Film Nerd 2.0: Indy and Batman and X-Men, oh my

We live in an age of franchises.

One of the simple truths of modern pop culture is that there is nothing a studio values more than the ability to get a series off the ground where they can constantly count on fans coming back for more of the same. My kids are on the hook for so many ongoing series at this point that I have to sometimes remind them that films that aren't part of a series are also worth watching.

There are some series that they're not ready for yet, like “Lord Of The Rings” or “The Terminator,” and Toshi is constantly pushing to see the things that have been on the “not yet” shelf for a while. Recently, we've dabbled with a few series, and the reactions from both of the kids have been interesting, and not what I expected.

For example, one would think that based on the series I wrote about sharing the “Star Wars” saga with my kids that the same amount of thought and energy would go into figuring out how to introduce them to Indiana Jones.

One would think that, but one would be wrong.

Part of the issue for me is that I don't particularly think of the world of Indiana Jones as one story built over several movies. The movies just barely work as continuity, and each one is its own thing to such a strong degree that I honestly don't think there's any sense of urgency that's gained by showing them in any particular order. The first thing the kids saw was actually just the opening segment of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Everything with River Phoenix was what they saw, and they were livid when I actually turned the film off. That wasn't a case of me thinking they weren't ready, but more a function of how much time we had for movies on that particular night.

I wrote about their first exposure to “Last Crusade” last year, and while it went well, they didn't have a huge drive to see the next one right away. By contrast, when they recently saw Sam Raimi's “Spider-Man” and “Spider-Man 2,” they immediately started demanding that we screen “Spider-Man 3.” It was all they talked about. They wore me down faster than even the most determined interrogator at Guantanamo. They were incessant. When they weren't asking me to screen “Spider-Man 3,” they were talking about what they imagined “Spider-Man 3” would be. It was their whole world. After “Last Crusade,” they didn't really ask about Indiana Jones for a while.

And when they did, guess which one they wanted to see next.

Go ahead. Guess. Worst case scenario. Which one would make you wince if that was the one someone was asking you to screen for them?

For better or for worse, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull” managed to get them both interested in the series. At first, I was puzzled by the reaction they had and how primed they were, but then I watched them playing their LEGO Indiana Jones video game, which had been given to them by a friend, and I realized that every level they'd played had to do with “Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.” To them, that was Indiana Jones. This is one of those things that I didn't have to deal with as a young film fan. I didn't have video games that I played before I actually got to the movie that pretty much laid out the entire film for me, set piece by set piece.

The real problem with the Indy films compared to the “Star Wars” films is tone. It's going to be quite a while before we see “Temple Of Doom” together, and when we do, I hope to introduce them to it in the theater with a screening of a real 35mm print. That's not going to be for a few years, though, and to be honest, I think I blew it with our screening of “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” one of my very favorite films.

People forget how rough “Raiders” plays things all the way through, and I've seen the movie so many times that until I watched it with them, I hadn't really “seen” it in years. When we did watch it, we set aside some time where I made everyone promise not to interrupt us, and I made sure we were all set so we could just settle in, tune the rest of the world out, and get lost in the film.

The first thing I noticed is how much the violence in the film seemed to set both of the boys on edge. Just the opening scene was enough to freak them out a bit, and the death of Satipo (Alfred Molina) made Allen shake. I asked him if he was okay to continue, and he told me he really wanted to see it. In scene after scene, I noticed how much more blood there is in “Raiders” than in the PG or PG-13 films we see now. It was a different era, and because the film is fun and the energy is so amazing, it never felt “violent” to me until this viewing.

They had a good time with it, and the big set pieces definitely worked for them. They also seemed to really love Marion and the way she and Indy bounced off of each other. The snakes freaked them out quite a bit, and so did the moment as Indy and Marion are trying to leave and suddenly find themselves surrounded by mummified corpses.

But it was the ending of the film where it suddenly seemed like I had made a massive mistake. I love that the wrath of God is shown as a nightmare, and the only reason Indy and Marion survive is because they close their eyes. My co-writer Scott told me that the first few times he saw the film in the theater in 1981, he kept his own eyes closed, and the sounds of the sequence were enough to give him nightmares. Both of my boys watched the full sequence, eyes open, and they didn't make a sound until it was all over.

The first thing either of them said was from Allen, who was very quiet, eyes wide. “I didn't like that at all.”

I paid the price, too, with several nights of nightmares following the screening, meaning Allen slept in our bed for almost a week. I love my son, but if you've ever tried to sleep with a six year old in the bed, it's sort of like trying to sleep in the middle of a mosh pit. I had foot-shaped bruises over about 80% of my body by the time he was ready to go back to his own bed. He's told me several times since that he likes Indiana Jones but he doesn't want to see the ending of the film again. Ever.

Toshi's been reading the “X-Men” comics recently, starting way back at the start of the series, and he's become completely fascinated by the characters and the idea of mutants in general. He's also decided that he absolutely has to see “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” in the theater or his life will have no meaning. After the “Raiders” incident, I decided to re-watch the first film to see if I thought there were any trouble spots. Once I was sure, we started screening the series, one per week, and we've worked our way through the first three films now.

Toshi decided that “The Last Stand” is the best of the films, and his explanation was that it has the most mutant action and he loves the war at the end and the Juggernaut is awesome and Kitty Pride is really cool and the Phoenix was scary and he loved the whole thing. Allen decided that “X2” was the best film in the series because of the kittycat who licks one of Wolverine's claws. That was his entire rationale, and he's brought the scene up at least five times since we watched it, laughing every time like it was the greatest thing in the world. I wasn't surprised that they loved a different one than most people. The same thing happened with the “Spider-Man” films, where they both decided that “Spider-Man 3” was the best of the films because of Venom and the Sandman and Harry fighting Peter and because Peter turns into a jerk and dances. I'm glad to see that they're starting to assert their own favorites. I don't need to agree. I just want them to be able to explain their reactions in some way, and as long as they can articulate their feelings, I'm perfectly fine with them picking their own favorites.

Before now, the only “Batman” film that I felt was appropriate for the boys was the 1966 theatrical version of the Adam West show. They're super-excited about the home video release of the series scheduled for later this year. Toshi found a book in my library about the TV show and he's read the whole thing now, several times, soaking up every detail. On Sunday, though, it was the 75th anniversary of the character's first appearance, and I broke out Tim Burton's 1989 film, something Toshi's been asking about for over a year now.

Here's the thing… I don't really like Burton's film. I know what impact it had on the mainstream, and I honestly believe we wouldn't be where we are now with superhero films without Burton's movie, but that doesn't make me enjoy it as a film. I think it's a mess, and I don't think Burton has a flair for action at all. I think the costume is ridiculous and looks impossible to wear, especially during a fight, and Nicholson's Joker has to be one of my least favorite interpretations of an iconic character that I can name. It's Jack Nicholson, pure and simple, wearing weird make-up that never looks like anything other than make-up.

The kids loved it, though. They know the Danny Elfman music because it's still used in the Lego Batman games, and they were excited to learn Batman's origin in the film. They dug the Batmobile, and they thought the Joker was truly despicable. The film walks that fine line between being freaky and being too scary, and that seemed to be exactly what they wanted from it.

Even so, they commented on some of the things I've always found strange about the film. That first shot of Batman, looking down on Gotham from a balcony, shot from above, has got to be one of the worst special-effects of the modern age, with a poorly-animated form instead of a real person, and both of them asked me why Batman was a cartoon for one shot. Toshi also picked up on the fact that Keaton can't turn his head while he's in the costume, and he does a pretty good impression of that now, turning his entire body to ask me a question in his Batman voice.

They are eager to push forward and see more of the Batman films, which puts me in a hard spot. I personally think the best of the first four films is “Batman Returns,” but I have a feeling the Penguin is just plain too gross for them. And I honestly don't want to show them the two Schumacher films, even though they're excited to see them. Toshi knows that he's not seeing the Nolan films for a while, so he's not asking about them. But once the door is open and we've seen one part of a series, he considers that permission to start pushing as hard as he can about seeing the rest of them. One of the things that I think he inherited from me, although I never told him about it, is the way he will turn into a lawyer when it comes to talking his way into a screening of something he feels like he should see. For me, ratings were always a big issue with my parents, and I became Clarence Darrow every time I wanted to see something that was rated R. For me, it started when I was around nine or ten years old, and Toshi's only a year or two away from that.

I feel the same way about “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” I really don't want to sit through it again, but I can almost guarantee that Toshi's going to wig out when he sees Gambit and Deadpool, even if they aren't the versions he knows. That seems to be nagging at him, and he's mystified by the various ways the “X-Men” films have changed the things he knows and loves about the comics, which I consider a rite of passage. You're not a real nerd until you're pissed off about some facet of an adaptation, and he's definitely got a running list of gripes. Still, the things that he loves about the films totally outweigh the problems he has, and that's another element of being a comic book fan.

With “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “Days Of Future Past” both just over a month away, it's a big moment for my little comic fans, and their excitement is enough to rekindle my own anticipation completely.

It's going to be a hell of a summer, and considering the ways our personal life is changing, escapism is going to be more important than ever before.