Friday, May 24, 2013

Moving pictures: The arc of the human body in superhero films

Superhero movies can often be more trouble than they’re worth, with too many artless, pedestrian films in the past few years. Unless they have a distinctive style, they’re just terrible, or, even worse, forgettable.

For every worthwhile superhero movie, there are half a dozen mediocre ones, as rock-solid concepts like the Fantastic Four and Daredevil fail to translate to film with any life or vigour. Even though they’re often based on some outstanding comics, the films just feel like bland product. No style, no love.

But some of them…

Some of them can really move, man….

My single favourite moment in any superhero film ever is the bit in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film where Spidey first slings his webs and swings down the street. It’s a split second moment – Peter Parker is chasing after the man who killed his uncle, and comes to a section of the city where it’s too far to jump, and all he can do is swing.

And it all starts to go wrong – we’ve already seen Peter Parker unable to figure out the swing thing earlier in the film – and he’s heading for another face-plant in another brick wall when he sends out another web line, and uses his momentum to carry him forward to the next, and he starts swinging down the street.

There is no other part in the Spider-Man films – or any superhero film - that matches this moment for me. Seeing Spidey swing down the Manhattan street, almost bouncing along as he moves gracefully through the city landscape, really was the moment that I always wanted in a Spider-Man film. The whole movie hasn’t aged that well, and some other parts of the film are just cringworthy, but I don’t care about that, because I got to see Spidey swing, and it was a beautiful thing to see.

(Incidentally, when I did visit New York a couple of years after the film, and after a lifetime of Marvel comics, it was extraordinarily pleasing to see that it was the only city in the world where Spider-Man would work, with all those tall, looming buildings. All I could think about when walking down Broadway was that Spidey could easily leap from building to building in this modern metropolis. (And all I could think about when I was on the subway was the Inferno crossover from the late eighties…)).

Storywise, superhero movies often take a lot from the original comics without really improving on the source material, but one of the things film can do that comics can’t is movement, so it’s baffling that more thought isn’t put into the body language of a cinematic superhero.

The art of cinema does some things better than any other medium, including montage, the use of sound and music, and the movement of a human body in intimate detail.  Plays, ballet and other dance-based arts don’t have the immediacy that film can bring - you can’t follow a live performance sitting on somebody’s shoulders - but film can get in close, or back away, as the subject dictates.

And this is the big thing film does that comic books can't. Comics are a static medium, with talented artists able to create illusions of movement and speed, and even the best animation is never quite as graceful as the humble human body. Characters sit on the page, but move across the screen.

I’ve got movement on the mind mainly because I’ve been watching a bunch of Michael Mann films recently. (You can’t just watch one – I caught the last five minutes of Miami Vice on TV the other night, and had to watch the whole film again the next day, and then had to watch Heat and Last of the Mohicans to get the Mann out of the system.)

One of the things I like most about Mann’s films – and there are a lot of things I like in Mann’s films - is the way the characters move across the screen. You can read entire motivations and whole backstories  in the way one character scratches his eyebrow, and everything you need to know about somebody can be seen in the way they walk.

Even though this can be seen in every movie (and TV show) Mann does, the best example is still the two main men in Heat, with Al Pacino a barrel of energy, popping across the screen, while De Niro is smooth, fast and methodical in every move he makes.

It’s frustrating that more filmmakers don't take the time to care about how somebody enters a room like Mann does, but that's what makes his films so memorable, slick moves, sharp turns and sudden action. It's even more frustrating that nobody really thinks about that kind of movement in superhero films

Even within the limitations of the four-colour medium, the best superhero artists have always captured the grace and power of gods and aliens and mystery men – something superhuman.

Some superhero films take the common man route, bringing superheroes down to our level, and having them move like mortal men. Others go to far the other way – and end up trapped in a land constant slow-motion and overblown visual effects.

But then there are films like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight movies, where everybody is walking around like they're in a Michael Mann film. (Jim Gordon could totally take down Neil McCauley.) The best performances are those who use their body language to do their talking – Heath Ledger's slinking, darting physical performance as the Joker is a large part of the character's success in that film.

Batman is – of course – still stuck in those big bloody rubber bat suits, and it was a minor technological miracle when they changed the suit so he could move his head slightly to the left. No film has yet been been able to capture the grace of Batman swinging between Gotham towers.

But there is always hope. I like the way Superman moves in the trailers for his new movie, including the rockin' super-punching and  the way Henry Cavill walks as if he's holding on to the planet, because he'd fly off into space if he let go.

And I still like watching Spider-Man swing through the streets. Each new Spidey film since the first one has improved on the original's movement, and while none of them have the awesome impact of that first swing through the streets, there is little I like more than watching Spider-man swing, baby, swing.


Nik said...

Those moments are great. I totally go for the Spider-Man on the train sequence in Spider-Man 2, which just ticks every box for me. I'd also say the Nightcrawler sequence in X-Men 2 and the moment Christopher Reeve "falls in the fire" in Superman II and reveals he's Superman to Lois. Hmm, all my moments come from part 2s....

Tam said...

Totally agree. Not a huge fan of superhero movies but the best bits are always the ones when the film makers do stuff you can't really do in comic books, like the thrillingly kinetic Wolverine - Mystique fight in the first x men film or, my favourite superhero moment ever, the Hulk leaping across sand dunes