Black Panther

Superheroes are a salve for children—traditionally boys—who struggle to integrate into their childhood societies. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that superhero movies have become increasingly central to the plastic cathedral of American pop culture during the same years that American boyhood has consumed much of what was once, by the lights of biology, considered to be manhood. Nor does it seem a coincidence that, in those same years, men’s feeling of enfranchisement in adult society has decayed.

Disenfranchisement is, of course, a wound of literal rather than figurative consequence in this country for women, black people, and both. The appeal of Black Panther is in watching the metronome ticking between revolution and inclusion rustle the wrappers of a Happy Meal. It asks questions at the bottom of political distinctions through the sleek music of African accents, which dignify the stiff lines only half as well as Daniel Kaluuya withdraws the wings of his devotion. His eyelashes, like stage-curtain tassels, brush Chadwick Boseman aside. Boseman wears his pride in his bones.

On occasion, Ryan Coogler finds set pieces that live up to the power of his ideas: Michael B. Jordan, as the warrior-king Killmonger, returning to his childhood home in an Oakland project, at the exact moment his younger self discovered his father dead, has a doleful magic. There’s an essential unprofanity to Jordan which makes him impossible to not take seriously, even if Killmonger’s grievances are too notional. Boseman, the superhero king, on his own vision quest, pieces together the tragedy on Killmonger’s behalf; his outrage over a displaced father figure abandoning a son seems pointed. The Black Panther himself is probably the only one whose motives aren’t telegraphed. In a Marvel movie, profundity is only cape-deep.

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Birdman

To paraphrase John Cage, Birdman is too insecure to know what to say, but it is saying it. Screeching it from Manhattan rooftops. The movie doesn’t eat crow; it regurgitates it. And yet, like Whiplash, it’s full of infectious energy—enough voltage to power up a smile, and maybe a few seizures. The problem is that it’s at Michael Keaton’s expense. In affect, the film is the opposite of Wes Andersonia—it’s more like a backstage musical that breaks out in fights rather than songs—but, as a work of art, it’s made impotent by its irony. It flatters the audience by playing off popular preconceptions of what showbiz people are like; shits on Middle Americans (like a multi-chinned family that wants its picture taken with Keaton’s movie-star character); and then shits on artists because having aspirations only means jerking off your ego. Right in the middle of the ensemble is Keaton, playing a washed-up Hollywood actor who’s writing, starring in, and directing an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that’s about to premiere on Broadway. He’s like Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2: everything happens to him. Except, potentially, for a devious act in the beginning and a last-straw gambit at the end, he’s a cipher, devoid of volition.

Twenty years after turning down the fourth installment of a superhero franchise, Riggan Thomson is pressing bleakly past middle age, having sold out, then cashed out; he’s gone from being typecast to not being cast, and suffers from the lingering apprehension that he hasn’t—in the film’s mushy terms—lived up to his potential. What a coincidence that he’s played by Keaton! Whether or not the particulars of Riggan’s career are true to Keaton’s own—and my educated guess is that they’re not—they are corroborated by our pop-psych, tabloid know-how of the former Batman’s “fall from grace,” and this completely (and cheaply) shapes the way one perceives Keaton’s performance. Batman shadows Birdman just as Birdman shadows Riggan. That his performance is excellent, and that, so far as it goes, Keaton chose to play this role, doesn’t contradict the fact that he is being exploited in much the same way that Riggan is accused of exploiting his celebrity to mount his return to relevance.

There’s no way to get a read on this movie—and not just because the movie conveniently, and quite arrogantly, tells you you can’t by introducing a spinster theater critic who drinks alone at a bar and schemes about eviscerating Riggan in print before she’s seen his play. Zach Galifianakis classes up his mealy gay-guy bit to play Riggan’s lawyer, and seems to be the sole figure who has only Riggan’s interests at heart. And yet—spoiler alert!—he couldn’t be more thrilled about the social-media buzz his buddy gets after a suicide attempt. When the emotional focus shifts from the star to one or more of the subsidiary characters, the pat revelations come out of nowhere; they rear-end the narrative. What are we supposed to take away from Emma Stone, playing Riggan’s fresh-out-of-rehab daughter who talks like Aaron Sorkin’s idea of a twentysomething? Her father’s selfishness addled her upbringing, to be sure; so when she tells him otherwise, is she just being polite? And then there’s the matter of the Romeo she falls in love with—a self-absorbed prodigy, played by Edward Norton with caddish gusto, who can only get a hard-on when he’s in character. (Or, hokier still, only in front of an audience.) In this film’s backhanded reckoning, artists need protection from nasty know-nothing critics because they’re so pathetic and insecure. Naomi Watts, in particular, seems hobbled by this delimiting conception. “Why don’t I have any self-respect?” she cries. “You’re an actress!” her foil replies. The persistent drumming on the soundtrack pauses for gems like that; it’s a reverse rimshot.

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Man of Steel

Man of Steel isn’t bad for a superhero blockbuster—which is to say that it does a good job of not being terrible despite the twin handicaps of having Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder attached to it. Their movie is a work of popcorn theology—supersized, with extra butter, and a couple pillars of salt; but, as its faith is as widely practiced and sanctioned as any in our culture today, its message is as worthy of scrutiny as that of a televangelist. It’s no secret that the ur-hero, who came to Earth from Krypton to save us from a fallen angel named General Zod, has been resubstantiated as a Christ figure. His conception was the opposite of immaculate: Kal-El is the first of his kind in centuries to be born of copulation rather than bred into a destiny like his scientist father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), and Krypton’s generalissimo Zod (Michael Shannon). When the advanced planet, starved of resources, blows up, Kal floats down the Nile to Kansas in his space bassinet, and is raised by a farmer named Kent (Kevin Costner) with a bumper crop of moral fiber. Kal (Henry Cavill), whose name is anglicized to Clark, has godlike powers in this new environment, but a hypersensitivity to it, too. His Joseph figure teaches him restraint for his own safety’s sake—humans aren’t ready for the Second Coming; we don’t even have a cross of kryptonite to nail him to. The way he hangs around truck stops during his post-high school years, if Clark wasn’t a closet superhero, I’d expect this saintly lumberjack to be a closet something else. But he’s essentially a free-agent Good Samaritan, without branding. When Zod and his junta, exiled from Krypton and thus its only other survivors, arrive on Earth, Clark has to save his adopted people from his bloodthirsty compatriots, who are angling to strip-mine our planet and turn it into a new Krypton. Like a transplanted sports fan, Superman is torn between home teams.

What Man of Steel makes clear, which previous iterations of this franchise (which dates back to 1938) may have glossed over, is that doing the right thing is a choice. Granted, I need to brush up on my Bible, but the immediate parallel that occurs to me isn’t in Scripture, but Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. When, way back in the Captain America period, Superman stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, it was as much about choice as being drafted into World War II was. It was about duty. No questions asked. Virtually all superhero movies are about choice on some level, but the immaculate, unearthly Superman may be the only one for whom this solemn peroration is appropriate. Nolan’s Batman was a mortal in the real world, even if the director gave no evidence of familiarity with it; Nolan’s Superman is in a real-ish world, too—but, here, the setting is even less stylized than Gotham, and serves as a contrast between men and this god among them. Or at least it should. There is an idea behind Nolan and David S. Goyer’s conception, and that counts for something; but, as usual, it gets as worn down as the Metropolis skyscrapers that are battered by Zod. If the material were really to be brought up to date—and, on top of that, made intellectually respectable—Superman must guide his new neighbors down a path that allows us to avoid the self-destructive fate of Krypton. If that planet stagnated because its population was deprived of choice, surely it’s on the filmmakers to demonstrate how humans are saved by their capacity for choice—and not simply by a Caped Crusader: the deus ex machina of childish escape fantasies. Making him a Christ figure—even making him human—is an easy way out, because the humans aren’t compellingly human, but are mere pawns in a spectacle that is likely much more cynical than Goyer or Nolan anticipated it would be. Our foremost faculty, it is implied, is not our liberty but our helplessness. Marx’s line about religion being the opiate of the masses is often misunderstood, but the logic behind the misunderstanding clarifies why makers of blockbusters are now mining the Church for material: superheroes once provided escapism; they now stand for ritualized self-delusion.

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The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises is like a Hipstamatic photo in reverse. Shot on Imax cameras so high-def you can see each expressive tendon on the actors’ faces atrophy like arm fat, this Saga of Our Times pits weak-chinned capitalists and social-register flibbertigibbets against the sort of masses that wetted the pants of anyone who ever wore a prince-nez or uttered “tut-tut” in reproof. Call him Brechtian, call him Burkean, but any serious discussion about Christopher Nolan’s politics always seems bogus to me, as if the talking points have been implanted in our minds via inception. He does have a promising angle this time: Wedge A Tale of Two Cities into the Occupy / Wall Street fault line—but with Dickens used as dumbshow. It isn’t partisan; it’s a Rorschach blah. Headlining is Batman’s determination to save a city that bites its own ass out of cravenness, bowing first to the Joker and now Bane. The film embosses the question of why he should—but sidesteps the issue by parroting Sidney Carton’s last words. (All gobbets of altruism aside, Bruce Wayne’s real motivations are spite, anger, and a desire to prove himself.) On its own terms, the movie throws Batman a just-right retirement party; but all it ends up saying about the world to which it purports to be relevant is that it has something to say. Does Nolan know he’s letting us eat cake?

Cake the color of charcoal. By now, the notion that this trilogy constitutes a gritty, realistic version of the D.C. Comics universe exists—like most of Nolan’s strengths—only in theory. It’s the opposite of gritty: as antiseptic as an executive washroom. The images flush from memory after each cut, and between the anally even pace and the sense of stagnation that comes from lifeless setups, I went cross-eyed whenever I paid attention to the editing. Not that one should. We’re meant to keep one eye on the spectacle and the other on the plot, and this director’s as into plotting as a military junta. So, to borrow some spittle from Brandon Nowalk’s silver tongue, “if we accept that the plot is creaky … then maybe it’s not nit-picking so much as challenging the film on its own terms.” (If it isn’t a lazy lacuna—How did Batman get back into barricaded Gotham?—it’s a ham-handed imposition on reality, like the lights going out in Wayne Manor the same day its owner’s investments tank, courtesy of Bane Capitalism.) It’s possible that after stacking the deck with villains and climaxes in Batman Begins, and bending space-time itself in Inception, Nolan’s backed himself up against a wall of expectations where he’s button-holed by pricks like me who have, sometimes too readily, adopted The Dark Knight as a bête noir. Nolan’s so-called social criticism is both overemphatic and underformed: Shouldn’t riches-to-rags Batman and a-gal’s-gotta-eat Catwoman get some kind of prince-and-pauper moment? That would be so 20th century (21st might be asking too much). Plucky Anne Hathaway is the megastar behind the kittycat cowl, and even if she’s as spunky as a high school cheerleader, she’s still stuck with the role of mascot, adult Halloween costume and all. (Catwoman goes by her given name here, rather than her alias. How could we have possibly taken her seriously otherwise?) Most vexingly, Gotham is as explicitly Manhattan as Metropolis was in the 1978 Superman—a diss to Chicago, Gotham’s stand-in last time around (and also more architecturally unified and thus imposing), and to an audience that isn’t expected to suspend disbelief sufficiently to suppose that the stock exchange could be anywhere but Wall Street.

Tom Hardy, at least, appears to be having fun. His Bane looks like he has a full-grown pig stuffed in each pec, but his jolly-bellied voice gets caught in that Alien face-hugger leaching off his Darth Vader grillz like a filter feeder; when he and Christian Bale’s dark knight converse, it’s as if they were trying to out-laryngitis one another, and one waits for English subtitles to kick in. (The director and his brother, Jonathan—with whom he wrote the script—could use them. They write in bromides.) They say haters gon’ hate, but I entered the theater with will good enough that when I discovered afterward that two of my favorite parts (the line “Now I know how that feels” and the image of Cillian Murphy presiding over a kangaroo court, flopped over like Oscar Wilde exiled to Kafka) were cribbed from graphic novels, I was induced to disappointment; and when I understood that the most heartfelt expression of human passion in the movie was the love of Alfred the Butler (Michael Caine) for Bruce Wayne, his master, I began to feel terrible for the filmmaker on whom my poison pen has splattered so much ink, picturing his pale face getting flush the morning after his big premiere, when news was leaking in from Aurora, Colo., where a midnight screening was preempted by the spray of human blood—something omitted from this PG-13 world.

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Captain America

Captain America is remarkably unremarkable as a movie. Each edge is so smoothly crenulate that you can smell the cookie-cutter that molded it; and, yes, this cookie came from a tube. Whereas nearly every major superhero franchise of the last decade has been spearheaded by a director who was taking to the Hollywood bank credits he’d earned in Indiewood, this first link of the Captain’s inevitably interminable chain—interlocked, as it is, with all the rest of the Avengers—has been helmed by Joe Johnston (Jumanji, The Wolfman, Jurassic Park III). And in a way, it’s a relief: Superhero duty is largely hack work, so it’s finally fallen into the right hands. The film is mild and skillful enough to be acceptable to adults—who’ll appreciate Stanley Tucci’s Einstein impression—and lapped up by kids. (Imagination not included.) A movie that is still adroit in performing this function—that can reconcile its complete lack of original thinking with a complete lack of Nolanesque pretension—deserves its share of credit. It structures adolescent fantasia in a way that Transformers III, its drive-in double bill, refused to—though Michael Bay, in his defense, has frisson; and this film is no less an overfed cash-cow than his adbots are.

Captain America is somewhat remarkable, however, as a milestone of sorts: It and Thor may be the first film franchises explicitly bred for crossover. Aliens and Predators coexisted peaceably for years before being dragged into conflict; Freddy and Jason probably admired one another’s work from afar; and the Flintstones were extinct millenia before the Jetsons came aknockin’. But this is a whole new world of husbandry. Would square Captain America have found his way to the screen without being obligated to cross streams with irreverent Iron Man in The Avengers? It isn’t only a question of brand differentiation or minority appeal. The character reeks not just of just World War II, but of a more tender wound, the post-Sept. 11 nationalist zeal, when black & white was once again cloaked in red, white, and blue. (This hasn’t totally ceased to happen; but it’s found other cloaks.) So, in an era of shady military contractors, of dribbling support for wars in Libya and Afghanistan, and reticence about Iraq, would such freestanding patriotism still play? Propaganda is the material’s essence, an infusion of Spidey’s wish-fulfilling transmutation with a jingoistic twist. This ’40s fish may need to be plucked from its water and have Tony Stark spew acid rain on its parade—not an anti-American shower, just a cynical drizzle. Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans, via digital diminution) is a morally strong weakling from Brooklyn who is allowed into the Army because, unbeknownst to him, his native virtue makes him the perfect guinea pig for being turned into a human Panzer: Captain America. A weaponized shrimp. This furrows the brow. Is he now property of the Army—lock, stock, and new barrel chest? Will he be mothballed in peacetime? When his body was enhanced did everything grow, you know, proportionally? Like Tony Stark wouldn’t ask that question! Maybe, in The Avengers, he will.

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 isn’t your daddy’s superhero movie. It’s your granddaddy’s. The steady torrent of wisecracks on the screen is indebted to the ’30s screwball comedies that accelerated newly audible dialogue to supersonic speed; and in this high-grade hybrid the screws are actual screws, and the balls energy-based projectiles launched from our hero’s metallic palm. The quips fly faster than the energy balls. (If our hero has any trouble saving the world, it’s only because he’s out of breath.) This two-hour movie doesn’t linger long—which is a virtue. But it poops out early. The filmmakers are so preoccupied with sequels, spin-offs, and tie-ins that the story neither concludes nor hangs from a cliff but splits like a horny amoeba. Their verbosity is by way of apologizing for the sale. I had a good time, but my ears tolled from all the ringing up.

It’s difficult to describe the plot without mistaking it with premonitions of The Avengers or Iron Man 5, but, this time around, the hotrod homunculus has to contend with two new villains—neither of whom are very super. Iron Man’s not very altered ego—Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.)—faces off with daddy issues while stressing the bejeezus out of his sort-of significant other (Gwyneth Paltrow). Mickey Rourke’s Vanko has daddy issues, too, and avenges his father by way of a string of supercharged Hanukkah lights that he lashes Stark—and several other Formula One drivers—with. This display impresses a skeevy Stark Corp. competitor (Sam Rockwell) who pines for a military contract that Stark refuses to make; the unveiling of Stark’s high-tech suit of armor has ushered in an era of world peace, but Rockwell’s Hammer and Senator Garry Shandling (!) know that peace doesn’t pay the bills. (His name is Hammer, and he really is a tool; since the U.S. ain’t buying, and Iron Man’s off the market, he pawns off his gimcrackery to the Axis of Evil, which, unfortunately, is not the name of a comic-book cadre.)

Conniving cinematic moguls have all the money in the world and never know what they’re paying for. The misalliance between the Wall Street grub and the Soviet Bloc-head threatens Stark’s international armistice and—yada yada yada. This expression of impatience is as much mine as the filmmakers’: Jon Favreau, the franchise’s auteur apparent, and Justin Theroux, the solo screenwriter. (The 2008 prequel enumerated four.) If Iron Man wasn’t played for breezy irony, it would most likely have been because these filmmakers had lost their minds—like most of the recent superhero movies have. A sense of proportion is key. When it makes one feel indignation at a project that one’s working on, that sense can have a poisonous effect on the tone. But this crew isn’t snide or condescending; their tone is consistently sportive. Many of the players are reprising their roles from the first film, and nearly everyone seems to be in it for kicks. Downey acts in the manner of a well-born Bill Murray; his hauteur burbles like molasses. He, Paltrow, and Scarlett Johannson—playing Double Agent Romanoff (the laziest Slavic surname a writer could contrive)—practically race each other to see who can spew smart-talk fastest. (Johannson has a hypnotic hold on innuendo even after it’s left her lips.) Only Don Cheadle—who’s demonstrated more talent in better roles, and replaces Terrence Howard as Lt. Colonel Rhodes—delivers his lines in a way that seems a little too robotic. (Downey looks robotic. He’s absurdly hale for 45, but his playboy’s looks are as integral to the fantasy as the special effects. These stars shine brighter than the glossiest gossip rag.)

Of the newcomers, Rockwell’s festooned in three-piece suits that make him look like a wallflower at a ’70s disco; he’s downgraded from walk to waddle to match his chichi threads. I think it’s an homage to The Wrestler when Stark conks Vanko on the noggin with a folding chair; but I hope Rourke pays homage to that performance by not coasting through the rest of his roles. He Russifies well, but he and Eric Bana (the Star Trek nemesis) ought to form a support group for neglected adversaries. Vanko is a symptom writer’s block rather than a roadblock to our heroes; and when he blows Queens to smithereens, it hardly gums up traffic any more than the daily commute.

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The Dark Knight

The word “Batman” is omitted from the title of The Dark Knight for good reason: He’s hardly in it. His screen time pales in comparison to his adversary’s—maybe not in terms of minutes, but certainly in memorableness. To fend off comparisons to Jack Nicholson, director Christopher Nolan pulled a wild card for his Joker: the newly respectable Heath Ledger. And the late actor, with a fusillade of raw (but intricately coordinated) malice, roars past every other respectable performer in this film. It’s an epical swan song for Ledger’s career, and it’s just what Nolan must have been looking for—and it’s exactly wrong for this movie.

Ledger was a very good actor, and might have eventually become a great one, but, even at his best, he was always acting. When his lovelorn cowboy in Brokeback Mountain agonized, one could picture Ledger working up a fury in front of his mirror the morning before. Likewise, every tic, every grimace, every lick of the lips that his Joker makes in The Dark Knight seems right on schedule. Ledger was a sincere hard worker who took professional chances; he meticulously studied and scrutinized every detail of the characters he played and tried his damnedest to absorb their pathos. But, though his hard work paid off, his methods were often transparent. Watching his Joker, one can see the extent of his toils. The problem with his performance, which is a problem with Nolan’s conception, is that Ledger works too hard.

Nicholson, who grew fat on an unprecedented paycheck for his work in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, knew better than to overwork his acting muscles refining the role of a gangster who slips into a vat of acid, decides to wear clown makeup and causes mayhem thereafter. The actor relished in a hammy performance which perfectly jibed with Burton’s excessively silly, off-kilter vision. But Nolan’s no Burton. His take on the superhero franchise has gotten so dark, it’s become lights-out. In Batman Begins, as in Spider-Man II, it was personal—Bruce Wayne, Batman’s Fortune 500 alter ego, battled with his psyche and from villain to villain to villain (with Katie Holmes nestled in between). Nolan’s “darkness,” in comparison to Burton’s, lay mainly in the fact that Christian Bale brooded where Michael Keaton was wry. Batman Begins was great fun because it was given room to grow; the climaxes kept mounting, but the principals were given enough space to cultivate performances that were just funny and believable enough to make Batman’s personal crises plausible. The Dark Knight is all Ledger, all sadism—the Joker is so pumped up that we hardly remember that we’re watching the Joker.

For the role, the Aussie’s boy-next-door looks are tarnished with greasy, phlegm-colored locks, bulbous scars and makeup smeared on like an Insane Clown Posse groupie’s. This Joker’s a clown Rob Zombie would be proud of. But the writers (Nolan co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, and the story with David S. Goyer) splatter him throughout the movie as if he were a work of genius. They feed him with little globules of Foucauldian nihilism, and Ledger delivers them menacingly. It boils down to “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules!”—everything’s random, so let’s dynamite everything set up to maintain order. I’m sure the writers intentionally left the discrepancy between the Joker’s hostility toward order and planning and his ability to pull off elaborate ruses glaring in order to give him a supernatural mystique. But in so doing they waive all grounding this film has in “realism.” It’s silly in the wrong way—pretentious for masquerading as profound. Nolan’s Joker is differentiated from Burton’s because this clown appears to have a Philosophy 101 textbook up his sleeve, and one’s credulousness is further taxed by this Joker’s lack of backstory. His daddy-beat-me tales are all lies; he’s just an omnipotent boogeyman—a Michael Myers—apparently the embodiment of absolute evil. How could Roger Ebert say that, with this film, “Batman is not a comic book anymore” when its bad guy is pure 2-D comic-book contrivance? His motive is to derive pleasure from dispensing pain; it doesn’t get more basic (or shallow) than that. (Critics weren’t too hip to the same shortcoming in No Country for Old Men, either.)

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