Superfluous

‘The Amazing Spider Man,' ‘The Dark Knight Rises,' & 'The Bourne Legacy'

This summer at the movies was the season of franchises. Spider-Man spun himself into a new series, though the older one, with Tobey Maguire, was completed only five years ago. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trio reached its final installment, and Jeremy Renner inherited the Bourne legacy. But the desire to keep a lucrative thing going isn’t enough to pump life into a new movie, and the question persists: Is there a real story here?

In the case of The Amazing Spider-man, the answer is a simple no. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two films in the Sam Raimi trilogy, which had adequate special effects, economical and sometimes thrilling action sequences, a charming shy-guy hero, and, best of all, a sense of humor. What happens when a bright adolescent nerd, Peter Parker, suffering all the usual pangs a nerd is heir to, has to cope with the superpowers a “radioactive spider bite” gives him? The motto “with great power comes great responsibility” gave the series all the gravitas it needed and not an ounce more.

There’s nothing new in Marc Webb’s remake except 3D visuals and a conspiracy theory. And the 3D is a fiasco. Whatever their (many) dramatic shortcomings, Avatar and the more recent Prometheus were significant advances in bringing greater depth to the screen. The Amazing Spider-Man’s visuals are retrograde, separating foreground and background so crudely that I thought I was looking at actors performing in front of a cyclorama. The action scenes are just the usual blitzkrieg of fast shots, whiz-bang stuff relying on a noisy soundtrack to fool us into thinking we’re seeing something special.

The conspiracy element involves Peter’s scientist parents, mysteriously whisked away during our hero’s early childhood. It functions as no more than a hook for the next installment in the series. The suggestion is that Peter’s superpowers are no accident, that the spider’s bite works only on him because he was somehow endowed by his parents and/or the government with superhuman potential. OK, but wasn’t it part of the original Peter’s charm that he was an ordinary kid dropped into heroism by the goddess Serendipity? In any case I found the new lead, Andrew Garfield-—reputedly an outstanding stage actor in his native England—quite charmless, perhaps because he overdoes the adolescent angst. I missed Tobey Maguire’s shy, sneaky smile.

Entertained by Batman Begins (2005) and impressed by The Dark Knight (2008), with its thoughtful script and Heath Ledger’s quicksilver menace, I was hoping for a grand finale, but it was not to be. The Dark Knight Rises sinks into dank chaos.

In The Dark Knight writer-director Christopher Nolan addressed the question of how to fight nihilistic evil (in the person of the Joker) without succumbing to it, a question a lot of people were thinking about in the wake of Abu Ghraib. Now, with an eye on the Occupy Wall Street movement, Nolan introduces a violent insurgent named Bane who says he wants to lead a revolt of the dispossessed against the rich. Bane disrupts the stock market, opens the gates of prisons, and puts on trial the financial pillars of society. Hmm…will not billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne feel at least a twinge of compunction before donning the cape and leaping into action? Doesn’t Bane force the head of Wayne Enterprises to position himself as a reactionary defender of the status quo? And wouldn’t this infuse the story with the sort of complexity that Nolan has always sought for his comic-book hero?

Well, it would have if Nolan had created an antagonist with a spark of idealism at the core of his fanaticism, or if we had been shown some of Gotham’s residents being tempted by Bane’s egalitarian rhetoric. But Bane is so physically monstrous—a beefcake bully wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask—and so sadistic to everyone in sight that the viewer just wants Batman to dispatch this brute as quickly as possible. But that would make for an unpretentious ninety-minute movie instead of the kind of two-and-a-half-hour heavyweight spectacle Nolan likes to deliver. So the script traps our hero at the bottom of an unclimbable pit in what looks like India, and puts his right-hand man, Commissioner Gordon, in the hospital. Then we are treated to crime after crime until Batman climbs the unclimbable and Gordon kicks off the bed sheets. The long wait is no fun.

But there is another problem, this one cinematic. All Batman movies—all superhero movies in fact—include a series of rescues, and all cinematic rescues need the fundamentals: you must see the heroine tied to the train tracks; you must see how far away the train is and how far the rescuing hero has to go. Then you cut from one point to another. Granted, the effect is childishly simple, but the excitement of movie rescues is supposed to be childish. Yet Nolan has always been afraid of simplicity. At the climax of Batman Begins, for example, a train loaded with poison hurtles toward Gotham’s water supply while Batman dukes it out with his archenemy on the train. Why, then, does Nolan keep cutting to Commissioner Gordon speeding ahead in a car? After all, Gordon can’t stop the train. It turns out Batman has given him a task that brings about the rescue, but Nolan keeps that assignment a secret from us so as to create a surprise climax. We do get a surprise, but no real suspense. Nolan’s cleverness is that of the bunco artist who keeps his mark from guessing which thimble the pea is hidden under. It’s not the cleverness of great melodrama.

This fixation on constant surprise mars The Dark Knight Rises from beginning to end. Its opening scene—Bane capturing a government plane—is a badly edited mess, the aerial high jinks bewildering rather than breathtaking, the victims and victimizers barely distinguishable from one another. The film’s climax is even worse. Just before the final battle, an intricate and elliptical backstory that is supposed to explain Bane’s motives is dumped on the viewer. Your mind is still trying to make sense of it while your eyes try to take in the ensuing showdown. In a good action movie—North by Northwest, say, or Casino Royale—your mind is fed just enough information to keep it satisfied while your viscera get a good workout. The Dark Knight Rises keeps you on the edge of your seat not in suspense but in frustration.

Several minor stupidities pile up and take their toll. A young cop figures out that Bruce is Batman’s alter ego just by perceiving that Batman has angry orphan eyes. (Does the cop think there’s only one orphan in Gotham?) With a nuclear bomb about to go off any minute, our hero takes time out for a long kiss with Catwoman. (Well, since she’s Anne Hathaway, why not?) And since Batman knows every kung fu, aikido, and karate move ever invented, why does he pound away at the muscle-bound Bane like a punch-drunk club fighter?

I’m glad people haven’t tried to make a moral case against this movie because of the shooting in Colorado. The film does give out bad vibes, but any well-attended blockbuster would have served a psycho’s purpose. The Dark Knight Rises is an affront not to morals but to the very human need for an exciting story well told.

With The Bourne Legacy, writer-director Tony Gilroy has launched a second Bourne trilogy, this one starring Jeremy Renner. The events in the new series are supposed to be contemporaneous with those of the original, which starred Matt Damon. Otherwise, same chases, same fights, same explosions, nearly the same plot, except that now the agent on the run doesn’t have amnesia but is instead struggling with the tendency of his genetically refurbished body to break down when deprived of certain drugs.

Two things keep this film from being a complete waste of time. First, the drone strike employed to eliminate the hero is truly frightening, not so much because of the explosions but because of the contrast between the drone’s destructive power and the businesslike detachment of the technicians who deploy it in control rooms in or near Washington, D.C. These computer experts are portrayed not as gloating monsters but as calm keyboarders who will go home after an afternoon of death-dealing, pop open a coke, and watch American Idol.

Second, as a scientist who knows too much to live, Rachel Weisz brings credible terror to her character’s discovery that she is expendable. No hand-me-down screaming and eye-widening here. As her world collapses around her, Weisz makes you feel the internal demolition as well: her elite education, her carefully honed skills, and practically her entire past—all now rendered worthless. A superb, naked performance in a routine movie.

Published in the 2012-09-14 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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