Thursday, January 28, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #8

If life were to suddenly become fair, I doubt it would happen in high school.

Warning: Spoileriffic blog post ahead!

If you asked a typical geek what he'd consider the prototypical superhero movie, not even just of the last ten years, but of all time, chances are good that he'd pick Sam Raimi's Spiderman (2002). The film was clearly a labor of love for Raimi, and Tobey Maguire was spot-on as the nebbish Peter Parker. As with any film, Spiderman wasn't perfect, and people who wanted to could find things to quibble about. Some I dismissed, such as criticism of Kirsten Dunst's portrayal of Mary Jane Watson; I thought it was a pretty solid success to take the Mary Jane character, seldom more than a fantasy girlfriend in the comics, and try to make a believable character out of her. Some I rejected, such as the update of the spider from 'radioactive' to 'genetically modified'; radiation in the 1960's was the genetic modification of today, a poorly-understood field of science from which all sorts of dangerous monsters were hypothesized to be waiting to escape. Some criticism, though, I took to heart, such as the oddly jarring decision to have Spidey's webs come organically from his wrists rather than from mechanical web-shooters of his own design, though this was less troublesome in this movie than in the first sequel, where the filmmakers had to introduce a mysterious (and seemingly otherwise pointless) cold in order to justify the iconic 'Spidey runs out of web fluid' moment seen so often in the comic books. I enjoyed Spiderman, and thought it was a good film, but it doesn't make my top ten of the 'decade'.

Some of those who didn't choose Spiderman would probably instead go for Brad Bird's The Incredibles (2004), an ersatz Fantastic Four in a world that turned its back on superheroes. I thought the film was fun, but not really great, and said so at the time:

This is a world that has learned to fear and mistrust superheroes, to the point where no good deed seems to go unpunished in the first two-thirds of the movie, and yet a single giant robot attack suddenly makes everything all right again. This is a world where being repeatedly told to stay out of the way gives a shy girl enough self confidence to be able to out-cool the cool guy in school at the end of the film.

While there were a few individual moments that worked for me, the film as a whole left me oddly underwhelmed, and it's not one that I go out of my way to watch.

Lastly, any geek who didn't name one of the prior two would probably pick Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008). This is a film in the top ten of the Internet Movie Database's most popular films of all time. Frankly, I feel that if any movie made in the past ten years deserves a critical backlash, it's this one - yes, the late Heath Ledger gave an impressive performance as the Joker, but it wasn't his 'last movie' -- that would be Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus -- and while I'm a Maggie Gyllenhaal fan, I don't think she was used nearly enough in the film, seemingly out of fear that it would draw attention to the fact that the filmmakers couldn't get Katie Holmes back to reprise her role from Batman Begins. Finally -- and my biggest beef with the film -- is that it's a Batman movie that's got almost nothing for Batman to do. The whole 'normal citizens dressing up as Batman' subplot seemed tacked on, an excuse to justify why Batman seems to eager to take Harvey Dent's sins onto himself at the end of the movie, and the romantic subplot suffers, again because the filmmakers don't want to call attention to Gyllenhaal replacing Holmes. Without more depth in those two subplots, the movie is about Batman chasing the Joker and Two-Face around Gotham City, ineffectually at first, and then finally catching one and then the other.

Now I don't want to give you the impression that I thought any of these movies were bad -- quite the contrary. If someone wanted to put one (or all of them) on her own 'top 10' list, I'd understand the decision. Heck, you could probably put together a reasonable list of just superhero movies from the past ten years, adding in Iron Man (2008), Spiderman 2 (2004), and others to taste.

Only one of those 'others' makes my list at all, though:

8. Sky High (2005)

Since 2004 had seen the release of The Incredibles and Spiderman 2, this Disney offering didn't draw a whole lot of water when it came out in the summer of 2005. It wasn't a terribly 'marquee' movie: its director was probably best known for piloting Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo and the writers were virtually unknown -- one was a freelancer known to Disney for his work on various projects like Kim Possible and the straight-to-video Aladdin movie sequels. The best known actor in the marquee was probably Kurt Russell, a Disney veteran himself (back from his Dexter Riley days). There wasn't much reason to think this was anything other than a cute little Disney movie about superheroes, trying to cash in on the success of the previous year's releases.

But oh, how wrong you'd be if you thought that.

First off, this movie is filled with 'hey, it's that guy' moments, which suggests that enough people liked the premise and pitch of the film to hop on board just for kicks. Among the lesser-billed performers include:

  • Lynda Carter as the school principal
  • Bruce Campbell as the school gym teacher
  • Dave Foley as 'Mr. Boy', the teacher for 'Hero Support' (aka "the loser track")
  • Cloris Leachman as the school nurse
  • Kevin McDonald as the big-brained science teacher
  • and, though you'd have to be a real fan to recognize it, Patrick Warburton as the voice of the villain following her 'big reveal'

So that's fun all by itself.

Plus the filmmakers weren't afraid to give these recognizable actors some call outs. (Example: near the end of the film, when Lynda Carter as the principal is leaving the detention room, she mutters "I'm not Wonder Woman, you know.")

But if all the movie was was a geek-fest for older viewers, it wouldn't be half as good as it is. Unlike Spiderman, which is a power fantasy masquerading as a coming-of-age tale (Peter supposedly learns 'with great power comes great responsibility, but in reality he already knew that and just needed to be reminded; the rest of the movie is how kick-ass it is to have super-powers, except for the personal life aspects), Sky High actually manages to pull off a coming-of-age tale, with a nebbish, powerless yet highly regarded child of two famous heroes discovering his own powers, letting them go to his head, and figuring out what he needs to do to be a hero just in time to save the day -- with the help of his sidekick friends.

And the truth is that the younger performers really do carry the water in this movie. Michael Angarano is perfect as the goofy, likable Will Stronghold. Danielle Panabaker nails the 'best friend who will take any amount of self-inflicted pain to make sure she doesn't lose her friendship with the guy she's secretly in love with' (and the look she gives Will after he's 'come out' to his father as a powerless sidekick made me wish I was back in high school). Steven Strait is the 'Draco in leather pants' that Harry Potter fanfic writers dream about as Warren Peace, a troubled teen forced to grow up too fast because of his father's supervillainy.

You get all this -- you can see these things in the characters. But the filmmakers never pound these things over your head to make a point about 'here is the bitter but misunderstood villain who just needs some understanding to become a better man'. It's a fun ride, with some serious backstory for anyone paying attention.

The best thing about it is that the filmmakers chose to eschew CGI for much of the film, using more traditional wire effects for much of the fight scenes in the film. And you really can tell the difference between a computer-generated Spiderman fighting CGI bad guys, and the real Warren Peace crashing through a wall and buckling a support pillar after being smacked by Will Stronghold.

There's just a lot to like about this movie, which is why I rate it my favorite superhero movie of the decade, and my #8 overall since 2001.

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