My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
Frank Miller’s revisionist 1986 masterpiece Batman: The Dark Knight Returns changed comic books forever. But its influence went far beyond comics. Miller’s take on Bruce Wayne and Batman made pop culture safe for heroes who weren’t just brooding and dark but borderline unhinged. Thanks largely to Miller’s enduring influence, when a Batman/Superman movie was recently announced, audiences had been conditioned to expect a grim, dispiriting, joyless exploration of the unrelenting nastiness of existence instead of a fun movie children might be able to enjoy, or even watch without being traumatized or disappointed.
Batman V Superman delivered on that promise, unfortunately. While the superhero movie got eviscerated by critics, Ben Affleck’s Batman was a descendant of both Michael Keaton’s and Christian Bale’s Batmans, who in turn were inspired as much by Miller’s gritty reinvention of Batman as Bob Kane’s original incarnation.
When someone creates something as influential and beloved as The Dark Knight Returns, our culture generally rewards them with enormous power, freedom, and autonomy. Ideally, this freedom leads to further masterpieces in the vein of what made them famous in the first place. But it’s more common for these visionaries to lapse into bloated self-parody as they desperately try to recapture the magic of their early work, with increasingly depressing results.
That seems to be the case with Miller, who used the leverage afforded him by the success of The Dark Knight Returns and the similarly influential Batman: Year One to release a series of follow-ups that have been received mixed reviews at best, and withering ones at worst, including All Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder; Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again; and Holy Terror, originally conceived as the story of Batman taking on Al-Qaeda but lost the Batman connection en route to receiving nearly universally negative reviews panning it as Islamophobic.
Comic books weren’t the only medium where Miller’s later work made people wonder what the hell was wrong with him. After the extraordinary, paradigm-shifting success of the 2005 Miller adaptation Sin City, a film that helped revolutionize the look of contemporary film by using green screens to create entire fantastical universes, Miller wrote and directed an adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit. The film was intended as a tribute to a comic god. Instead, it came off as an insult.
Nine years after Sin City expanded the technological vocabulary of film, Miller and co-director Robert Rodriguez vomited up a sequel that ratcheted up the inky darkness of the original to unbearable, unwatchable levels. Do you like sex, violence, profanity, shadows, and hardboiled philosophizing? You might not after suffering through Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. It’s the pop culture equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire case of cigarettes to dissuade them from wanting to smoke in the future. Only in this case, Miller and Rodriguez are cursing audiences with violence and sex and ugliness at overwhelming volumes that quickly become exhausting.
There are three different kinds of characters in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. First and foremost, there are tormented lowlives with good intentions. These men spend the film saving the second kind of character, troubled/tough sexpots, from the sequel’s third type of stock character: heavies who use their power and status to wreak as much destruction as possible.
The monsters in A Dame To Kill For, of which there are many, must reckon with such potent forces for good as Marv (Mickey Rourke), a Neanderthal-looking goon who spends the film loitering with intent, waiting patiently for excuses to punch people. Marv looks like a Dick Tracy villain who had been left in the sun to bake for a period of decades. He doesn’t look particularly human, more human-like, though it can be hard to tell where the Frankenstein-style makeup ends and the plastic surgery begins.
In his bid to save Sin City, a dangerous place for people whose fathers never hugged them, Marv is joined by Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin), a scuzzy blackmailer and low-level hustler who tries to save Ava (Eva Green), a self-proclaimed “selfish slut who threw away the only man she ever loved.”
When every element of a film is extreme, then nothing is extreme. A Dame To Kill For is a film of punishing extremes, but the only element of its intentional overkill that registers is the operatic performance of Green. Of the surreal coterie of villains in A Dame To Kill For, Ava is the only one with any real panache.
Green alone seems to understand that camp is supposed to be fun and, well, campy, rather than serious and grim. The sexuality in A Dame To Kill For is so over-the-top, stylized, and overwhelming that it’s never actually sexy. That’s almost an accomplishment when a film’s cast includes Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Juno Temple, and Jamie Chung all outfitted in tiny leather costumes out of Miller’s fevered masturbatory fantasies. Green, however, eschews the stripper-wear and lingerie-as-clothing aesthetic of pretty much every other woman in the film to spend most of her screen time completely naked. Her nudity is as aggressive as it is sexual: Ava is a woman for whom the rules do not apply, particularly the killjoy ones involving clothing. Ava is a vision, a femme fatale and a destroyer of men all wrapped up in the same hypnotic, intoxicating, maddening package.
Ava is a villain for the ages, but the “heroes” of Sin City: A Dame To Kill For are a sorry, interchangeable lot. Brolin and Rourke look so much alike that when they’re in the same frame, Marv looks like a degraded version of Dwight, one ruined with sadistic and unnecessary cosmetic surgery. They annoyingly also sound and act more or less identical as as well.
A Dame To Kill For unfurls a series of overlapping vignettes featuring troubled men who take turns whispering narration, often while driving, in a poor approximation of Clint Eastwood’s terse rasp. These men are all innate philosophers who dispense hard-boiled aphorisms like, “Death is just like life in Sin City. There’s nothing you can do. And love doesn’t conquer anything at all.” Dialogue like this sounds vaguely philosophical without expressing anything other than a half-hearted shrug over the uselessness of all human endeavor.
It’s not true that there’s “nothing you can do” in the living hell that is Sin City. There are at least two options available: You can watch the bloodshed, depravity, and perversion with the leering eyes of an inveterate voyeur (like the filmmakers and audience), or you can participate in the awfulness yourself. The film’s rogue’s gallery of villains choose the second option. These exemplars of over-the-top evil include Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), towering henchman Manute (Dennis Haysbert), and the mysterious Herr Alarich Wallenquist (Stacy Keach), who looks like a giant caterpillar-man who walks upright and has been horrifically burned.
In warring with these bad guys, Marv and Dwight are joined by John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a tortured cop who continues to look over stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold Nancy (Jessica Alba) years after he dies. Willis seems to be on hand almost exclusively for commercial considerations, since his character has been dead for years and the job of looking over Nancy like a pistol-packing, street-fighting guardian angel has been happily taken over by Marv. Nancy isn’t the only sex worker in A Dame To Kill For blessed with a solid-gold ticker. Rosario Dawson returns to reprise her role as a prostitute with a deadly girl squad as adept at violence as they are at sex. Joseph Gordon-Levitt rounds it out as Johnny, a gambler who never loses until he tangles with the aforementioned Senator Roark, the movie’s big boss and Sin City’s resident powerbroker.
Boothe is an actor of uncommon power, but even he can’t make dialogue like “Power is a fragile thing. It tolerates no threat. Defiance must be met with an example of the wages of defiance” sound like words that might plausibly come out of a human being instead of something so clunky it would shame Ayn Rand.
But Jessica Alba’s Nancy is Sin City’s gorgeous, vacant face and perpetually writhing, scantily clad body, as well as its empty, hollow soul. Nancy is supposed to the be the emotional core of A Dame To Kill For, but her sadness registers as a pose rather than an emotion. She’s playing at being sad the same way her stripper-martyr-sex-bomb plays at being a sexy cowgirl or fake cop. Alba delivers an empty burlesque of ennui, not the real thing.
For all of her bared flesh and fetish-friendly outfits, there’s something oddly chaste about Nancy, something that inspires protective feelings in honorable brutes like Marv and John Hartigan rather than lust. Sex is an inherently corrupting and evil force here. The only way that Nancy can be truly innocent and worthy of all of the big, strong men who come along and save her is by being strangely non-sexual, even while wearing obscenely sexual costumes. Sin City is supposed to soil everything within its borders, but Nancy emerges angelic and pure even while writhing suggestively for horny drunks.
A Dame To Kill For builds to the moment when meek Nancy Callahan finally musters up the courage to avenge John Hartigan and take on Roark, the big boss, but like everything else in the film, her arc rings empty and unconvincing. It’s just another pose in a movie full of them. Sin City: A Dame To Kill For has nothing to offer but attitude and excess, misogyny, and a worldview as black-and-white as the film’s monochromic color scheme.
If Sin City felt like a beginning, not just for Miller’s comic book series but for an exciting new way of making films, then A Dame To Kill For feels equally like an ending. What was sexy, cool, and novel in the original film became ugly and grim and sad the second time around. The 102 minutes of this joyless dirge seem to last far longer than the nine-year gap between a surprise hit that changed everything and a gloomy, wasted shrug of a follow-up that changed nothing.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure