As I type these words, Los Angeles, New York and a pseudonymous Chicago are all under attack. Here are the personnel sent to rescue them and the box office: a bourbon-soaked black bum with a ribbety-boppin' vocabulary and a reckless disregard for property; a long-tailed, cigar-chomping demon with a taste for Tecate and publicity (and a reckless disregard for property); and a raging masked vigilante, who owns way too much property and so has little regard for anyone else's. Behold Hancock, Hellboy II and The Dark Knight, now assembled in the multiplex like a Justice League gone goofy on melted butter. Hollywood's season of wanton destruction has reached its height, along with the season of subtexts so blatant they're super.
Are these not-so-hidden messages compelling and intriguing or just a good excuse for making things go boom? And what's wrong with boom, anyway? Conventionally, if tacitly, these three new superhero movies admit that their protagonists don't just set disorder right but also set it in motion, to the audience's deep satisfaction. Hancock, Hellboy and Batman are a little like slapstick comics in that regard, answering our eternal need to see normal life kicked in the pants. They're also a little like that other stock character, the Western gunfighter, in being misfits who cannot be a part of the normal life they ultimately restore. That much is understood in advance by every ticket buyer. What remains to be seen is whether any particular discovery is possible in these big, loud, expensive, highly engineered but potentially idiosyncratic films.
You do learn something from Hancock: that it's awkward to streak through the sky of Los Angeles with all those birds getting in the way. You uncover the hypocrisy of people who say it's good to stand up to bullies but then criticize you for throwing one way up in the air, just because the kid is 10. You find out that fine-looking women can be very cold to a man with awesome powers when he greets them from the sidewalk bench where he'd passed out. In short, you discover that Hancock is the most down-to-earth of superhero movies. That's how it's written (with credit to Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan), directed (by the briskly straightforward Peter Berg) and played by its star, Will Smith, who may be the first screen actor to bring to mind Lenny Bruce's speculations about the dangerous sexual potency of Superman, and to do so while miming a hangover.
But with Smith's first burning glance at his co-star, Charlize Theron, here playing a Valley wife and mother who is perfectly ordinary except for the golden hair and goddesslike deportment, Hancock begins to abandon its ruder, funnier possibilities for something safer--something that is (Lenny help us) redemptive. Now you learn what you already knew: that Will Smith can clean up very nicely, proving that he's not really the superhero as rebuked and scorned black man but the superhero as superstar. You learn, with only a little more surprise, that husbands and fathers in the Valley cannot live up to their wives, at least when Charlize Theron is in the house. And you learn that no one can be redeemed without fight sequences featuring plenty of CGI.
The final discovery: Hancock is funny and pretty fresh but finally gives up on idiosyncrasy, leaving you nothing much to discover.
That being the case, what can you find out from Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the magisterial Guillermo del Toro's follow-up to his justly beloved Hellboy?
Idiosyncrasy cannot fail del Toro. Even without the collaboration of Mike Mignola, creator of the Hellboy comic books, del Toro would have the pictorial fantasy of an Arthur Rackham, the cinematographic sweep of a Vincente Minnelli and an obsession with insects, clockwork and subway tunnels that's all his own. For this new adventure, he's brought back most of his previously established team of paranormal FBI agents: the brawny, devil-red but good-hearted Hellboy (Ron Perlman); his ideal woman, Liz (Selma Blair), with her tendency toward melancholy and bursting into flames; and the sensitive intellectual of the squad, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), who prefers to live in an aquarium. Last time, these partners stopped a czarist-Nazi conspiracy from inviting an interstellar squid onto our planet, where it would have done no good. This time, the threat comes from deep within the Earth itself. A prince of the Elves (Luke Goss) is fed up with humanity's devastation of the forests, which has left him with nowhere to live except the sewers of Manhattan. He wants his world back--so the humans have to go.
You discover that humanity's blind conflict with the natural world has reached a critical stage--no surprise there--and that the strange heroes who fight for our side aren't entirely sure they should. You also learn that the ongoing battle is as visually inventive as anything you'll watch this summer--but that del Toro, in his auteurist pride, has started to repeat himself. There are catchphrases to be recycled, redesigned versions of old monsters to be vanquished, Danny Elfman underscorings to be played more and more thunderously and (of course) plenty of CGI fights. This isn't to say that del Toro has lost his magic in Hellboy II--only that the one moment of pure cinematic bliss happens nonviolently, leisurely, without computer effects, when Hellboy and Abe, both lovesick, are reduced to a state of beery karaoke singing.
You find out, in other words, that the best part of a superhero movie doesn't need any superhero action--which isn't much to discover.
But now comes the most eagerly anticipated of all the summer's comic-book adventures: The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's continuation of his genuinely surprising Batman Begins. Will this picture, at last, tell you something you didn't know?
The answer, at first, is not promising. Though you find out that Gotham City has turned into downtown Chicago--a wonderfully playable, CGI-free location--the obligations of sequel-making burden the proceedings. Batman must have his old friends, his new gadgets and the first of the film's many, many fights, which are supplied according to the most familiar of Hollywood formulas: if you can't do better, then do more. Gotham City's criminals are not just one unsavory ethnic stereotype but a congregation of them: Italians, blacks, Chechens, Chinese. The action sequences, available in IMAX at selected theaters, permit establishing shots and the more important explosions to be not just widescreen but vertiginously huge. Even the decorative extras give you more. When Christian Bale, in his guise as a billionaire playboy, decides to flirt with a whole dance troupe, they're the world's bustiest ballerinas.
During the long setup, it's a saving grace that Bale is as tightly wound as before and that the story's two new principals (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart) are flawlessly cast as brainy love interest and matinee-idol DA. But The Dark Knight takes off only when it gives itself entirely to Heath Ledger, whose performance as the Joker was anything but obligatory.
Unlike previous Jokers (such as Jack Nicholson) who chose to be campily unhinged, Ledger underplayed the role--or underplayed it relative to the hideous clown makeup, the long stringy wig and the overcoat with the Richard Nixon shoulders. The voice Ledger put on was high-pitched but usually matter-of-fact and garglingly Midwestern. His tongue lapped, his fingers fluttered, his eyes kept darting away from whatever he was supposed to be looking at, but still he kept up a patter that sounded, gosh, reasonable, except for being completely insane. The character Ledger created is terrifying.
This terror is what you can discover in The Dark Knight.
Of course, there are those subtexts, which are as futile to argue about as they are irresistible to decode. Nolan strews them like poisoned bread crumbs through the forest of his movie: comments about facing down terrorism, the use of torture, the rise of power-loving public officials, the curtailment of civil liberties, the deployment of troops in the streets, even the wholesale monitoring of telecommunications. Some viewers will interpret these clues to mean that Batman is George W. Bush (that other rich, irresponsible playboy), who has honorably taken on an awful job and the unpopularity that goes with it. Other viewers will come away with the opposite interpretation. This is merely to say that Nolan, in time-honored Hollywood fashion, is talking out of both sides of his mouth, a practice that for once doesn't diminish the film.
Those who demand that the poisoned bread crumbs lead somewhere specific may nevertheless grow frustrated and complain (as did A.O. Scott recently in the New York Times) that Nolan finally lets The Dark Knight be overwhelmed by the demands of genre. But with all respect to an admirable critic--and with due warnings about plot revelations--I will point out that the climactic explosion in The Dark Knight is the one that doesn't happen, and the decisive fight is the one that's anticlimactic. What you finally receive from The Dark Knight, then, isn't a message but a sensation, which comes from the deliberately twisted form. You learn how it feels to be in a vortex that just keeps sucking you down.
A hell of a discovery to make from a summer superhero.
For moviegoers who want their adrenaline rush without digital effects, the summer offers two worthy but budget-?priced thrillers: Man on Wire and Frozen River.
The first, directed by James Marsh, is strictly speaking a documentary: the story of how Philippe Petit planned and carried out his fabled 1974 stunt of walking a wire he'd clandestinely rigged between the towers of New York's World Trade Center. Marsh elegantly blends interviews with re-enactments to convey the complexity and tension of this artistic conspiracy; toward the end, he brings out the notes of sorrow and regret among Petit's partners, who enabled his success and then realized he'd left them behind. But the triumph of Man on Wire is its archival footage, including the stunning scenes of Petit dancing and tumbling 1,350 feet above the pavement. They put the most dizzying shots of The Dark Knight to shame.
The thrills of Courtney Hunt's debut feature, Frozen River, are more elusive at first, given the film's trappings of Sundance Institute realism: a cheerless semirural landscape, exact-dollar bookkeeping and a lead performance by Melissa Leo, looking here like a figure in a Dorothea Lange photograph, with the hair of a failed country singer and the boniness of a chain smoker. She's playing Ray, a woman in upstate New York whose gambling-addicted husband has run off with the bankroll just before Christmas. Now, while holding only a part-time job at a discount store, Ray must patch together meals for the kids and buy Christmas presents while scraping together an additional, impossible $2,872. That's how much she owes on the family dream: a new, double-wide trailer home, to replace the current tin can. If she can't settle up, the dream will vanish, along with a $1,500 deposit.
Sundance realism comes closely allied with Sundance wish fulfillment, and Frozen River offers some of that, too. In struggling to solve her problems, Ray reaches across lines of ethnicity--as they say in grant applications--to join forces with Lila (Misty Upham), a younger, much rounder woman from the Mohawk reservation.
But since the partnership is formed at gunpoint, after Lila steals Ray's car and Ray, to register disapproval, shoots a hole in Lila's camper, you may conclude that Frozen River meets Sundance standards and then some.
The surplus of thrills in Frozen River comes from seeing two ill-matched women engaged in smuggling human contraband from Canada to the United States by driving over the trackless, snowy expanse of the St. Lawrence River. It's such a cruel and reckless business that you don't know what it represents for Lila and Ray--a last, desperate chance to stay alive, or a death wish--and to judge from their contest of wills, they're not too sure, either. Lila at first suckers Ray into the traffic, using a soft little-girl voice that can turn flat and hostile once she gets the upper hand. Ray responds with fear and fury--and then a burst of exhilaration. Soon she starts to push, where Lila at first had pulled.
So the border breached in the film is more than a metaphorical line. The ice the women keep crossing is more than symbolically thin. The wish fulfillment in Frozen River may take some bite out of the adrenaline; but before it does, this fine drama delivers a reality tougher than realism.