boyd Western ran for 23 issues from 1950-1952.

Allan “Rocky” Lane had a comic that ran the gamut from his won title to , Fawcett Movie Comics and even Red Ryder. Lane was a hugely popular B movie actor but is best remembered today as the voice ot TV’s “Mr. Ed”!

Major players in the Western comic genre were Fawcett and Dell, but nearly every publisher had entries. DC, Marvel, Fiction House and Famous Funnies among others all had western titles on the stands in the 40’s and 50’s.

While we still see western comics today featuring such characters as Jonah Hex and (perennial favorite) Lone Ranger. The days of western dominance are long over.
What replaced the Western?

In the Movies and TV it was the Viet Nam era that killed the western. In a more jaded age the simple morality plays that Westerns often were did not find a resonant audience. But there was a double stake through the heart of the movie western. The death of John Wayne and the opening of Star Wars which lead to the rise of the modern Science Fiction/Fantasy movie. Sci-fi and fantasy share a lot of common traits with westerns.

Star Wars in particular IS a Western. They just replaced horses with space ships, six guns with blasters and light sabers. In star wars the bad guy even wears black! In short the movie/TV producers found that audiences still wanted the same stories, they just wanted a setting that more sparked the post baby boom imagination.
Go back and read The Dark Knight returns and you will see many parallels between it and films like High Plains Drifter and Shane. In fact there is one great scene where batman rides into town LITERALLY on horseback!

Before Wolverine discovered his origins, he shared many similarities with Clint Eastwood’s iconic “Man With No Name” character from Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” and “For A Few Dollars More”.

As Westerns lost their toe hold in the movies and on TV, their popularity in comic books naturally waned as well. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the Western in either venue because modern Western movies such as Unforgiven, Tombstone and Pale Rider and comics like the current Lone Ranger and All-Star Western tend to be outstanding efforts. Quantity may be down but quality is up!

That’s 30!