Wonder Woman (2017, Patty Jenkins)

MV5BMTUxMTYzMzEwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzYyNzU2MTI_._V1_SX1498_CR0_0_1498_999_AL_

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Living god Diana Prince leaves her home on a mystical island of Amazons to help American spy Steve Trevor during the First World War…

Good guys: This film is part of the DC Extended Universe series, so we’ve seen lead character Diana Prince before. Thankfully, actress Gal Gadot is better here than she was during her cold, one-note contribution to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The bulk of Wonder Woman is a flashback set a century ago… The young Diana lives on a Mediterranean island which is magically cut off from the rest of the world, populated solely by females, and where everyone trains to be in an army that doesn’t have anyone to fight. Two women bicker over Diana’s future: her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), wants her to learn how to fight; but her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), wants to keep Diana safe. (All the women on the island speak in a vaguely Middle-Eastern accent, presumably to complement Gal Gadot’s Israeli voice.) Then a biplane appears in the sky. An American spy called Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) has (somehow) stumbled across the island and tells Diana and co about the war. “War?” she says. “What war?” Learning about the horrors going on in Europe (it’s 1918, you see), Diana resolves to travel with Steve to London because she thinks Ares, the god of war, must be responsible. When they arrive, we meet Steve’s secretary: the nervy but very capable Etta Candy (Lucy Davis, who is so funny she very nearly steals the whole film). Then when Steve and Diana head to France to prevent chemical weapon being used by the Germans, Steve recruits three old colleagues. Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui, decent) is a French Moroccan spy; Charlie (Ewen Bremner, likeable) is an alcoholic Scottish sharpshooter who’s clearly suffering from PTSD; and Chief Napi (Eugene Brave Rock, barely an actor) is a Native American smuggler.

Bad guys: The major villains initially seem to be the sadistic leader of the German Army, General Erich Ludendoff (Danny Huston), and his sidekick Isabel Maru aka Dr Poison (Elena Anaya), a Spanish scientist developing chemical weapons. Huston’s hamming it up – he thinks he’s in a more childish film – while Anaya makes little impression despite an interesting backstory and a Phantom of the Opera-style facemask. But they’re actually red herrings. In the London sequence, we meet British politician Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) and anyone who’s ever seen a movie before will probably guess that there’s more to him than meets the eye. He turns out to be Ares, another powerful living god and Diana’s evil half-brother.

Best bits:
* The early sequence on the magical island of Themyscira is quite flat and po-faced – it presents a world that’s difficult to believe in and has lots of clunky exposition – so it’s something of a relief when the 20th century crash-lands into the story. Chris Pine is absolutely terrific as Steve Trevor, bringing some much-needed charm, irony and urgency to the story. It’s a very Harrison Ford-y performance.
* Steve being interrogated by the Amazons. They use the Lasso of Hestia, a rope that compels people to tell the truth. “But it’s really hot,” says Steve. He then involuntarily blurts out, “I AM A SPY!”
* Steve sneaking into a German scientific base in the Ottoman Empire has the feel of Raiders of the Lost Ark as he steals an important notebook, jumps into a biplane, and drops a grenade as he escapes.
* Diana walks in on a naked Steve. “Would you say you’re a typical example of your sex?” she asks. “I am… above average,” he replies.
* There’s a lovely bit of movie logic on show here: leaving the island, which is near Turkey, Diana and Steve get into a small boat that sails along at about five knots. They fall asleep, but when Diana awakes they’re sailing up the Thames! “We got lucky, we caught a ride, we made good time,” is the lame line of dialogue Chris Pine has to toss off without looking too embarrassed.
* The London sequence is a triumph of production design, CGI and period detail. There’s also plenty of fish-out-of-water humour with Diana not understanding social conventions and etiquette. Steve takes her to Selfridges to get some Western clothes.
* Etta Candy is a marvel. Everything she says or does is both adorable and hilarious. Every eye roll or nervous vocal utterance is a joy.
* This area of the film also contains some knowing references to the 1978 Superman: Diana puts on glasses, struggles with a revolving door, and saves her human companion from a guy with a gun in an alley – all things Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent did too.
* In order to prove he’s telling the truth about going to Europe to stop a genocide, Steve wraps the Lasso of Hestia around his own hand… then can’t stop himself admitting that it’s a terrible idea and they’ll probably be killed.
* Diana deals with a bully in a pub by throwing him across the room. “I’m both frightened and aroused,” says Sameer.
* Diana climbing out of the trench and marching across no-man’s land, rallying the British to follow her. It’s an unashamedly epic moment of rousing music, slow-motion photography and iconic hero poses.
* Steve and Sameer blag their way into a German castle where a gala is being held – Steve masquerades as a German colonel, Sameer as his driver.
* The Armistice celebration scene in Trafalgar Square – which was shot in the genuine location.

Review: What a lovely surprise. After three movies of gobsmacking ineptitude – Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad – the DC Extended Universe gets on track. With a female lead (so rare in the superhero genre) and a female director (ever rarer), Wonder Woman shrugs off DC’s alpha-male obsessions with explosions, killings and carnage, and instead opts for heart, humour and a light touch. It’s very likeable stuff that zips along. But that’s not to say the film is perfect. Its feminist credentials, for example, are superficial. For all her barrier-breaking and popularity, Diana is still an objectively beautiful woman who parades around in a sexualised outfit while the men dictate the plot and explain things to her. It’s hardly Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor. Her naivety is also sometimes difficult to fathom – she can speak hundreds of languages, yet doesn’t know what marriage is; she comes from a magical community of superhuman isolationists yet berates a middle-aged general for hiding in an office ‘like a coward’. The movie also has some dull villains, can’t resist an overblown climax of CGI nonsense, and repeats ideas from Captain America: The First Avenger a few times too many. But as a two-hour slice of popcorn cinema, this hits the spot. It’s fun, entertaining and charming.

Eight pairs of specs (suddenly she’s not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen) out of 10 

The Lego Batman Movie (2017, Chris McKay)

thelegobatman_trailer4

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Joker is causing carnage in Gotham, while Batman is going through issues of loneliness…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne/Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is the hero of Gotham City (“I love you more than my kids!” says a member of the general public). However, new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) wants to put an end to his vigilantism. Meanwhile, Bruce is also feeling lonely in his millionaire’s mansion with just loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) for company. Later, the household gets an addition when Bruce accidentally agrees to adopt a young, enthusiastic orphan named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who joins Batman on his missions and eventually gets the name Robin. Superman (Channing Tatum) also has a couple of appearances.

Bad guys: The Joker (Zack Galifianakis) wants to blow up the city but he’s upset when he realises Batman doesn’t consider him to be his number-one enemy. There’s also a large gang of bad guys who initially support the Joker. They include the Riddler (Conan O’Brien), the Scarecrow (Jason Mantzoukas), Bane (Doug Benson), Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams), Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz), Clayface (Kate Micucci), Poison Ivy (Riki Lindhome), Mr Freeze (David Burrows), Penguin (John Venzon) and Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate). After the Joker surrenders to the cops he’s sent to the Phantom Zone (the mystical prison from the Superman movies), where he recruits lots of other bad guys from non-DC fictions. These include Sauron (Jermaine Clement), Lord Voldemort (Eddie Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong (Seth Green), Daleks (referred to as “British robots… Ask your nerd friends”), the shark from Jaws, Gremlins, the Wicked Witch of the West (Riki Lindhome) and the flying monkeys, Dracula, Medusa, Agent Smith from The Matrix and a velociraptor from Jurassic Park. The Joker brings them to Gotham to take his revenge on Batman. 

Best bits:
* The film starts with a black screen and Batman giving a meta voiceover about how all great films begin with a black screen. He then comments on the production-company logos.
* The opening scene features an aircraft from MacGuffin Airlines. The flight is also Flight 1138, which is a reference to two George Lucas movies.
* The first appearance of the Joker. He tries to intimidate an airline pilot, but the pilot just points out that all the Joker’s plans fail (“Like that time with the parade and the Prince music?”).
* In a gag that only becomes apparent during the end credits, Two-Face is voiced by Billy Dee Williams, who played the pre-villain character in the 1989 Batman film.
* When characters shoot guns, they vocalise the ‘Pwew-pwew-pe-pwew’ sound effects.
* The incidental music is great.
* Batman sings a song while he deals with the Joker: “In the darkest night/I make the bad guys fall/There’s a million heroes/But I’m the best of them all.”
* The Batmobile’s horn is the theme music from the 1960s TV series.
* The password to Batman’s secret lair is ‘Iron Man sucks’.
* Batman bored at home: microwaving lobster thermidor, struggling to find the right AV channel on his telly, and watching Jerry Maguire.
* The interior of Wayne Manor is reminiscent of Xanadu, Charles Foster Kane’s home in Citizen Kane.
* Alfred says that Bruce also had maudlin periods in “2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1995 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966.” As he mentions each year we get a flash of the relevant Batman movie (Lego reconstructions for the first eight, then a live-action clip for 1966).
* “My name’s Richard Grayson but all the kids at the orphanage call me Dick.” “Well, children can be cruel.”
* Barbara Gordon is announced as Gotham’s new police commissioner via an X Factor-style VT. It tells us she cleaned up a nearby crime-ridden city by using “statistics!!! And compassion!!!”
* When Barbara says they can manage without Batman, Bruce Wayne calmly asks a waiter for a drink, then gulps some of it so he can spit it out.
* The shark repellent: a neat call-back to the 1960s film.
* Batman asks if Dick is “110-per-cent expendable”. Dick: “I don’t know what that means, but okay!”
* Dick tries out some potential superhero costumes. Batman says the El Mariachi one is culturally insensitive.
* Batman has been keeping count of how many good ideas he’s had (5,678,482) and how many good ideas everyone else has had (none).
* Superman’s front-door bell at the Fortress of Solitude is the musical motif from Superman: The Movie.
* Batman’s nervous flirting with Barbara.
* When he reaches Gotham, Lord Voldemort turns police officers into fish, frogs and fish-frogs. “Sergeant Jackson,” says the police chief, “stop floppin’ around!”
* Barbara Gordon tells Batman she will let him out of prison if he agrees to team up with other people to fight crime. “Who am I working with? SEAL team six? Fox Force Five? Suicide Squad?”
* A cat gets engulfed by lava. “I’m okay!” you hear it say.
* Robin needs the loo. “Can you hold it in like a big boy?” asks Batman.
* Having joined the fight, Alfred says: “Bob’s your uncle, you ruddy duff cobblers!” He’s British, of course.
* Phyllis, the brick-shaped administrator of the Phantom Zone, calls Batman ‘Mr Batman’ and emphasises the first syllable, as if his name was Harman or something.
* Batman tells Robin they’re going to punch the bad guys so hard that “words describing the impact are gonna spontaneously materialise out of thin air.”
* The music over the end credits is “happy, poppy music, the kind that makes parents and studio executives happy.”

Review: This spin-off might not be quite as awesome as the original Lego Movie but it’s still enormous fun. It balances gags for kids with postmodern references, and lots of action with plenty of heart. As with The Lego Movie, the most impressive thing is the design work. The look of the film is astonishing. Although done with CG, the characters and their surroundings feel real and solid and three-dimensional. There’s smoke and water and lens flares. Scenes are shot inventively, with crash-zooms, whip-pans and circular tracks. Action is Michael Bay-huge and dramatic. And the movie’s colour scheme is vibrant and dynamic. The movie is also remorselessly funny, but if anything the assault of jokes and fun details is too relentless. You just can’t keep up and have to accept that on one viewing you’re going to miss a large proportion. (Not that repeat viewings would be a chore.) Nevertheless, a charming, smart and very enjoyable 100 minutes.

Eight snake clowns out of 10

Suicide Squad (2016, David Ayer)

maxresdefault

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Due to the existence of powerful ‘meta-humans’, a team of reprobates is assembled to combat them if something goes wrong…

Good guys: Well, there aren’t any, really. The ‘heroes’ of the story are Task Force X, a ragbag team of prisoners who have committed a variety of crimes but are offered shorter sentences if they help the government. (We know they’re bad guys because they keep telling us they are.) Two of the group shine noticeably brighter than anyone else in the film: Deadshot and Harley Quinn. The former’s real name is Floyd Lawton and he’s played by Will Smith. An assassin with preternatural marksmanship, he also has an 11-year-old daughter (which manipulatively tells us that he can’t be entirely evil). Smith, as always, knows what he’s doing and the character has a fair amount of sarcasm and swagger. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn – real name Harleen Quinzel – is played by Margot Robbie. She’s a former psychiatrist who was turned loopy after sessions with master criminal The Joker. They fell in love and went on a crime spree, including murdering Batman’s friend Robin. Interestingly, rather than debuting in a comic book, Harley Quinn was created in the early 90s for the TV show Batman: The Animated Series. She’s a punky, crazy, flirtatious, immature, gleeful cheerleader type with peroxide hair, a crop top and a baseball bat. Robbie is ace, bringing bags of energy and danger. It’s no surprise that a solo movie for the character has been rumoured recently. (A more responsible blogger might also discuss the troubling subtext of an ostentatiously sexy character who talks and dresses like a little girl. But let’s ignore that and return to being sniffy about Suicide Squad…) Elsewhere, Task Force X’s other members are all desperately dull. Army Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the leader, though he himself has no super powers or anything. George ‘Digger’ Harkness aka Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is a tough, uncouth Australian who – wait for it – uses a boomerang to kill people. Chato Santana aka El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is a former gang member who can generate and withstand fire; he has lots of tats and, admittedly, a bit of a backstory. Waylon Jones aka Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a man who’s been mutated into a humanoid crocodile. He has no personality. Neither does Tatsu Yamashiro aka Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a martial-arts expert who has a big sword, nor Christopher Weiss aka Slipknot (Adam Beach), a guy who can climb anything. Both join the team later than everyone else with precious little fanfare or consequence. Slightly more interestingly, Ben Affleck reprises his Batman from the previous film in this series. He appears briefly in flashbacks but chooses not to take part in the potentially world-destroying main story. Does his jurisdiction only extend to the Gotham-and-Metropolis area? The Flash (Ezra Miller) also cameos from the previous film.

Bad guys: The antagonist of the story is the Enchantress, a 6,373-year-old, mystical, evil, extra-dimensional entity who has inhabited the body of archaeologist June Moon. Both characters are played by Cara Delevinge. It’s tempting to assume that her contributions were trimmed down in editing – the characters don’t appear much in the finished film and when they do it feels like we’re cutting around a weak actress (or at least a miscast one). The Enchantress wants revenge for something or other and plans to kill everyone or whatever. (If you think that last sentence was sloppy, it still tops how much thought the filmmakers put into the character.) A more heavily featured villain is Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the government official who assembles Task Force X yet has shadowy motives. Additionally, Jared Leto plays The Joker Who Inevitably Disappoints Because He’s The One Who Comes After Heath Ledger. The character has been repurposed as a gold-toothed, tattooed, hip-hop gangster, but he’s not especially interesting or important.

Best bits:
* The first 21 minutes of the movie form a whip-crack-fast opening act that introduces us to all the main characters, uses fun flashbacks, features cameos from Batman and the Flash, sets up the concept of the squad, and contains both humour and decent visual effects. The sequence rocks with energy, and it’s great fun. It’s like watching a hyper version of Hustle or Ocean’s Eleven. We get quickly cut montages, on-screen captions, treated footage, famous songs used as score, dislocating editing and trippy sound effects – there’s a flamboyance and a freedom. The rest of the film simply can’t compete.
* Deadshot pulls a gun on a prison guard. “If this man shoots me,” the guard tells a colleague, “I want you to kill him. And I want you to go clear my browser history.”
* Harley Quinn beating people up to the sound of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
* The montage of the squad tooling up for a mission is cut dead when Harley realises that every man close by is perving at her.
* A nice twist: the squad has been fighting to get to a room… then discover it contains their boss, Waller, who soon kills her co-workers so they don’t learn her nefarious plan. “I like her,” deadpans Killer Croc in his one moment of individuality in the whole film.
* The ending: the Joker breaking Harley out of prison. Hashtag sequel set-up
* A mid-credits scene that teases the forthcoming Justice League movie: Bruce Wayne getting some information from Waller.

Review: This film is a spin-off from the dreadful Man of Steel (2013) and the even more dreadfuller Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016); the series of movies is known as the DC Extended Universe. But as we start, there’s a nice surprise. It seems that Suicide Squad has turned its back on the dreary house style. Instead, the tone is fun and refreshingly dangerous. The opening 20 minutes are full of attitude, spikiness, threat and dark comedy. Even the studio logos that start the film are tinted in neon purples and greens. This pop-art sensibility reminds you of Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) or Gotham (2014 onwards), two theatrically styled TV shows also inspired by the same comics as Suicide Squad. Sadly, all that is quickly forgotten and the movie morphs into a drab, lifeless, voice-less franchise film. The longer it goes on, in fact, the worse it gets. Writer/director David Ayer reportedly wrote the script in six weeks and it has the tell-tale signs of being rushed. (Clearly a lot of work has gone into the set-up. The middle act and climax, though, reek of that’ll-do desperation.) The story descends into utter garbage and the second half of the film is really, really appalling. When you can follow what’s happening it’s impossible to care about any of it. Suicide Squad is also another case of the DC Extended Universe mechanically copying something the Marvel series of superhero films did first… yet failing to understand why it worked. This is DC’s equivalent of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – both films have an irreverent tone and feature a team of misfits. Guardians, however, also had wit, style and characterisation. This is just a mess. The story is confused, the characters ridiculous, the humour often terrible, the action boring. However, based on the strength of the opening 20 minutes and its general punky attitude, let’s give the film a generous score…

Five workplace romances out of 10

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, Zack Snyder)

batman-v-superman-trinity

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Eighteen months after Superman was revealed to the world, two local businessmen – secret vigilante Bruce Wayne and power-hungry Lex Luthor – independently decide to do something about him…

Good guys: This is a direct sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, so returning from that film are Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and, in a dream sequence, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). None of the actors is terrible, but the characters are so hollow they don’t get much to play. The headline newcomer is, of course, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck). He’s been fighting crime in Gotham City for 20 years, we’re told, though no one seems to have heard of his alter ego. The soulful and sombre Affleck is the one true success of the movie and the actor skillfully implies a complex life beyond the scripted scenes. At one point, Bruce bumps into and flirts with Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who’s over a hundred years old despite looking about 30. She’s a shadowy (ie, underwritten) presence in the story. The character is essentially just an in-film trailer for 2017’s Wonder Woman movie. We barely see her for the first 110 minutes then she takes part in the action climax. Gadot’s performance is certainly bland, but the material’s not there anyway. It’s a classic example of a movie thinking the way to make a female character strong is to have her be perfect, unflappable and never in any peril.

Bad guys: Jesse Eisenberg over-acts his wig off as an irritating and childish Lex Luthor. It feels like an actor who knows the script is garbage so is trying to lever it off the page. Lex has a very thin female PA who gets neither a personality nor much dialogue. We see the corpse of Man of Steel’s General Zod a few times. (Thankfully it’s been well preserved in the year and a half since he died.)

Other guys: Bruce’s friend/assistant is the droll Alfred (Jeremy Irons). Holly Hunter plays a Democratic Senator from Kentucky, June Finch, who’s heading up the investigation into Superman’s activities. Harry Lennix reprises his Man of Steel role as a whistle-blowing politician. The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan plays Bruce’s mum in flashbacks.

Best bits:
* The big action sequence near the start of the film. Cleverly, we begin in the timeframe of Man of Steel and see Superman and Zod’s city-bashing battle from a new point of view. Bruce Wayne leaps from a helicopter, jumps into a 4×4 and careers through Metropolis as skyscrapers fall around him. Once he’s out of the car, there’s a terrific shot of him running into a cloud of debris dust…
* Lois Lane and Perry White’s minor bickering over what sort of airline ticket she can buy for a story. (A very rare moment of naturalism, this.)
* Clark Kent meets Bruce Wayne. It’s a frosty chat at a cocktail party (“Daily Planet?” asks Bruce. “Do I own that one?”). Diana saunters past, dressed in red so she’ll pop out against the other partygoers, and there’s a nice touch when Clark can hear Bruce’s hidden earbud.
* During a post-apocalyptic dream sequence (FUCK KNOWS WHAT’S GOING ON HERE), there’s an impressive 53-second long take as a goggles-and-long-coat-wearing Batman fights dozens of bad guys.
* During a scene at the docks, we see a sign for Nicholson Terminal & Dock Company – surely a reference to Jack Nicholson and a much better Batman film.
* The build-up of tension before the explosion at the Senate hearing.
* Bruce finds a secret file on Diana. It contains a photograph of her taken in 1918 – ie, during events that will be seen in next year’s Wonder Woman movie. Star Trek actor Chris Pine is stood next to her.
* Lex pushes Lois off a skyscraper. (Add this to the list of people who fall from a great height in superhero films: Lois in Superman: The Movie and Superman IV, Gus in Superman III, the Joker in Batman, Selina in Batman Returns, Nygma’s boss in Batman Forever, Rachel in The Dark Knight, airplane passengers in Iron Man 3, Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3…)
* Batman sees the Kryptonian mutant ogre-type monster: “Oh, shit…”
* Wonder Woman shows up in her costume. Superman: “Is she with you?” Batman: “I thought she was with you.”

Review: After an opening flashback telling us – for the fourth time in eight Batman films – how Bruce Wayne was orphaned, we’re into a terrific action sequence. As the climactic fight from Man of Steel plays out above him, Bruce looks on in horror and it feels like this sequel is critiquing the earlier film’s disaster porn. In a sequence full of 9/11 imagery, Superman and Zod are bringing down skyscrapers, levelling city blocks and killing thousands of people… while new character Bruce Wayne is on the ground saving innocent lives. It seems like a comment on the shallowness of Man of Steel. It also smartly and economically sets up the Batman/Superman antagonism. However… All that work is soon wasted. A theme of vigilantism bubbles away, but never goes anywhere, while the action-heavy second half is just as guilty as Man of Steel for revelling in meaningless violence. Not only that but this film’s attempts at answering the critics of Man of Steel are laughable. As carnage begins in the city, there’s a woeful line of dialogue heard in a TV news report – “Thankfully the workday is over and the downtown core is nearly empty…” It’s petty sarcasm on the part of the filmmakers, like a child putting the least amount of effort possible into a chore. Just as risible is the ‘Martha moment’. The script spends *two hours* setting up an argument between Superman and Batman. Then every inch of that storytelling is made instantly irrelevant because the characters realise they have mothers with the same name. Seriously?! That’s your character arc?! So Bruce doesn’t care about all those deaths any more? He’s best friends with Superman now? And that’s just the most ridiculous of many flaws with the plotting… Mercenaries use branded bullets that will identify who they are… Someone in a collapsing building needs to be told to evacuate… It’s not clear if the public know who Batman is… A hotshot reporter has never heard of prominent industrialist Bruce Wayne… The US government holds an inquiry into an incident that happened in Kenya… Lex knows how to use an alien space ship to create a Middle Earth ogre… It’s a hopelessly muddled plot: all effect, no cause. And sadly there are plenty of other problems. For example, both Superman and Batman routinely *kill people*. This betrayal of the characters’ established myths is all the more saddening because Batman v Superman is part of a multi-film franchise akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, the film fails to grasp why that series has been so successful. Marvel built its shared universe carefully and gradually, and gave each hero moments to shine before merging the storylines in interesting ways. This movie, though, feels like it has YouTube ads popping up at regular intervals: a dream sequence features a nonsensical cameo from the Flash; we see CCTV footage of obscure characters who are getting solo movies soon; and the final scenes are more about sequels than closure. But the worst thing about this travesty of a blockbuster is Zack Snyder. Almost every aspect of the film – scripting, acting, staging, design – is poorly directed. There’s a tiresome reliance on slow-motion for emphasis, a gloomy, grimy look to every action scene, a cigarette-stained colour palette, meaningless camera moves, an astonishing absence of wit, an adolescent view of the world, an ADHD attitude to character, and a bloated running time. We’re living through an era of superhero blockbusters. Some are good. Some are bad. This is ugly.

Two buckets of piss out of 10

Two years of reviews…

d2q1pyq2gid7esuvmlga

Over the last two years, I’ve written 268 reviews for this blog. Most (204) have been about films, while 33 have been about TV and 31 on music. (A full index can be found here.)

A year ago I did a post rounding up the first 12 months, which you can read here. So I thought it’d be fun to do another.

Series-by-series, the reviews break down like this:

* James Bond: 26 reviews
* Steven Spielberg: 31
* Police Academy: 7
* The Coen Brothers: 16
* The Beatles: 17 (covering 21 albums)
* Star Trek: 13, including Galaxy Quest
* Superman/Batman: 20 – eight Superman films, nine Batman films, Supergirl, Catwoman and The Lego Movie
* ABBA: 8
* Carry On: 36
* Dracula: 29
* Star Wars: 13, including Spaceballs
* The Smiths: 6 (covering seven albums)
* Fawlty Towers: 12
* Back to the Future: 3
* John Hughes: 6
* Blackadder: 6
* Blade Runner: 3
* The Omen: 5
* Alien/Predator: 11 – six Alien films, three Predator films and two crossovers

For every review except the Police Academys, I’ve given a score out of 10. The 49 reviews that have gained 10 out of 10 are:

Abbey Road
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Alien
Aliens
Aliens: Special Edition
Back to the Future
Back to the Future Part II
Back to the Future Part III
Blackadder Goes Forth
Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut
Blade Runner: The Final Cut
Batman (1989)
The Big Lebowski
The Breakfast Club
Casino Royale (2006)
The Dark Knight
The Empire Strikes Back (actually, because it’s so good I gave it 11 out of 10)
The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Fargo
Fawlty Towers: The Anniversary
Fawlty Towers: Basil the Rat
Fawlty Towers: The Builders
Fawlty Towers: Communication Problems
Fawlty Towers: Gourmet Night
Fawlty Towers: The Hotel Inspectors
Fawlty Towers: The Kipper and the Corpse
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
GoldenEye
Hatful of Hollow
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Jaws
Jurassic Park
The Lego Movie
Licence to Kill
Love
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
The Queen is Dead
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Return of the Jedi
Revolver
Rubber Soul
Schindler’s List
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (actually, I gave it 4,000 out of 10, but that’s the same thing)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Star Wars

The other scores break down like this:

9.5/10: 1 review (Blade Runner)
9/10: 39 reviews
8/10: 45 reviews
7/10: 38 reviews
6/10: 29 reviews
5/10: 24 reviews
4/10: 12 reviews
3/10: 11 reviews
2/10: Five reviews
1/10: Eight reviews (Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, Batman & Robin, Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest, Carry On Emmannuelle, Carry On Laughing, Dracula Reborn, The Ladykillers, The Star Wars Holiday Special)

That’s an average of 7.16. (It was 7.45 when I did a round-up of my first 128 reviews this time last year.) The most popular years, meanwhile, has been 1979 and 1987 with 11 reviews each.

Thank you to everyone who’s ever read, liked, commented on, discussed, asked me about, or generally engaged with all this nonsense. It means the world to me.

A year of reviews…

dr_no_xlg

A year ago today, on 2 April 2014, I posted a quick review of Dr No to Facebook. I’d watched it the previous evening, having decided on a whim to redo every James Bond film in order. The reviews I wrote of the series seemed to go down well, and I was thrilled by the feedback and interaction they generated. So I did the same with every Steven Spielberg movie – and then kept going with various other series.

In January 2015, after a few friends suggested it, I built this blog. I copied across all the stuff I’d already put on Facebook and now post new reviews here as well.

Over the last 12 months, I’ve written 128 reviews of 111 films and 17 albums (well, 21 albums actually: seven were condensed into three reviews). A full index can be found here. Series-by-series, they break down like this:

James Bond: 25, including the two non-official entries, Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again
Steven Spielberg: 30, including Poltergeist, which he’s rumoured to have directed
Police Academy: 7
The Coen Brothers: 16
The Beatles: 17
Star Trek: 13, including – for a laugh – Galaxy Quest
Superman/Batman: 20 – eight Superman films, nine Batman films, Supergirl, Catwoman and The Lego Movie

For every review except the Police Academys, I’ve given a score out of 10. Twenty-five things have received a maximum mark:

Abbey Road
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Batman (1989)
The Big Lebowski
Casino Royale (2006)
The Dark Knight
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Fargo
GoldenEye
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Jaws
Jurassic Park
The Lego Movie
Licence to Kill
Love
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Revolver
Rubber Soul
Schindler’s List
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

The other scores break down like this:

9/10: 22 reviews
8/10: 22 reviews
7/10: 15 reviews
6/10: 13 reviews
5/10: 12 reviews
4/10: 3 reviews
3/10: 6 reviews
2/10: 1 review
1/10: 2 reviews (Batman & Robin and The Ladykillers)

That’s an average score of 7.44628099. Or ‘7ish’, as I like to call it.

The most popular year, meanwhile, has been 1989. I’ve reviewed six films from those glorious 12 months – Always, Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Licence to Kill, Police Academy 6: City Under Siege and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. That’s apt: I was 10 years old in 1989 and the huge volume of genre movies released that year played a big role in turning me into a film geek. (In second place are 1984 and 1987, with five each.)

Thank you to everyone who’s ever read, liked, commented on, discussed, asked me about, or generally engaged with all this nonsense. It means the world to me.

The Lego Movie (2014, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

LegoMovie

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Relentlessly positive construction worker Emmett Brickowski learns that he has a destiny: to save the universe from the evil President Business. He soon joins a gang of rebels, and among his new allies are Batman and Superman…

Batman and Superman’s best bits:

* Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) saves Emmett and his new friends, Wyldstyle and Vitruvius, when they fall off a railway bridge. He’s Wyldstyle’s boyfriend and has a gravelly voice.

* His Batwing aircraft rebuilds in midair and turns into the Batmobile. Once on the road, he shows off his new sound system to Wyldstyle by playing her a song he’s written about himself (“Darkness! No parents!”).

* He joins up with the team, but hates the pink, fluffy Cloud Cuckoo Land where all the rebel master-builders meet for a powwow.

* Superman (Channing Tatum) is there too, being pestered by the Green Lantern, who has a man-crush on him (“Do you want to sit together at the meeting?” “Um, I have to go back to Krypton.” “Didn’t Krypton blow up?”). Also at the meeting are Robin Hood, Gandalf, ‘1980s-something space guy’, Wonder Woman, Michelangelo (the painter), Michelangelo (the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) and many other icons.

* When the bad guys attack, the Batmobile is destroyed, while Superman is trapped in a big glob of chewing gum and gets captured.

* Batman wants to fight ‘every man for himself’-style, but Wyldstyle guilt-trips him into helping her.

* When Emmett suggests building a submarine, Batman pretends it was his idea – he wants it to be built in black “or very, very dark grey”.

* Batman seemingly abandons the gang when he gets a chance to swan off with Han Solo, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian and C-3PO in the Millennium Falcon. (Lando and 3PO are voiced by the proper actors.) Wyldstyle is left gutted, so Emmett tries to console her: “You’re such an amazing person, and if Batman can’t see that, he’s just… well, he’s just as blind as a guy whose eyes have stopped working. And I’m gonna tell you something: Batman is the worst person I’ve ever met.” Batman then reappears. His betrayal was just a rouse so he could steal the Falcon’s hyperdrive. “Those guys were so lame,” he reports. “All they did was play space checkers. Plus, it turns out that hairy one’s a dude. And the metal one. All dudes.”

* During the raid on the baddies’ lair, Batman makes several attempts to hit a button with his bat-shaped throwing stars – he says, “Pow! Wham! Ka-zing!” as he throws. But when it’s suggested he should ‘masquerade’ as Bruce Wayne, he claims to have never heard of the guy.

* At the conclusion, Batman realises that Wyldstyle fancies Emmett, so lets her go: “He’s the hero you deserve.”

Review: What a smashing way to end this watch-through of every cinema film featuring Superman and/or Batman. The Lego Movie is witty, pacey and full of cute details. It’s subversive, satirical and ‘meta’. It’s often very funny and constantly inventive. Idea upon idea, joke upon joke, hit you at an amazing lick – it’s like Airplane for the sheer volume of joyful moments. It also reminded me of the best of Aardman or the Toy Story series. It’s *that* good.

Ten double-decker couches out of 10.

Man of Steel (2013, Zack Snyder)

man-of-steel

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Clark Kent has always known he’s special – but he soon learns that his extraordinary powers are because he’s from a distant planet…

Good guys: Kal-El is born in the first scene. When his home planet, Krypton, is threatened with destruction, his parents send him to Earth for safekeeping. He’s adopted by a Kansas couple, the Kents, who call him Clark. He occasionally uses the superpowers his alien heritage gives him – saving his friends after a bus drives into a lake, for example – but his new dad implores him to keep his powers secret, even if that means letting people die. As a grown man (Henry Cavill), Clark drifts from job to job – fisherman, barman, unspecified helper at a scientific outpost. He miraculously saves some workers from a burning oilrig, then moves on before questions can be asked. At the outpost, an alien spacecraft has been discovered in the ice. It’s from Krypton and contains a hologram… type… thing… of Clark’s dead biological father, who tells him his history and gives him a skin-tight blue outfit with a red cape. This dad wants Clark to reveal himself to the world, leaving Clark in a quandary. Then Kryptonian crim Zod shows up and calls him out. (This happens when Clark is 33 – just one of a few messianic references.) After a very long fight between the two, Superman – as he’s been dubbed by some soldiers – kills Zod by twisting his neck. Clark then realises he needs a job that will let him go incognito into dangerous situations, so – despite having no experience or qualifications or degree or CV or references or previous published work – gets a job at a national newspaper. Cavill makes a good stab at the role: he’s likeable and deserves a better film. Meanwhile, the talented Amy Adams is wasted as bland journalist Lois Lane. She meets Clark when she reports on the discovery in the ice. Once back in Metropolis, she reminds editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) that she’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. From the lifeless article she’s just read out to him, it’s difficult to see how. She then tries to track down a vanished Clark and finds him at his adoptive father’s grave. When Zod arrives, he demands that she join Clark as his hostage – this seems to be solely so she can then later escape.

Bad guys: General Zod is a Kryptonian villain who stages a coup, but is then tried and imprisoned in the Phantom Zone. He’s sent there in a spaceship that looks like a penis but later escapes… because… plot. Heading to Earth to look for the Codex (a DNA database or something), he threatens to destroy the planet if he doesn’t get what he wants. Rather than give an acting performance, Michael Shannon just shouts a lot.

Other guys: Clark has two fathers, each played by Robin Hood. Russell Crowe trots out his vaguely British accent from Master and Commander as Kryptonian dad Jor-El. He’s more kickass than the Marlon Brando version, but is killed during a punch-up with Zod. He later appears to his son (and Lois, and Zod) as an interactive, omniscient hologram. Meanwhile, Kevin Costner plays Kansas farmer Jonathan Kent, and it’s a decent performance. When a very sudden tornado strikes, Clark chooses to watch Jonathan die rather than – as earlier with the school bus and later with the oil rig – risk people seeing him do something superhero-y. Diane Lane plays Jonathan’s wife, Martha. Richard Schiff from The West Wing plays scientist Emil Hamilton: it’s a tiny role, but he’s the classiest thing in the film.

Best bits:

* In a flashback to his youth, Clark can’t cope with his hypersensitive sight and hearing – he sees people’s skeletons and veins, and hears every tiny noise all at once.

* The early scenes of Clark wandering from town to town – presumably in New England – have a gentle, airy, soft-rain quality.

* Clark’s first test flight (the music cue is terrific).

* Oh, look: it’s Harry Lennix from Dollhouse as an army general.

* Faced with Zod’s ultimatum – reveal yourself to the world or risk innocent lives – Clark goes to visit a priest. When Clark reveals that he’s the alien Zod is looking for, the priest gulps.

* Lois is just about to refer to her new friend as ‘Superman’ but gets interrupted.

* In an interrogation room, Clark can not only see through the two-way mirror but also into the next room where some soldiers are preparing a sedative.

* The dream-world image of Clark sinking into a massive pile of skulls.

* The fake Jor-El talking Lois calmly through her escape attempt.

* Lois tries plugging Clark’s zip-drive thingy into a Krypotonian panel, but it gets stuck. “It’s supposed to go in all the way!” she cries with a straight face.

* An oil tanker seen in the interminable fight sequence at the end has a Lexcorp logo on it. It made me think of Gene Hackman and I smiled. Soon afterwards, we get a shot of a satellite with a Wayne logo: Batman will be in this film’s sequel, due out next year.

* After Clake has got his new job, Lois knowingly says to him: “Welcome to the Planet.” He replies, “Glad to be here, Lois” – the final line of the film.

Review: Positives? Well, Henry Cavill and Amy Adams are likeable enough. Kevin Costner’s solid too. And the film’s flashback structure works quite well – we cut to them when they’re relevant to the narrative rather than in a strict chronological order. But on the whole, this is mediocre stuff. It was produced by Christopher Nolan, who also gets a ‘story by’ credit. The magic he brought to his Batman reboot series is woefully misjudged here. In the same way that a pantomimic approach didn’t fit the film-noir character of Batman in the 1990s, a sombre, earnest take on Superman is really missing the point of his sunny, optimistic, noble story. The film also throws away the template’s best element: the lead character *being* Superman but *pretending to be* Clark Kent. Here, he’s Clark until the halfway point, and then he’s Superman. An even bigger problem is how it’s staged by director Zack Synder. The prologue on Krypton sets the scene. It’s full of technobabble about meaningless MacGuffins that have presumably been discussed at length in story meetings but struggle to punch through in the film. There’s also a massive amount of computer-generated sets, backdrops and creatures. There are lots of irritating handheld camerawork and fake crash-zooms on effects shots. It’s very poor cinematic storytelling. In fact, the cinematography is mostly terrible throughout – the frame is often so full of stuff that all becomes confused and meaningless. And just when you’re wondering why you’re bothering to continue, you get a 35-minute action climax, which is relentlessly dull disaster porn. CGI buildings get destroyed and CGI people get thrown through the air with masturbatorial glee. It’s like watching a Transformers film – or someone else playing a computer game. Character, storytelling, wit and panache have all been left far behind. At one point, Superman races to save a guy falling from a helicopter. Later in the sequence, he couldn’t give a shit about entire skyscrapers being levelled by a spaceship *he* crashed.

Three broken necks out of 10.

Next time: Everything is awesome!

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)

DarkKnightRises

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Batman has been missing for eight years, having taken the blame for a killing spree. But a mercenary called Bane is threatening Gotham City…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) – bearded, injured and using a walking stick – has been hiding in his rebuilt mansion for years. False rumours have spread that he has eight-inch fingernails and pisses in jars. When he catches a thief nicking his dead mum’s pearls, he returns to the Batcave to investigate her; then when Jim Gordon is critically injured by a new baddie, this motivates Bruce to rejoin the world properly. However, he loses control of company – and therefore his fortune. He also meets and sleeps with a sexy woman called Miranda Tate, so swings and roundabouts… Batman gets the burglar, Selina, to take him to see the mercenary threatening the city, but is soundly beaten by Bane. Broken and injured, Bruce is dumped in a medieval prison in a non-occidental part of the world – the same pit where Bane grew up, in fact. He’s forced to watch TV news of Bane terrorising Gotham City. A friendly prisoner helps Bruce get back on his feet, and after a few months he’s able to escape (only the second ever person to do so). He returns to Gotham – how he sneaks in, given that the city has been cut off by Bane, is not explained – and with help from Selina, Jim Gordon and policeman John Blake, takes on and defeats Bane. Batman then flies a ticking nuclear bomb out to sea. We assume he’s been killed, but then Alfred later spots him happily having a coffee with Selina in an Italian cafe… John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, good) is a decent cop who grew up in a kids’ home. He becomes a trusted ally of Commissioner Jim Gordon. After Gordon’s injured, Blake insists on seeing Bruce and reveals that he’s (rather implausibly) worked out that he’s Batman. At the film’s conclusion, we find out that Blake’s real first name is Robin and he’s given the coordinates of the Batcave: the mantle has been passed… Gordon is again played by Gary Oldman. He also learns Batman’s real identity during the course of the film. Alfred (Michael Caine) is unhappy with Bruce hiding away in Wayne Manor, but is then equally grumpy about him becoming Batman again – there’s no pleasing some people. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) has been trying to run Wayne Enterprises in Bruce’s absence, but it’s not been going well.

Bad guys: Bane is played by Tom Hardy. We have to take that on good faith, though. His face is hidden by a permanent gasmask, while all his dialogue – pretty obviously dubbed on afterwards – is muffled and in a strange sing-song accent that leaps about all over the shop. At the start of the film, he gets caught on purpose (like the Joker in the last film… And Silva in Skyfall… And John Harrison in Star Trek Into Darkness… And Loki in Avengers Assemble…). It’s so he can get his hands on a scientist being held by the CIA. Bane’s lair is built in Gotham’s sewers, underneath Wayne Enterprises, and he has loads of dumb henchmen. We’re told he was behind a coup in Africa and grew up in a prison – described as “hell on earth” – but killed all the other inmates. He became a student of Batman Begins baddie Ra’s al Ghul, but was then excommunicated for being too much of a fruit-loop. He holds Gotham to ransom with a nuclear bomb, cutting the island city off from the rest of the country for months. It descends into chaos with kangaroo courts and rich people being attacked by mobs… Although initially presented as a friend to Bruce Wayne, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard, attractive but unconvincing) is actually Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra’s and an old ally of Bane’s. She used to be in that prison too; Bane was her protector until she escaped and returned with her dad to free him. Posing as Miranda, she weasels her way onto the Wayne Enterprises board so she and her pal can get hold of its clean-energy machine, which they then adapt into a nuclear bomb. The clues are liberally sprinkled before she reveals her true identity… We also see Ra’s al Ghul: Liam Neeson returns for a ghostly cameo, while Josh Pence plays him as a young man in flashbacks.

Other guys: Never referred to as such – although newspapers have dubbed her ‘the cat’, as in cat burglar – Catwoman is played by Anne Hathaway. Selina Kyle is a thief who poses as a waitress to break into Wayne Manor and half-inch Bruce’s fingerprints (an assignment given to her by Bane). She’s been promised a ‘clean slate’ in return: a computer virus that wipes all records of a person from every database in the world. Blake arrests her, but she’s freed when the prisons are emptied – she’s tempted to flee, but ends up helping Batman defeat Bane. Hathaway is sassy, slinky, sarcastic and sexy. Nestor Carbonell returns from The Dark Knight to play the mayor (ironically, he looks slightly older here), while Cillian Murphy completes his trilogy of Batman movies by appearing briefly as Dr Jonathan Crane.

Best bits:

* Oh, look: it’s Aidan Gillen off of Queer as Folk as a CIA agent.

* The prologue on the plane – the perspective is all over the place as the plane is tipped up, and there’s a dramatic shot from above as it falls to the ground.

* Oh, look: Wollaton Hall is the new location for Wayne Manor. It’s a country house near Nottingham. In June 2002, I went to a one-day music festival in its grounds and saw Green Day, Iggy Pop, The Levellers, Rival Schools and many other acts.

* Oh, look: it’s Brett Cullen from Lost as a politician. He’s mates with Meat Loaf, don’t you know.

* Bruce rumbles Selina as she steals from his safe. At first, she’s coy and innocent, then the facade drops: “Oops,” she deadpans.

* Oh, look: it’s the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, standing in as a Florence cafe. I live near the ORNC and visit it very often: I was there in the morning of the day I rewatched this film, actually. The scene is a dramatisation of a fantasy of Alfred’s, which pretty much tips you off as to what the ending of the movie will be.

* Oh, look: it’s Burn Gorman from Torchwood as Philip Stryver, the intermediary who hires Selina.

* Oh, look: it’s Juno Temple as Selina’s mate Jen.

* Selina beating people up, then pretending to be helpless when the cops burst in.

* Bane and his goons have raided the stock exchange and are fleeing through the streets. The lights in the lower-level streets all go out in sequence – then Batman appears. (It’s a good chase, though it does appear to go from day to night in about 30 seconds.)

* The cops think they have Batman corned in an alley, but he comes out of it in his massive hovering Batwing aircraft. “Sure it was him?” asks Blake sarcastically after he’s flown off.

* Lucius Fox taking Miranda down to the secret underground bunker where the clean-energy generator is stored. They get there via a Bond-villain-esque sinking floor.

* Selina: “Mr Wayne, I’m sorry they took all your money.” Bruce, after a beat: “No, you’re not.”

* Oh, look: it’s Tom Conti as an inmate of Bane’s prison.

* Oh, look: It’s Ben Roethlisberger and his Pittsburgh Steeler teammates as the squad of Gotham’s American football club.

* “Let the games begin…” Bane sets off a series of explosions all over the city, including most dramatically underneath a football stadium – the grass falls away into the ground as the kick-off returner obliviously runs downfield. All the bridges are destroyed, and all the police – yes, all of them – are trapped in the sewers.

* Oh, look: it’s William Devane off of 24 as the president.

* Bruce’s attempts to escape the pit. The imagery smartly echoes the scene from Batman Begins when Thomas Wayne pulled his son out of a well.

* The improvised courtroom, with Dr Crane sat high in a judge’s chair.

* Philip Stryver is given a choice of sentence by the court: exile or death. He chooses exile, which means being forced to walk across the frozen river… Of course, the ice breaks and he falls in.

* Lucius refers to Selina as Batman’s girlfriend. “He should be so lucky,” she purrs.

* Miranda to Batman: “[Bane’s] not the child of Ra’s al Ghul. [Movie-villain dramatic pause] I am.”

* Oh, look: it’s Desmond Harrington from Dexter as a policeman.

* Selina, on the Batpod motorbike, kills Bane by firing a cannon at him. She says to Batman: “About the whole no-guns things. I’m not sure I feel as strongly about it as you do.”

Review: Being the final part of a trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises draws together themes and plotlines from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – and it feels tonally more connected to both of them than they do to each other. It’s also director Christopher Nolan merging his Batman cast with the cast of Inception, the film he made immediately before this. Michael Caine and Cillian Murphy had already been in both, but now he’s brought over Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to play this film’s three main guest roles. There’s a complex (convoluted maybe) story, which throws information at you in clumps at a frantic pace. It’s too long. Eagle-eyed viewers will easily spot the twists coming. And there are also a few *very silly* plot developments. The entire police force go down into some sewers when they get a tip-off – does that seem either plausible or smart? And yet… And yet… I really enjoyed seeing this again. Christopher Nolan at 80 per cent is still a fantastic experience.

Eight vertebrae protruding from your back out of 10.

Next time: Superman rebooted! For real this time.

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

The Dark Knight

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Gotham City is terrorised by a maniac calling himself the Joker…

Good guys: Wayne Manor has been destroyed, so Bruce Wayne is now living in a penthouse and using a secret base underneath the docks for all his secret Batman stuff. Early on, he goes to Hong Kong to find a fleeing money launderer and delivers him to Gotham’s District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Bruce sees Dent as the new crime-fighting hope for the city, so also helps him by throwing a big fundraiser. But when the Joker begins his reign of terror, Batman faces a dilemma – reveal his real identity or risk more people being killed… So he destroys all evidence of his activities and prepares to ‘come out’, yet Harvey beats him to it and announces that *he’s* the Batman. It’s a trap to lure the Joker out, but he soon escapes and kills Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes. After capturing the Joker and saving Jim Gordon’s family from Dent (who’s gone loopy, murdered some people and is then killed himself), Batman falls a long way and is injured. In order to maintain Dent’s reputation as Gotham’s rallying-call hero, Batman chooses to take the blame for Dent’s actions and goes on the run… As in Batman Begins, Bruce has a trio of older men who help him out – Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius (Morgan Freeman) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Alfred offers sound advice, Lucius gets to go on the Hong Kong mission, while Gordon plays a big role in the plot: he’s stages his death to trick the Joker, then gets promoted to police commissioner.

Bad guys: The Joker (Heath Ledger) is a psycho-punk terrorist – he’s tellingly referred to by that word – with blurred clown make-up, facial scars and a charity-shop suit. He is “an agent of chaos” who revels in destruction. In a brilliant move that makes him more mythic, we never find out who he is or where he’s from, and he tells contradictory but always chilling stories about how he got his scars. As the story begins, the Joker is knocking off mob banks. He then goes to the gangsters and offers to kill Batman for half of their fortune. When he’s arrested, he arranges for Dent and Rachel to be kidnapped – Rachel is killed and Dent is severely injured. The Joker escapes by taunting a policeman into fighting him, then blowing up the station with a bomb smuggled in inside a prisoner’s stomach. He gets all the mob’s money back and burns his half because it’s mayhem and disorder he wants, not cash. He then puts explosives on two ferries – one carrying civilians, one carrying convicts – and gives each the detonator for the other boat’s bomb. It’s a morbid social experiment designed to test Gotham’s morality. The last we see of him, he’s hanging upside down from a rope – high above Gotham and laughing uncontrollably. Ledger *commands* the film whenever he’s on screen. It’s a thrilling performance – as mercurial as it is manic. He’s full of threat and danger and menace.

Other guys: Aaron Eckhart (very good) plays Harvey Dent, the charismatic new DA who’s dating Rachel Dawes. He shows his mettle early on by disarming a witness who pulls a gun on him in court, then complains when the guy is taken away: “But, your honour, I’m not done…” He impresses everyone with his dedication to bringing down the mob – but when Jim Gordon is ‘killed’ and Rachel identified as the Joker’s next target, Dent’s anger boils over and he kidnaps a henchman. He tosses a coin to see whether the guy should live or not… He then pretends to be Batman in order to draw the Joker out of hiding, but the Joker retaliates by tying him up next to some barrels of flammable liquid. When a bomb goes off while Batman’s saving him, half of Dent’s face is burnt away; elsewhere, Rachel is killed. Now fully off the deep end, Dent goes on a revenge spree – killing gangsters based on a coin-toss decisions and even kidnapping Jim Gordon’s family… The role of Rachel, meanwhile, has been recast since Batman Begins. Katie Holmes declined to return (no great loss), so we now have Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’s *much* better. She’s a stronger presence in the story, feels like a grown-up and is a lot more interesting. Also on show are: Anthony Michael Hall as a TV reporter; Nestor Carbonell (Richard from Lost) as the mayor; Eric Roberts as mob boss Sal Maroni; Chin Han as the money launderer Lau; and Cillian Murphy, who reprises the Scarecrow from Batman Begins in a fun cameo.

Best bits:

* The incidental music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It’s one of cinema’s great scores – often scratchy, unsettling, nightmarish, unbearably taut and foreboding, sometimes sweeping and bombastic.

* The opening image – a slow helicopter shot tracking in towards a skyscraper’s window, which then smashes open.

* The prologue. Clown-masked bad guys burst into a bank, each killing a colleague as his usefulness passes. The casting of William Fichtner as the bank manager is a deliberate nod to the 1995 film Heat, in which he featured and which was a massive influence on this movie. The sequence is capped by the Joker pulling off his mask to reveal his terrifying face: “Whatever doesn’t kill you,” he snarls, “makes you *stranger*.”

* Gotham City Police Department’s noticeboard of Batman suspects: Elvis, Abraham Lincoln and Bigfoot.

* The fake Batmans (Batmen?) in hockey pads.

* Bruce crashes Rachel’s date with Harvey Dent so he can see the new DA up close. When Harvey says the restaurant might not let them push two tables together, Bruce says, “Oh, they should. I own the place.”

* The Joker walks in on the gangster’s powwow.

* The Joker’s magic trick: making a pencil disappear.

* Oh, look: it’s Chucky Venn from EastEnders as a mob henchman.

* “Why so serious?!”

* While reeling off the multitudinous charges facing the mob – “Seven hundred and 12 counts of extortion, 849 counts of racketeering, 246 counts of fraud, 87 counts of conspiracy murder, 527 counts of obstruction of justice…” – the judge finds a joker player card amongst her papers. She ain’t long for this world, then.

* Harvey asks Alfred about Rachel: “Any psychotic ex-boyfriends I should know about?” “Oh, you have no idea…”

* The Joker terrorises the fundraiser.

* The Joker dangles Rachel out of a window. “Let her go!” order Batman. The Joker says, “Very poor choice of words…”

* The executive who figures out that Bruce Wayne is Batman and goes to Lucius Fox to extort him. Lucius says: “Let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands – and your plan is to blackmail this person?! Good luck.”

* Gordon is shot while protecting the mayor.

* Oh, look: it’s Sarah Jayne Dunn from Hollyoaks as Maroni’s bored girlfriend.

* The action scene with the armoured vans. It begins on urban city streets, then goes down to the claustrophobic lower levels. Batman starts in the familiar Tumbler Batmobile, but then detaches the front axle and it becomes his new Batpod motorbike. The Joker and his crew have an 18-wheel articulated lorry with a graffiti S added before its ‘Laughter is the best medicine’ logo. The chase is tense and visceral, and there’s a seamless blend of genuine stunt work, scale models and judicious CGI. The best moment is the lorry flipping over lengthways: an audacious stunt clearly done for real.

* The lights suddenly go on in the interrogation room and we see Batman stood behind the Joker.

* The mobile phone inside a guy’s stomach.

* The Joker hanging his head out of a car window like a dog.

* Harvey’s burnt face – a superb special effect.

* The Joker’s massive pile of money, which he then burns.

* The Joker dressed as a nurse – wig and all – but still with the same macabre make-up.

* The Joker blowing up a hospital. There’s a glorious shot of him walking towards camera as explosions go off in the background; they come to a stop, so he shakes his remote-control gizmo and pushes a button; this kicks off the collapse of the entire building – all done in one single take.

* The camera turning upside down so the Joker, hanging high above Gotham by his feet, appears the right way up.

* The final montage – Gordon trashing Batman’s reputation and praising Harvey Dent, all for the greater good.

Review: This film has such a pulse. A heartbeat. An unstoppable momentum. Director Christopher Nolan used IMAX cameras for key action sequences, which makes the whole thing feel absolutely enormous. It’s an epic story on a massive canvass, and has more wide, open spaces than any other Batman. You feel the city stretching out beyond the borders of every frame. A big influence is the Michael Mann crime thriller Heat (if you don’t know it, check it out: it’s wonderful). There are many similarities between the two: a sense of tension always bubbling away under the surface; a personality-driven conflict between the good guy and the bad guy; a tense bank raid that shows off the villain’s ruthless determination; and the use of a city as a character in its own right… Also, as in Heat, The Dark Knight’s two principle players – Batman and the Joker – are not a million miles apart. They’re both ‘freaks’ using force to impose their will. The Dark Knight starts off as a gangster plot. How can Batman and the cops bring down the mob? And it’s based on standard tropes of good guys and bad guys, mobsters and the police, law and order and courts and judges. Everyone knows where there are. But the injection of the Joker – a shot of spiked adrenalin – adds unpredictability and uncertainty to everything. The film soon becomes a post-9/11 story about terrorism, democracy vs fascism, and whether ends can justify means. How do you deal with or defeat someone who doesn’t play by your rules? How important are civil liberties and personal privacy when you’re trying to protect society? There are no easy answers. The Joker is entropy-in-action: a force of nature constantly chipping away at Gotham City’s structured society and revelling in the decay. He can’t be reasoned with and he can’t be intimidated – and that’s terrifying. Big, bold, complex, provocative and dangerous, this is the superhero genre’s equivalent of The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back. It’s monumental. Daunting. Impressive. Threatening. Challenging. Fascinating. *Ambitious*. It’s the best film so far this century. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with this review.

Ten school buses out of 10.

Next time: Mumble mumble Gotham’s reckoning! mumble mumble…