Friday, August 23, 2013

Ben Affleck is Batman ...and fans need to chill out

Yesterday, the Internet practically imploded when it was announced that Ben Affleck will be donning Batman's iconic cape and cowl in 2015's Batman/Superman team-up film. Immediately, Twitter and Facebook lit up with loads of negative reactions.

This served as a reminder to me that comic book fans have incredibly short memories when it comes to casting announcements. Affleck's casting has, if some fans are to be believed, all but ruined the new DC cinematic universe. Before a single frame of film has been produced.

Michael Keaton in 1989's Batman
Fans are notoriously critical of casting announcements, and the Batman film franchise is no exception. In fact, it is home to many casting complaints, beginning with 1989's Batman. I was almost five when that came out, so all I have to rely on is history, but fan furor over Michael Keaton's casting been well documented. From The New York Times:

Yet even before shooting began at London's Pinewood Studios last fall, ''Batman'' generated more anger than anticipation among the comic book hero's fans - the hard-core audience for any film such as this. In a massive letter-writing campaign, objections were raised over the studio's emphasis on this high-concept Batman and the refusal to make a serious square-jawed film out of one of the most popular - and psychologically complex - comic book characters.The controversy, which erupted in the front pages of The Wall Street Journal and numerous trade publications, focused on the casting of Mr. Keaton, best known as the anarchic prankster in last year's comedy hit ''Beetlejuice,'' as the vengeful vigilante... The suspicion voiced by hundreds of angry fans was that ''Batman'' would be a campy send-up similar to the self-parodying but hugely popular 1960's television series.

 Warner's rushed out a trailer to assuage fan's fears; the trailer was a success and Batman became a highly anticipated film. People believed that Mr. Mom could be the Dark Knight, and Keaton's performance has, for the most part, been remembered kindly as the years have passed.

Heath Ledger
In 2006 it was announced that Heath Ledger was cast as the Joker in the sequel to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. A year before, he'd starred in Brokeback Mountain, and so came the "Brokeback Gotham" jokes, and questions of whether he was right for the role.

Of course, Ledger's interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime has gone on to be praised almost universally. Ledger stole the show in The Dark Knight, proved the naysayers wrong, and was captivating in every scene he was in. So you would think fans would have learned a lesson from Ledger's casting announcement and trusted the creative decisions of Christopher Nolan and his team when it came to casting announcements for The Dark Knight Rises, but interestingly enough, the same song and dance surfaced.

Fan concerns were raised with both Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway. Tom Hardy wasn't deemed "big enough" to stand toe-to-toe with Christian Bale (Hardy stands around 5'-10" tall, while Bale is just over 6'). Never mind that Hardy looked every bit as muscle-bound as Bane needed to be. Never mind that height issues could be resolved through digital and practical trickery (see Elijah Wood and Sean Astin in the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Hardy wasn't tall enough. And Hathaway once played a princess in a Disney movie, so obviously she wasn't up to par.

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises
Except that once again, complaining fans were proven wrong. Anne Hathaway was my favorite thing about The Dark Knight Rises and, in my opinion, stole the show. She perfectly captured the attitude of Catwoman and played the duality of her thieving villain/reluctant anti-heroine to the hilt. And no one can tell me they didn't feel it when Bane dropped Batman over his knee, or that they didn't feel intimidation oozing out of him as he gently placed his hand by John Daggett's neck. In the end, Hardy's height was a non-issue. His brutal performance captured the heart of who Bane is, and his physicality adequately represented the character of the comics, perfectly blending it into Nolan's realistically-grounded world.

There are other examples, but these prior instances of fan outrage over Bat-casting serves as a perfect template regarding Affleck's announcement as the new Bruce Wayne. Keaton, Ledger, Hardy and Hathaway were all criticized based on roles they previously played, or superficial details like height. And all of this before a single frame of film was produced or released to the public.

Yes, Ben Affleck starred in Daredevil. It wasn't a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it was also a financial success. On top of that, many times over the years I've heard that the Director's Cut of Daredevil is substantially better than the theatrical version. The film was evidently stripped of some of its more violent aspects in order to secure a PG-13 rating, but also cut an entire subplot which was restored in the Director's Cut. Overall, about 30 minutes of film was trimmed for the theatrical version. Empire Magazine still had problems with Affleck in the role, but stated the Director's Cut was truer to the character than the theatrical version.

I have no interest in watching the Director's Cut of Daredevil, but there's something to be learned here. At least some of that film's problems might be attributed to editing. If it was going to get an R-rating from the MPAA, perhaps some of the edits were even studio-mandated. And we all know how well films usually turn out when the studio steps into the director's or editor's chair.

Look, Affleck wasn't my first choice either. I was honestly expecting Josh Brolin to get the nod, since he was, evidently, a WB favorite for the part. Interestingly enough, when Brolin's name was being tossed around, I didn't see anyone throwing Jonah Hex into the mix, which was a much, much worse film than Daredevil could have ever hoped to be. Brolin is a fine enough actor, and Jonah Hex should be evidence enough that someone can still be a good actor even if they're in a mess of a film. Yes, Daredevil wasn't good per se, but it also came out twelve years ago. The rest of us likely don't want to be held to a standard of work that we produced twelve years ago. In this case, I think it's worth giving Affleck the benefit of the doubt.

Affleck's announcement comes as the script is still being written. We don't know what the tone of the film will be like, what the characterization will be like, or even the plot of the film. People may or may not like Ben Affleck, and that's their prerogative. But an actor's job is to portray someone they're not. With the announcement less than 24 hours old at the time of this posting, all I can say is relax. Reserve judgement until there's actually a product to see. Affleck is a big name in Hollywood, but Batman and Superman are being melded into a big machine, of which Affleck will be a cog. That's not meant to be demeaning in any way, but there will be a lot of pieces moving, seen and unseen, and Affleck will be but one of them. I have a hard time seeing anyone surpassing Christian Bale as Batman/Bruce Wayne any time soon, but for goodness sake's, let's give Ben Affleck a chance before citing him as the death of Batman.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Gothampuff Girls

I recently discovered Teespring, a Kickstarter of sorts for T-shirts. So you create a campaign, set a goal, and if your goal is hit, your shirt is printed. It's a pretty cool concept for custom clothing. I designed a Powerpuff Girls / Gotham City Sirens mashup -- The Gothampuff Girls! The shirt is currently campaigning until August 21. 

The shirt is only $15, and though I'm a little biased, I think it's cute. I'm generally critical of my own work, but this is something I really enjoyed, and if you like the Powerpuff Girls, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, or Poison Ivy, please consider buying this shirt. It will only get printed if the goal is met, but I think buyers will enjoy it. And please, share this on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, or whatever you kids are using these days.

Please view and, if interested, buy The Gothampuff Girls here.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Film Review: MAN OF STEEL

Full disclosure, I'm not really a fan of Superman. I remember enjoying some TV shows as a kid, I remember at least watching 1978's Superman, and I saw 2006's Superman Returns in the theater. But when it comes to the DC Comics stable of characters, my heart belongs to Gotham City and its grimier cast of characters.

That said, I was looking forward to this year's Man of Steel. With The Dark Knight Trilogy's director Christopher Nolan on board as producer and crafting the story with David S. Goyer (who had story credits on each film and co-wrote Batman Begins' script), with a script penned by Goyer, I was sure this would be a great starting point for Superman and, possibly, a DC cinematic universe.

The first act starts off well enough, hitting key points of the destruction of Krypton and Kal-El's arrival on Earth. Jumping to Kal, known as Clark among humans, as a grown man trying to find his way in the world, we get vignettes of his life through flashbacks that coalesce with him finding a long-lost Kryptonian ship that happens to have his iconic suit in it. The first act ends with Clark learning to fly.

Up to this point, everything worked in a manner that I'd expect. Soon thereafter, General Zod arrives on earth, and Man of Steel quickly becomes a CGI slugfest.

Let me take a step back and note a couple of things. First, Superman and his nature very much lend themselves more to CGI than Batman does. If I were in charge of the film, I can't see accomplishing  certain feats without digital animation. Second, Zack Snyder is a very different director than Christopher Nolan, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. So knowing what I knew about 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch, I expected some CGI-heavy sequences.

CGI is a great tool, but it can be overused. It was one of the things that drove me crazy about The Avengers, and that carries over here, too. Although the directing styles between Nolan and Snyder are different, the comparison is apt. The final fight between Superman and Zod sees a lot of flight, with the latter combatant literally climb-jumping up the side of a building to meet his foe -- none of which looked convincing.

Nolan approached Batman with the idea to do as much as possible in a realistic manner. The detail in this is astute when you watch some of the behind-the-scenes extras and see Christian Bale (or a stunt double) strung up on wires, cape extended into the glider-like wings. They filmed that. Are there some CGI enhancements? I'm sure of it. But there was a foundation in reality. With Nolan and Goyer's story treatment, there was a "realistic" foundation in Man of Steel, too: What would happen if we found out there was an alien among us, one who looked like us and had been here for years? When the alien invasion aspect of the film kicks in, the ensuing freak out is kind of what I'd expect to happen. But the realism ends there, traded for CGI-Superman, Zod, or the General's minions getting tossed around like rag dolls, and explosions a-plenty.

The big problem is that this is what I felt most of the second and third acts of Man of Steel were composed of. Lots and lots and lots of CGI. To compare it to The Dark Knight Rises, when Bane drops Batman on his knee in the Gotham sewers, you feel the impact. You gasp at what you just saw happen. It was filmed. In Man of Steel, you should feel the same way. Superman is fighting people from his own world, and while he has control over his abilities, they don't -- something that can be far more dangerous. You should be able to feel each hit, but since flying into space and sending each other plummeting into buildings is something both CGI-Superman and -Zod shake off, it's hard to effectively sell. Only at the end of their battle do you really feel it, and that's because you have an actual living, breathing Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon sharing the screen.

In addition to the overabundance of CGI, the story takes a heavy hit in favor of action when the invasion begins. It's a superhero movie, and you expect action, but there's an incredible amount of story going on in Batman Begins among all the action. Heck, there's a lot of action going on in the latter part of Toy Story 3, but there's also good story progression. Story doesn't need to be sacrificed.

In this sense, I was disappointed by Man of Steel, in part because I had greater faith in the creative team. I don't know how much of that falls on the story, or how much comes from the translation of that to the script, which was written solely by Goyer. I don't want to necessarily blame Snyder, Goyer or Nolan for what I perceive to be Man of Steel's shortcomings, but knowing how the entire Dark Knight Trilogy turned out, I can't help but imagine if it wouldn't have helped to have brought in Jonathan Nolan during screenwriting.

Image by vicmarran-d5bcokd

And let me be clear with this point: I don't think Superman should be treated the same as Batman. And, thankfully, he's not in Man of Steel. My point is only that with key components of the creative team that made Batman a billion-dollar franchise, I expected more in terms of story and character development. It's obvious throughout Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises that they can do it, but somewhere in Man of Steel, Avengers-toned style over substance took over, which was especially frustrating after the first act hit many of the beats that carried Batman Begins to such great heights.

That said, the future is bright. Man of Steel is raking in tons of cash and a sequel has apparently been approved, with a Justice League or at least a Batman/Superman team-up soon to follow. Overall, I didn't feel that Man of Steel was a bad film. I just expected more. I give it 2 out of 4.

Quickly, let's talk spoilers.