Review by Ben Bussey
“You got kind of a dark side, don’t you?” Bruce Wayne asks Selina Kyle; to which she replies, “no darker than yours, Bruce.” Yes, quote fans, that exchange comes right out of 1992’s Batman Returns – which remains one of, if not the most twisted and weird superhero movie ever to reach a mass audience. By the early 90s, the world (or the grown-ups in it, at least) were starting to look at these comic book characters in a somewhat different way than before; not haphazardly dismissing them as harmless fun for kids, but seriously asking just what kind of a person would put on a costume and head out onto the streets to beat up bad guys every night: and the answer, typically, is a person with pretty monumental issues. Out of this thought process arose the mightiest of what became known as the ‘graphic novels,’ Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, leaving generations of subsequent comic book fans in no doubt that every costume-clad do-gooder is hiding a whirlwind of emotional trauma and sexual deviancy underneath all that spandex.
That said, whilst superhero movies have pretty much dominated the blockbuster market since the turn of the century, the bulk of them – even those that have delved into the dark side – have remained on the family-friendly side. Even less commonplace than R-rated superhero movies have been microbudget, independent takes on the genre. We’ve had Jason Trost’s All Superheroes Must Die, which for the most part I was pretty impressed with last year – and now we have Sparks, co-directed and adapted from his own graphic novel by Christopher Folino. The PR campaign has emphasised the movie’s common ground with Watchmen and Sin City, as it’s a noir-ish period piece taking us back to the roaring 30s which first saw the superhero rise to prominence – but with a more late 80s-esque unflinching eye for the shadowy underside of it all.
It would have been an ambitious undertaking even on a blockbuster budget – and as such, there’s plenty about Sparks that is very impressive indeed. Unfortunately, there’s also no avoiding a sense that Folino and co. may have bitten off just a little more than they can chew, without breaking much new ground in the process.
In common with Watchmen, much of the story is told in flashback whilst we build toward a final showdown in the ‘present.’ A bleeding man rushes into a newspaper office in the dead of night, declaring he wants to report his own murder. This, we soon learn, is Ian Sparks (Chase Williamson of John Dies at the End), a disgraced former super who it seems is the prime suspect in a series of murders. However, Sparks is determined to get his entire story out there – and so he starts at the very beginning, leaving no stone unturned in a history which includes a radioactive meteor, a catastrophic train crash/chemical spill, a legion of masked crimefighters who, in most instances, prove every bit as dodgy as the bad guys they put down – and a romantic entanglement with fellow super Lady Heavenly (Ashley Bell) which gets a wee bit screwed up.
The tonal difficulties are evident from the get-go. Considering the apparent urgency of our titular hero’s situation, you’d think he’d be keen to get straight to the essentials – yet Sparks seems set on retelling his life story down to the littlest details, in a manner that often feels a bit meandering. Then there are the various twists and turns that are thrown our way… I’ll avoid specifics so as to avoid spoilers, but the bulk of these revelations are either so opaque as to leave the viewer wondering if they missed something, or so blindingly obvious you’ll wonder why it’s considered a twist at all. (The trailer alone gives away what’s meant to be a big climactic surprise – something which I thought was readily apparent almost from the start.)
Still, these are the minus points – but there remain plenty of things which work in Sparks’ favour. The low budget isn’t a great hinderance; while it’s full colour, the visual aesthetic is indeed pretty close to the Sin City movie, and as such the use of fairly obvious greenscreening and CGI is worked to the film’s advantage, promoting a cartoonish, other-worldly quality which is entirely appropriate to the material. Another major plus point is the cast, as Folino and co-director Todd Burrows have a number of seasoned pros at their disposal including Clancy Brown, William Katt, Clint Howard and Jake Busey. The younger, slightly greener leads fare pretty well too; this isn’t quite the slam-dunk for Chase Williamson that John Dies at the End was, but he handles himself well enough in this more old-fashioned all-action role (though I wonder if he’s in danger of getting typecast as the hero who retells his story in flashback to a journalist…) Ashley Bell also does a fine job conveying a golden age superheroine.
I can’t be too hard on a film which radiates such clear passion for its genre and the era it pays tribute to – but even so, I can’t deny the many glaring flaws. As such, I can only consider Sparks a well-meaning failure, but a worthy one nonetheless.
Sparks is out now on Region 1, and is released to Region 2 DVD and Blu-ray on 7th April, from Image Entertainment.