Incredibles 2 – Review

Pixar Studios has come a long way from it’s infancy.  Beginning 30 years ago in a small little office in Silicon Valley, with a team that included just a handful of engineers and one out of work animator let go by Disney, the company has steadily grown to become a leading brand in the field of animation.  And they have done so not just by being innovative and groundbreaking, but also by putting emphasis on the stories that they tell.  The mantra at Pixar is that story comes first with every project they make, and that extends from the feature films, to the short subjects, to even the brief little teaser trailers that they use to announce their films.  It’s a formula that has helped them to stay on top for so many years, and that emphasis on story has been a big part of that, because every movie shows the care they take in the developing something that is more than just a short 2 hour diversion.  But that same care with story also means that the development period for each film takes much longer.  Pixar has gotten to a point where they can now support a work flow that produces a new film every year, but each movie still takes 4-5 years to complete regardless.  And this has made one thing less frequent at Pixar than most other animation studios; sequels.  Sure, Pixar has gotten around to sequelizing their most beloved films, but it’s a process that takes an extraordinary long time for them.  In the 11 years in between Toy Story 2 and 3, we got 4 Shreks.  I’ve lost count of how many Ice Ages we are up to now, and it also seems like every year brings us another Minion movie, whether we want it or not.  Usually, these other studios like to strike while the iron is hot and capitalize on their properties before audiences loose interest, but Pixar doesn’t play by those rules.  They put a lot of faith in their audiences to return after long hiatuses whenever they decide the time is right for a sequel, and it has surprising proven to be a winning strategy for them.

Most recently, Pixar has gotten around to producing sequels to their early 2000’s hits, with the gap between movies growing bigger with each one.  Monsters University (2013) followed up Monsters Inc. (2001) after 12 years.  We waited 13 years between Finding Nemo (2003) and Finding Dory (2016).  And now the biggest gap yet has been closed between their 2004 hit, The Incredibles, and it’s new sequel Incredibles 2.  It’s been a 14 year wait, and that presents Pixar with an interesting challenge.  When the original Incredibles first debuted, the Super Hero genre was in a much different state than it is today.  This was long before Christopher Nolan would elevate the genre with his Dark Knight trilogy and before Marvel would assemble all their forces into a cohesive cinematic universe.  Before then, The Incredibles was viewed as the pinnacle of story-telling within the genre, which is ironic since it was also a movie that deconstructed the genre tropes and gave them new meanings.  The Super Hero genre more or less has been influenced by Incredibles’ unique narrative, especially with regards to the way it connected super teams with a family unit, and also by how it balances humor with emotional pathos.  So, Incredibles 2 now arrives into theaters in a different era where the Super Hero genre that it’s predecessor had a hand in influencing is now the dominant force in the film industry.  And the question arises now if Pixar can return to that same level again, even after everything has changed.  The big plus is that they have everyone back on board, including director Brad Bird, who returns to animation after a mixed adventure into the world of live action film-making (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland).  One would think that the ever redefining talent that is Brad Bird would stay away from returning to a property that he got so perfect the first time around, but like the mission statement of Pixar says, if it’s a story worth telling than it’s a movie worth making, and Bird must’ve obviously believed that there was more to explore with The Incredibles.  But, the question remains, is it one story worth such a long wait?

The movie picks up literally seconds after the close of the original Incredibles.  The super villain Underminer (John Ratzenberg) begins to wreck havoc on the city and the undercover super hero Parr family steps into action as their alter egos, The Incredibles.  They manage to reduce the damage caused by Underminer’s drilling machine, but it also exposes them to scrutiny from a legal system that unfairly marginalizes people with super powers.  Unfortunately, the agency that has been protecting the Parr’s is shutting down, and their friend and ally with it, Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) is retiring.  With few options left, Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife Helen (Holly Hunter) take up an offer delivered to them by their fellow super hero friend Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson) aka Frozone.  They agree to accompany him to a meeting with a billionaire investor named Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who is eager to help improve the public image of supers all over the world and get them back into legal status once again.  Though Bob would like to flex his muscle again as the super strong Mr. Incredible, Winston believes that Helen’s Elastigirl is the better poster super for their movement, which leaves Bob on the sidelines for the moment.  While Elastigirl goes off to fight crime and promote her cause, takes on a different role as a stay at home dad to their children; Violet (Sarah Vowell), who’s issues with getting attention from a boy she likes is producing some wild mood swings, and Dash (Huck Milner) whose super speed makes him difficult to tame.  And then of course their is the baby, Jack-Jack, whose random powers are just now manifesting themselves.  Alongside the help of Frozone, fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird), and Winston’s tech savvy sister Evelyn Deavor (Cathrine Keener), the Parr family tries their best to adapt to their new lives both privately and publicly, made all the more difficult when faced with am ominous new supervillain named the Screenslaver.

I think the clever trick that Brad Bird plays with this movie is that he deals with the 14 year gap between movies by showing no gap at all in the narrative of this story.  Incredibles 2 really is like a second part to an on-going adventure for this clan of Super Heroes, and thematically it sticks very closely to the same issues that were dealt with in the first movie.  Those thing in particular are what makes this a very entertaining movie overall.  Incredibles 2, much like the original, does an exceptional job of capturing family drama and framing it within the context of a world with super heroes.  At the same time, it does flip around the structure by having Mr. Incredible be the one staying home and watching the kids, which helps to keep it fresh and distinguishable.  Much of the movie’s heart rests in what I would call “Mr. Incredible’s Adventures in Parenting” and how he both finds himself way in over his head sometimes, while also still devoted.  You can tell that Brad Bird and much of his production team drew from their own experiences of parenting for these scenes, and they are both heartwarming and hilarious due to their complete honesty.  Some of the biggest laughs especially come from how he deals with Jack-Jack’s completely random super powers, which often result from the impulsiveness you’d expect from an infant.  A disheveled, sleepless Bob Parr coaxing Jack-Jack out of a different dimension with a cookie is easily one of the best character moments overall.  At the same time, Bird never forgets that he is also making a genre flick as well, and even after 14 years, he still finds clever ways to stage and execute some stand out action sequences, and make great use of the different character’s powers.  Even as the Super Hero genre has upped it’s game, Incrediblesstill delivers surprises that help to turn this type of story on it’s head.

But, I also have to say that it does fall slightly short of it’s predecessor as an overall experience.  For one thing, it does lack the novelty that the original film enjoyed.  This is mostly forgivable since most sequels usually suffer from this aspect.  It’s not terribly re-inventive of the series, because it doesn’t have to be.  It’s a perfectly, well-executed plateau, keeping the story on solid ground but not hitting new heights either, except for maybe one or two stand out scenes.  The movie’s one big failing, however, is the lack of any meaningful threat.  The new villain, Screenslaver, is pretty weak both in concept and execution, and once it’s revealed who is behind the bug-eyed mask, it’s about as cliched a choice as you’d expect.  This is unfortunate after the excellent threat that the Incredible family faced in the first film; the maniacal Syndrome (voiced by Jason Lee).  Sure, Syndrome was a bit corny, but he perfectly matched the story of the first film, and his plot made sense in the context of what Mr. Incredible and his family were trying to fight for.  He was also darkly sinister in a vivid way, going as far to invade the Parr family home and attempt to kidnap Baby Jack-Jack.  Once it’s revealed who Screenslaver is, all the menace leaves the character all at once, and in the process, the momentum to the story slows as well.  The third act of the movie sadly feels rushed and unsatisfactory as a result, which is in stark contrast to the thrilling final battle in the original where they battled Syndrome’s giant robot. Instead, the movie ends with the Incredibles trying to stop a boat from crashing, which is kind of a step down in terms of stakes that matter.  It’s not a terrible ending, and by no means ruins the movie as a whole, but you kind of wish the film had kept the energy up all the way to the end, instead of just taking the good enough route.

But there is one thing that really elevates the movie from beginning to end, and that’s the quality of the animation.  The original Incredibles was a tour de force for it’s time, and groundbreaking especially when it came to the animation of human characters (something which at that point had been a struggle for computer animation).  Fourteen years of innovation later and you can instantly see the improvements made to the medium during all that time in the smallest of details.  I for one marveled at the subtlety that the animators put into the performances of these digital characters.  Their movements feel so natural and like real life, which helps to make Incredibles stand out amongst so many other less-subtle animated features out there, including ones made by Pixar.  Skin detail is also greatly improved.  While the original skin structure on the character models were passable in the original, they do make the characters look more plastic-y compared to what’s capable with computer textures now.  Here we get realistic face tones to each character, with tiny details like stubble on Mr. Incredible’s chin or freckles on Dash’s cheeks added in a very realistic way.  In addition to the improved textures on the character models, the movie also expands on the visual motifs of the original film, and makes them even grander.  The original’s early 60’s pastiche is continued here, and brought out magnificently in the set designs.  The new family home is especially eye catching, especially when it becomes the staging area for some standout action sequences.  There is battle between Jack-Jack and a raccoon in the family’s back yard which is way more epic that you would ever dream, and it’s probably the best example yet of Brad Bird playing to maximum level with the toys that he’s created.  Without a doubt, Incredibles 2 holds up visually to the high standards of the original, and in many ways surpasses them.

I also loved the fact that they brought back most of the original cast for this sequel.  It gives the movie a strong sense of continuity that helps to sell the fact that no time has passed for these characters between films.  Of course they had to recast Dash with a new actor, as the original voice Spencer Fox is probably in college now, and newcomer Huck Milner does a great job of picking up where he left off.  Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter once again shine in their respective roles, and it’s incredible how well their chemistry works in this movie, noting the fact that neither actor recorded their lines together.  I especially love the way Craig T. Nelson builds up the frustration in the character over the course of the movie, and Bob Parr’s rant after he’s reached his wits end is a definite highlight of the movie.  Samuel L. Jackson also lends his usual smooth gravitas to his brief moments as Frozone, a character who is still just as cool as his name sounds, and though she makes only the briefest of appearances, Edna Mode once again steals the movie, with director Brad Bird delivering a wonderfully hammy performance.  Newcomers are also very welcome in this movie.  Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks does a wonderful job stepping in to fill the shoes of the late Bud Luckey as Rick Dicker.  And speaking of Breaking Bad alum, Bob Odenkirk also steps into this world quite effectively as the smooth talking Winston Deavor, and is balanced very well by the very nuanced voice work of Cathrine Keener as Evelyn Deavor.  I also do love the fact that no character feels short-changed either in this movie.  There is enough time devoted to each character’s development, even the new ones.  And no story-lines are repeated from the first movie, nor are any gags, which shows that Brad Bird clearly put in the work to make a sequel that didn’t feel like it needed to be held up by what came before it.  This is why a movie like this benefits from a decade-plus long gap, because it makes it less reliant on repeating the past, and instead able to establish it’s own identity while still working with familiar parts.

On the whole, this is easily one of the best sequels to ever come out of Pixar Studios.  I would grade it above Finding Dory and Monsters Unviersity, as well as light-years above any of the Cars sequels.  But, it falls a little short of say the Toy Story sequels, which are still Pixar at it’s absolute best.  Incredibles 2 does a lot of things right, and certainly wins many points for not relying on typical sequel tropes like repeated gags and sideways plot development.  Unfortunately it suffers from a third act that loses a lot of steam towards the end, and also from the lack of a serious villain.  That’s what keeps it slightly below the original too, even despite the very clear upgrade that it enjoys in the visual department.  But, those misgivings are still not enough to derail the film entirely.  It’s still a great movie experience, and if you loved the original, you will not be disappointed by this movie at all.  It’s great to see Brad Bird return to form in the medium of film-making that turned him into a household name.  I hope that he continues to bring more creativity to realm of animation, but if this is just a brief exercise before he dives back into live action, my hope is that he uses this a worthwhile recharge.  One thing that I would recommend to any of you planning to see this soon is to find the biggest screen possible.  I watched this in IMAX (a first for me with a Pixar film) and it’s a movie definitely deserving of the big screen treatment.  There are action sequences here that among the most epic that Pixar has ever staged, and it’s well worth seeking out the right theater for the maximum experience.  So while not a perfect sequel, it is nevertheless a more than passable one, and one that compliments the original and does it justice.  For lack of a better word, it is simply “incredible” how well Pixar manages to keep their momentum going with their many franchise, even after nearly a generation between movies.  It shows that they take story development seriously, and they put a lot of trust in us the audience to keep waiting.  As long as the end results don’t disappoint, they can take as long as they want to make these movies, and with Pixar, we at least know that all their efforts are going to be nothing short of “Super.”

Rating: 8.5/10

What One Man is Worth – How Saving Private Ryan Opened Up the War Flick and Brought it Home

War is Hell, as most people who have lived through it will tell you.  And through every conflict that mankind has fought, the legends and the tales of heroism grow out of it too.  Many authors, painters, historians, and of course filmmakers have tried in their best own way to encapsulate the war experience through their selective artform, and though many of them are engrossing in their own way, few rarely capture the actual feeling of combat in a personal way.  As a result, over time the way we look at some of these wartime stories begins to change.  Many times, the lessons learned from a war begin to dilute and the image taken from these relics of the past come across as less cautionary and more glorifying of the war experience.  We look at Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, and the first feeling that we might elicit from them is that war creates glorious legends like Achilles and Odysseus, but upon a closer reading, we read a more melancholy side to the legend where heroes are undone by their arrogance and that war makes it impossible to return home the same way that you left it.  And yet, more than likely, you see wartime stories legends often held up as one of the positives of conflict, and this in turn helps to perpetuate a glorification of war itself as a means for creating order in the world.  War itself is spectacle, and that sadly makes it alluring to audiences who are unattached to it.  This is largely why anti-war narratives tend to struggle in defining themselves, because the very nature of war makes the stories being told much larger than life, and as a result, more thematically exciting.  That usually runs deep in the heart of the cultural divide when it comes to accurately depicting war in any form of art, especially in film.  Usually, filmmakers who’ve never seen combat never internalize the actual human toll that war brings, and they feel disconnected from it as faceless pawns are just there to fall prey to visually resplendent mayhem.  But, some films do dig deeper and try to find the truth behind the gunfire, and most importantly, the humanity.

This was the goal of Steven Spielberg when he set out to create his own war flick, Saving Private Ryan (1998).  His depiction of a brief but pivotal moment in time during the Normandy invasion on D-Day during  World War II was going to do something that most war films up until that time had never even attempted and that was to show the actual experience of war unfiltered.  The story itself in the movie is standard for the genre; a small troop of soldiers are tasked with searching a war zone to find a lone soldier whose brothers have all been killed in combat, making him the last survivor.  The story was actually inspired by the real life incident of the Niland family, whose youngest member was sent back home after it was learned that his three brothers all died in short succession of each other, though one was later found alive in a POW camp.  It’s a captivating story to be sure, but one that merely serves as the framing for what Spielberg wanted to bring to the screen.  The war film up until that time usually followed along the lines of epic film-making, with the directors often emphasizing scope over intimacy.  Though those movies often didn’t shy away from the brutality of war, such as masterpieces like The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986), they nevertheless made you always remember that you were still watching a movie.  Spielberg believed that he needed to rethink the way a battle needed to be shot and that led him to not looking at the grander picture and instead focusing his camera right into the heart of battle.  In doing so, whether he intended to or not, he revolutionized the way conflict is depicted on screen, and as a result the war flick would never be the same.

When someone thinks of the movie Saving Private Ryan, the first thing that will come to mind is the harrowing opening scene that recreates the Normandy invasion and landing on Omaha Beach in stunning and often grisly detail.  I, in fact, picked this as the greatest opening to a movie ever in my list here.  In a bold cinematic move, Spielberg devotes a good 30 minute chunk of his movie towards this battle scene, played out in real time, and even more surprisingly, it doesn’t have anything to do with the narrative itself.  It is merely what sets the stage and introduces the characters who we will be following for the rest of the movie.  The story doesn’t actually start until we cut dramatically to a military office where condolence letters are being typed up for the families of the fallen, and where one lady notices the names of the three brothers of the titular Private Ryan.  By this time, Spielberg has already plunged us into the hell of war and the remainder of the movie leaves us guarded for what will come next; sort of in the same way that the real soldiers might have been.  Putting us in the mindset of the soldiers of this movie by showing us the combat through their eyes is the movie’s greatest masterstroke.  Spielberg dispensed with high angle photography and stylized lighting and instead incorporated a documentary style handheld camera point of view for the Omaha Beach scene.  When the soldiers run, we run with them; when they take cover, we do too; and the camera will pan away from a live soldier for a moment, and that same soldier will be blown to pieces when we pan back a second layer.  It’s chaos the likes of which we’ve never seen in a film before, and that in turn makes it closer to a true combat experience.  Remarkably, though, it’s not unwatchable either.  Spielberg still manages to frame every second in the battle with an unflinching amount of attention; mainly due to the effect that he himself was the camera operator for most of the shooting of this scene.  Every glimpse we get is carefully chosen, from the one-armed soldier staggering around the field looking for his missing limb, to the soldiers sinking in the water under the weight of their own equipment, to the heartbreaking glimpse of a soldier screaming for his Mama while his guts are spilling out.  No other depiction of war has ever captured this amount of intimacy.

And this is what made Saving Private Ryan so groundbreaking as both an experience and as a narrative.  Spielberg had managed to do what few other filmmakers had ever done before; he captured the heartbreaking savagery of war unfiltered and presented bare.  It can be argued by that alone that this is an anti-war film at it’s core, because it does not glamorize the experience of war one bit.  At the same time, while Spielberg himself shares many anti-war sentiments in general, I don’t believe that he intended for his film to push any type of agenda either.  Indeed, the movie is about the cost of war, but also about the individual heroism displayed by each soldier.  The central question the movie asks is what one man is worth in the grand picture of a war?  The soldiers in the movie keep asking that question the whole way through, and even Ryan himself can’t comprehend why it’s got to be him that so many are going to risk their lives for.  Essentially it comes down to the way each one rationalizes the mission, and as Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller puts it in his monologue, “You tell yourself that this life taken was in the service of saving three or more other lives.”  Whether it’s true or not, it shows that on the individual level, heroism in war is about saving the life next to you rather than racking up the most kills along the way.  That’s how Spielberg crafts his heroes within the movie, by showing how much they will risk in order to spare a life, even at the cost of their own.  And Spielberg never tries to make these characters martyrs for some message nor instantly larger than life.  They are all flawed in some way, but never in a way that characterizes them as unsympathetic either.  Even the often unseen German soldiers are not so easily defined.  There really is no villainous presence in this movie other than the conflict itself.  This is perfectly illustrated in a moment where the troop faces the ethical quandary of executing a German soldier in retaliation while he is begging for his life.  It’s through tough choices like this that Saving Private Ryan becomes a much deeper war film than we first realize.

In one way or another, Steven Spielberg managed to walk that fine line between condemning war and honoring the soldiers who fought within it.  As such, it has since become one of the most influential movies we’ve seen in the 20 years since it’s been released.  For one thing, the visual aesthetic of Spielberg’s “you are there” combat sequences has been often imitated in most war films since then, though rarely matched.  Some movies have used the aesthetic well, like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009), and David Ayer’s Fury (2014).  The hand held approach even seems to have found it’s way into war depictions of all kinds, regardless of time period or genre, as evidenced by similar battle scenes found in Ridley Scott’s Roman Empire epic Gladiator and even in fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings (such as in the Two Towers’ famous Helm’s Deep battle scene).  Even still, while the Private Ryan model is effective in creating a visceral feeling of battle on screen, fewer films have ever managed to capture the sense of overwhelming dread that permeates the entire movie.  I’d say that the only one that comes close is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), as that movie did an exceptional job of ratcheting up the tension as the specter of death hangs over the characters throughout the film.  But there are plenty of other films that merely imitated Private Ryan, but only used it’s aesthetic in a shallow way to reinforce their own spectacle.  The worst offender of these was Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), a disastrous attempt to mash the thematic elements of Saving Private Ryan and Titanic (1997) into one cynical movie.  Bay uses the same shaky cam photography and muted colors of Private Ryan, and even tried to imitate the gruesome slaughter depicted in the latter, at least in the R-Rated director’s cut.  But, what Bay failed to do was to make us care abiut the people caught up in the battle, and as a result it almost feels like the director takes delight in presenting the destruction on screen, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t based on a real disaster, with many real life victims seemingly considered to inconsequential.  Spielberg knew that for this kind of depiction to work, the humanity needed to be paramount, and sadly few other war films seem to understand that.

Perhaps the greatest legacy that the movie left behind though, other than the groundbreaking visuals, is the effect that it left on the public afterwards.  In particular, the way it affected the veterans who fought in the war.  By the time that Saving Private Ryan was released into theaters, the WWII generation had reached retirement age and were beginning to either die off or loose their memories of their time in the service.  There were many soldiers that had documented their tales during the war for years, but there were a significant many others who simply didn’t want to talk about the war for the longest time.  This was mainly due to their experiences being too painful to relive, or because they were too ashamed of some of the acts they committed during the war.  Thus, for the longest time, veterans were content with Hollywood sort of taking the lead in presenting what the war was like for most audiences for years.  You see this in previous war flicks like The Longest Day (1962),  Battle of the Bulge (1965), and Patton (1970), all well crafted war films, but ones that were still withdrawn enough from the reality of the war to make it easier to digest for a larger audience that was perhaps too weary of war.  But, Steven Spielberg’s unfiltered look at the way combat felt to the actual boots on the ground soldiers stirred up a much different reaction, and one that was long overdue.  The images of the movie brought back much of the heartache that many of the veterans had tired to forget about over the years, and many were traumatized once again after seeing the flick.  But surprisingly, this caused many of these soldiers to open up and start telling their own stories about the war, some of which they’ve kept secret for decades, even to their loved ones.  Much like he did five years prior with Schindler’s List (1993) regarding the Holocaust, Spielberg had managed to open the floodgates and start a conversation again about the experiences that shaped this event in our history as a people.

World War II was one of the costliest wars ever in terms of a human toll, and every generation that has come after has in some way been touched by the legacy of the war.  The same is true with my own family.  I am the grandson of two World War II veterans, both of whom served honorably in the United States Navy during the war.  Their names were Lieutenant James Edwin Spencer and Private Bill Vaughn Humphreys.  They served in different theaters of the war, my Grandpa Humphreys mostly in the South Pacific, while Grandpa Spencer served in both the Pacific and in Europe.  I’m grateful that both made it home alive, because I wouldn’t be here otherwise, as both my parents were born after the war.  But, for the most part, they never talked too much about their experiences in the war.  Spencer remained in active service until retiring in the 70’s, and became an eye doctor in sunny Long Beach, California after the war ended.  Humphreys left the Navy behind and became a successful bank manager on the Oregon Coast.  My Grandpa Humphreys died in 1993, so he never lived to see Saving Private Ryan, but my Grandpa Spencer did, living up to the year 2000.  Though he was a naval officer and not a soldier like those in the movie, he still said that the movie did a remarkable job of capturing the real thing that he and his fellow veterans remember experiencing.  What’s more, he even shared things about his time in the war that I never knew before as we were discussing the movie with him.  I learned that he was actually on one of those ships that ferried soldiers across the English Channel on D-Day, and that he actually had to lie to my Grandmother about where he actually was at that time in order to keep the mission secretive.  He also said that he set foot on the beach afterwards when it was safe.  The bodies had been cleared, but the craters and bloodstains remained, in his words.  I’m sure that if my Grandpa Humphreys were alive at that time too, he would have shared even more stories as well.  This is the great effect that Saving Private Ryan had on our culture, because it opened up the narrative of what the War was actually like on a personal level, and that every family (including my own) had their own stories to tell, and were finally being told.

More than anything, this is the greatest single thing that Saving Private Ryan leaves behind; the simple basic sense that every individual life lived through the war matters, and that every experience is worth remembering, even despite the pain.  Old men who were afraid to weep for their fallen brothers in arms because it was thought that it showed weakness were now able to express the pain that this conflict left behind, because this movie gave us our best sense yet of what it was actually like.  It was not a sugar-coated or sanitized view of war; it was the truth, presented plainly for the world.  And it’s one that takes in the full complexities of the subject itself.  Much like the war it depicts, it’s a movie that addresses the moral dilemmas of combat without ever dismissing the fact that good things can come out of it.  World War II is one of history’s most complicated and bittersweet conflicts.  It does have one of the highest death tolls of any war fought in human history, but it’s outcome did leave the world in a much better place, stopping the rise of Fascism and stopping the systematic genocide committed during the Holocaust.  But, without a personal examination of the cost of war on every family, the lessons learned seem to be forgotten over time and new conflicts arise as a result.  So, the fact that this movie brought out a reckoning for most veterans who lived through the war helps to give us a better perspective on the long ranging after effects that define most conflicts in history.  At the very least, it helps to make it clear to all the WWII veterans out there that they are not forgotten or insignificant.  It can be said that Private Ryan did a great deal to raise awareness of the average war vet; including helping them to gain much needed gestures of gratitude like the long overdue monument on the National Mall, as well as countless other film depictions that tell more of their stories, including the Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced miniseries Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010).  In any sense, Saving Private Ryan answers it’s own question of what a single man is worth in the end, and that’s to say if they are able to return home, start a family of their own, and share their own experiences to teach us more about what war is actually like, then their worth is beyond measure.

Focus on a Franchise – The Dark Knight Trilogy

Before Marvel Studios set a new high standard for the super hero genre, and before DC Comics would constantly fall short of that standard as they’ve tried to keep up with their rival, there was only one true leader of the pack, and his name was Batman.  This was evident with the creation of what we know now as the Dark Knight trilogy, which was spearheaded by one of cinema’s most daring filmmakers in recent memory, Christopher Nolan.  He arrived on the scene at just the right moment for both the character and the super hero genre in general.  Both had reached somewhat of a low point in 1997 with the release of the disastrous Batman & Robin; a movie that many had considered a franchise killer.  Indeed, it took 8 years for Batman to recover from this low point, and the reigns to the series passed through many hands, including auteur Darren Aronofsky, before ultimately landing in Nolan’s lap.  And Nolan gave the character the revival he desperately need.  Perhaps the first thing one will praise about Nolan’s approach is that he grounded the character back into a real world setting.  Gone were the campy flourishes of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, and instead we were presented with a gritty reality that made the whole thing feel as plausible as a super hero movie could be.  But, one thing that I find so fascinating about Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is how well it tells the story of it’s main hero.  We delve deeper into the man that Batman is more than in any other previous version, guided by an “almost” always compelling performance by Christian Bale in the role (the voice could have been a little better).  In these movies, we finally get an understanding of why a man would fight crime dressed up as a bat, and that in turn helps us to examine our own societal responses to tragedy and hardship.  One of the larger themes that Nolan addressed in his movies is the effect of terrorism on societies, manifested through some of the iconic villains in Batman’s rogues gallery, and how the lines between good and evil get blurred under the guise of achieving justice.  Quite a hefty shift for this series to take, and one that has in turn made these three movies modern day classics and benchmarks for the genre as a whole.

BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

It’s surprising that up until this point, Batman’s origins had never been fully explored on the big screen.  Sure, his origins were alluded too in previous films, particularly with the essential element of his parent’s murder (which is also recreated again here too), but the actual details of Bruce Wayne’s road towards becoming the Bat had never been presented before.  Taking inspiration from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, Batman: Year One (1987), Batman Begins fills in those gaps between young Bruce’s loss of innocence to his ultimate donning of the cape and cowl.  And it proves to be a compelling story on it’s own; to the point where you don’t even care that Batman doesn’t make his first appearance until 80 minutes into a 2 1/2 hour movie.  We see Bruce Wayne receive his training in the ninja arts taught to him by the mysterious League of Shadows.  There he is mentored by Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul , who instills in him the idea that he must become more than a man to help stop crime in his home of Gotham City; he must become a symbol, and as a symbol, he can inspire the downtrodden and bring fear to the merciless.  This conflict between acting as a symbol and what cost that leaves on the man is a primary theme that Christopher Nolan would explore through all three Dark Knight films, but it’s foundation is laid out perfectly here in the first film.  We see how Batman’s moral code is set, choosing to fight crime just short of taking a life, and how that sets him apart from the other extreme characters who will populate his city as the story unfolds.  Nolan also gives us the added pleasure of watching Bruce Wayne build up the arsenal, with the help of his ever loyal butler Alfred (a delightful Michael Caine) and the resourceful Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).  He even manages to answer the age old question, “why bats?”  And the simple answer is, bats frighten him, and he wants to turn that fear around and make it the thing his enemies will fear.

The theme of fear would also prove an important element that would play out through the entire trilogy, and there was no better way to lay the groundwork for that piece than to embody it through an adversary whose whole identity revolves around it; the Scarecrow, played in a scene-stealing performance by Cillian Murphy.  His Dr. Jonathan Crane is a simplified version of the often caricatured villain from the comic books, but he’s nevertheless effective in this story, and is often creepy enough without the mask he dons for the persona.  What I appreciate is the fact that Christopher Nolan didn’t try to jump right in and revisit already established Batman villains for his movie (at least not right away).  Here he managed to elevate a lesser known villain from the comics and show that you didn’t need to make your baddies a freak show in order to make them memorable in your movie.  The same likewise goes for Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul.  A dramatic departure from the immortal antagonist from the comics, Ra’s purpose in this film is still no less effective in presenting a compelling threat to Batman and Gotham.  Ra’s Al Ghul begins for the series the continuing threat of terrorism that Batman will always be up against.  His terrorist ideals are based primarily around eco-centric philosophy, see himself and the League of Shadows as the ones who bring balance to the world once a major population center grows out of control, in this case Gotham.  And to destroy the city, their weapon as it turns out is fear itself, weaponized through Scarecrow’s toxic gas.  Through all this, Nolan perfectly touches upon heady themes, while at the same time making it a rousing adventure true to it’s comic book origins.  Up until the MCU began, this was widely seen as the greatest comic book origin movie ever made, and it still is one of the best.  I myself named it as my favorite film of the year 2005.  But, little did we know that Nolan had much more tricks up his sleeve in the years ahead.

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

If Batman Begins made for a fantastic overture, this would end up being the magnum opus.  Here we have the reason why this series is dubbed the Dark Knight trilogy.  Interesting enough, Christopher Nolan never initially planned to make a sequel to Batman Begins, let alone a trilogy.  He was already completing his next film The Prestige (2006) and had Inception (2010) waiting in the wings.  But, the success of Begins was enough to convince him to return, and this time with the full support of the Warner Brothers studio behind him.  A little sight gag in the closing minutes of Begins, where Detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) presents him a calling card of a criminal he should look into, which turns out to be a Joker card, easily gave Nolan the stepping stone for where to go next.  But, what ended up happening in the process proved to be very interesting.  For one thing, Nolan made one of the boldest casting choices in movie history by tapping heartthrob actor Heath Ledger in the iconic role of the Joker.  Many comic book fans were initially outraged by the choice, believing that Ledger was completely wrong for the character, but by the time the movie came out, all those naysayers would be silenced forever.  Heath’s performance as the Joker was not only perfect, it was transcendent.  His Joker is not only the most compelling villain we’ve ever seen in this genre, he may very well be one of the greatest screen villains of all time; in the same league as Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates.  Watching him work of Christian Bale’s Batman especially provides some of the best moments in the movie, including the now iconic interrogation scene.  Mainly due to Ledger’s Joker, this movie has enjoyed the lofty reputation it has had over the years; topping many critics’ favorite films lists and often being considered the best film of it’s genre.  It even sparked the Academy Awards to change it’s rules, after it was snubbed for Best Picture, expanding it’s number of nominees beyond the limit of 5 per year.  Ledger’s performance did earn him a much deserved Oscar, but sadly it was a posthumous win as the actor died tragically before the film’s release.

But The Dark Knight is more than just a showcase for Heath Ledger’s Joker.  Nolan treated us to not only one iconic Batman villain in his film, but two.  Harvey Dent, aka “Two-Face”, is also featured here, and is in many ways it’s a cinematic redemption for the character.  After his terribly botched appearance in Batman Forever (1995), where he was played in a campy performance by an embarrassing Tommy Lee Jones, Two-Face finally gets an origin in this film that’s truer to his persona from the comics.  Played with excellent restraint by Aaron Eckhart, Harvey Dent represents the fine line that separates characters like Batman and the Joker.  He is at heart a good man with a conscience, but also flawed because of his temper.  And in the movie, we see how even good men can turn bad so easily as a horrific accident scars him physically, making him more susceptible to the Joker’s mental manipulation.  It’s a fine line that we also see Batman having to cross at one point too.  In order to track down the Joker, Batman uses cellular technology created by Lucius Fox to basically spy on every citizen in Gotham City, an ethical line that Fox is deeply troubled by.  At this point, we see how easily Batman can also be turned evil, as desperation has forced him into a situation where he has to abuse his power in order to win the day.  This brings us back to the overarching theme of the effect that terrorism has on society, and in Dark Knight, we see the most profound examination of this.  In the years after 9/11, the United States made many morally questionable decisions in the name of combating terrorism, and those same dilemmas strongly influenced the themes in Nolan’s Dark Knight films.  The Joker is a threat unlike anything else that Batman will ever face, one whose villainy has no rhyme or reason; someone who as Alfred puts it, “just wants to watch the world burn.”  So, to combat an agent of chaos like that, is it possible to fight back without becoming a villain yourself?  That’s the brilliantly delivered question behind Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and it’s matched with a truly epic sized presentation.  This was Nolan’s first foray into IMAX film-making, which is masterfully put to use in some amazing scenes like the opening bank robbery and the semi-truck chase halfway through the film.  It’s a movie that really earns that masterpiece mantle.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

So, where do you go next after that?  That’s the dilemma that Christopher Nolan was tasked with after The Dark Knight.  The movie was an international phenomenon, and at the time, a record setting film in the super hero genre.  Not only that, but Christopher Nolan had built his reputation further as an unmatched cinematic artist of high ambition, with his popularity soaring after making The Dark Knight and Inception back to back.  Naturally, the need for another film to round out the trilogy was going to happen, especially with the cliffhanger ending of Dark Knight.  But the question remained, what was it going to be about?  You couldn’t revisit the Joker nor Two-Face again, so who was a big enough villainous presence to follow in the footsteps of those two?  Nolan eventually got the inspiration from his co-story writer David S. Goyer to take a look at an often under-utilized villain from the comic books; Bane.  This was somewhat of an odd choice, given how the steroid enhanced muscular adversary didn’t lend himself well to Nolan’s more grounded style, but the way they re-imagined the character actually proved to work to their advantage.  Gone were the luchadore style mask and plastic tubes that feed venom into his muscles making them grow huge, and instead we got natural muscles and a grotesque, face-hugging mask covering his mouth to define the character.  The right kind of actor was needed, and Nolan once again made a brilliant choice in giving the role to his Inception scene-stealer, Tom Hardy.  Hardy had the physical build perfect for the role, but it’s in the vocal performance where he truly makes the character shine.  Hardy’s Bane has a commanding presence, delivering several long soliloquies with absolute confidence, made all the more remarkable as he is left to perform with his mouth completely covered, relying more on his eyes and body language to do the heavy lifting.  Through all this, he becomes a threat to Gotham of a different type; a zealot bent on destruction.  Before, Batman had to deal with threats to his ethics and his soul; now it’s his threshold of pain that is challenged, and it may be one that will determine whether or not a Batman will survive.

The Dark Knight Rises is the most polarizing of the movies in this trilogy.  Some people felt that it was a let down after The Dark Knight, with many complaints stating that it had too convoluted of a plot, and that many of the changes that Christopher Nolan made were unfaithful to the essence of the characters and the legacy of what came before it.  But I found myself to be in the camp of people who outright loved this movie, and believed that it was a perfect conclusion to this particular story.  I believe that to really appreciate this film, you have to look at it’s context within the full arc of the trilogy as a whole.  The Dark Knight Rises closes out many of the grander themes that were laid out in Batman Begins and followed through with The Dark Knight, and that the toll that fighting back against evil takes on a person both spiritually and physically.  One thing that culminates in this film is the sense that by becoming Batman, Bruce Wayne has essentially been fighting back an internal struggle that has been damaging his mind slowly over the years, and that’s the fact that he never was able to cope with that loss of innocence as a child.  He has essentially killed off who Bruce Wayne was, and by becoming Batman, he is in turn welcoming death, a weakness that Bane is all too happy to exploit.  In a triumphant scene at the end of the second act, Bruce Wayne must climb out of an underground prison, and to do so, he must fear death once again, which means that he must have something to live for.  When he does, he doesn’t rise up as Batman, but as Bruce Wayne reborn.  And thus, we get a satisfying arc to the character of Bruce Wayne.  The entire trilogy is about him, not Batman.  With Dark Knight Rises, Nolan poignantly illustrates how a man can find purpose again by letting go of the pain that he once thought empowered him.  Perhaps many people didn’t like the fact that the movie concludes with Bruce giving up the Bat in order to live a normal life, and passing it on to a worthy successor, Robin (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  But the arc of the story was meant to show the power of moving beyond pain by embracing life, something which culminates perfectly the themes of all three films.  Sure it’s not a perfect movie; Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is kinda shoehorned in, despite a fine performance.  For me, it was a grand epic finale to one of the finest tales ever told in the mythic super hero genre.

One thing that I do love about the Dark Knight trilogy as a whole is the fact that it is a complete story.  There’s no grander cinematic universe beyond it’s narrative; no setting up of multiple franchises with Easter eggs or winking nods.  It’s just Batman, Gotham City, and the rogues gallery that means to terrorize them.  The whole thing is a story told in three acts, with Bruce Wayne working through a soul-searching journey to define himself.  Along the way, he faces foes that are not only great threats to him and his city, but also existential threats that force him to reconsider the kind of person he wants to be.  In Ra’s Al Ghul, Joker, Two-Face, and Bane, Bruce Wayne sees variations of the kind of person that he could easily have become had he made different choices throughout his life.  I believe that’s it was essential that these had to be the villains of this trilogy, as opposed to more conventional choices like The Penguin or The Riddler.  In each of them, we see the dark side of Batman manifested whole.  Ra’s Al Ghul is a Batman who believes killing is justifiable; Joker is a Batman with no moral code, working in the exact opposite direction as an symbol of chaos rather than order; and Bane is a Batman made a slave to a twisted ideology, believing right and wrong are irrelevant.  In a perfectly stated opinion from Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, he says, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”  It’s a foreshadowing statement about himself, of course, but it could also apply to Batman as well.  He is ever so close to becoming a villain himself in these movies and the same can be true about all of us in our own lives as well.  That’s the greatest aspect about the Dark Knight trilogy; the ethical questions it leaves us about the true nature of justice, and whether or not symbols like Batman are as pure as we like to think they are.  Batman ultimately remains a hero by the end, but Christopher Nolan makes it clear in his trilogy that not every path taken is as morally clear cut one.  It’s a trilogy that will go on to remain one of the genre’s most triumphant, and also one of the most daring in all of cinema.  Whether you go in entranced by Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing performance as the Joker, Nolan’s unparalleled sense of epic scale, or just the sheer  delight of watching the gritty bare-knuckle fight between Batman and Bane, this is a trilogy of classics that gives the Dark Knight true cinematic honor.