Not too long ago, superhero movies were like Westerns are now. You'd get one every few years and it might be good (Batman) or it might be bad (Captain America). Now, in the age of CGI, when anything imaginable can be put up on the screen (not always to good effect), you can't throw a batarang in a multiplex without hitting someone in a skin-tight costume. Three of the biggest movies this year are about characters that began life inside a comic book. As a comic book nerd, this makes me happy.
The Dark Knight Rises
Ah, the threequel. Unlike most sequels, superhero movies tend to be better in the second installment, perhaps because the origin story is out of the way. Batman Returns, X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight are not only better than their predecessors, but among the best superhero movies ever made.
However, their success sets the third movie of the series up for a fall. Directors want to top what went before and as a result, the movies often get bloated with too many characters - as with X-Men 3 and Spider-Man 3. Or the director decides to change the style of the films - the less said about Batman Forever the better.
Director Christopher Nolan set himself a hell of a high bar with The Dark Knight, the most critically acclaimed superhero flick ever. It's no surprise that The Dark Knight Rises falls short - but it's not by much. It's only Heath Ledger's staggering performance as The Joker that makes the earlier film superior.
Most of Batman's villains are evil lunatics, but Ledger's Joker could not be topped for evil lunacy, so wisely Nolan doesn't try. The chief villain here is the hulking, gas-masked terrorist Bane, who is ore Batman's evil twin than the polar opposite The Joker is. Bane is clever, methodical and a monstrously effective fighter. If The Joker is wildfire, Bane is an avalanche.
Batman versus The Joker was primarily a battle of wits. Batman versus Bane is a brawl, with Bane holding the upper hand. Tom Hardy brings a huge physical menace to the role - and also gets a surprising amount of emotion across given his face is mostly covered. One scene in particular, when he bids farewell to someone without saying a word, is beautifully done.
It's just as well Hardy can act with his eyes, because you can't always hear what he's saying. Yes, he's speaking through a mask so his voice should be muffled, but we really should be able to understand him. It's an irritating flaw and one that should have been easy to fix.
That's one of quite a few faults The Dark Knight Rises has. I'll go into them below, but be warned - here be lots of spoilers.
Too many characters. In the first half hour or so Rises reintroduces Bruce Wayne, his butler Alfred, inventor Lucius Fox, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, introduces Bane, Catwoman, cop John Blake and two important members of Bruce Wayne's company's board of directors. It also recaps the ending of the last film and sets up various new plotlines. It's too much, making the beginning of the film cluttered and rather slow. Some pruning would have helped tighten the movie and given more time to the slightly underused Catwoman.
The bad guys' motivations. Bane is the successor to Ra's al-Ghul (Liam Neesons' arch-villain from Batman Begins) and has the same goal - blow up Gotham. In the comics, Ra's is driven by environmentalism - people are screwing up the planet, so he wants to kill off most of us. Like Magneto in the X-Men, his cause has some justice, but his methods are awful. In the movies, Ra's goal is justice - of the capital punishment kind. He wants to destroy Gotham because it's irrdeemably corrupt. But while you could understand him wanting to kill all the criminals, or those on the top of the social heap, killing all the innocents makes no sense. Bane, following Ra's mission, is pretending to be an urban revolutionary liberating the 99%. It would be a lot more interesting and believable if that was actually the case.
The finale. The Dark Knight's biggest flaw was that the final battle was with the secondary villain, not the primary one. It's the same here - worse, as Bane is taken out too suddenly. Also, the Doom Machine that's counting down to Armageddon is a horrendous cliche.
The good news is that despite all these faults, The Dark Knight Rises is still an excellent movie. The cast is top-notch, with Christian Bale putting in his best performance of the series as the physically and emotionally wounded Wayne, and both Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Blake) and Anne Hathaway (Catwoman) shine. While it does take a while to pick up steam, it builds momentum and excitement, and does not feel as long as it is. The action is superb, with Bane and Batman's fights a highlight. These are not elegant, unbelievable kung fu duels. They're brutal and brilliant. The special effects are seamless - Nolan does not like to use CGI and I couldn't tell when he did, which added to the film's believability.
The script is smart, with the references to the financial crisis giving the movie a little bit of relevance, and has the odd flash of humour. Mostly it's serious business though, as we come to the end of Nolan's trilogy. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about The Dark Knight Rises is that it brings that trilogy to a satisfying end while also leaveing you looking forward to the inevitable follow-up.
It's a toss-up whether comic book nerds anticipated this or The Dark Knight rises more. Marvel (one of the two big comic companies - the other, DC, has Superman and Batman) has been building to this superhero team-up movie for years. The principal heroes (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and The Hulk) have had their solo films - two in Iron Man's case. Add two other heroes to the team, plus overseer Nick Fury, and the odds of this being one of those overstuffed movies mentioned above were very high.
Fortunately, geek legend (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity) Joss Whedon directs and co-writes masterfully. Each hero - plus excellent villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) - gets sufficient screen time doing cool stuff, and the interactions between them are the highlight of the film.
In some ways The Avengers is the opposite of The Dark Knight Rises. The latter is dark, grim and tries to Say Something. By comic book standards it's a model of realism. The Avengers is just ridiculous fun. There's fights, banter and lots of stuff blowing up. A couple of mildly cheesy moments aside, it's terrific.
The Amazing Spider-Man
Some more-than-mildly cheesy moments take some of the gloss off the new Spiderman movie. Not that it's a bad film though. I was one of the many people who thought it was too soon to restart this story, but The Amazing Spider-Man works surprisingly well. The villain is not the most compelling - he's rather too much CGI for a start - but the origin story packs genuine emotional punch, and Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have oodles of likeability as the web-slinger and his girlfriend. Best of all the sequences where Spider-Man is hurtling around Manhattan's skyscrapers on his web really capture how cool being able to do something like that would be.