This may turn out to be our All-Time Heavyweight Smackdown — the equivalent of Ali versus Frasier — where both of the fighters are at the top of their games and both deserve to wear the champion’s belt even though only one can. The DC/Warner “The Dark Knight” in the ring against the Marvel/Columbia “Spider-Man 2” pits two comic book film sequels against each other, both of which are considered better than what preceded them, and what preceded them was considered fantastic. Both are directed by the same men who were trusted with the franchise a second time after they had shed themselves of the responsibility of an “origin” story and could get deeper into their redefinition of what makes the character really come alive. Let’s get the fight started…
“The Dark Knight” picks up where “Batman Begins” left off. Millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne has literally gone to the dark side, prowling the streets battling crime using his new Batman alter-ego as his cover. The way the new film tells it, he’s been pretty successful: criminals are afraid to come out at night, he’s got a cozy relationship with the cops, and most people are pretty happy he’s getting the job done. With the crime lords looking for a new move to counter the Batman, they find an unstable, but powerful, ally in the Joker.
We saw this film at a DGA (Directors Guild of America) screening at Howard Hughes Center here in LA on an IMAX theater. Given that director Christopher Nolan was there for the Q&A afterward, I have to assume it was projected to the highest technical standards. It was breathtaking.
Nolan said that the thing that drove him to do this sequel was his desire, after creating such a vivid new re-imagining in “Batman Begins,” was to answer the question: “Who is the Joker in this world?” He has done that, and more.
You’ll hear that Heath Ledger is phenomenal in this role and he is. Literally every second he is on the screen, you’re simply afraid to look away because you’ll something unique and special about this final performance given by Ledger before he died.
Something else that Nolan has done differently here is to give us Gotham City as it’s meant to be. He admitted that his first take was a little art-directed and that in this case he went for a “slight genre shift” by shooting a great deal more on location (mostly Chicago) and to give us a crime story that is more in the tradition of Michael Mann than Tim Burton’s first time out with Batman.
The Champion – Spider-Man 2
Most superhero movies focus on the powers and could care less about the people who have them. Here’s where “Spider-Man 2” gets it right in a big way, always keeping the focus on the fundamental humanity in each of its characters. Being able to swing across town is all well and good, but the real reason we all love Spidey is because he’s got problems just like ours. He’s shy around girls, can’t pay his rent, and he’s not ready for the responsibility of having abilities that can save lives.
We learn right away that getting to beat up bad guys isn’t nearly as cool as it sounds. Peter Parker is failing out of school and about to be kicked out his apartment, and has to beg to keep his menial job as a pizza delivery boy. Even when he’s out being heroic, his reputation is dragged into the mud by the Daily Bugle. Mary Jane, tired of waiting around, has rebounded to an astronaut that seems like much better boyfriend material.
Peter just can’t catch a break, and his depression causes his powers to stop working. Beaten down and discouraged by this development, he makes the fateful decision to toss the costume and start living for himself again. Naturally, evil chooses exactly this moment to corrupt the once-noble Dr. Otto Octavius. Like the best match-ups, the hero and villain have a surprising amount in common, with one key difference: Spider-Man can control his powers, but Doc Ock is controlled by them.
“The Dark Knight” isn’t just a great comic book movie, it’s a great film. People are already calling it “The Godfather II” of the comic book film genre. The reason for this is simple: from the story and script by David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, there is a constant interplay between the yin and yang between hero and villain and good and evil. When the Joker tells Batman, “You complete me,” it gets a laugh because of its Tom Cruise reference, but it is no joke. These two guys do complete each other and that’s why the moralistic stylings of the story come to life so well.
Yet if the characters have been taken to a new level, it is not at the expense of the action or plot. This is one of the most realistic comic book plots I’ve ever seen (no, it is themost realistic), and it is pure adrenaline in how it delivers. It is also, surprisingly, a suprising movie where things do not go by a connect-the-dots telling.
It’s hard to pick Batman over Spider-Man and, generically, as characters maybe I wouldn’t. I grew up more in love with Spidey than Batman, for sure, and I have great modern sympathies for the Marvel film franchise. Stan Lee has been a friend of mine for over a decade now (we worked on a TV pilot together and I helped him launch his Stan Lee Media in 2000) and Sam Raimi handed over the reins of his “M.A.N.T.I.S.” franchise to me at Fox back in 1994. But still…
Of all the vast multiverses full of superheroes, Spider-Man stands alone for one important reason: He’s the only one who’s most dramatic battles take place behind the mask as Peter Parker. Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, has to be the most boring “millionare playboy” who ever lived, making Tony Stark look like a workaholic. He hardly exists during the day, living only to wage his grim crusade during the night. As Batman, we respect him but ultimately can’t relate to him. He’s an outsider, a figure to be feared but never loved.
Not so with the webslinger, who at one point finds an entire train full of New Yorkers rooting him on. We’re doing the same from our seats, since he represents the best in us without being better than us. He isn’t an abstract symbol of vengeance looming in the shadows, he’s our friendly neighboorhood Spider-Man. The bottom line is that Marvel’s film has two great characters, Peter Parker and Spider-Man. DC’s film gives us a world.
Nolan has created a dense and well-crafted film with “The Dark Knight,” but it’s really a crime film that just so happens to have elements of the Batman mythos woven into it. Raimi did the impossible with “Spider-Man 2” and brought a comic book to wonderful life.
The bottom line here is this. Once in a great while, something comes along that just re-writes the rules and trumps what was once uncontested. “Spider-Man 2” was the greatest comic book movie ever, but not anymore. Now it’s “The Dark Knight.”