Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Speed Racer, a Better Movie than Dark Knight

The Wachowski Brothers were on top of the world with the first Matrix movie. They had redefined the look and the mood of the action movie. There had been cool movies and there had been dark movies before, but here they had upped the ante by making dark look cooler than it ever had before. Unless you were really paying attention, you could get so lost in the coolness of the Matrix that you might miss that innocent people were being gunned down left and right. Fans screamed when the second and third Matrix movies actually jumped from building a "cool dark" world to moving on to an actual plot. Granted, the sequels were just not that good, but bad sequels have been hungrily gobbled up by the masses before (like Spider-Man 3). Their worse crime was dropping the ball. Their movies did not epitomize this new "cool dark" genre anymore because they were not cool enough.

Enter Christopher Nolan and the reboot of the Batman movie franchise. Nolan realized that, if he was going to draw in record breaking crowds, he would have to make Batman the new "cool dark." And he did. Despite that, he still made a good movie with Batman Begins (I have reviewed it previously and gave it an A-). Hype began early that The Dark Knight would be just as dark and cool. The hype would be confirmed -- The Dark Knight was indeed even darker and "cooler" than the previous movie.

Meanwhile, the Wachowski Brothers followed up V for Vendetta, a wonderful movie at least as good as Batman Begins, with Speed Racer, a loving tribute to a cult anime classic. It looked "way cool", but had shirked darkness for bright colors. The masses, schooled to like darkness, could not fathom it. How could a movie, they puzzled, be both bright and cool?

Respect for the original source material. The Dark Knight may have used the names of four characters that first appeared in comic books almost 70 years ago, but the characters were much different. Jim Gordon was not a working class cop, he was a distinguished commissioner. The Joker did not kill just to kill, but was motivated by greed. Harvey Dent was not a romantic rival for Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne/Batman is virtually unidentifiable as The Bat-Man who debuted in 1938. All the original material has been drained out of the characters and replaced with retconned material from much later comics.

In Speed Racer, the characters all look just the way they are supposed to (with the exception of Racer X, who perhaps understandably has traded in white for black). The cars all look like the manga/anime. Characters move across the screen without really moving, characteristic of the cheap animation of the original anime. Some of the cast -- particularly Christina Ricci, practically transforms herself into an anime character, with her eyes opened as wide as possible and her exaggerated movements. The relationship of the characters is all the same as in the manga/anime. The roles of some characters, like “Mom” Racer and Royalton (representing less-defined businessmen-characters who had attempted to buy Speed), are necessarily fleshed out and enhanced without contradicting anything.
Heroism. Hard to believe, but Speed Racer is more a movie about superheroes than The Dark Knight! Superheroes save people, or make the world better for others. Speed did both, saving the lives (or at least the livelihood, since few people are in danger of dying throughout the movie) of his family and making the world of auto racing free of corruption. In The Dark Knight, Batman only saved a few of the lives he set out to save, failing more often than he succeeded. Worse, he completely failed at making the world better. The mob had taken some hits, but so had the law, achieving a morbid balance and an unpleasant status quo. We were even denied the opportunity to see the Joker stopped, as his plot line was literally left dangling.

Surprising the Audience (SPOILERS!). Each movie has one big surprise that is reversed on itself by the end. The Dark Knight’s is the death of Gordon, who turns out not to be dead. Speed Racer’s is that Racer X is not really Speed’s brother, but then he really does turn out to be Speed’s brother. In Speed Racer, the big surprise is relevant because the theme of losing family is strong throughout the movie. In The Dark Knight, the big surprise is not relevant at all because it is was just another death in a movie littered with too much death. Gordon’s death is a cheat, where everyone else either dies or just survives.


Fat to trim. I was discussing Dark Knight with Megan after she finally watched it and we agreed that the Dark Knight needed about 30 minutes of dead weight edited out of it to make a better movie. The whole "which boat is going to blow up the other one?" scene drags on horribly long. Maybe if a travesty like Saw VI ever comes out there will be a scene of hundreds of innocent victims being forced to mass murder each other, but there was really a zero-percent chance of this happening in a summer blockbuster, even one as grim as Dark Knight. And the Batcomputer subplot comes in way too late in the movie and seems to only be there to give Morgan Freeman more screen time. Speed Racer, meanwhile, had no fat to trim.

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