Moriarty Calls July 2008 The Month Comic Book Movies Come Of Age! THE DARK KNIGHT And HELLBOY II Reviewed!
Published at: June 30, 2008, 8:55 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
The only way to truly discuss these films and why they matter is by getting into the marrow of them, the real thematic meat. That means spoilers, but I want to offer you some non-spoiler thoughts before that, so you can get the overview if that’s all you want.
And make no mistake... these films matter. If you’re a fan of film... not just comic-book movies, and not just nerd genre movies, but film of any kind... then you owe it to yourself to see both THE DARK KNIGHT and HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY in the theater, on the best screen you can find. These are big theatrical films, huge in scale, obviously high-tech in terms of film craft, but they’re more than that...
... these films are art. Real art. Undeniable art. Adult films about adult ideas. Richly imagined, beautifully acted by some tremendous ensembles, these are both films that represent the very best of what can happen when the right filmmaker gets hold of the right source material and then makes all the right choices.
I think it’s a shame that people have leapt right to merciless hyperbole in describing the merits of these movies, because it’s going to set audiences up with some unrealistic expectations. I’m reading that DARK KNIGHT is either THE GODFATHER PART II or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and I’m hearing that HELLBOY II is as great as the original STAR WARS. Huge claims. Pretty much the pinnacle of hyperbole. You say things like that to someone, they’re going to walk into a theater with a chip on their shoulder, needing the film to do more than entertain or provoke. They’re expecting life-altering events at that point.
These are not life-altering events, of course. But they may be genre-altering events. When I wrote my reviews of WANTED and HANCOCK at the start of the weekend, I said that the films disappointed me because I felt like they aimed so low. They just didn’t feel like cohesive movies... instead, they were collections of decent ideas with nothing to hold them together.
With both THE DARK KNIGHT and HELLBOY II, you can tell that the filmmakers are aiming high. They respect the audience and they respect the characters they’re writing, the worlds they’re creating, the moral landscapes they are dealing with. It’s almost disconcerting how little they bow to the conventions of the genre so far with these films. It took me a while to settle into the rhythms of THE DARK KNIGHT because it wasn’t anything I expected it to be. Even having seen the prologue on the bigscreen once before, I didn’t get what tone Nolan was going to hit with this film, and as the film’s first act played out, I realized just how far he was willing to go, and it left me nervous, off-balance, exactly the way a film featuring the Joker should. For the first time ever, I felt like anything could happen whenever he would shamble onscreen, looking like something that just crawled out of a wet grave. I’ve always felt that when the Joker makes a joke, he should be the only one who laughs while everyone else is busy cowering in fear or throwing up. Well, looks like Chris and Jonah Nolan feel the same way, because this is a vile tornado of suffering that sweeps through Gotham, a destructive force in clown makeup, his facial scars a mere hint of just how twisted he is inside. He’s not a villain like we normally see in these movies, and he’s not even the Joker we normally see in Batman stories. He’s the film’s grand metaphor, given voice by an actor who vanishes into the role, and he’s only one of the many merits of THE DARK KNIGHT.
HELLBOY II is a great example of what happens when someone is allowed to make a sequel to their own film, but with a greater support system and more creative freedom. The first HELLBOY is a film I liked quite a bit, but on repeat viewings, its faults are fairly obvious. The main one is Meyers. No matter how well-played he was, he was a studio note with feet. You can practically hear the execs saying, “Well, everyone’s just so weird. You have to have a normal guy as your main character, and let all the freaks just be the supporting cast. That way, people won’t get creeped out.”
Uhhhh... no. This time, the freaks carry the film, and you get the distinct feeling that’s the way it was always meant to be. The result is a film with twice the heart of the already-substantially-heartfelt original, twice the scale, and much more personal stakes for everyone.
I think one of the reasons I’m so smitten with these films is because it’s next to impossible to make a “personal” film on the scale of these movies. You’re talking about an $85 million film for HELLBOY 2, and about $100 million more than that for THE DARK KNIGHT. These are gigantic investments for the releasing companies, and it would not surprise me in the least to see them diluted or dumbed-down. That’s just the nature of this industry, and we’ve come to expect it. So when you see films that truly seem to represent someone’s personal take on such gigantic archetypes, it’s bracing. It’s not just entertainment for a few hours in a theater... it’s an affirmation that there is room for greatness in this business, and sometimes, it’s allowed to happen, or even encouraged to flourish.
With THE DARK KNIGHT, for example, Chris Nolan accomplishes something that both WAR OF THE WORLDS and CLOVERFIELD tried to do, and with more grace and insight. Those films both used 9/11 imagery to resonate with viewers, and in both cases, the imagery is certainly arresting and upsetting, but to what end? Just to remind us? Just to tap into the fear we felt that day? Here, Nolan invokes 9/11, but he pushes past it to also deal with the fear that has stayed with us as a culture since that moment, and also the way it forced the world around us to change. This is the first mainstream movie to fully digest the events of September 11th and to deal with them in a way that starts to sort out who we are now as a result. Heady stuff for a movie about a dude wearing a bat suit who beats the shit out of criminals, but then... isn’t that the point?
I’m not sure why you guys like superhero stories, and I’m not sure what you require when watching one to say that it’s successful. For me, the notion of superpowered people beating each other up isn’t the appeal. It’s simply a way of getting to other ideas. The Greeks used gods as their storytelling archetypes, while we use superheroes instead. It's understandable, since superhero stories allow us to explore shades of gray using characters who are either all good or all bad. When you set up polar extremes like that and then you put them into moral positions where there are no easy answers, it’s a great way to deal with provocative or challenging material in a way that’s more palatable for many audiences. They may not even realize that you’re tackling the subtext... they just absorb the surface level, and everything else works on them in more subtle ways.
The script the Nolans wrote (based on a story they worked out with David Goyer, who told me today “I can’t believe my name is on a movie this good”) uses the last scene of BATMAN BEGINS as a jumping-off point. This movie’s entire thematic subtext was established in that last great moment on the rooftop when Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) handed the playing card to Batman (Christian Bale) and talked to him about the notion of escalation. Here, every scene plays to that idea, and it’s obvious that the Nolans believe that a world of people living by the credo of “an eye for an eye” will quickly go blind. No one escapes this movie without fresh scars. No one gets out without losing something dear to them. If Warner Bros. wanted to title this like the first film, they could have called it BATMAN FAILS, because no matter what he does in this film, he finds himself unable to stem the overflow of shit that threatens his city. He can’t fly around the world to turn back time when something goes wrong. He can’t erase memories or do magic or just magically reset everything and try again. Each time things get worse, all he can do is adjust and try to move on from there, until it finally reaches a point where he isn’t sure there’s any way to adjust anymore. What do you do when every good effort has failed and every good man has been cut down? When chaos and darkness overwhelm you, and even a clear-cut hero can be corrupted, is there any point in even continuing the fight?
I’m not sure kids under 14 or 15 should see this film. For one thing, they won’t understand a lot of it. I don’t think moral ambiguity is one of the things kids look for in their movies. For another thing, the parts they do understand will probably scare the shit out of them. This movie pushed the PG-13 to the breaking point, and I’m not sure how Warner Bros. pulled it off. Harvey Dent’s face post-accident should have pushed them out of the PG-13 all by itself, but it’s saying something when that graphic image is actually one of the least upsetting things in the film. For anyone else, though, I recommend it highly. The action sequences are inventive and grand-scaled, but the character scenes and the quiet headgames are even more engrossing. The score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is one of the year’s best, with the Joker’s themes coming across like razors being dragged across harpsichord strings. Wally Pfister’s photography is, as expected, stunning, and in particular, his work in IMAX is revelatory.
Oh, yeah... the IMAX. Have I said “Holy shit!” yet? Because if not... holy shit. I’m sure you’ve read that Nolan decided to shoot six major sequences in the film in IMAX. This is the first time a major studio narrative film has lensed sequences in the format. The cameras are a nightmare to move, they hold only three minutes of film, and they’re so noisy it makes it almost impossible to record dialogue live. Even so, I’ll bet we see Nolan work in the format again, because the results are so immersive and startling that they’re worth whatever headaches are involved. The way it works is the IMAX sequences are all projected full frame, so they fill the entire eight-story screen at a ratio of 1.44:1. When the IMAX sequences end, the movie pops into a 2.40:1 letterboxed ratio that’s still pretty damn gigantic. And for regular theaters showing the film, you’ll see everything at 2.40:1, although I’m willing to bet you notice a marked visual difference for certain scenes. It’s not just the size of an IMAX frame... it’s the clarity. It’s the way you get lost in it and no matter where you work, there’s some detail you can notice that might otherwise be lost. It’s the way each motion of the camera pulls you in and makes you feel like you’re moving with it. But more than anything, it’s the way the faces of the actors tower over you, the operatic emotion of this piece cranked up even further by the sheer scale of things. When you look into someone’s eyes, you get a sense of who they are. And in IMAX? It’s like you can see right inside them, which only makes Ledger’s work more disturbing.
Aaron Eckhart deserves some praise as well for the way he brings Harvey Dent to life, and for finding a way to play earnest without becoming overbearing. Dent’s a more difficult role than the Joker in many ways because there aren’t as many big emotions you can play. He’s a decent, upstanding man who believes in doing things right, in prosecuting criminals instead of fighting them on a street level, and little by little, he’s actually making a difference. Eckhart gives the guy an inner life, just enough quirk to make him seem human, so that when the inevitable tragedy (which really is awful as laid out in the film) occurs, it’s not a simple on-off cartoonish lurch into violence for Dent. We feel it. We believe it. Dent’s physical trauma may be exaggerated, but the emotional side of it is pitch-perfect. And his work as Two-Face is just sad and angry. He’s nothing like the Joker. Hell, I’m not even sure I’d call him a villain.
That’s one of the things I love about HELLBOY II as well. Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) is a great movie bad guy because he is absolutely justified in his rage. His reason for doing everything he does is not only understandable, but actually makes real sense. The points he makes are heartbreaking and sad, and I think he speaks directly for Guillermo in places. When he declares war on humanity, it’s not some hollow grab for power, or some desire to rule that spins out of control. Instead, it is a rational response to the genocide of not only his race, but every single magical creature on the planet. It’s a war on the “proud empty” things who are willing to pave over every inch of nature, erasing wonder and horror in favor of parking lots and shopping malls. He’s outraged at the idea of going gently into that good night, and he lashes out. Even when his methods are questionable, I never disliked him. I love it when the “villain” of a film is presented with real empathy, because it puts the viewer in the position of having to think for themselves. Is this a bad guy? Who do you want to see win at the end? Why? Even in serious non-genre drama, antagonists are often given simplistic motives so that the audience knows exactly what they’re supposed to think. Studios will force you to write and rewrite until you’ve cast everything in simple blacks or whites, so HELLBOY II amazes me in the way it manages to keep things so very gray.
At least morally speaking. Visually, HELLBOY II is a feast, one of the summer’s richest and most engrossing experiences. After PAN’S LABYRINTH, it’s like some floodgates deep inside Guillermo opened up, and the result is this deluge of imagination, an amazing array of sights and sounds that weren’t just created to dazzle you. These days, we are almost immune to wonder because of the sheer volume of special effects we are bombarded with every year, but HELLBOY II cuts through that because of the specificity of the world we’re being shown. I think Guillermo really does believe in this world of magic and monsters, these tooth fairies and kitten-eating trolls, these tumor-babies and clockwork soldiers. More than that, I think he prefers this world. By the end of this film, he’s sent a very clear message about who he feels is right and who is wrong, and I think the side he chooses will shock many mainstream viewers, even as it sets the stage for what could be an epic and unusual third chapter in the series.
Both films manage the difficult trick of not only creating a larger world than either BATMAN BEGINS or HELLBOY, but also refining all the things that worked while whittling away the things that don’t. Sequels are a bitch, a necessary evil for this industry, and a skill set that seems to elude many filmmakers completely. Most sequels just tread water, rehashing the original without adding to our understanding of the characters or introducing any new ideas or themes. In HELLBOY II, the removal of Meyers means we now have Hellboy (Ron Perlman), Liz (Selma Blair) and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) as the center of the film, and each of them benefits from the way the focus has shifted. Hellboy and Liz make a really touching, interesting couple this time out, and both of them seem stronger, more fully realized. With Doug Jones finally getting the chance to play Abe physically and vocally, the performance congeals into something memorable. He is the heart of the film, the biggest surprise for me. He gets a love story of his own this time, and as a result, there’s a scene in the middle of the film between Hellboy and Abe where the two of them bond over their broken hearts that is one of the best things I’ve seen in any film this year. It’s so human, so recognizable, so identifiable... and yet, we’re watching a giant red demon with a rock hand and a fish-man drunk on cheap Mexican beer, singing one of the cheesiest songs ever recorded. And it works. It works because they have become completely human by that point. The absurdity works for the film, not against it.
Now, if you’re still reading and you don’t want to know any real spoilers, I think I’ve managed to avoid them so far. That’s about to change, so bail out if you need to, and I hope you come back to join the conversation in talkback after you see the movies.
It’s been an interesting year for superhero films in general. Marvel has hit the ground running with their new business model, and the one-two punch of IRON MAN and THE INCREDIBLE HULK has laid some great groundwork for them to build a Marvel universe on film unlike anything anyone’s ever tried in movies like this. The tone of those films is fun, light, all about the broad strokes, and that’s fine. It’s very true to the tone of the classic Marvel titles in print. With WANTED and HANCOCK, we’re seeing studios take real chances on far less recognizable material, and even if I don’t love those movies, I admire the efforts.
But THE DARK KNIGHT and HELLBOY II are something else entirely. I’ve heard some complaints about THE DARK KNIGHT and certain plot points or action scenes, but that doesn’t matter to me, and I’ll tell you why. The moral choices that are set up for characters in both films are so difficult, so unanswerable, that I find the provocation to be far more valuable than a debate over whether or not someone can shoot a car chase. In THE DARK KNIGHT, almost every character ends up faced with lesser-of-two-evils choices at some point in the film, which is exactly what the Joker hopes to accomplish. In some of the new commercials, you get a glimpse of the interrogation scene where Joker says to Batman, “When the chips are down, these civilized people will eat each other. You’ll see. I’ll show you.” That’s what the film is all about... when good people are put in terrible situations, and there’s no easy choice to make, what do they do? The first big example of this comes when Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are both kidnapped, and each of them is placed into a different warehouse, each wired to explode at a certain time. Batman’s told where they both are, and then given time to reach only one of them. And unlike every other superhero movie (like SPIDER-MAN, for example) where this sort of a choice is established, this time, there are fatal consequences, and it changes everything for Dent, for Batman, for Gotham itself. At the end of the film, an even larger example is set in motion when two ferries are used to transport people out of Gotham to avoid a threat from the Joker. Turns out, though, that both ferries are wired to blow up, and this time, the Joker puts the power of life or death into the hands of the people whose lives are on the line. Each ferry is given a detonator. On one ferry, the average people of Gotham are crammed together. On the other one, hundreds of prisoners are being evacuated as a group. They’re told that at midnight, the Joker will blow up both of the ferries unless one of them is willing to destroy the other. Whoever uses their detonator will be spared. And again, Nolan confounds expectations with the way he lets things unfold. One detail in particular really took me aback. On the prison barge, Tiny Lister shows up playing one of the prisoners. Now, you know Tiny Lister whether you realize it or not. He was the President of Earth in Luc Besson’s FIFTH ELEMENT. You may have seen him in FRIDAY. He’s pretty hard to forget, a towering broad-shouldered black guy with one eye permanently crossed and a menacing glower permanently etched on his face.
When he steps forward and demands the detonator, I did exactly what Nolan wanted me to do: I judged Lister on his appearance. I looked at him, and I knew full well what he was going to do with the detonator. Nolan really milks the suspense, too, as Lister talks about the difference between someone strong enough to make the awful moral choice and someone who is too weak to do it. He takes the responsibility and the detonator out of the hands of the warden...
... and then throws the detonator out the window and returns to his friends so they can pray.
It’s not a moment I would have ever expected to see in a summer blockbuster, but more than that, it’s a moment that made me realize that no matter how enlightened I like to think I am, I harbor prejudices like anyone else. I leapt to a conclusion I had no business making, and the reversal made me feel terribly guilty. In fact, the following night, I ran into Lister at the HELLBOY II premiere, and I told him about my reaction to the sequence. He was so moved that he ended up taking my phone, putting his number into it, and telling me to call him sometime so we could talk more. He didn’t know I was a reporter or a writer... he was just responding to my reaction, moved by the fact that his brief appearance had such a distinct impact on me.
HELLBOY II has two moments where characters make awful, selfish, unreasonable choices, but they do it because they see no other way to save the people they love. So often in these films, superheroes make the selfless decision, putting the world ahead of themselves. Yet here, Liz Sherman is told by the Angel Of Death (Doug Jones again) that she must make a choice about saving the life of Hellboy, which will result in the eventual destruction of the entire planet. “What is your choice? The world? Or him?” She doesn’t hesitate. “Him.” It’s an unforgivable choice for a hero... but for a human being, it’s the only right choice. The other selfish decision is made by Abe Sapien, but again... I found myself nodding my head when he did it because I understood and, in his situation, I would have done the same thing. I’m not sure what audiences are going to make of those moments, or how profoundly they will feel them, but I was rocked when I realized what Guillermo got away with in this script.
I’ve barely touched on all the things that make these films worth seeing. I could expound on just how pleasantly wrong I was when I overreacted to the casting of Seth MacFarlane as the voice of Johann Krauss, the new head of the BPRD. I am no fan of FAMILY GUY, so I sort of dreaded having to listen to him in this film. Turns out, he’s sort of brilliant here, and he makes a perfect foil for Hellboy. Krauss is an ectoplasmic being, made entirely of gas, and he spends most of the film in a suit that reminds me of the Big Daddys from BIOSHOCK, a sort of modified diver’s suit. Watching him actually fight with Hellboy is both deeply strange and hilariously satisfying. Or I could talk about how powerful it is when Hellboy finally learns what secret Liz spends most of the movie hiding from him. He sits back, eyes wide, and then uses the most peculiar phrasing to express his surprise. But in that phrasing, there’s an entire unspoken backstory about Hellboy’s relationship with his father, played in one flashback here by John Hurt again. Those three words just about flattened me, and it’s only because of the time we’ve spent with Hellboy by that point that they carry such weight. I could talk about the oddball beauty of the fight against the Forest God, or the spectacular Troll Market, overstuffed with fascinating creatures. I could rave about the Golden Army sequence at the end, the fight with Nuada that represents the very best action choreography that Guillermo’s shot so far. Or I could spend another 1000 words telling you how much better Spectral Motion’s make-up has gotten since the first film and how elegant and tactile their work is here. Or I could just laugh as I try to explain why the freeze-frame that finishes the film entertains me so very much.
I find myself equally unsure just how to prioritize in talking about the things that keep replaying in my head since seeing DARK KNIGHT. I could talk about the opening sequence with the fake Batman wannabes and the Scarecrow and the dogs. I could talk about the Batpod and the ways its premiere is just part of a particularly brutal standoff. I could talk about how giddy I was when I realized who the “bad cop” was going to be in the interrogation scene. I could try to do justice to that crazy exposed rolling eye of Dent’s, the way the rage bubbles up out of him after he’s burned. I could describe the Joker’s stunning pencil trick to you, or I could try to sum up just what builds to the unspoken look between Bruce Wayne and Reese (Joshua Harto), a Wayne Industries accountant who figures out his secret. Best of all, I could try to untangle all the lies the Joker tells about his origin, obfuscating himself out of all human connection, one of my favorite choices they made with the character.
Bottom line: these are films that are built to last. When someone says to me, “It’s just a comic book movie,” these are the films that make that statement pointless. Nothing has to be “just” a comic book movie or “just” a video game movie or “just” a remake or “just” a sequel. Every single time you set out to make a film, you have a chance to say something, a chance to genuinely affect your viewer. You don’t have to aim for “good enough.” Ambition is important, but HANCOCK proves that’s not enough. It’s ambition plus inspiration plus creative chemistry plus a little bit of dumb fucking luck that all come together to make movies like these. But the only reason they accomplish anything is because Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro and all the remarkable madmen they collaborated with in bringing them to the screen... they all dared to drop the word “just” from their vocabulary. They aimed for art. They aimed for pure enduring cinema.
And, good god, we are richer for it.