Chaos Theory: An Unofficial History of the Modern Superhero Film

Chaos Theory: An Unofficial History of the Modern Superhero Film


While this wasn’t always standard practice, continuity has become the
cornerstone of American superhero comic books. Stand-alone stories that start
and stop within one issue are a rarity now; six-part stories that tie into
other series, often for cross-over events, are the norm. This is partly because
the average age of comics readers has shifted over the years from pre-teens to
40-somethings. Comics aren’t just for kids anymore, as mainstream journalists
have recurringly  screamed since the
’80s, so mainstream comic books have to form a cogent narrative. But, as comics
readers know, continuity-based comics almost never make intelligible sense.

For example: if a major character died years ago, there’s a good chance he
(it’s usually a he) will come back, thanks to a new creative team. Think of it
like a soap opera: each of these whimsical resurrections pokes a hole in readers’
faith in the stories they’re reading. If Barry Allen’s The Flash can return
after selflessly sacrificing himself in Crisis on Infinite Earths, who
cares about the death of a lesser character? That’s the defining paradox of
comic book superheroes: even though they’re perennially rewritten, superhero stories
are defined by wink-wink, nudge-nudge, secret-handshake-worthy events,
allusions, and mythology.

On the one hand, these are imaginary stories about characters that control time
and space, as Grant Morrison, the writer who brought Allen back from the dead,
has argued. Every issue is ostensibly a new one for a comics reader, so why not
ingratiate these readers with new stories about old characters? Also, comics
are for kids, and kids aren’t insane enough to care about narrative
inconsistencies. Ahem. On the other hand, constantly-retooled origin stories,
and routine Christ-like resurrections blow holes in the very idea of continuity.
If Barry can come back, why care when the Red Skull dies one more time, or the
death of yet another Robin? It’s a headache for everyone involved, but it’s
also business as usual.


It makes sense, then, that superhero movies would also be about remakes,
reboots, and recycling. Even today, we’re still being told and retold the story
of how Peter Parker earned his arachnid-like powers, or what really made Bruce
Wayne want to dress up and scare criminals. The sad fact is that almost nobody making
superhero movies has any idea what they’re doing. There’s no proven formula for
success in the genre, so any given successful superhero film is only proof of
what works in the present, not what will work again. Here comes the first sequel to the
second Spider-Man franchise; and next up, a new actor playing Batman in the
sequel to the third Superman feature film series; and so on.

Rebooting a franchise does not have to be a terrible
idea. In a 2011 Cinema Journal article entitled “Why I Hate
Superhero Movies,” Scott Bukatman hit the nail on the head when he wrote,
“Superhero films remain something of a provisional genre, still very much
in a state of becoming.” Bukatman goes on to praise origin stories as,
“the most intriguing part of these films […] this is the moment when […]
everyday reality will yield to something more, the moment when the constraints
of the mundane world will evaporate, forcing a new awareness of corporeal
possibility as the body is rethought […]”

Bukatman has a point: a good origin story reminds you of how exciting a
character can be. But since franchises are rebooted so often, premature
fatigue sets in, and audiences just don’t want to support even superior origin
stories (cough, Amazing
, cough). Audiences always vote loudest with their wallets,
but as with anything, a film’s box office success is usually relative. Batman
soberly re-established the title character’s popularity after Joel
Schumacher high-lit Val Kilmer and George Clooney’s Bat-nipples. But even
Schumacher’s Batman & Robin was
eventually successful, even if it only grossed 40% of its original
production budget during its opening weekend release. And Schumacher’s manic,
campy style was itself a response to Tim Burton’s expressive, grim (and even
more financially successful) take on the title character.


But again: nobody knows what they’re doing. In a 1997 Cinefantastique interview,
Schumacher says he hoped to present Batman as “a more accessible, less
agonizing, lighter character… There is a certain narcissism and selfishness to
constantly brooding about yourself and although Batman was created in 1939,
this is 1997 and it was incumbent for Batman to mature and become more
concerned about others.” Remember: this is the guy that put Bane in a
trench-coat and armed Arnold
Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze with puns that would make Otto Preminger’s version
of the character (from the 1960’s TV show) blush. So it’s no wonder that
audiences took to Batman Begins. Kitsch-fatigue had set in, though
everybody still paid to see Schumacher crash-zoom into his brooding hero’s junk
a few years earlier.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman will be succeeded by Zack Snyder’s Batman because
Snyder’s Man of Steel made money. Not
much is known about Snyder’s take on the character except that Christian Bale
will be replaced by Ben Affleck, suggesting that Snyder’s Batman does not exist
in the same universe as Nolan’s. But Man
of Steel
is clearly inspired by Nolan’s Bat-films. Now, Clark Kent’s origin
has twice the bathos: Daddy-devouring tornados! Wanton skyscraper demolition!
Neck-snapping fury! And per diem, too! After the failure of Bryan Singer’s
Richard Donner-inspired Superman Returns, studio execs were convinced
that Superman had to toughen up (though Returns also netted $120 million
during its theatrical run, almost half of its $270 million budget). They spoke
for the fans when they said people wanted a tough, contemporary hero who is
also devoted to, in the words of Donner’s Superman, “Truth, justice, and
the American way.” Snyder’s Superman reworks that mantra, suggesting that Man
of Steel
is light! But also dark. In that sense, the next Batman film will
be something of a return to beguiling form, though only in the sense that it
will be almost as confusing as Schumacher’s film.

Then again, one shouldn’t just blame superhero films’ creators for their
characters’ schizoid characterizations (especially not directors). Avi Arad,
the Toy Biz mogul who helped rescue Marvel Comics from bankruptcy in the ’90s,
is exceptional in that he’s been involved in several superhero success stories,
from the mid-’90s to present. Arad helped create Marvel Films in 1996, a
company that ostensibly helped Marvel to avoid the many pitfalls that kept
money-making properties like Spider-Man and Captain America caught up in
law-suits and pre-production limbo. The formation of Marvel Films was supposed
to be a major step towards standardizing continuity in superhero comics:


Realistically, Arad has only unified the Marvel universe so much. He’s produced
both Sam Raimi and Marc Webb’s versions of Spider-Man, and Ang Lee and Louis
Leterrier’s Hulk films, as well. He’s also bankrolled a couple of Marvel films
that belong to competing studios: Daredevil and the Fantastic Four films were
produced by 20th Century Fox while the Spider-Man films were released by Sony
Pictures. And of the Avengers-related properties, Arad only produced the first
Iron Man film (Robert Downey Jr. is locked for two more films!), both Hulk
movies (already rebooted once!), and a Nicky Fury film starring David
Hasselhoff that nobody
wants to remember
. He’s also only produced the first three X-Men films
(three more done, and three on the way!), one of two Punisher films (New World
Pictures!), and two of three Fantastic Four films (Roger Corman’s New Horizons,
oh no!). If there’s a unifying principle to Arad’s filmography, it’s anything goes,
a form of chaos theory. They’re all made under basically similar conditions,
but their success is determined by small, but significant different conditions
of their production, and popular reception.

And yet, while you might not think it to look at them, the three Arad-produced
titles that helped to prove that superhero comic books were blockbuster
material were the Blade films. Based on a minor character introduced in the
cult favorite comic book series Tomb of Dracula, the first Blade made
$70 million in profits. Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story writes: “although Marvel only
saw $25,000 of the profits, suddenly there was proof that Marvel Comics
characters were viable as film franchises.” The Blade movies were
probably also successful because Wesley Snipes played the title character in
all three films. In the comics, Blade was always a secondary character, making
cameo appearance in other heroes’ series. But Snipes has played the character
as many times as Christian Bale has played Batman, or Tobey Maguire has been
Spider-Man. No wonder there have been decades of fruitless speculation on
similarly minor characters, like Doctor Strange (Wes Craven was gonna direct!),
and the Black Panther (Snipes was gonna star!).

These movies obviously don’t sink or swim based on a producer’s confusing (but
successful!) whims. There’s also the simultaneously negligible and crucial role
comic book fans have in determining the success of a superhero film. Nerds
build hype, as when trailers, casting rumors, production stills, and sequel
speculation popped up to rally around Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern at
fanboy sites like Bleeding Cool, Newsarama, Ain’t It Cool News, and others. At
the same time, despite earlier planted reports, Green Lantern 2 won’t
happen anytime soon, because the first film cost $200 million to make, and only
netted $20 million during its theatrical release.

Then again, Edgar Wright somehow managed to bounce back after the geek-driven
momentum surrounding his Scott Pilgrim vs. the World adaptation failed
to carry-over to the box office. If the world were ruled by
geeks, the kind that salivate over various PR-friendly production updates from
the film’s cast and crew, Scott Pilgrim
vs. the World
might have been a blockbuster. In this world, almost nobody else showed up. Wright is currently
developing an Ant-Man movie for Marvel, a film that will presumably tie-in with
the other Avengers-related satellite films. Admittedly, assigning Wright
to direct an Ant-Man movie seems like a low-stakes gamble. But it also suggests
that Marvel wants viewers to distinguish the Avengers-centric films from
each other. So, directors for these films are being chosen based on their
established track records, even if their previous films weren’t financially
successful (Scott Pilgrim didn’t make back its original production costs
during its three-month theatrical run). So Kenneth Branagh and one of the
show-runners of Game of Thrones handle the Thor films, Rocketeer director
Joe Johnston takes the Captain America movies, and Super director
James Gunn is making the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film. This last
assignment is especially exciting/perplexing.


Gunn has scripted films for Troma, Lloyd Kaufman’s boastful, flea-circus
barker-style independent production company. He’s also done some mainstream work
before, though scripting two live-action Scooby Doo films only lends you
so much street cred. The closest thing to a superhero film Gunn has done prior
to Guardians of the Galaxy is Super, a black comedy in which The
‘s Rainn Wilson plays a disturbed wannabe superhero. Still, asking
Gunn to direct a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy, an action-adventure
in which Bradley Cooper voices a talking, gun-toting raccoon named Rocket
Raccoon, sends a loud message to a small audience: here’s a weird one for you,
fanboys and fangirls. Here, finally, is a weird-ass, misfit movie that will
also be part of Marvel’s burgeoning meta-narrative. Here’s hoping it doesn’t
bomb too badly.

Uniting the Marvel movies into a barely-coherent narrative is such a popular
strategy that DC Comics is now aping that conceit with their upcoming Man of
sequel. That film will apparently feature Batman and Wonder Woman,
too. But Marvel’s novel structuring gimmick has also become something of a
running joke. For example, mid-credits stingers only really serve to introduce
characters that will barely matter in the movie, in Marvel’s four-colored,
Wagner-worthy cycle. And Avengers director Joss
Whedon has even said
that Thanos, the shadowy boss-behind-the-boss in his
first of three planned Avengers films, was “never meant to be the next
villain.” Whedon has also said that Thanos “was only teased to give
fans a taste of how big this Marvel Cinematic Universe can really get.”
That kind of ass-covering logic–He’s not the bad guy, we just made him look
that way! Look over there, we’re already working on another story!–is
unfortunately par for the course with Marvel’s Avengers films. Their films are
part of a continuity-reliant series whose individual entries are united only by
their creators’ need to resemble the Wizards of a Neu Oz. Just don’t look
behind the curtain—but oops, Whedon has already peeled it back.

Marvel’s struggle to make films that feel of a piece is the biggest sign that
superhero films are still stuck in Bukatman’s never-ending provisional phase.
The most stylistically experimental superhero films to date–stuff like Peter
Berg’s Hancock, Frank Miller’s The Spirit, Ang Lee’s Hulk,
and Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone–bombed at the box
office. Furthermore, the only one of those four films about a
popular-enough character has already been rebooted twice. 

Superhero movies are, for the moment, hyper-popular, but
what makes them work still eludes us. Marvel’s multi-film model is successful
right now, and Marvel Studios are now branching out to television, and
Netflix-exclusive programs like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil,
and Defenders are in
various states of development. But there’s no guarantee that business model is
sustainable. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is on the way, just ahead of
another Captain America sequel (yes, I do count the Reb Brown made-for-TV
monstrosity where Christopher Lee participates in one of the least climactic
fist-fights committed to film). And while the former series was never
associated with the Avengers franchise, it will probably go on to have a
second sequel, and so will Captain America

The allure of a cohesive, all-encompassing universe of
characters is tempting. But contemporary audiences are just as likely to
grumble while forking over their money for yet another origin story. So until
the next successful paradigm-shifting film somehow makes money by being
different, superhero films are going to just be more of the same Marvel
Studios-style chaos. The genre’s future is uncertain because it’s being made up
as its creators and characters go along. Let’s just hope that Joel Schumacher
doesn’t helm the inevitable Spider-man reboot; the world isn’t sophisticated
enough to resist The Tackily Flamboyant Spider-Man just yet.

Simon Abrams is a freelance film critic and native New Yorker. His
review and feature coverage is regularly featured in the
Village Voice,
Esquire,, and other outlets.



“That’s what’s fun about doing this kind of work. All [sic] of it is organic. One idea suggests another, and it does grow.” –Denny O’Neil, Amazing Heroes #50

The concept of maintaining continuity in the representation of a character as simultaneously malleable and iconic as Batman seems like a lost cause, but it’s a noble one. No matter how much Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego have changed over the decades, the character’s various incarnations are all related, in a sense. So there’s no point in complaining that Neal Adams’s “photo-realistic” style, to borrow Bat-guru and writer Grant Morrison’s description, has been aped by a neophyte penciler. In that sense, Batman is a great symbol of modern pastiche. His best creators routinely borrow elements from the stories that have preceded them to create something new, or startling, or both. The evolution of Batman as a character is thus dependent on creative incorporation, repetition and re-invention: it only looks improvised if you don’t know your history.

This list of the best interpretations of Batman is intended to reflect that key aspect of the character. I have my personal preferences, just as anyone else does. If a major name or artistic creator is not on this list, their contributions are most likely discussed within the body of the text. So never fear, there’s a good reason why Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns are not prominently displayed on this list. I’ve also agonized over which stories to highlight for certain creators as sometimes it’s impossible to choose a story representative of a writer or artist’s talents at their peak. In these cases, I have chosen stories or collections which best show what makes that creator unique.

In making this list, I’ve found that that the aspects of the character I prefer are the kind that skew more closely to what Morrison identifies in Supergods, a history of comics, as the more surreal, gothic aspects of the character: “convention has it that Batman’s adventures work best when rooted in a basically realistic world of gritty crime violence […] but from the very start of his career, he was drawn into episodes of the supernatural, uncanny and inexplicable.” This aspect reflects what I like about Batman: the sheer weirdness of seeing a noble hero like Batman protect a city as crime-ridden and routinely besieged by pathological freaks and super-powered monsters. Also, did I mention that the said noble hero is a guy who dresses up as a bat to avenge the death of his parents? Modulation of tone and style is key here because, well, these are stories about a rich guy who fights crime because of a vow he made as a child to spend his adult life avenging his dead parents. If you exaggerate one aspect of the character, you can easily lose sight of that character’s greatest attributes.

Many of the comics I’ve chosen try to make use of established notions of who we think Batman is in order to get a better understanding of what he says to us. I hope you enjoy reading this list as much as I enjoyed making it.

null10) “Going Sane,” written by J.M. DeMatteis and Drawn by Joe Staton and Steve Mitchell

J.M. DeMatteis’s superhero comics are atypical in that they question the validity of solving conflicts through violence. In his most famous Spider-Man story, “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” DeMatteis forces Peter Parker through a draining gauntlet that makes him empathize and even go mad from burrowing so deep into the heads of two super-villains, Vermin and Kraven. “Going Sane” achieves a similar affect but through different means. In it, both Batman and the Joker believe that they’ve defeated each other. DeMatteis’s comic thus assumes that, as is shown in the 1989 Batman movie, the Joker was the man whp killed Bruce Wayne’s parents when he was a boy.

So, thinking that the personified reason for why they respectively fight and commit crime is gone, the Joker and Batman try to lead “normal” lives. Joker settles down, gets a day job, finds a girlfriend and Batman recuperates from his fight with the Joker upstate with the help of a nurse he falls in love with. Both men try to forget their pasts but suffer from recurring nightmares. Because they can’t forget what they mean to each other, they eventually wind up sparring again.

The sincere belief in reform driving DeMatteis’s exploration of this fundamentally goofy “What if” scenario is what makes it such a winner. It’s uniquely surreal to see someone like the Joker, a man we can’t help but consider a freak because of his white face and green hair, trying to lead a normal domestic life. But “Going Sane” is that much more effective for trying to introduce that level of normalcy into these characters’ lives: what if archetypal arch-enemies designed to hate each other tried to change their established personalities completely and forget that they existed?

Along the same lines, novelist Joe R. Lansdale wrote the teleplay for an episode of Batman: The Animated Series called “Perchance to Dream.” In that episode, the Mad Hatter brainwashes Batman into thinking that he’s living a normal life in which he never became Batman and his parents never died. Lansdale and the episode’s two story-writers, Laren Bright and Michael Reaves, come to the same conclusion that DeMatteis does: despite everything, Wayne would find a way to remember his obligation and would not rest until he could. His obsession is just that all-consuming and character-defining (more on this later).

Another thoughtful story that similarly makes light of Batman’s perhaps-myopic need to fight crime first and protect the citizens of Gotham City second is “The Night of Thanks but No Thanks” (Detective Comics #567), a story written by Harlan Ellison in which Batman constantly misreads situations and tries to give help where it’s neither needed nor wanted. In one scene, an old, handicapped woman beats up a mugger by herself, while in another, a car-jacker turns out to have locked his car keys inside his vehicle. As Batman jokes to Alfred at the end of the story, this is “the worst night of [Batman’s] life.”

null9) Batman as drawn by Gene Colan: “Nightmare in Crimson”

Many pencillers have put a definitive stamp on Batman, the prime example being Neal Adams. Morrison aptly describes Adams’s well-known Batman as “grown-up and contemporary:” “Adams combined slick Madison Avenue photorealism with the power of Jack Kirby in a way that made comic-book characters more naturalistic than before.” This added “naturalism,” which emphasizes dramatic poses and the athletic physique of the character, is what makes Adams probably the most influential artist to draw Batman. But Gene Colan, working with inker Klaus Janson, took the foundation of naturalism that Adams established in key stories like “The Demon Lives Again” (Batman #244), and made Batman look more like a character with one foot in a Gothic horror story and another in a modern-day superhero story.

After hyper-popular comics like Tomb of Dracula helped re-establish the prominence of horror in superhero comics, Gene Colan and writer Gerry Conway re-made Batman as a monster-fighting detective. Colan’s version of the Dark Knight certainly looked like Adams’s iteration of the character, complete with pointier ears and a gymnast’s physique. But Conway, Colan and Janson’s take on the character depended far more on the creatures inhabiting the inky shadows and psychedelic zip-a-tone fog of Gotham City at night. Batman not only fought monsters like the Mole and the Man-Bat, the latter of which was an Adams creation—he also became a vampire himself in stories like “Nightmare in Crimson,” featured in Batman #350 (August 1982).

The blurring of the line between Batman and the monsters he fought to keep Gotham safe is weirdly fitting. Since the character’s inception, Wayne’s always affected the look of a monster in order to frighten the criminal element, which co-creator Bob Kane called a “superstitious, cowardly lot.” Or as Morrison puts it in his description of an early Batman story where he fights the Mad Monk, “It was Batman as Dracula, the vampire as hero, preying on the even more unwholesome creatures of the night.” Conway and Colan’s Batman was still a detective and a physical, martial artist-trained crime-fighter. But while their Bruce Wayne had a well-adjusted aspect of melodrama to his life—more believable love interests, the return of now grown-up ward Dick Grayson—their Batman was now more than ever a creature of the night.

Writers and artists have taken many cues from Conway and Colan’s version of the characters. Writer Doug Moench and penciller Kelley Jones would later write a trilogy of stories set in an alternate reality, in which Batman becomes a vampire, stories that were unquestionably influenced by Conway and Colan’s own Bat-vamp stories (Moench began writing Detective Comics soon after Gerry Conway and even collaborated regularly with Colan). Furthermore, writer/penciller/painter Matt Wagner’s revisionist take on the old Mad Monk story, fittingly titled Batman and the Mad Monk, would almost certainly not exist were it not for Colan’s stylishly moody emphasis on monster-men.

null8) Batman in the Justice League International, written by J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen, drawn by Kevin Maguire

It seems illogical to put Batman, a character who preys on the fear of criminals and is universally understood to be a loner, in a team setting. And yet, opposites frequently attract in Batman stories. Take the World’s Finest title that paired Batman together with Superman. In Amazing Heroes #50, quintessential Bat-writer Denny O’Neil described the pairing shrewdly but imperfectly by saying that Batman is the logical left brain to Superman’s can-do right brain (the right brain typically being defined as the center for creativity). Then again, Batman also has a history of teaming-up with just about every superhero in his The Brave and the Bold title; the series featured many incongruous pairings with the likes of WW2 hero Sgt. Rock, super-sleuth Elastic Man and even the Frankensteinian Brother Power the Geek.

So when J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen had Batman lead the newly reformed Justice League in 1987, Batman was already traditionally a team-player. The writing duo’s (now famous) irreverent take on DC’s biggest superhero team franchise made good use of Batman: he was both the voice of experience and pathological reason for the group and the hall monitor for the team’s mix of unruly newbies and aimless veterans. So on the one hand, Batman lead the group in order to keep loose cannons like Guy Gardner, a raging narcissist, and Green Lantern, too, in line, but also to make sure the team functioned as a group until they could find a good leader.

Still, DeMatteis and Giffen were both clever enough to know that Batman is a counter-intuitive choice to lead such a high-profile team. He routinely barks at Guy, and the first time he makes a joke, the Blue Beetle is so shocked that he has to ask his fellow team-mates if they heard it, too. Batman is the group’s stop-gap solution, a character who takes the role as leader until he can appoint someone who’s not only more comfortable in a position of power but also a good fit for this particular team to lead. Martian Manhunter soon took Batman’s place as the group’s leader but for a little while, Batman remained with the group, helping them as best as such an authoritative outlier could. This would not however be the first or last time Batman would lead a team: Mike Barr, the writer who conducted the aforementioned interview with O’Neil in Amazing Heroes #50, gave the Caped Crusader his own team to lead in Batman and the Outsiders.

null7) Tim Burton and Batman Returns

One of the most refreshing things about the two Batman movies that Tim Burton directed is the fact that he was not, before helming either film, a fan of the character or of comics in general. That lack of familiarity gave Burton the confidence he needed to futz around with the character and remake him using Burton’s idiosyncratically macabre sense of humor. Though Burton would become frustrated with mandates imposed on him by studio execs during the making of Batman Returns—he has said many times that he was unhappy with being forced to make the characters more accessory-friendly and thus more marketable for kids’ Happy Meal toys—his second attempt is much more tonally consistent and uniformly brazen in its take on the character.

Which is somewhat ironic, considering that Batman (Michael Keaton) is barely present in Batman Returns. Though he has some compelling scenes where he confronts both the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), he’s only vestigially important to the film’s plot. This is mostly because Batman is, both thematically and narratively, caught in between these two characters, one an outsider who has fooled himself into thinking he wants to be an insider (Penguin runs for Mayor of Gotham City but winds up trying to blow the city up) and the other disgusted with anything vaguely associated with the city’s patriarchial hierarchy.

When the film was initially released, many critics complained about Batman’s reduced status. But that’s part of what makes Batman Returns so exciting: it’s every bit the movie its (then) outré filmmaker wanted to make. It also doesn’t hold uninitiated viewers’ hands too much. Batman Returns is a film whose interests and sense of humor are hyper-specific to its creators: who else would have DeVito bite a man’s nose until he bleeds or have Catwoman grope Batman’s crotch while purring about how his penis is what really defines him? It’s too bad that Burton didn’t get to make a third Bat-film. It seems like both Burton and the Warner Brothers execs were sick of each other by the time it came to realize Burton’s tentatively planned third film. With Batman Returns, it looked like he had really hit his stride and was onto something.

null6) Batman: Year One, written by Frank Miller and Drawn by Dave Mazzuchelli

Batman: Year One’s biggest triumph is establishing the importance of Commissioner James Gordon, then only a Lieutenant—this development is part of what made it a milestone comic book, and one of the major influences on Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. In Miller and Mazzuchelli’s comic, Gordon, a tough, aspiring cop who refuses to be bribed by Gotham City’s corrupt politicians or their hirelings, helps to establish a much-missed human element in Batman’s story. Gordon’s obsession with protecting his pregnant wife Barbara and raising his unborn child in a crime-infested city makes him the personification of what Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham City to. He’s the core of humanity amidst so much squalor, characterized in Year One by pimps, mobsters, bent elected officials and crooked cops. 

Miller and Mazzuchelli’s greatest innovation was establishing Gotham City as being more than just a dense labyrinth for Batman to run around in. That approach would rub off on creators like John Ostrander and Mary Mitchell in Gotham Nights or Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen in Streets of Gotham, two short-lived titles focusing on the various different people living in Gotham, from rival superheroes to citizen shop-keepers. And it’s telling that “Gotham Noir,” the only time to date that writer/artist duo Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have put their film-noir-influenced spin on Batman and his world, centers on Commissioner Gordon. Also, Gotham Central, one of the best Batman-related comics in recent memory, follows the misadventures of a group of cops that just happen to work in the same city as the shadowy Batman.

null5) Grant Morrison and The Return of Bruce Wayne

I’ve singled out The Return of Bruce Wayne as Morrison’s best story so far because it’s simultaneously his most ambitious and accomplished work. In the six-issue mini-series, Morrison has Bruce Wayne re-incarnated six times before he returns to his life in the present-day. Stories like the one where Batman, as a pirate or a witch-hunting pilgrim or even a caveman, retains his moral compass and learns more about himself in the process are inspiring for their simultaneously bugfuck crazy and gratifyingly character-driven spirit. Oh, and did I mention that Batman’s friends are trying to find a way to stop him from being reborn in the present, as he’s been implanted with a futuristic bomb that will blow up when he is reborn one more time? Return really does have something for everyone: romance, time travel and Batman dressed as a Blackbeard-style pirate, complete with fire in his beard.

No comics writer has approached the character of Batman with as much ambition as Grant Morrison. Morrison’s often-psychedelic takes on the character prove just how deeply invested in the character and the world he is: he views Batman as a heroic archetype unto himself. No matter the form, Morrison’s comics insist that Batman will always be a heroic presence. In “Batman R.I.P.,” Morrison creates a villainous group that nearly destroys Batman, causing him to revert to a back-up personality that he created years ago just in case his psyche was ever destroyed by a villain (in these cases, Batman becomes “the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh,” a purple, yellow and red-costumed hero that Morrison repurposed from Silver Age comics where Batman inexplicably visits the alien planet of Zur-En-Arrh). In Batman and Robin, Morrison and penciller Frank Quitely did a nightmarish riff on the Adam West-era Batman stories but, as filtered through, as Morrison put it, a David Lynch-style sensibility. And in Batman Inc., Batman unites with the various different countries’ answers to Batman, including England’s Knight, and Argentina’s El Gaucho.

null4) Bruce Timm’s Batman: Batman: The Animated Series and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

People often take for granted just how much Bruce Timm, along with his stable of voice actors and writers, did to modernize the character of Batman, as we know him today.Both the multiple Emmy-Award-winning Batman: The Animated Series and its one theatrical incarnation, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, achieved a tonal balance with the character that no live-action film has ever been able to beat. With show-writers like Alan Burnett and Paul Dini and voice talent like Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hammill (the Joker), animator and director Bruce Timm found a great middle ground in appeasing both child and adult audiences looking for a good Bat-story. The stories were consistently well-told, juggling Bruce Wayne and Batman’s various and sometimes contradictory character traits. He’s a womanizer, a detective, an athlete, a symbol, and yes, a cartoon character that does things no human man could ever do. Mask of the Phantasm, a film Timm co-directed and co-scripted, is probably the best Batman film to date: its narrative juggles two villains and features a strong love interest for Bruce without ever seeming over-burdened.

Batman creators owe an untold debt to Timm and company for modernizing the Batman and making him both more believable and kid-friendly. He turned a goofy villains like Mr. Freeze into a credible, sympathetic character by giving him a backstory (Freeze now commits crimes to find a cure for his wife, who suffers from a mysterious illness) and modernizing the character’s look. In that way, he also helped to expand the cast of characters that Batman fans would associate with the character to the point where they could not only easily identify a vast “rogues gallery” unique to Batman, but also a regular roster of sidekicks and allies, including two different incarnations of Robin. If any one creator can be credited with helping to build the foundation that has made Batman the most popular superhero film franchise to date, it’s Bruce Timm.

null3) Denny O’Neil and “Venom”

Comics writer Denny O’Neil is probably the most influential writer to ever take on the character. Stories like the now-canonical re-imagining of Batman’s origin story, “There is No Hope in Crime Alley,” and the formally innovative prose story “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” set the pace for what scads of writers and artists felt they could do with the character. O’Neil’s take was grounded in Wayne’s obsessive nature. Romance, like the one Wayne briefly shares with Talia Al Ghul, was marginal in O’Neil’s Bat-stories because of the character was so mission-oriented. His most formative Bat-stories were written, as O’Neil described them in Amazing Heroes #50, as “pure comic books:” “It never occurred to me to plot social issues into these stories.”

At the same time, O’Neil’s take on Batman was semi-realistic, making his teaming with penciller Neal Adams a good fit. O’Neil treated the character as a real, psychologically understandable character, someone whose actions and world could make sense within a quasi-realistic context. His villains were not as flamboyant as the ones featured in the campy Adam West TV show from the ‘60s, a conscious decision that O’Neil has since expressed regret about (“I think it was also, however, a mistake on my part not to put more colorful, flamboyant villains in more of the stories.”). This is striking since Christopher Nolan similarly was hired to take on the Bat-film franchise because his take stridently opposed everything the two West-era-inspired Joel Schumacher-directed films offered viewers.

 “Venom,” a relatively recent Batman story by O’Neil, is a very good example of what O’Neil could do with the character. In it, O’Neil takes the social-issues-centric, anti-drugs stance that he famously pursued in his Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up comics and applies them to a rather moving Batman story. After he’s incapable of lifting a piece of debris trapping a small child, Batman resorts to experimental steroids to help make him as physically capable as he is mentally adept. The way O’Neill merges his psychologically rich understanding of the character, as shown in Wayne’s daily setting of the grandfather clock leading to the Bat-Cave to the time of his parents’ death, is remarkable. And more importantly, the plot, which takes Batman to the fictional South American island of Santa Prisca (the island where, in the comics, The Dark Knight Rises’ villain Bane originated), is a good mix of detective story and action-adventure.

null2) The Killing Joke

With The Killing Joke, British New Wave writer Alan Moore and 2000 A.D. artist Brian Bolland put a definitive spin on the Joker as Batman’s mirror image in a story that’s still considered one of Moore’s best stories. Like “Going Sane,” Moore and Bolland’s story starts from the premise that Joker and the Batman can’t stop the cycle of violence that keeps them at each others’ throats. But unlike that later story, The Killing Joke really drives home the psychological violence that drove the Joker to drop out from society and turn to crime. “One bad day,” as the Joker puts it, is all it took to push an otherwise sane man over the edge, turning him into a monster.

Normally, the idea of giving a villain like the Joker a specific origin (in this case, the Joker is a failed comedian who gets involved with gangsters in order to help buy a better life for his pregnant wife) seems tacky. But that’s the crux of what makes Moore and Bolland’s Joker so sympathetic: his madness is a product of his refusal or perhaps inability to stomach the random injustices of life, the kind that made his life determined by a series of circumstances that were well beyond his control. What makes The Killing Joke a great Batman story is its taking advantage of the notion that Batman’s villains are just reflections of his personality, versions of what might have been, had Bruce Wayne’s life been determined by completely different forces.

null1) Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ Batman

No one take on the Batman character and his development as a modern hero is as influential as Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ eight-issue run. The pair left their indelible mark on the character in mystery-oriented stories like “The Laughing Fish,” a story that was the loose basis for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie, and with villains like Hugo Strange, a psychologist who became obsessed with revealing Batman’s identity after trying to recreate the conditions that made Bruce Wayne Batman. With Silver St. Cloud, Englehart and Rogers were the first team to give Batman a memorable independent love interest. And the pair’s treatment of the Joker is equally crucial to the character’s development as a lethal psychopath and the most dangerous of Batman’s villains.

Though O’Neil readily admitted that there are similiarites between Englehart’s and his own vision of the character, he also correctly identified what separated his Batman from Englehart’s: Wayne was a more emotionally well-balanced character under Englehart and Rogers’s stewardship. He was more understandable, too, perhaps because he had functional social relationships and could still be defined by his extra-curricular obsessions as a super-rich, tights-clad vigilante. Here was a recognizably human Batman, one that should be looked on as the Platonic ideal whenever superhero skeptics wonder how a superhero comic can be simultaneously pulpy, thoughtful and character-driven.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Nanni Moretti’s Cinema of Opposition

SIMON SAYS: Nanni Moretti’s Cinema of Opposition


The films of Italian writer/director Nanni Moretti primarily revolve around his own ego and then secondarily around questions of moral responsibility, specifically the extent to which we function in society. Moretti himself plays a recurring role in almost all his films: the empathetic and, as he puts it in Dear Diary (1993), "whimsical" skeptic. In I Am Self Sufficient (1978), a single father struggles to come to terms with the fact that his goofy, sub-Brechtian theater troupe isn't really reaching its minuscule audience. And in The Mass is Over (1985), a priest (also Moretti) leaves his sheltered island home to pursue his vocation but finds himself easily distracted and frequently uninterested in his congregants' problems.

I talked with Moretti with the help of an Italian interpreter last week, and my discussion only confirmed what I already knew after watching his films: Moretti is his own best character. Through his characters' various permutations, Moretti, whose new film We Have a Pope (2011) opens at Manhattan's IFC Center this Friday, often wavers between introspective self-seriousness and manic self-parody. In that way, he's a worthy acolyte of poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose death Moretti commemorates in Dear Diary when his character takes a long Vespa ride around and beyond Rome's city limits. In films like The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and Hawks and Sparrows (1973), Pasolini questioned whether it was possible to achieve the kind of utopian ideals that intellectual discourse often strives for. The same is true of Moretti's movies, though he often begins by poking fun at himself.

In his movies, Moretti defines himself in opposition to the institutions he is a part of. Even in The Son's Room (2001), a deceptively tranquil family drama that also won the Palme D'Or, Moretti voices frustration with being part of a unit, in this case a nuclear family. Even before Moretti's character’s son abruptly dies, Moretti's character wonders just how involved he can be in his family's collective life. In The Mass is Over, Moretti's stand-in is just as easily uncomfortable with his calling as a priest. He plays soccer with some local children when he doesn't want to listen to a plaintive parishioner and turns up the radio when another congregant tries to confess to him. Moretti often laments that he can't be there for his film's supporting characters. But that semi-comic resistance is a big part of his cinematic persona's charm.

According to Moretti, there's a problematically narcissistic tendency towards self-pity amongst Italians and Italian movies that he parodically embraced when he made Dear Diary. Moretti described Dear Diary to me as his way of spoofing an ongoing trend in contemporary Italian films, where 40 year-old men act like blameless "victims" and lament about being unable to leave behind their difficult jobs, their needy families or their backwards countries. "This feeling of being a victim and not assuming one’s responsibility is a constant in Italians," Moretti told me. "Dear Diary makes fun of that attitude of feeling like a victim for 40 year-olds, for 20 year-olds, for 60 year-olds—it’s still present. It’s a model [of thinking] that still exists and it’s still a problem with the Italian personality. The fault is always someone else’s. If a match is lost, it’s the fault of the referee."


Then again, through his films, Moretti expresses his own personal frustrations with being an atheist (in The Mass is Over and We Have a Pope), a Communist (in I Am Self Sufficient and Moretti's 1989 masterpiece, Red Lob), a lover of theater and films (in I am Self Sufficient and Dear Diary), and someone that often finds himself at odds with everyone around him (all of the above). This is funniest whenever Moretti's character despairs over popular contemporary cinema. In I Am Self Sufficient, Moretti works himself up into a frenzy at the thought that Seven Beauties was, upon its original 1975 theatrical release in Italy, hailed as the start of a new kind of Italian cinema. He goes further in Dear Diary, in which he tracks down one of the Italian critics that gushed over the 1986 American serial killer pic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and brings the poor reviewer to tears by reading his laudatory review back to him. Funnily enough, Moretti is reluctant to talk about Henry. When I tried to make an admittedly long-winded parallel between the "psychological simplicity" of characters in both his films and in Henry, Moretti became comically antsy. Even now, there are some films that you simply can't talk to Moretti about, it seems. 

Still, it's not especially surprising to see Moretti act in real-life as one of his characters might in his movies. When asked about how he was preparing for this year's Cannes Film Festival, where he will lead the jury of the festival's main competition, he instinctively responded with a self-deprecating joke. "I’d like to go to Cannes and buy some suits, lose a kilo or two, learn a little English," Moretti said. "I won't be able do do any of these things. The suits, yes, but the English and the weight, no." Moretti went on to tell me at some length what participating in film festivals as a juror has been like for him. But, just like when he jokingly corrected his interpreter, who initially mistranslated "referee" as "coach," Moretti behaved exactly, well, like himself. He's a self-possessed boy philosopher who carries the weight of his world on his shoulders with unabashed gaiety. A victim, he ain't.


Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.




For a few months now, China Lion Entertainment has been better in theory than in practice. For those that missed my Lunar New Year piece: China Lion is an American distributor of popular contemporary Chinese and Hong Kong films. Until this week and with the notable exceptions of some interesting but inconsistent melodramas like Aftershock and Love in Space, China Lion had yet to release a film worth recommending without serious reservations. China Lion films typically don't leave you with any resonant emotions beyond superficial first impressions. They're fluffy, and, even in the extreme case of Aftershock, a family drama about two generations of Tangshan Great Earthquake survivors, there's very little gravity to them.

Thankfully, with the release of Love in the Buff, Hong Kong co-writer/director Ho-cheung Pang's (aka: Edmond Pang) sequel to the equally moving and light romcom Love in a Puff, China Lion has finally released something worth recommending (China Lion never released Love in a Puff, presumably because it originally released when the company, which focuses mostly on first-run features, did not exist in 2010).

Love in the Buff follows a young former couple as they try to meet other people while struggling to get back together. Like many of Pang's previous offbeat comedies, Love in the Buff is a movie about storytelling and the cumulative effect of white lies. Pang's young lovers tell each other stories about people they know and about each other, like the one about the girl with a lover's pube stuck in her bracelet or the plain-looking blind date whose mother claims he looks like In the Mood for Love star Tony Leung Chiu-wai (the man explains that his mother only meant that he is as tall as Leung). In telling these small, incestuously inter-related fictions, Pang's characters create the lives they want to lead out of the unremarkable ones they currently live.

That heady concept is developed at the start of Love in a Puff, in which Cherie Yu (Miriam Yeung) and Jimmy Cheung (Shawn Yue), two soon-to-be lovers, meet while huddled over a trash can for a smoke (in 2009, a law in Hong Kong was passed that banned smoking in office buildings and some public parks, too). Pang frames the romance in Love in the Buff similarly by showing Cherie and Jimmy chatting conspiratorially about a mutual friend. No matter how hard their mutual friend tries to protect her boyfriends, they all inexplicably die, or so the story goes. One dies after doing laundry at a Laundromat so the friend buys a washer machine. But her next boyfriend falls to his death from a window while hanging laundry up to dry at home, and so on.

So unlike Love in a Puff, which started with a story about a man being trapped in a trunk and the aforementioned pube anecdote, Love in the Buff starts with a personal, fatalistic myth of Cherie and Jimmy's "Black Widow" friend. You don't have to know who Cherie and Jimmy are or where they are in their relationship after the events of Love in a Puff because Pang has just had his jaded lovers tell us. They're scared of losing each other, an anxiety that soon proves to be self-fulfilling.

In the Love in the ____ series, Cherie and Jimmy relate to each other and people in general primarily through character-embellishing tall tales. So it's not surprising that, even after the couple drifts apart in Love in the Buff when Jimmy announces that he has to move to Beijing for work, Cherie and he still both remake their lives based on little fictions. And when Cherie and Jimmy's friends and loved ones can't meet the high expectations that the set up in Cherie and Jimmy's private stories, the nee personality traits that hey exhibit become the raw material for new stories.

For instance, Jimmy starts dating a Beijing girl named You-You (Mini Yang), a flight attendant, after she promises to repay a favor that Jimmy did for her by helping him "in bed." While Jimmy's thinking he'll get laid, You-You actually just wants to meet at a trendy bar where patrons are served food and drink in beds. But bear in mind: Jimmy only meets You-You after Eunuch tells him a yarn about flight attendants, saying that stewardesses can be sexually harassed twice before there are serious repercussions for their molester. A man sitting behind Eunuch overhears this and tries to grope one of You-You's fellow stewardesses. He immediately gets caught however since Eunuch was, uh, apparently mistaken! So Jimmy decides to meet You-You at the bed bar and checks to see if Eunuch’s new theory (Eunuch insists that You-You is sexually aroused by Jimmy) is true. But he only does this after Eunuch's story about groping women proves to be untrue.

The opposite dynamic is true of Cherie's post-Jimmy search for love. She first tries matchmakers that hook her up with their sons, like the one that misrepresents her son as a Tony Leung look-alike. But then, when another blind date turns out to actually match his mother's description, Cherie winds up stuck fishing her cell phone out of a public toilet while her best friend, now clearly enamored with a Huang Xiaoming look-alike (actually played by Hong Kong actor Huang Xiaoming), hits on Cherie's intended date. So Cherie winds up meeting Sam (Xu Zheng) instead, a guy she later realizes she wants to date because she thinks he is, personality-wise, Jimmy's complete opposite.

But the situation Cherie's in when she dates Sam is not an inversion of when she first started to date Jimmy in Love in a Puff. In fact, it's just like the circumstances that led Jimmy and Cherie to originally date each other. Whereas Jimmy chose to date Cherie knowing that she was already seeing somebody, Cherie is now cheating on Sam with Jimmy while Jimmy cheats on You-You with Cherie. Everybody's telling a different story in Love in the Buff, making it both a knotty and accomplished variation on Puff's meta-textual main theme and a very clever and resonant romantic comedy unto itself. This: this is the China Lion film to see.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

THE HUNGER GAMES: The Conversation

THE HUNGER GAMES: The Conversation


Now that The Hunger Games, the new film adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins's hyper-popular young adult book series, has raked in $68 million dollars on its opening day alone, it seems especially prudent to take a somewhat harder look at the film, both as a stand-alone work and as an adaptation. Below, Ian Grey and Simon Abrams discuss the film, which is set in a futuristic America comprised of twelve districts barely held together by a fascistic central Capitol. The Capitol residents hold an annual event called the Hunger Games, a gladiatorial contest where 24 contestants, 12 girls and 12 boys chosen at random from 12 districts, fight as a means of humiliating the residents of outlying districts. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a plucky fourteen year-old who's developed survival instincts by illegally foraging for food in the forests surrounding District 12, volunteers to take her younger sister Primrose's (Willow Shields) place in this year's Hunger Games. With the help of fellow contestant Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and their hyper-cynical mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Katniss fights for her life while everyone in the Capitol and the outlying 12 districts watches.

Ian Grey: I think The Hunger Games does something conceptually radical—it’s the first CG-lite blockbuster pastoral. Otherwise, I liked-not-loved this first table-setter. The set design was a fun mélange of Starship Troopers and American Idol. Capitol's people were a properly daft mix of Lady Gaga fans and Ziggy Stardust's band and Gaultier ala The Fifth Element. Lenny Kravitz makes an unexpectedly winning Cinna and Woody Harrelson's liquored up Haymitch is even better. And, you know, there’s Jennifer Lawrence.

A big critical complaint is being slapped at the hyper-editing style used during the opening scenes of District 12 as Walker Evans-style Appalachia. I'm fairly certain the style was used because it leaves you with no choice but to pay close attention.

Another problem I'm willing to forgive Ross has to do with some blurry action scenes. I assume this has to do with the MPAA, outed recently as morally insane for giving a life-saving film like Bully an R, and who no doubt gave Ross endless notes on how to more tastefully slaughter teens.

But every time Ross' action got wonky or his pace meandered, his character love sold me on the movie. There was Katniss tucking in Prim's clothes. The strange wound erotica when Katniss and Peeta attend to each other in the cave. Or Cinna's sole vanity, his lovely thin golden eye shadow. And those extreme close-ups to Lawrence's lips to show her controlling her breath/herself before shooting an arrow.

And please, T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard's soundtrack? The way it eased from full-blown Dvořák-like romantic cues to eerie Glass-ian arpeggios to rust-bucket

Americana? Amazing work. And there's that 2001-level jump-cut that's officially Occupy's first cinema moment.

And Jennifer Lawrence. As they say, out of the park. There's a scene where she thinks Peeta has betrayed her and her rage is so violent you don't only fear for the boy's physical well-being, you feel the accumulated rage beneath Katniss' 16 years of deprivation. Like Ripley in Alien, she represents an entirely new way of thinking about women in films. For that alone, The Hunger Games is an instant classic.

That duly noted, there were things I thought simply wrong, miffed or unrealized. But that's enough for me for now.

Your turn, kind sir!

Simon Abrams: Et tu, Ian? I was sure that if anyone would get why I intensely disliked the movie version of The Hunger Games, it'd be you. The critical tongue-bathing that this movie is getting is fairly intimidating, even downright disheartening. It's sort of like when Iron Man came out and was hailed for having a semi-distinct personality rather than for its quality, or lack thereof. I can't discredit director Gary Ross as the sole reason for this new adaptation's consistent mediocrity. Collins herself co-adapted the film's screenplay along with Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach), a writer/director I quite admire. But honestly, while I agree that Lawrence did deliver the goods, I find most other aspects of The Hunger Games to be sorely lacking. And like you, I dig Collins's book! I wish I could say the same for this new adaptation.

Firstly, as you anticipated, the use of violently shaky handheld cameras really bugged me. I'm specifically talking about the establishing scenes in District 12 before the Reaping, the moment when Katniss takes her sister's place. In the scenes where we see the mine workers of district 12, their hard-working wives and, uh, soil-tilling children (?!), Ross's shaky cam-work violently makes us feel like looking at working class people is punishment. Once in the Capitol, protagonists are treated like hamburgers in McDonalds commercials: they're fetishized to the point where they look beautiful. There's lots of negative space behind them, they're shot in only the most flattering close-ups and they're just generally purty-looking. So in spite of the stupid and garish-for-garish's-sake costumes of your average Capitol resident (Versailles by way of Clown College), Ross tacitly accepts that people just look better in the Capitol. This is problematic, to say the least, because spectacle is supposed to be an inherently stigmatized aspect of The Hunger Games.

Then again, Ross makes the scenes of violence during the actual games so joyless and anti-spectacular that I also kind of hate him for doing what he was supposed to, albeit in a more a creative way. Ross goes so overboard in denying his audience the relatively simple pleasures and horrors of watching kids we care about die that he zealously cuts the legs out from under his own film.

But again, Ross isn't the only one to blame, really. Collins and Ray don't follow through on a number of crucial plot points. One of the reasons why the act of being watched is so crucial to The Hunger Games is that Katniss knows she's participating in a spectator sport and must win the crowd over in order to attract sponsors that can give her food, medical supplies, weapons, etc. This is most apparent in the scene where Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) sends Katniss a care package of soup with a note that says, "You call that a kiss?" The soup is Katniss's reward for giving the games' viewers a spectacle. She kissed Peeta, the boy that's already won viewers over with his earnest displays of affection for Katniss, and has been rewarded for it.

In the book, Katniss doesn't know whether Peeta is faking it or not, though, so she is constantly wary of his advances. That aspect of their romance is not in the movie. In fact, after Katniss smooches Peeta some more, it's just understood that their romance is genuine, even if it falls apart in the book. That real-or-fake aspect to Katniss's romance with Peeta isn’t followed through on in the movie, making it a fairly dismal and dimwitted entertainment.

Ian Grey: First, Katniss's ambivalence towards Peeta has not been exnayed for the movie version, even if it's not as agonizingly nuanced as in the book.

But still, what we get are one highly qualified kiss, and another to help save Peeta's life. And afterwards Katniss rolls away in the dark.

This is not exactly love's battle's won. As Ross has chosen not to do a voice-over, the only way we can see Katniss’s ambivalence is through actions. But even now, she remains true to the books' essence of Everdeen.

The essence, Simon, is still there. Love was nothing she looked for or wanted. After Peeta declared his affection, Katniss very nearly clocked him. That Katniss is still here and we'll be seeing her in the next film. Yes, she's holding his hand. But that parting overly-glow-y smile? I don’t buy it. She knows there are cameras everywhere and that Prim and her mother’s fate depend on her ‘performance’. The smile is for them.

As for the matter of critical reception, I shielded myself, so I was, for once, a virgin regarding something.

I'm confused about the problem you have with Ross' class system, in which "Ross tacitly accepts that people just look better in the Capitol."

Dude, they're RICH! And without taste. That's the entire point of them–and of Cinna.

Look at this in real world fashion terms. The Capitol citizens are like coked out 80s Upper East Siders  bonkers onmanhandled Mugler, Sproise and Johnson. Despicable but fun to watch, in a zoo-ish kind of way. Their couture trashiness establishes that it's money, not style, art or beauty, that drives the Capitol. (Alas, Ross completely omits Collins’ concurrent fashion fascism critique.)

Anyway—who are the ugly Citizens’ opposite number?

Cinna. With his understated elegant blouse, his gold flecked eyes, his hopeless adoration for an impossible charge. He literally—in the book and in the film—fights spiritual and material ugliness with material and spiritual beauty.

That black fire-retardant chic totally worked for me. Ross and his fashion and CG team totally pulled it off. Respect.

When you say "Ross makes the scenes of violence during the actual games so joyless and anti-spectacular," I have to stop you here. I know you know that Collins' Dad was a Vietnam war vet, that the books were written out of a seething hatred of war and everything it touches.

Ross worked hard to escape that war movie paradox, that even antiwar movies are so exciting they become recruitment pictures. Not here. Ross' war is ugly and pitiful..

Simon Abrams: Your argument about Katniss and Peeta is mostly reliant on the assumption that there's a subtle but visible intelligence motivating Ross's direction. To put it bluntly: I don't think he's that clever. And because neither Collins nor Ray works to explicitly suggest that there's a disingenuous element to Peeta and Katniss's relationship post-Hunger Games, I don't buy the whole "smile for the camera" argument either.

Also, the movie's presentation of Katniss and Peeta's relationship is more inconsistent than you've suggested. For instance, during pre-Games training, Peeta abruptly decides to train alone with Haymitch. This surprises Katniss in the movie, but in the book, she just assumes Peeta wants to work on a new strategy privately. He is an opponent, after all. But in the movie, we don't see Katniss even consider that maybe Peeta's just doing what she was doing a few days earlier: trusting nobody and scheming to stay alive. So in the movie, Katniss looks doe-eyed and confused when Haymitch announces Peeta's private final session. What happened to the independent, calculating and openly wary young heroine we saw a few scenes ago?

 And as for the inarguably stupid-looking costumes that the Capitol residents wear, it's too easy to go over-the-top with these characters. The film's righteous characters are always unadorned and simply dressed, whether they're Cinna or Katniss. I mean, Cinna only gets along with Katniss because he supposedly can judge her character based on her actions. But even that nonsensical cop-out logic doesn't apply to the Capitol residents. Consider the blunt contrast Ross, Collins and Ray draw between the film's simple/good characters and the more flamboyant/evil Capitol residents. The Capitol is represented by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the Games' announcer and the Capitol's hammy version of Bob Costas. The Capitol's absurdly decadent nature is driven home with all the grace of a sledgehammer by Caesar's hokey, theatrical commentary alone. So why then do we also need his hair to be made-up in that stupid blue bee-hive hairdo? That kind of camp may be intentional (it's in both the book and movie). But that doesn't mean I'm groaning with the moviemakers when I'm looking at it projected on the big screen.

The same goes for Ross's deadly earnest "war is hell so it should look like hell" ethos. The desperate hyper-realism inherent in that kind of violently shaking camerawork doesn't convince me that what I'm seeing is any more intense or violent. It's a textbook example of shortcut storytelling: Ross wanted to get a point across quickly and efficiently so he did it in the most direct way possible. The emotional stakes in this film don't really seem to matter, either. Even Katniss's interactions with Rue (Amanda Stenberg), the young Games contestant that she bonds with because Rue reminds Katniss of her sister, felt canned and lifeless. This movie’s three main architects all obviously know what they need to emphasize but are ultimately stumped as to how to do so.

Ian Grey: With all due respect for what you’re arguing about, regarding whether or not Ross has the skills to pull off the nuance of Katniss’ romance or lack of it with Peeta—forget the books. As much as you can, forget them.

It’s impossible, but especially now, I can’t do a book/movie battle. I could talk about how much richer Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch is than Collin’s broad comic relief confection. I could also talk about Kravitz’s gravity as Cinna (man-crush alert!) and I could complain about how they downsized the other Tributes to mere canon-fodder (at last a literal description).

Point is, I need to think about the film.

May I suggest we start with not agreeing about Ross’ war work?

What’s up with your sour grapes about the “deadly earnest "war is hell so it should look like hell" ethos”?”

I mean, is that unhip? Should war look groovy? What’s undesirable about a movie that thinks war is filthy, chaotic work done out of desperation at the bidding of morally insane monsters?

And your claim that “The emotional stakes in this film don't really seem to matter, either” is a real head-scratcher. Katniss’ entire universe circles around Prim—and so in what universe would she not transfer her feelings to a dear, small,Prim-like creature like Rue? “Canned and lifeless”? It takes two to tango.

And what follows Rue’s awful death, a death of two girls, by the way, to double Katniss’ reflecting agony, is for me, one of the greatest film experiences of my life, so when you trash it, respect that.

For me, this scene IS The Hunger Games, distilled. (It’s also Occupy’s National Banner, in images and sound.)

It’s where the film soars and Ross—who’s often all-thumbs—finds the place where subtext becomes syntax and then the only working currency in the frame.

Against Howard’s eerie Glass-on-Eno funereal thrum, Katniss prepares Rue’s body with flowers. The music and the low camera looking at Lawrence’s ruined-heart face…everything keeps building, the festering wound sun and inhumanity and that insistent music and then a jump cut to Rue’s District and the enraged crowds are tearing down the monitors that show the Hunger Games and they’re trashing barriers and attacking Peacekeepers and… Ross and Collins are saying, screaming, that a human life has worth. That sometimes one death can be one death too many. It’s what history is based on.

Simon Abrams: I wish I agreed with you, Ian. This movie fails as both an adaptation and a stand-alone film in general. You can forget the books all you want. I'm referring back to them for the sake of pointing out that Collins was more thoughtful there about themes and plot points. Even if the books didn't exist, there would still be crucial ideas that were misconceived in the movie. But the books do exist and I think that's a very good thing. Because I wouldn't care about The Hunger Games if its source material didn't exist.

With that in mind, let me address your dislike of my dislike of the abhorrent use of shaky cam. A visual aesthetic is not a mandate to replicate reality. People came to see The Hunger Games to be entertained, yes? But there are ways to get across a semi-complicated view of violence, one that reflects intensity in a visually exciting way, other than making it visually incoherent. I am not at war, I am in a movie theater. So unless Gary Ross has suddenly turned into Gaspar Noe, I don't think it's a good or especially interesting thing that The Hunger Games looks ugly. Again, the use of shaky hand-held camerawork is just a cheap means of making violence look immediately violent. It doesn't allow spectators the pleasure of realizing for themselves why the violence they're looking at is so deplorable. 

Which is why I brought up Rue. Yes, I know her death is supposed to mean something. But I felt nothing when it happened. Had Ross, Collins and Ray done their job well, I would have gasped when Rue died. 

You point to the moment where Katniss puts flowers on Rue's body as a moment of intense sadness but I could just as easily point to it as another shortcut. You want to show me Katniss mourning Rue's death? Show me her running and thinking about Rue. Show me her talking about Rue to Peeta. Earn my tears with something other than cheap flowers and a dopey riot.

Again, the Hunger Games's moviemakers just didn't grasp the power of symbolic representation in their movie. Their film is all thumbs because it's all chintz.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times,, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal.His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: The Weird World of Unseen Marvel Comics Movies

SIMON SAYS: The Weird World of Unseen Marvel Comics Movies


When Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was released this past Friday, I couldn’t help but think this of Nicolas Cage: “Wasn’t this guy supposed to play Superman?”

Follow my train of logic, please: as a fan of the Ghost Rider comic book character, the poor reviews for Spirit of Vengeance, a title that seemed like a shoe-in for Crank boys Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, were truly, er, dispiriting. I mean, if the guys that made Jason Statham a living cartoon character can’t do much with a film where Nicolas Cage plays an antihero with a flaming skull head, who can? I haven’t seen Spirit of Vengeance but I still want to enjoy it, and I hope that I’ll take away something from it other than abject despondence, which was what I got from the 2007 Ghost Rider.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of VengeanceAnd yet, the kind of died-on-the-vine disappointment that both professionally critical friends and lay-nerds alike have experienced after watching Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance led me to wonder about the comic book films that never were – dream projects like Tim Burton’s aborted version of Superman, whose prospective costumes look psychedelically campy in the best way imaginable.

Hold on, before you call me a troll or a contrarian, let me back up a moment: the reason I fantasize about a Tim Burton-directed, Nicolas Cage-starring Superman movie isn’t because I think it’d be a huge success. In fact, I think it’d be crazy and dysfunctional but possibly exciting and frequently dazzling. It’d be different, is what I’m trying to say, and different is what I want from comic book movies. I am, after all, writing in an age of drab Marvel comic book adaptations like Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger and Christopher Nolan’s frequently exciting but pointedly anti-flamboyant Batman movies.

Ahem. I dream of superhero movies where guys that wear four-colored outfits are allowed to be simultaneously human and ridiculous. This is admittedly a reactive stance after having only really been impressed by Iron Man 2, a character-driven mess that is mostly pretty entertaining but is also very much a film made by fans that felt like they could cut loose and just tell a story that they really wanted to tell after doing their due diligence in the first Iron Man. I want a comic book film that doesn’t pander to first-time audiences and also doesn’t deny the fact that these characters live in worlds where death rays and super-powers are commonplace. Is that so much to ask?

I guess so. In my recent search for comic book movies that are out there and exciting and yes, maybe consistently engaging enough to be worth seeking out, I focused primarily on the Marvel Comics movies that time forgot, by which I mean that I sought out made-for-TV projects that have been buried by Marvel and have yet to surface on DVD or Blu-ray. This didn’t require much skullduggery: many of these titles are available via YouTube and will likely continue to circulate on another medium after a Marvel rep reads this article and tries to pull down the titles listed below. I wish I had more time to watch more of these weird objects of cult worship, because you can say what you want about how “good” these made-for-TV films and episodes are, but hot damn, they look downright outré when compared to fairly recent Marvel movies. These older adaptations suck, but they’re a different kind of suck.

With that in mind, if you’re willing and interested, take a little trip with me down memory lane and remember comic book films that never were – released, that is. These are all Marvel properties, folks, so you won’t see me tackling equally tempting stuff like the 1997 Justice League pilot (though it is, uh, available). And you won’t see me talking about The Man-Thing or Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher. You can either Netflix those last two titles or buy them off of Amazon. Think more along the lines of the Roger Corman-produced Fantastic Four and bam, we’re on the same page.

Bear in mind: these are movies that aren’t necessarily superior to contemporary Marvel movies. In fact, if you’re still with me, you’ll soon find that these films are actually often worse. But they’re different and they at least attempt things that today’s Marvel titles don’t, and I find that’s almost always worth getting excited about. So face front, True Believers, we’re heading into the wonderful world of made-for-TV live-action comic book adaptations! Excelsior!

nullThe Amazing Spider-Man (1977): This 90-minute pilot for the short-lived live-action TV show by the same name is pretty strange. It’s almost as if its creators thought that because Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) is a hard-luck hero with a cloud permanently affixed over his head, he must also be a sub-intelligent creep and a pest, too. As his human alter ego, Parker spends a lot of time bothering poor Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (David White) for work (Jameson just can’t use any of the photos Parker gives him, suggesting that this universe’s Parker is actually just a talentless hack that got lucky). Hammond’s Parker is Christopher-Reeve-as-Clark-Kent-levels of nebbish and annoying, but minus all the well-meaning aw-shucks stuff. He’s bashful but has a million questions to ask everyone and a weird inability to take a hint and leave well enough alone.

Worse still, once he’s suited up, Spider-Man spends a lot of time climbing up green-screened walls, skulking atop rooftops and backing away slowly from boring-looking villains. (Spidey fights a bunch of brainwashed thugs with wooden swords in this movie; meh.) He doesn’t talk much, mostly because he looks like he’s going to poop in his tights after backing up onto a banana peel.

But hey, at least this isn’t a boilerplate “Who is Spider-Man?” story like Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man. The impulse to reintroduce new audiences to one of the most famous superheroes has always struck me as an odd impulse. So it’s nice to see a film where Spidey gets bit by a spider, then fights some brainwashed dudes, and saves the day without said day-saving meaning much in the grand scheme of things. This is not an event film, in other words; it’s a big installment in a serial and it doesn’t even look like a definitive first installment! Which isn’t great for a TV pilot, but hey, it’s certainly different.

nullCaptain America II: Death Too Soon (1979): The second of two starring vehicles for the charisma-less Reb Brown is much more interesting than its previous installment. In it, Brown fights Christopher Lee, who blackmails world leaders with a chemical agent that makes people age faster. See, already cool, right?

Eh, not so much. Brown’s a walking black hole and this made-for-TV film’s plot meanders like a mother. The scenes where Brown is painting in a park and is interrupted by local toughs is especially laughable. Then again, so is much of everything else in this film, right down to the cheap production values on the motorcycle that Brown drives as Captain America. Cap’s signature stars-and-stripes shield, which looks like it was bought from a nearby 99-cent store, serves as his bike’s windscreen, too (!?!?!), and is so small that when the motorbike launches out of Cap’s battle van (?!?!?!?!) accompanied by several fire extinguishers’ worth of smoke, it looks like Cap’s riding a colorful, rocking horse-sized missile of doom. Unless you really want to see a rapidly aging Lee fight Brown, you can probably skip this one.

Dr. Strange PosterDr. Strange (1978): For a movie about a surgeon that becomes the world’s greatest sorcerer, this made-for-TV film’s pretty damn sleepy. Peter Hooten (where do they find these guys?) plays Stephen Strange, a kind-hearted medico that gets wrapped up in the schemes of evil Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter), a sorceress trying to take over the world so that she can stay young forever. Strange is called up to help Thomas Lindmer (John Mills), who is secretly Merlin the ancient magician, to fight Morgan. Presumably because Dr. Strange is a relatively obscure superhero, this one’s a fairly straightforward and vanilla origin story. You spend most of the film’s 93-minute runtime watching a cookie cutter hero get the courage to dress up in a garish costume (complete with an ill-fitting cape) and duke it out on the Astral Plane with an evil woman in an equally garish costume. It has its moments, I suppose, and some cute psychedelic imagery. My favorite moment has to be when Le Fay tries to seduce Strange and trick him into removing the talisman-like ring that protects him from her. That moment was almost good! The rest is mostly indistinct and uninteresting.

Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.Nicky Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (1998): This is the one made-for-TV film I chose that wasn’t made in the ‘70s, that wild period where Marvel was most committed to bad ideas. In it, David Hasselhoff plays Col. Nick Fury, a grizzled old war vet that never met a rule he couldn’t break. I’m paraphrasing from David S. Goyer’s cheese-stuffed screenplay. (Goyer, incidentally, wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, along with many other comic book properties.) Basically, this is a fairly rote alternative to the origin story: Fury comes back from retirement and helps S.H.I.E.L.D. fight Baroness von Strucker (Sandra Hess), the daughter of his arch-nemesis…Baron von Strucker. While it’s always a delight to see the Hoff chomp on a cigar and wildly overact, there probably should have been more to this film than just a lot of juiceless Oorah-ing and weird creative decisions (why do HYDRA’s minions look like the Spy vs. Spy guys except without the pointy noses?).

Japanese Spider-ManFirst two episodes of Supaidaman (1978): This is easily my favorite of the collection of, well, stuff that I watched for this article. This live-action tokusatsu show is a weird mash-up of Spider-Man and Power Rangers. I didn’t know until now that select episodes were officially available for streaming via Marvel’s website. So you can actually watch this with real subtitles and everything, and see for yourself such sights as Spider-Man with a giant robot or Spider-Man fighting henchmen in bird costumes or Spider-Man fighting evil men in rubber monster outfits. That last item is what I’m into, apparently, because the intentionally poorly-subtitled versions I watched here and here are just as entertaining. In fact, I’d say that if you like what you see in those latter two links then you should definitely check out the official Marvel page. This stuff is nutty as all get-out and it’s certainly visually disturbing enough to make up for its plot’s many lapses in logic. A must-watch!

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: As another year passes, Chris Gorak’s RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR reminds us where we have been

SIMON SAYS: As another year passes, Chris Gorak’s RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR reminds us where we have been


Writer/director Chris Gorak's The Darkest Hour hit theaters on Christmas Day; to give you an idea of why you should be excited, here's an appreciation of Gorak's topical 2006 chiller, Right at Your Door.

“They don’t really know anything,” Rory Cochrane murmurs wonderingly at one point early on in Right at Your Door, writer/director Chris Gorak’s nightmarish horror parable about the War on Terror as it's imagined at home. That line of dialogue guilelessly gets to the heart of Gorak’s drama, which features the best and not-so-best aspects of George Romero’s trenchantly moralistic horror movies.

Cochrane's exclamation is a small but significant breakthrough for his character. At this point in the film, a dirty bomb has gone off in downtown Los Angeles, sending toxic ashes across the city and its suburbs. Brad, Cochrane’s harried antihero, has sealed himself into his house at the recommendation of local authorities. He’s shuttered his house with duct tape and cellophane. But his wife Lexi (Mary McCormack) is on the outside of his house. She's now, as the title says, right at the door, and Brad can't – or maybe just won't – let her in.

So when Brad says, “They don’t really know anything,” to Lexi, who’s now tearfully begging Brad to let her into the house, Brad’s not really talking to her. He’s admitting to himself that yes, all the preparation and due diligence he’s hitherto performed don’t amount to a hill of beans considering that the people he’s taking orders from aren’t even sure what’s happened. From that moment, Brad’s one short step away from half-wailing and half-spitting out to Lexi that the L.A. authorities “don't fuckin' know enough to sugarcoat anything."

nullAs in Romero’s The Crazies, Right at Your Door evokes a world where authority figures are visibly shown to be unreliable. This is extraordinary in Right at Your Door because authority figures are only physically represented by armed grunts clad in gas masks and biohazard jumpsuits. These monsters are just following orders when they don’t answer Brad’s questions. For example, one can't help but notice the way one soldier hesitates and even trembles while puffing out his chest and defensively telling Brad, “We’re not trying to cause more panic than there already is.” Compare that with the way the similarly dressed soldiers in The Crazies are defined by their actions. They don’t use verbal prompts that might even tentatively reveal their humanity. By contrast, Gorak's army men reveal their humanity while they’re doing the most cruelly impersonal things.

And yet, Brad still clings to the notion that what he’s been told by authorities makes some kind of sense. He improvises an elaborate series of cellophane tarps and hangs them up on open doorways in order to quarantine Lexi in certain parts of their house until someone can come by and check her out. He does all of this because he’s in full-on panic mode. While Brad is thinking clearly enough to try to help his wife as best as he can, his self-preservation instincts have kicked into overdrive. So while he knows that the voices on his radio that warn him to stay indoors and seal himself into his house are not entirely reliable, he listens to them anyway. Because in this apocalyptic scenario, heeding any advice is understandably preferable to sitting on your hands and waiting to die.

Right at Your Door is striking both for its spare scenario and its sympathetic characters’ plights, and also for Gorak’s tendency of not shying away from pointed, Romero-esque sermonizing. At one point Alvaro (Tony Perez), the gardener of Brad’s next-door neighbor, despondently explains why he was admitted to Brad’s home and Lexi wasn’t: pure chance. “We didn't decide anything,” Alvaro insists. “It was instinct. It was just instinct." Gorak, like Romero, is shooting from his gut, not the hip, which is what makes the film’s twist ending and its shrill, blind howl of rage against the shadowy tactics and potential repercussions of the War on Terror. Gorak points a big honking finger of blame squarely at the evil-looking g-men, but they’re not really guilty and neither is Brad, even though he’s ultimately responsible for his fate. Hearing Cochrane cry out, “I’m still alive,” at the end is terrifying because it’s the last impotent complaint of a man that knows he’s unwittingly killed himself.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Tom Cruise in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 4: “it is my destiny to be the king of vain.”

SIMON SAYS: Tom Cruise in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 4: “it is my destiny to be the king of vain.”


In the recent Mission: Impossible movies, Tom Cruise has basically played a charismatic body under stress. While Mission: Impossible III is still the most satisfying film of the series because it takes the Ethan Hunt character and gives him personal stakes to fight for, Hunt’s main appeal has always been his charm as a humorless beast of burden. No film in the series makes this more apparent than the fourth and most recent entry in the film franchise, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Here, Cruise, who gets a prominent producer credit in the film’s opening credits, shows his age; in fact, he flaunts it. Not in an “I’m getting too old for this shit” kind of way. More like a “My body has seen better days but I’m still pretty amazing, so shut the hell up and watch me scale the tallest building in the world…one-handed” kind of way.

Okay man, sure, I just came for the movie, I swear, don’t hurt me!

Tom Cruise in Ghost Protocol is intimidating-looking. In fact, watching the grooves on Cruise’s scored face is so distracting that it’s sometimes just as thrilling as watching the film’s immaculate set pieces. The bags under his eyes are always more pronounced, the contours of his face more angular and the wrinkle lines etched into his cheeks like stone always suggest more texture than his co-stars’ features. Take note: Tom Cruise’s body hasn’t gone to seed. But Hunt’s hair is longer than usual and his face is certainly showing signs of age.

nullYou’d have to work pretty hard to cover up that kind of wear, but that’s kind of the point of Ghost Protocol: Cruise’s Hunt is not in denial. He’s in great shape – did you not see him clean up the world’s tallest building in Dubai? Or, on foot in a sand storm, running around like a madman? Or crashing several BMW luxury sedans? Just think of Tom Cruise’s face as the portrait of Dorian Gray, which I guess makes his body Dorian Gray…except in Ghost Protocol, Dorian Gray is galloping around the world with his portrait on display. Which is…odd, to say the least.

So Ethan Hunt in Ghost Protocol is going around doing incredibly impossible missions. He’s not developed well enough to be treated like most characters, with ulterior motives and “feelings” that extend beyond the circumstantial peril Hunt is constantly forcing upon himself. So in this film, he’s just a really versatile guy that takes it upon himself to do much of the heavy lifting of tracking and disarming an evil Russian madman, codenamed “Cobalt” (Abduction’s Michael Nyqvist).

Until Hunt and his team catch Cobalt, they’re in the shit. But even though he’s working with them throughout the film, Hunt has to basically lead the group because none of them are capable of doing things with restraint, improvisatory skill or much brawn without him. He’s the Mr. T to their A-Team; if they were replaced by other actors mid-film, no one would notice or care. That lopsided team dynamic is sort of a given until the film’s last big set piece, which reminds us that the film is about a team of spies, some of whom, unlike Hunt, are actually both charismatic and capable of laughing at themselves, too.

Cruise’s Hunt has no such default setting. His onscreen persona throughout the series has been, and continues to be, pretty brittle. So it’s a very good thing that Cruise is naturally charming. The curious thing about these Mission: Impossible movies is that in them, he’s constantly trying to remind us of this by performing spy hijinks and superhuman acrobatics, like his big Dubai Spider-man act in Ghost Protocol, where he climbs up 11 stories using magnetic gloves, one of which short-circuits mid-climb. This only momentarily fazes Hunt. He keeps climbing.

Director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) and Ghost Protocol’s capable stunt choreographers play up Cruise’s glassy charms by making a sight gag of Hunt’s malfunctioning magnetic gloves. After he callously shucks the glove off, Hunt soon finds the errant glove stuck to a pane of glass just a few stories below where he originally ditched it. This is a rare thing in Ghost Protocol, a joke involving Hunt’s man of action. But it should be noted that the joke is not on Hunt but rather the malfunctioning equipment that Benji (Simon Pegg), a geeky and relatively effete fellow spy, gave him. Modern technology can’t even keep up with Tom Cruise!

nullBut in all seriousness, Ghost Protocol needs Cruise’s over-seriousness and his tendency of making himself look that much more focused, that much more determined and that much more capable than everyone around him. Even newcomer Jeremy Renner looks like a girly man compared to Cruise, like in the scene where Renner is floating around (literally, floating around) in an overheated subterranean tunnel while wearing a chain mail suit that levitates his whole body.

Yes, there is actually a sequence where Jeremy Renner, a new macho action hero for our times, is floating around with his arms outstretched in front of him like he’s Supergirl. And he’s sweating. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt doesn’t sweat, not even when he’s fighting Michael Nyqvist’s Cobalt, a villain that is so hardcore that he’d rather kill himself than let Hunt get the upper hand. Cruise’s Hunt, by contrast, is all upper body strength and an unending supply of physical endurance and facial tics when he wants to show you just how hard he’s pushing his body (note: pretty freaking hard). Without him, Ghost Protocol would be nothing.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice,Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.



[Editor's Note: Press Play is proud to present Chapter 2 of our first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire: Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg.  This series examines facets of Spielberg's movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures — both present and absent — throughout his work.

Magic and Light is produced by Press Play founder and Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and coproduced and narrated by Ali Arikan, chief film critic of Dipknot TV, Press Play contributor, and one of Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. The Spielberg series brings many of Press Play's writers and editors together on a single long-form project. Individual episodes were written by Seitz, Arikan, Simon Abrams and Aaron Aradillas, and cut by Steven Santos, Serena Bramble, Matt Zoller Seitz, Richard Seitz and Kevin B. Lee. To watch Chapter 1: Introduction, go hereTo watch Chapter 3: Communication, click here. To watch Chapter 4: Evil & Authority, click here. To watch Chapter 5: Father Figures, click here. To watch Chapter 6: Indiana Jones and the Story of Life, click here.]

When you think of the films of Steven Spielberg, violence may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But Spielberg’s films wouldn’t be Spielberg’s films if he didn’t show and imply violent actions. Violence is just another color on Spielberg’s palette and he’s not shy about using it, either to excess or with moderation. And the presentation of the violence reveals a lot about Spielberg’s sense of what the audience can handle, and how far he can go as a director.  

In fact, you can tell what kind of Spielberg film you’re watching based solely on the way he shows violence.
As a child, Spielberg used to worship the violent Grand Guignol violence of EC Comics – specifically such lurid titles as Shock Suspense Stories and Weird Science.   But he also gorged himself on 1950s network television and old Hollywood movies, which for the most part had a much more circumspect attitude toward violence.

Look over his filmography, and you’ll see the tension between those two tendencies – excess and moderation. But you’ll also notice that he lets one tendency take over when it shouldn’t. Spielberg modulates the tenor of the violence he employs to suit the content of his films.

There’s no explicit gore in the director’s early made-for-TV films Something Evil and Duel. Instead, it’s mostly about implication.

Three years after Duel came Jaws, which defined the term “blockbuster hit.” The film famously opens with a swim at dawn, and the shredding of a helpless bather. The scene strikes the perfect balance between evident agony and visible damage to the body. We don’t see the shark’s teeth digging into the girl, but we do sense the shark’s power. The level of brutality is shocking yet perfectly judged, and for this type of film, it’s necessary. For the mass hysteria and panic in Jaws to be immediately shared by characters and viewers alike, there has to be blood in the water. And boy, is there.

Note that the film amps up the violence incrementally as the story goes on, each death a bit more front-and-center than the last, in much the same way that Spielberg keeps the shark mostly off camera at first, gradually unveiling it in bits and pieces.

Contrast this with the sheer excess of some of the violence in the Indiana Jones films, which Spielberg made with his old friend, producer George Lucas.

The original Indy movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is filled with acts of violence both implicit and explicit.  Its finale is as over-the-top violent as the psychokinetic insanity of such films as The Fury and Scanners.

The heritage of pulp becomes even more apparent in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which is almost certainly the pulpiest of the four Indy movies.

In scenes such as the opening – in which Indy uses a shish kebab skewer in a unique and uncomfortable way – Spielberg shows us he’s ready and willing to serve up cartoonish and wildly exaggerated mayhem.
The Temple of Doom is adorned with skulls and skeletons in various stages of decomposition, reminding the viewer of the dated but effectively excessive tone that Spielberg is adopting here.

The banquet scene in Pankot Palace is particularly grisly and over-the-top. At one point Kate Capshaw’s squeamish American is served a bowl of soup that suggests the palace’s kitchen is being run by the Crypt Keeper from EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt.

And yet the Hitchcockian subtlety of Jaws and the gleefully boyish excess of the Indy films are but two of Spielberg’s violent modes. He finds other ones in his historical dramas – especially the ones that deal with war.

Empire of the Sun – an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s uses violence in a very different way than Saving Private Ryan because, where Saving Private Ryan is about the chaos of being in war – the actual EXPERIENCE of combat – Empire of the Sun is about the disappearance of life as the film’s young protagonist once knew it.  It’s a subtle distinction, and this is – for all its scope – a subtle movie, as evidenced by the power that Spielberg wrings from a single, relatively minor act of violence that doesn’t even draw blood.

In Empire of the Sun, James Graham, the film’s young British protagonist, soon realizes that the sanctity and the familiarity of his home have disappeared. His maid, whom he used to boss around, slaps him when he catches her stealing furniture. He can’t process what this action means. He just stands there stunned and lets the maid walk away, averting her eyes so that they don’t meet with his as she steals his furniture.

A similarly direct and gritty approach can be seen in the combat and atrocity scenes of Spielberg’s violent historical dramas.The D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan is the apex of the de-humanizing nightmare that its characters endure. The entire point is to put you in the middle of it and show you everything, even things no person should see. Spielberg goes so far as to make the bullets whizzing through the air and water visible. That more than can be said for the individual faces of the American soldiers, who for the most part are depicted as cannon fodder – bodies hurled up on a German-held beach to die by the thousands.  The selective shakiness of Spielberg’s camera adds another layer of surrealism to the experience of watching this volatile scene.

This is a far cry from the gun battles in the Indiana Jones pictures, which take place in roughly the same era and have similar firearms, some of them wielded by Nazi Germans.

Even if you were to compare two of Spielberg’s strictly fantasy-based films, Jurassic Park and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, you’d find that you’re seriously different territory just by looking at the way he depicts violence.

By the time Spielberg made Jurassic Park, the MPAA had created the PG-13 rating thanks to films like Joe Dante's Gremlins, which Spielberg executive produced, and Spielberg's own Temple of Doom. These films and others shepherded by Spielberg wrap fundamentally lurid material in family-friendly package. But the science fiction films – like the Indy films, for the most part – are very careful not to go too far, too soon.  They’re a bit like Jaws in that respect – a comparison made official by the opening kill in Jurassic Park, which is staged in a manner very similar to the bather’s death that opens Jaws.

Spielberg is so adept at balancing gore against human distress that in his films, as in Hitchcock’s, you often think you’re seeing more than you actually are. For example, it’s hard not to misremember that, during the scene in which Wayne Knight's opportunistic programmer gets spat on by a dinosaur, nothing that grisly is explicitly shown. He's screaming loudly though, and there's gunk on his face and his shirt, and John Williams's score is blaring. But in terms of what’s actually shown it’s a pretty restrained scene. The whole movie is more restrained than we may remember. In fact, the most horrendous violence in the film is not shown at all. The scene in which an unseen pack of raptors massacres a living cow happens off-screen, and is more unnerving because of it.

When Sam Neill describes to a snot-nosed kid how raptors used to gut their prey and ate them alive, the full brunt of the horror is conveyed verbally, without any images to assist it.

Artificial Intelligence is also set in a pulpy, theme-park-ride-friendly fantasy setting, but the film is decidedly darker than the Jurassic Park films, or almost any Spielberg films for that matter. And as a result, the violence here is pointedly less rambunctious. During the Flesh Fair scene, David the boy robot watches as outmoded robots get torn apart, shot through hoops of fire and dismantled in various different grisly ways. The Flesh Fair is supposed to be a carnival: a three-ring circus and so-called "celebration of life" that requires the death of inorganic robots to thrive.

On some level we may be aware that if the violence inflicted on these robots were inflicted on actual humans, we would probably turn away from it onscreen.  That subliminal awareness plays into the movie’s central preoccupation: at what point should a biologically non-human person be considered, for all intents and purposes, human? If it feels synthesized feelings, are they not still feelings?  Shouldn’t simulated pain still be considered pain?

The most upsetting scene in Artificial Intelligence might be the one in which David is abandoned by the side of the road by his distraught foster mother. The moment when he realizes what she's doing is heart-breaking. David's squeals of panic are so tortured that you're afraid that something bad is about to happen – something that will hurt both him and his mother. The juxtaposition of this scene with the Flesh Fair sequence is a good reminder of how good Spielberg is at juggling his role as both carnival barker and humanist. His movies are often dominated by trauma and violence: to appreciate his work, you just need to know when sit back and revel in an unreal, bloodthirsty spectacle, and when to avert your eyes.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut. Video editor Richard Seitz has worked for 20 years as a sound designer, audio engineer, composer, and dialogue editor for video games, television, short films and theatrical trailers. Game titles include The Hulk 2, Battlestar Galactica, Van Helsing, The Hobbit, Predator and Diablo 2.

SIMON SAYS: THE SITTER, blah blah, balls on fire, Method Man cameo, blah blah, double-fisted punch to the balls, blah

SIMON SAYS: THE SITTER, blah blah, balls on fire

nullThis is it, folks: David Gordon Green isn’t the guy that made George Washington and All the Real Girls anymore. Now, he’s the guy that made Pineapple Express and Your Highness. Which is a transition that doesn’t really deserve an award or a hearty handshake or even much praise really. But for the sake of needlessly giving credit where credit is due, I have to say: this new David Gordon Green is ok.

No, seriously. I may have joked in the past that, after hearing that Green wanted to remake Dario Argento’s Suspiria, perhaps doing a shot-for-shot remake of Super Mario Bros.: The Movie would be more his speed. And I definitely don’t think his comedies are worth starting a #teamstonergreen movement for or anything. But Green’s slacker comedies have been incrementally getting better. And they’re mostly funny.

So…yeah, I am working myself up to recommending The Sitter. Because it’s often very funny, thanks in no small part to star Jonah Hill. And until Green and his screenwriters start to take seriously the clichés they had been theretofore only conforming to with their tongues lazily lolling in their collective cheek, it’s pretty amiably ditzy. The film’s charms don’t really wear off until it has to become a narrative about something. Still, The Sitter’s about 2/3rds on-target, which is unfortunately more than can be said about most studio-produced contemporary comedies.

In The Sitter, an exceptionally disheveled Hill plays Noah Griffith, a push-over and a slacker that has to baby-sit three troublesome tykes so that his single mother can go out on a date. One kid, Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), is Hispanic, has to go the bathroom constantly and enjoys blowing toilets up. Another kid, Blithe (Landry Bender), wants to grow up to be a “celebutante” and hence wears too much make-up and acts like she knows what’s hot and what’s not. The third kid, Slater (Max Records), is the least annoying kid as he’s just got anxiety issues…oh, and apparently he’s a repressed homosexual, which is news even to him. None of these kids are interesting. You did not come to see The Sitter to watch these kids. Because these kids are only worthwhile as straight men to Jonah Hill’s fat man in a little plaid coat.

nullBecause, let’s face it, the plot of The Sitter is exhausting and not always comically so. Even screenwriter Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka eventually throw up their hands and accept that they have to get semi-serious about their lazy, potty-mouthed pastiche after a point, which puts a serious damper on Green’s genital-fixated style of humor (I’d say the point where the film stops being generously funny is probably the point where Noah tells Slater that he’s gay…).

So Noah takes these kids out on a wild journey to buy cocaine from Sam Rockwell, who plays a cocaine dealer named Karl that’s basically like Alfred Molina’s character in Boogie Nights but with a muscleman fetish and not as funny. But that goes to hell because Rodrigo winds up stealing one of Karl’s smack-filled dinosaur eggs (Karl also has a dinosaur and Faberge egg fetish). Then Noah meets Roxanne (Kylie Bunbury), an attractive but nerdy black girl that he can relate to and hence eventually winds up dating. Oh and Noah’s got daddy issues. Blah blah blah, balls on fire, blah blah blah, Method Man cameo, blah blah, double-fisted punch to the balls, blah.

But hey, how ‘bout that Jonah Hill? While his serious dramatic performance in Moneyball is impressive, I think he delivers an equally superlative turn in The Sitter. Hill exudes schlubbiness, which is almost enough to make his character seem fully-developed (note: his character is not even halfway well-developed). Noah is a sassy, slovenly loser, which is perfect for Hill, since he looked like Gene Wilder ate Zero Mostel when he shot The Sitter.

Noah is such a waste of space that we’re introduced to while he’s going down on his aloof girlfriend Marisa (Ari Graynor). Marisa doesn’t reciprocate, leaving Noah to peddle dejectedly back home to his mom’s place on his two-speed bike. This isn’t for want of trying: he guilelessly tries to steer her towards his crotch, winking and nudging her all the while. But she feigns stomach problems and that’s the end of that. This is material tailor-
made for Hill, though if Moneyball is any indication, he’s now trying to put that period in his career behind him. It’s similarly too bad that, true to generic form, Noah has to grow up a little by film’s end—he was just hitting his stride.

But let’s not talk about that. Like Hill, Green is in a period of creative stasis. He’s doing what he’s most comfortable right now and that’s only commendable because he’s doing it with a comic performer as talented as Hill, someone that can really turn it on if given half the chance. And The Sitter is roughly half of a chance, give or take a tenth of a chance. It’s sporadically very funny, then it’s mostly just a stupid kiddy pic. But hey, I laughed.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.