The Other Screen: Assemble, Evolve, Rise
This summer, we hit the apex of the genre movie blockbusters. By Andrew Huntly.
It’s common for audiences to be given one ‘event’ movie per year. One big, tell-all-your-friends, bring-down-the-auditorium experience that highlights what’s so great about that large screen and that booming sound system. In 2012, we were given three. With The Avengers, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises, this summer has seemed like a gratifying, one-two punch of epic, intelligent genre blockbusters. Sure, we had The Amazing Spider Man and Men in Black 3 sliding their way in between the bigger release dates, hoping to make their capital before getting crushed by the weight of these titans, but they were the bread you chew on between the massive platter courses.
The first cinematic summer giant was brought to us by the possible monarch of geekdom, Joss Whedon. The man behind Buffy, Firefly and Dollhouse was the helmsman for Marvel Studio’s ridiculously ambitious plan to bring comic book continuity to the world of cinema. Having been lined up and fleshed out in their own titular outings, The Avengers scooped up Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk and a scattering of lesser knowns and placed them in a big, bombastic superhero movie that really should not have worked, but did. Gathering up so many great characters and equally dividing up their screen time is a mountainous challenge, but Whedon managed to pull it all together with an astonishingly breezy script. His time in the land of the small screen was probably his greatest strength in the project, managing a cavalcade of witty lines and character moments that gave life and spark to every conversation so that no protagonist overpowered another.
The movie suffered a little in its transition from dialogue to action. It’s all very well staged and shot, but they lost much of the intelligence and heart the quickfire writing provided the film. As a climax to the intricate, witty and occasionally revealing character moments, they couldn’t help but feel like a letdown. The lack of a sincere and present danger from the ineptly villainous horde in the final fight made the slew of punches and explosions lose a crucial amount of weight that pure spectacle couldn’t overcome. The Avengers was still a strong film that held together far more tightly than it had any right to, but it was the most fluffy and lightweight out of our summer blockbuster trilogy – a popcorn munching prelude for the two films to follow.
In a multiplex taken over by wizards and superheroes, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was a complete anomaly. The levels of fervor the R-rated sci-fi flick managed to attain before its release are almost unheard of, but it had come from incredibly good stock. Scott’s revered reputation in science fiction, built upon Alien and Blade Runner, was enough to make a prominent number of film and sci-fi fans perk up at the notion he’s working within the recently arid genre once more. When it was revealed Prometheus would also be a quasi-prequel to Alien, the excitement agglomerated into an unstoppable ball of hype. With monstrous weight of expectations the film brought with it, it was shocking it lived up to its promises. And at the same time did not.
Prometheus was a visually ambitious and frequently intelligent movie. Ridley Scott’s direction was pitch-perfect; his trademark slow pacing suited the expertly built environments and drenched the whole film in a thick, weighty atmosphere. It’s just so unfortunate that the film was burdened by a dry, clunky script, with aspiringly intellectual discussions stifled by unnatural dialogue. The visuals gave audiences a film of almost Lovecraftian horror, the writing gave them a sub-par 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a clash that some couldn’t overcome, but the fact that a film with this level of violent ambition reached out to a such a broad audience and pulled in so much money is a great achievement for genre cinema.
But the pinnacle of my movie-going summer was always going to be The Dark Knight Rises. The unfortunate reality behind the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is that it could never possibly live up to its predecessor. The Dark Knight was a watershed not only for superhero movies, but it ranks among the best films of the past decade. To follow that while also lacking Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker is the sort of task that only an absolute madman would place on their shoulders. Nolan deserves a standing ovation for following through with his insanity.
The Dark Knight Rises is an angry, brutal, brooding film. It soars and glides on levels of such operatic intensity that it makes most other blockbusters cower in shame, as the fiery darkness Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer have built up over two fantastic films finally explodes in the most satisfying and grandiose way. It’s a blockbuster that draws far more comparisons to Greek tragedies than the latest Michael Bay or Brett Ratner effort.
Much like its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises has far more on its my mind than the to-the-point adrenaline highs of punching, banging action. The thread of the economic crisis runs through the film like cancer, as the desperate and the furious of Gotham are manipulated and weaponized against Batman. It draws on the idea of the 99 percent and the status of the elite in a clear and potent way, injecting the film with a social realism that even The Dark Knight, with its war-on-terror allegories, couldn’t capture. The blossoming, frothing seed of economic destruction that was planted all the way back in Batman Begins seems like the perfect end point for Nolan’s Batman trilogy and it’s a dark, beautiful beast of a film, built with the most carefully crafted pieces of closure imaginable. As Harvey Dent once said ‘You either die the hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’ Nolan and his excellent cast and crew are all certainly walking away from Gotham the hero.
For me, The Dark Knight Rises is the most powerful and long-lasting blockbuster movie to come out this year, but neither can the strengths of The Avengers and Prometheus be understated. Both are huge-budget genre films, made by people with respect and knowledge for their audience who understand that to take, you must give. It’s refreshing to see gigantic, high-profile movies that are as intelligent, well crafted and sharply defined as these. It’s a year without the throbbing, scraping and clanking of a Hasbro product mutated into a film. A year without an endless stream of misjudged comedies, dreamed up to patch some overheads. Instead, it’s a year of cinematic events that deliver and satisfy, despite everyone from studio executives to audiences screaming at them that they could never accomplish such things. It’s unlikely we’ll see another summer with so many poignant blockbusters for some time, so this year is certainly one to be cherished.
Andrew Huntly’s cinematic rants have been complimented on British radio shows and their associated podcasts.