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Thoughts on Toho’s submarine (and related) SF films (spoilers)

Filling in a few remaining gaps in my review series of Toho tokusatsu films, here’s a trio of films revolving more around super-vessels than monsters.

Atragon (1963), originally Kaitei Gunkan (The Undersea Warship), is a loose adaptation of a novel of the same name and another called The Undersea Kingdom. It opens with several people being abducted by strange, hot-bodied people (in the thermal sense, not the sexy sense). The abductees include retired admiral Kusumi and his secretary/ward Makoto, daughter of the long-lost submarine inventor Jinguji. A pair of comic-relief photographers, who are somehow the lead characters and are stalking Makoto in hopes of hiring her as a fashion model, get caught up in the kidnapping; the abductor says he’s going to take them to an undersea kingdom called Mu, the Pacific equivalent of the Atlantis myth (which I used to assume was Asian folklore but is just another “ancient myth” invented in the 19th century by Westerners, around the same time the modern version of the Atlantis myth arose). The abductees fight off the agent, but the admiral is sent a film from the Mu-ians, telling how they ruled the world 12,000 years ago and founded all ancient civilizations until their vast continent sank literally overnight. Now they’ve recovered and become super-advanced (we see miniature vistas of their futuristic-yet-ancient kingdom), and they warn Japan to halt development on the missing Jinguji’s newest super-sub — which they claim to be under Jinguji’s supervision and known to the admiral — or else they’ll send their god Manda to destroy the surface world. The threat is taken to the UN off-camera and promptly laughed off, so the Mu-ites start destroying ships and bridges and such.

The most advanced sub in the world (implausibly named Red Satan and crewed by English-speaking white actors, though not all with American accents) is unable to chase Mu’s attack sub below a certain depth, and when it pushes too far, it implodes in a nicely done visual effect (probably using some sort of suction inside the miniature). With no other options, the authorities ask Kusumi to tell them where Jinguji is, but Kusumi insists he doesn’t know, and grudgingly reveals that Jinguji was a deserter. Meanwhile, Makoto has yet another stalker whom the police pick up on suspicion of being a Mu agent, but he only gives his serial number until he meets Admiral Kusumi, to whom he reports that he’s Jinguji’s radio man and that Makoto’s father is very much alive. He leads Kusumi and the other main characters (including a bearded reporter who threatens to blab the story if they don’t bring him) to the island where Jinguji has built his super-sub, Gotengo (轟天号 Gōten-gō, essentially “S.S. Roaring Heavens” — generally called Atragon in English, short for “Atomic Dragon” for some reason). In addition to the usual submarine features, Gotengo has a drill on the front for underground travel, which I guess would make it both a submarine and a subterrene. And it can fly. Which would make it a… supermarine?

It’s all kind of moot, though, since Jinguji is quite the jingoist. He refuses Kusumi’s pleas to use Gotengo to save the world from Mu, because he insists it must only be used for the glory of Japan. The fact that the world includes Japan seems to be lost on him. But the reporter turns out to be a Mu spy who bombs Gotengo‘s hangar and abducts Makoto along with one of the photographers. This abruptly changes Jinguji’s mind about helping the world.

Down in the supposedly super-advanced Mu, we get one of the standard Toho tribal-dance sequences, and it’s interminable. Finally the abductees are dragged in and told they’ll be fed to the Mu god Manda, a snakelike dragon kaiju, if Jinguji doesn’t destroy the super-sub. But they never actually pass this threat along to Jinguji before he drills out of the wrecked hangar and flies to the rescue when a Mu submarine (with a Manda-shaped death ray on top) attacks Tokyo and a fleet offshore. Gotengo pursues the Mu sub back home, where the captives have snuck out some mining explosives and use them to take the Mu empress hostage and escape to the super-sub, which covers their escape from Manda. Several different-sized Manda puppets are used in different shots, and the one used in the early shots is really goofy-looking with bulging, muppety eyes, though another used later in the escape sequence has a more menacing head sculpt.

On Gotengo, the young Empress (who somehow has all her robes and heavy jewelry even though she G-ratedly shed them earlier to change into a diving suit) refuses to negotiate or surrender, so Jinguji kills Manda with the sub’s Zero Cannon, an absolute-zero freeze ray — which seems like a really unwise weapon to use underwater, but all it does is essentially coat Manda in fake snow until it stops moving. Then the sub drills into Mu’s power generator room and a team uses hand-held freeze rays to battle its way to the generators and plant bombs. The crew and the empress surface and watch the huge explosion (an interesting effect that appears to be achieved by dropping a bunch of colored dyes into a tank of water and split-screening it upside-down over a shot of the ocean, so it looks like fiery clouds erupting upward). The sub freezes the last couple of subs trying to escape, and Jinguji allows the empress to dive into the ocean and swim to her doom in the hellish maelstrom. So they’ve basically achieved the total genocide of the most ancient civilization on Earth. Um, yay?

Kaitei Gunkan/Atragon was apparently a big hit in Japan, but I found it quite a chore to get through. It’s very slow-paced and had little to hold my interest, and I watched it piecemeal over 3 or 4 sittings. The characters are superficial, and it takes a while for the action or the big FX sequences to get going. Jinguji’s resistance to using his sub to save the world is weakly justified and too casually resolved. The token kaiju Manda (only added because it was expected in an Ishiro Honda film) is crudely made and poses a minor threat. And it’s harder to like a film where the heroes exterminate an entire civilization than one where they defeat a giant monster.

Atragon got a loose remake of sorts in 1977 with The War in Space (Wakusei Daisenso, “Great War of the Planets”), directed by Jun Fukuda and transposing the action to space — most likely as a knockoff of that other space war film that came out in America about half a year earlier. When alien ships purportedly from Venus — mostly looking like flying acorns, but with a mothership described as a “giant galleon” by the crew of a 2D-painting space station that it destroys early in the film — start attacking Earth cities, Dr. Takigawa (Ryo Ikebe) is persuaded to complete building his space battleship Gohten (as it’s written in Roman script on the crew hats), which he’d resisted completing as unnecessary until an alien impostor attempts to steal his plans. He recruits a cast of nondescript male leads and his technician daughter Jun to finish the ship, which gets trapped in its hangar by an alien attack and must drill its way free much as in Atragon, but with lasers this time. (This version of the ship still includes a forward drill, but it’s largely useless here and for most of the film.) It then uses oxymoronically named “aerial depth charges” (at least in the badly written English dub they have on Archive.org) to blow up a fleet of space acorns before heading off for Venus, just in time for the token American crewman to learn his family was killed by the aliens and stare expressionlessly at the camera while a glycerin tear slides down his cheek.

En route to Venus, it turns out that male lead Miyoshi nobly left Japan to let second lead Muroi get engaged to Jun, who liked Miyoshi more. Muroi gets Miyoshi to promise to take Jun if Muroi gets killed on Venus, making it 100% certain that he will. Needless to say, Jun is not consulted in this. The crew then finds a piece of the destroyed space station improbably far from Earth, with a single conveniently placed corpse to bring aboard for services, and they don’t recognize the obvious trap. The “corpse” wakes up and abducts Jun, who’s taken to Venus, changed into leather bondage gear, and held captive by Commander Hell, a green-skinned alien in Marvin the Martian cosplay, and his “Space Beastman” sidekick that looks like Chewbacca with horns, the most obvious Star Wars ripoff in the film. Hell explains his people have a huge space empire based in Messier 13, yet naturally the only planet within 22,000 light years suitable to replace their dying homeworld is Earth.

Gohten lands on Venus and the scouting party finds the “galleon” behind a force barrier. The sub, err, spaceship launches fighters from a giant revolver barrel (no, really, and the hangar inside is too big to fit inside the exterior model) to take out the force field so Miyoshi’s team can get in to save Jun. Ironically it’s the token American who does a kamikaze run to achieve that. The galleon is also way bigger inside than out and looks more like a castle interior than a spaceship. All the soldiers get killed but Miyoshi, who’s thrown in a cell with Jun as hostages for Takizawa to turn over the ship, but Jun saw Hell enter his password and uses it to escape the cell, and they fight their way out of the galleon and return to Gohten.

Now, I’d expected that Muroi would sacrifice himself nobly to cover their return or something, but instead he’s just shot down from behind while calmly tooling his way back to the ship. Seriously? Anyway, Gohten is crippled in the ensuing battle with the galleon, so Takizawa sneaks off in the ship’s otherwise useless forward drill, which it turns out — according to a recorded message he somehow already had cued up for Miyoshi and Jun despite having no time to record it — contains a super-bomb he invented that could destroy the universe if the knowledge got out. He uses it to blow up the galleon and himself, and subsequently all of Venus, to ensure the knowledge dies with him. Gohten barely gets repaired in time to escape (gee, thanks for the heads-up, Skipper). And presumably Earth endures some unpleasant climate effects from the resultant gravitational shifts and the debris belt that forms in Venus’s former orbit.

Well, this was mediocre, forgettable, and silly, with cheaper and clumsier effects work than the original 14 years before. Some of its elements seemed self-parodic, but it was played as a straight war drama, so the serious and goofy elements undermine each other.

Saving the best for last, we jump back to 1969 for Latitude Zero, aka Ido Zero Daisakusen (The Great Latitude Zero Operation/Mission). This one is unusual among Ishiro Honda’s films in that it’s shot entirely in English with a mixed US/Japanese cast headed by Joseph Cotten, Richard Jaeckel, Akira Takarada, and Cesar Romero, and based on an obscure US radio adventure series by the film’s screenwriter, Ted Sherdeman.

Three men in a tub — a bathysphere crew including Dr. Ken Tashiro (Takarada), Dr. Jules Masson (Masumi Okada playing a Frenchman), and reporter Perry Lawton (Jaeckel) — are studying the deep scattering layer when they’re caught in an undersea volcanic eruption (a similar cloud-tank effect to the one in Atragon, but better done). They’re rescued by divers from the Alpha, an incredibly advanced nuclear sub captained by Craig McKenzie (Cotten), who tells Tashiro and Lawton that it’s neutral, belongs to no nation, and was launched in 1804. Dr. Anne Barton, the sub’s physician — a scantily clad young blonde played by Linda Haynes, whose line readings are even stiffer than those of the Japanese actors reciting them phonetically — advises that Masson’s injuries need more treatment than Alpha can provide, so McKenzie reluctantly calls off monitoring the volcano to return to a place called Latitude Zero (and longitude 180, where the equator and the International Date Line cross).

But the villainous Malic — played by Cesar Romero a year or so after the end of his tenure as the Joker on Batman — orders the crew of his own sub, the Black Shark, to destroy the Alpha. Apparently McKenzie and Malic were the hero and villain of the radio series, though the sub was called the Omega there. So the film treats their rivalry as long-standing. The flamboyantly dressed Malic is assisted by his lover Lucretia (Patricia Medina), who’s jealous of the Black Shark‘s female captain Kroiga (Hikaru Kuroki) and is cattily pleased when she’s beaten by the Alpha‘s superior tech tricks in a lengthy sub chase/battle, then is unable to penetrate Latitude Zero’s force field barrier.

McKenzie — who’s 204, a year older than Malic — shows Tashiro and Lawton the wonders of Latitude Zero (called “LZ” for short), a super-advanced, apolitical, post-scarcity anarchist utopia where the clothes are made of gold (extracted from seawater) and diamonds are used as flowerpot gravel. It’s basically as if Captain Nemo had invented the Federation. Tashiro is the Arronax of the film, intrigued by the utopian vision of LZ, while Lawton is the cynical Ned Land type, finding it too good to be true and suspicious of brainwashing and hallucinations (though he fills his tobacco pouch with diamonds anyway). He makes a good point about LZ’s failure to share their superscience with the world, though McKenzie insists they can’t until they can be sure it won’t be used for war.

Once Masson is healed, McKenzie explains how LZ’s teams recruit scientists from all over the world to come to LZ to conduct pure research without political, military, or commercial agendas — including one Dr. Okada and his daughter, both of whom Malic abducts to set a trap for McKenzie. The three newcomers and Dr. Barton volunteer to join McKenzie and his first mate Kobo (the only Japanese-speaking character in the film, played by Hitoshi Omae) for the rescue mission, and are equipped with an “immunity bath” that makes them temporarily bulletproof (and gives the men and Barton a chance to see each other naked, though it’s strictly G-rated for the audience), protective suits of a gold/platinum weave, jet-powered “elevation belts,” and gloves with built-in mini-weapons. The heroic menfolk leave the finally fully clothed Dr. Barton behind to woodenly pilot the Alpha (whatever happened to the large crew it had before?).

Meanwhile, Malic forces the Okadas to watch him punish Kroiga for her failures by surgically implanting her brain into a lion and sewing on a condor’s wings (which are somehow functional afterward), turning her into a griffin that he then enlarges with a growth serum and sics on the rescue team, though Griffin Kroiga instead just sits idly watching as they contend with various of the island’s deathtraps (what did Malic expect before the anaesthesia wore off?), so they’re able to reach Malic’s decidedly non-sterile operating theater and rescue the Okadas just before the professor goes under the knife. They have no trouble defeating Malic’s Bat Man mutants (Cesar Romero and Bat Men?? Why didn’t I notice that until now???), yet are somehow stymied when Malic releases a swarm of harmless actual bats (or superimposed footage thereof) to cover his escape.

The gang goes back to the Alpha, but Malic shows up in the Black Shark and subjects it to various attacks, including a powerful magnetic field trap, which it escapes by borrowing a trick from the Gotengo — it spreads its wings, fires jet engines, and takes flight. Malic is so vengefully obsessed with shooting down the Alpha with his laser ray that he gets the Shark trapped in the same magnetic field, and then the griffinized Kroiga finally takes flight and attacks the sub (again, what did he expect, really?), leading to both of their destruction along with the Shark. The entire island, like all respectable supervillain lairs, reacts to the villain’s demise by exploding for no apparent reason.

In the denouement, everyone chooses to stay in the paradise of LZ except Lawton, who gets picked up by a ship and finds his story disbelieved when all his film is blank and his diamonds are missing. Bizarrely, some of the crew are dead ringers for McKenzie, Tashiro, and Malic, as if we’re supposed to think it was all a dream — but then they find out (in Lawton’s absence) that a fortune in diamonds has been deposited in Lawton’s bank account, with none of them showing any knowledge of what it’s about. So Latitude Zero is real, and these guys just coincidentally look like the people in it? Huh? Wha?

Aside from that completely inexplicable ending, Latitude Zero isn’t bad as Captain Nemo riffs go. It feels almost like a backdoor pilot for a TV series, one that might’ve been fun to see. Granted, the acting isn’t great, for the most part. Joseph Cotten is basically just showing up for a paycheck, and the Japanese cast can only do so much with phonetically delivered English dialogue (the one fluent English speaker, Masumi Okada, has one of the smallest parts). Linda Haynes’s almost nonexistent performance (her first speaking role) can perhaps be excused by her youth and inexperience, as well as working with a director who didn’t speak English; here’s an interview with her about making the film. But Cesar Romero brings his supervillain A game to the role of Malic, gleefully chewing the scenery (only about half as hyperactively as the Joker would, but that’s more than enough), which makes up for a lot of the rest. It’s largely thanks to him that this film is so much more fun than the other two super-ship films. (Sorry, super-boat, since they’re submarines.)

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My very late and, surprisingly, rather positive JUSTICE LEAGUE review (spoilers)

Yes, I finally rose to the top of the library’s long waiting list for another DVD, this time Warner Bros.’ Justice League, directed partly by Zack Snyder with the completion and reshoots done by an uncredited Joss Whedon (who did get a co-screenplay credit with Chris Terrio). This is the fifth movie in the film continuity nicknamed the DC Extended Universe, and readers of my blog may remember that the only prior film in that series that I liked was Wonder Woman. I thought Snyder’s Man of Steel was strong and promising (though flawed) in the first two acts but was totally ruined by the dreadful and crass choices made in the third act. Whereas its sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (also from Snyder) was utterly incoherent, a loosely movie-shaped hodgepodge of unconnected moments revolving around ciphers failing to qualify as characters. I didn’t review Suicide Squad for this blog, but it was also pretty incoherent and clumsy. Its ensemble cast only had 2 or 3 characters with any development, and it put them in totally the wrong story for their purpose and powers. It had an inept story structure that spent too much of the first act on exposition and setup with no plot or stakes to motivate our interest, and that then jumped straight into third-act-level crisis with no buildup.

So I didn’t have much reason to be optimistic about Justice League, especially with Snyder being involved for a third time. Whedon’s reshoots gave me hope for a more coherent and character-driven story, but I heard a lot of negative reviews and fan complaints about the finished product, so I didn’t expect much. To my pleasant surprise, though, Justice League is a fun, watchable, largely coherent film, though not a brilliant one or an especially good-looking one. It’s no Wonder Woman, but it feels the way a movie about the Justice League should feel. It’s the only DCEU movie other than WW that I’d be willing to watch a second time, and indeed I already did before writing this review.

Certainly the Macguffin driving the plot is nothing special. CGI baddie Steppenwolf comes to Earth, steals three Mother Boxes he can put together to destroy the Earth, fights and trash-talks the heroes, yadda yadda. It’s the most superficial possible story you could get out of Jack Kirby’s New Gods characters and concepts, though Ciarán Hinds does a fairly good job of making an interesting vocal performance out of a very one-dimensional role, a villain who’s essentially just a video game’s final boss and looks like one too. Steppenwolf does have a motivation that could’ve been interesting — he’s an exile seeking to conquer Earth to earn the right to return home — but hardly anything is done with it, and usually he’s just a generic megalomaniac seeking to be worshipped. And the premise is illogical; if putting these three boxes together could destroy the Earth, why keep all three on Earth after that first ancient invasion was repelled, when the Green Lanterns and Greek gods who had cameos in the flashback battle could’ve taken them to space or destroyed them?

But that doesn’t really matter, because the plot is just the excuse for getting the team together, and that’s the heart of the story. It’s the characters and the cast that make the movie satisfying for me, even though the big cluttered Snyderesque CGI action sequences do little for me. (Some of the action works, though. I really liked Wonder Woman’s bursts of superspeed in her first fight scene against the terrorists.)

Well, I need to qualify that. The two main characters driving the story are Ben Affleck’s Batman/Bruce Wayne and Gal Gadot’s Diana (who still has never been called Wonder Woman by any character in the films). Affleck is okay as an affable lead, but I’m not entirely sold on him as Batman, and the attempts to lighten him up and give him a sense of humor feel weird for Batman, though he does have some nice moments of characterization regarding his history (such as it is) with Superman. And Gadot is oddly less expressive and engaging here than in her previous two turns in the role, as if she wasn’t as invested in it this time.

On the other hand, I quite liked the newcomers Ezra Miller as Barry Allen (never called the Flash onscreen) and Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg (Bruce does call him “the cyborg” at one point — close enough). This version of Barry has more in common with the comics’ Wally West or Supergirl‘s Winn Schott, and it feels redundant to give him the exact same backstory involving his father in prison that the entire first season of The CW’s The Flash was built around. But Miller is funny and charming and vulnerable, and he brings a lot of entertainment value. I particularly like the “save one person” scene where Batman teaches him how to be a hero. Given that Snyder’s previous films largely ignored the whole “saving people” aspect of superheroics, it’s nice to see this one focusing on it more directly (I suspect that’s Whedon’s influence, given how much he emphasized rescuing civilians in the Avengers films). The Flash costume is pretty cool too — the design is a bit cluttered, but I like the idea of it as an anti-friction design, and the cowl has a nice bike-helmet quality to it that makes sense for a speedster.

As for Fisher, he wasn’t given too much to work with, just a couple of brief but effective scenes about his struggles with his new cyborg form and his resentment toward his father Silas (Joe Morton) for creating him. And his performance was hurt by the heavy CGI overlaid on it — oddly, even the human part of Cyborg’s face seemed to be a digital construct nestled in the Uncanny Valley alongside Steppenwolf. But Fisher’s vocal performance is very strong (though his voice sounds too much like Affleck’s and I sometimes got their off-camera lines confused) and he makes Victor an engaging and potent presence with a quiet intensity. As for Morton, he’s always nice to see, though casting him makes for a more sympathetic Silas than the comics version was, I think.

There’s also Jason Momoa as Aquaman/Arthur Curry. He was kind of okay, which is more than I would’ve expected from him. It helps that, in the years since Stargate Atlantis, he’s gotten somewhat better at enunciation and showing some expressiveness rather than just mumbling everything in a monotone. Although he did tend to be a bit too monosyllabic in the action scenes, without a lot in the way of decent banter, even though it seemed they were trying to play him as one of the funny ones. Meanwhile, Amber Heard was underwhelming in her one scene as Mera, Aquaman’s leading lady. Mera is supposed to be regal, commanding, and heroic, and Heard conveyed none of that. But then, she had nothing to work with besides a few lines of exposition, so maybe she’ll be better in the Aquaman solo film.

Of course, it took until late in the second act for Henry Cavill to be resurrected as Superman, except for the “phone video” scene at the start, which is kind of fun (“Did you ever fight a hippo?”). He did a fairly good job as Superman in the few scenes he got, certainly better than in BvS where he was more a plot device than a character. He finally got to play Superman as he should be, a positive, kind, optimistic figure whose priority is helping civilians and bringing inspiration. The movie’s plot depended on the premise that Superman had already been that to the world before his death, and that losing that hope had plunged the world into despair — which is a huge retcon from BvS, where Superman was portrayed as a subject of fear and mistrust for much of the world. And that’s another plot hole in the premise, by the way. The film claims that the world’s despair at the death of Superman was a moment of great enough darkness to trigger the reawakening of the Mother Boxes and the summoning of Steppenwolf after thousands of years. Really? Losing a superhero the world had barely had time to get to know was the darkest ebb in human history? More so than slavery or WWII? That seems unlikely.

That aside, it’s a retcon I’m okay with, because it’s the way Superman should’ve been portrayed all along. It’s notable that Superman is the one character here who gets frequently addressed by his superhero name even by people who know his given name, whereas the previous two films were embarrassed to call him that. (Although the film overall is incredibly sloppy with secret identities, with Lois calling the resurrected Superman “Clark” in front of witnesses, and Bruce and Arthur openly talking about Batman in front of a bunch of villagers who evidently don’t speak English but should certainly be able to recognize the name “Batman.”)

On the downside, Amy Adams did nothing here to change my opinion that she’s the blandest Lois Lane ever — especially since her whole arc revolved around her becoming useless without a super man in her life and no longer being Lois Lane in a meaningful sense, which is a highly unflattering portrayal. In Lois’s scene with Martha Kent, I couldn’t help thinking that Diane Lane would’ve been a far better Lois in her prime.

I guess the other main supporting player of note should be J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon. He kinda worked in the role, but he had so little to do here that he didn’t leave much impression. As with most of the other supporting players (including an uncredited Billy Crudup as Henry Allen), he was mainly there to set up an appearance in a future solo film for his associated hero — a film that may or may not happen, given how chaotic WB’s development slate has been in response to the lukewarm performance of Justice League.

By the way, while the CGI on Cyborg and Steppenwolf was distinctly video-gamey, I didn’t really notice the infamous digital upper lip on Henry Cavill, added in reshoots because Paramount pettily wouldn’t let him shave his Mission: Impossible — Fallout character’s mustache. But then, I wasn’t really trying to spot it. There were one or two closeups where I could tell that something was a little off, but not enough to be distracting from the movie. Maybe it doesn’t stand out for me because I’ve never been that good with facial recognition.

Danny Elfman’s score was pretty good, giving the film a nice old-school superhero-movie sound that probably helped make it more satisfying. But while Elfman reused his own Batman theme and included quotes of Hans Zimmer & Junkie XL’s Wonder Woman theme and John Williams’s Superman theme, I was disappointed that he didn’t revive his Flash theme from the 1990 CBS series. I can see why he didn’t use it; Elfman’s Flash theme was tonally a lot like his Batman theme, and it would’ve been a poor fit for this version of Barry Allen. Instead, Elfman contributed a more ethereal, slightly Philip Glass-ish piece, also slightly reminiscent of Blake Neely’s themes for The CW’s Flash, for the slowed-down Speed Force sequences. (Slow motion to represent superspeed? Holy Steve Austin, Batman!). Still, it would’ve been nice if he’d found a way to incorporate the melody of his 1990 Flash theme somehow.

All in all, Justice League is an imperfect film, and there are times when you can see the seams of the somewhat messy production process. The bits with the Russian family needing rescue, for instance, feel like an attempt by Whedon to add human interest to a sequence that Snyder probably designed to be in a totally abandoned area so that he could have large-scale CGI mayhem without having to bother with civilians, as he did in BvS. If so, it’s a limited and imperfect fix, but probably the best that could be managed within the parameters of the existing footage.

Still, the version of the film that we ended up with is watchable and satisfying because of the effectiveness of the characters and their interplay, and because it corrected or avoided so many of the previous films’ mistakes, despite the superficiality of the underlying plot and the weakness of a lot of the character animation. Honestly, it’s not that different from “Secret Origins,” the series premiere of the 2001 Justice League animated series, which also used a rather simplistic, underwhelming alien invasion plot (rather blatantly ripped off from The War of the Worlds, in fact) as a catalyst for uniting a team of heroes who were mostly being seen for the first time. The movie does feel like the pilot for an ongoing series, and it succeeded in making me want to see more, unlike nearly every one of its predecessors. The film apparently didn’t perform that well at the box office and threw the future of the DCEU into question, but for me, it succeeded in setting the franchise on roughly the right course at last.

General update

I’ve been making a bit more writing progress lately. Last week, I received, proofread, and returned galleys for both my upcoming Analog short story “Abductive Reasoning” and my third Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations e-novella Shield of the Gods. I’d been starting to wonder when “Abductive Reasoning” would show some movement toward publication, so this is a good sign, though I don’t know the release date yet. As for Patterns of Interference, I got the word last night that the manuscript has been approved by CBS and my final advance payment is routing for approval even now. I hope it arrives before tax day.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on a review and polish of my previously published original stories with an eye toward putting them together into a collection. That entailed making sure my manuscripts were updated with all the changes made in the final printed versions, except in cases where I wanted to undo those changes or make additional changes. Mostly I tried to be faithful to the published versions, though. Anyway, I’ve gotten that done and now it’s a matter of getting a publisher interested. We’ll see how that goes.  With that and the galleys out of the way, I’ve refocused on some new original stories I was working on last year but had to postpone in order to write Patterns of Interference. Well, I actually kind of got stuck because I started writing a story too hastily, before I really had the whole plot worked out. But coming back to it after a break has helped give me a new perspective, and I’ve worked out a couple of things I was stuck on before.

The new Kroger superstore nearby is open now, and I’ve been there three times already — once on foot, twice by car. It’s nice to be able to make smaller grocery trips when I need a few things, instead of just making 2-3 big trips a month and going without certain things for much of the interim. The new store isn’t as big as the other superstores I’ve been to, since its location is more constrained; in fact, they’ve actually had to put the “behind-the-scenes” employee areas up on the second floor, an unusual feature. There’s also an upstairs area for customers, but I haven’t visited it yet. And the shelf space is a bit less expansive. I read an article claiming that they’d compensate by restocking more frequently, but I’ve already noticed a couple of things that they didn’t have in stock while I was there — although there was one they did have in stock by the time I needed it. Anyway, it’s definitely a lot bigger than the old store, and has a lot more features like a pharmacy, deli, Starbucks, and pizza counter. The produce section is laid out pretty much exactly like the one in the gigantic Kroger that opened a year or two ago across from the movie theater I usually go to; I guess it makes sense that the two most recently built stores would use the same design. But it was kind of disorienting the first time I was there.

Reading-wise, I got a couple of new DC trade paperbacks from the library the other day, the second volumes of Batman: The Golden Age (reprinting all the original Batman comics in order from the start) and Wonder Woman ’77. The latter is theoretically based on the Lynda Carter TV show, but my problem with the first volume was that it didn’t feel like the show, just like generic Wonder Woman stories with the likenesses of Carter and Lyle Waggoner. Much of the second volume is like that too, but a couple of the later stories felt more like the show, or more ’70s-oriented at least. (One story brings back a major villain from the show, and another is steeped in ’70s nostalgia like funk music and CB radio.) As for the Batman volume, it’s good to get to see how quickly the character’s tropes fell into place within the first 2 years. These days, you’ll see a lot of people online claiming that the ’40s Batman was a dark, violent, gun-toting character until the Comics Code crackdown of the ’50s, but that’s just wrong. Even though the first year or two of stories were in a violent, pulpy vein, Batman only rarely used guns in them, though he did kill by other means like breaking a neck with a kick or flinging people off roofs. But as early as Batman #4 in December 1940, the dialogue and narration were insisting that Batman and Robin never killed or used weapons — although exceptions were still being made for causing recurring villains Hugo Strange and the Joker to fall to their apparent deaths, since of course they’d surely survive anyway. And B&R were portrayed in a pretty upbeat way, trading wisecracks and bad puns as they fought villains. Volume 2 shows other familiar Batman tropes emerging in 1941, like the Batmobile (a sleek red convertible with a small bat-shaped hood ornament) and the term “Dynamic Duo.” No Stately Wayne Manor or Batcave yet, though — Bruce and Dick live in a house in the suburbs, with a secret tunnel leading to the barn where the Batmobile is kept.

Food-wise, I serendipitously discovered a nice new way to make a sandwich last week. I decided to make a sandwich with tomato, sharp cheddar cheese, and Romaine lettuce on whole wheat bread with olive-oil mayonaisse and spicy brown mustard, served with a pickle spear and a small amount of olive oil potato chips. It was surprisingly yummy, and I’ve made that combo two more times since then, but somehow they weren’t as good as the first. I also recently discovered a second new type of sandwich that’s pretty good: cheddar cheese and apple butter.

Aside from that, I’ve mainly just been watching TV, but maybe I’ll talk about that later in another post.

Okay, I finally saw BATMAN V SUPERMAN… (Spoilers)

September 15, 2016 4 comments

The library finally came through with my requested DVD of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This was a film I refused to see in the theater, because the climax of Zack Snyder’s previous Superman film, Man of Steel, was such an endless, tedious, gratuitous sensory barrage that it almost drove me out of the theater. I read in the reviews that this film’s action sequences were even more noisy and excessive, so I chose to wait until I could see it on a smaller screen and be able to set the volume to my comfort level, as well as take breaks as appropriate.

As you can tell from the title of the above-linked MoS review, there was a lot I really liked about that film, but the stuff I hated was so awful that it ruined the rest for me. As for BvS… Well, I can’t really add much to all that’s been said about it in the months since its release. It’s a mess. I had much the same reaction as I had to X-Men Origins: Wolverine — that it felt like a highlight reel from a significantly longer movie that we weren’t seeing. (Which is somewhat literally the case here, since it’s heavily cut down from a longer version available on Blu-Ray, but the library only had the DVD of the theatrical version.) But it’s more than just brevity. Even within scenes, bits of dialogue follow each other without rhyme or reason. Character actions and reactions appear in a void, without the background to set them up. Too much stuff is crammed in and hardly any of it is given enough attention to make it feel justified.

Character-wise, Clark/Superman and Lois are relative ciphers. We don’t see enough of them to learn much about their personalities or thoughts, and what we get is disjointed because too much is left out. Henry Cavill was a high point of MoS, the first actor since Christopher Reeve that I really believed as Superman. But he’s terrible in this one. Which is probably because he has so little to work with, and it’s just so incoherent. He gets no reaction at all when Congress blows up around him, and he doesn’t even get to speak a word in that entire scene. And his words to Lois afterward are nonsense. Superman is the dream of a Kansas farmer? He’s been living as his father wanted? No. Nuh-uh. MoS made it clear that this version of Clark became a hero despite Jonathan Kent. He had to reject everything Jonathan taught him in order to become a hero. So they’ve thrown out a key part of Clark’s characterization from the first film and replaced it with a detached, unfeeling cipher who speaks in disjointed platitudes. Meanwhile, Amy Adams is probably the blandest Lois Lane in the history of the character. (Even given the existence of Kate Bosworth. She wasn’t exactly bland, just completely miscast.)

Perry White comes off even worse, getting character-assassinated as badly as Clark’s other human father figure, Jonathan Kent, was in MoS. Traditionally, Perry White is the archetypal loud, grouchy boss, but he’s also always been portrayed as a paragon of journalistic integrity, the moral center of the Daily Planet as much as Clark himself was. Here, he’s a caricature of a shallow, sleazy tabloid editor, unrecognizable as Perry White and a total waste of Lawrence Fishburne’s talents. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor isn’t as annoying as I feared at first, but he gets more annoying when he just keeps on talking and talking and talking while Superman or Lois barely get a word in. (And both characters suffer from having the writers force them to deliver overly on-the-nose bits of foreshadowing, like “This is someone you don’t want to pick a fight with” or “No one cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman.”)

As for Bruce/Batman, it’s not a completely untenable idea to set him up as opposed to Superman because of what happened in Metropolis, and it’s certainly a good idea to try to make up for the staggering disregard for life in that whole climactic sequence, but I can’t say it works well. Having Bruce pretend to Alfred that he was going after some “dirty bomb” unconnected to Superman serves no purpose, and undermines the momentum of the story by making Batman’s early actions seem disconnected to the plot and thus rather boring. The film was already disjointed enough without that. Moreover, Batman’s casual killing is unpleasant, though Michael Keaton’s Batman was just as murderous (and I’m not at all a fan of those movies either). I’ve heard behind-the-scenes handwaves about how this is an older, more bitter Bruce who’s crossed that line, but I don’t think there’s anything in the movie establishing that, so it just comes off as gratuitous.

Overall, the character’s actions make little sense. Clark and Lois don’t do much investigating beyond having clues fall in their laps. Batman’s actions don’t follow any sort of logic. When he’s going after the kryptonite, he puts a tracking device on the truck… and then chases after it at close range and gets into a big firefight and crashes and explosions and whatnot, which was all absolutely unnecessary because he put a freaking tracking device on the truck!!! After that whole overlong sequence, he just went back to the Batcave and found where the truck was anyway, proving that there was no reason for the chase in the first place. This is Snyder’s problem. Not only does he care more about cool images and moments than he does about story, but he doesn’t even care enough to come up with coherent justifications for his cool images and moments. It made zero sense for the firing of the tracking device and the up-close car chase to be in the same sequence of events. They directly contradict each other. But Snyder didn’t care, because he just wanted a succession of cool-looking moments.

Others have written about how incoherent and overcomplicated Lex Luthor’s plan is here, so I’ll just say that the fact that Lex had to force Superman and Batman into arbitrary conflict reflects the filmmakers doing the exact same thing. They started with the title, the decision that this would be a movie about them fighting, and everything else had to be about contriving an excuse for that to happen. They couldn’t even come up with a good excuse. They tried to set something up with Clark getting fired up about Batman as a threat that needed to be stopped, but then totally abandoned that and went with Lex threatening Clark’s mother. Why? Just because someone thought it’d be cute to point out that Bruce’s mom had the same name? (Which might not have been quite so ludicrous if they hadn’t made such a huge dramatic moment of it, complete with a recap of the frame-by-frame imitation of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns Wayne-murder scene that already opened the film. Not only does Snyder slavishly copy old comic-book pages, now he’s copying his own copy.)

And then we get a whole other completely unrelated story about Doomsday, just so Snyder can indulge in more disaster porn — though they make a forced, clunky point of how abandoned and evacuated everything is this time. This is just a random monster fight out of nowhere, and the character decisions are as random and unsupported as most everything else. Why does the president default to ordering a nuke before it’s even been sufficiently demonstrated that Doomsday is a threat that Superman can’t contain? Far more inexplicably, how does Lois psychically intuit that she needs to go back for the spear? She has no way of knowing that, unless super-hearing is contagious. And why didn’t Superman just give the spear to Diana?

Still, while the climax here was just another self-indulgent CGI-fest, it was more watchable than the MoS climax. It was less repetitive, less crassly exploitative of 9/11 imagery (though we got a ton of that in the opening), a bit more fun with the banter among the three heroes (what little there was). Plus — and this is particularly important for me — the music was actually fairly engaging this time, not just endless monotonous blaring. It was a reasonably good screen debut for Wonder Woman, allowing for how tacked-on her presence was in this film — which doesn’t really stand out given that pretty much every other plot thread was just as cursorily tacked on. Although I’m not crazy about the modern trend to fixate on the idea of Diana as the ultimate warrior, which runs counter to her traditional role as a champion of peace. Hopefully her upcoming solo film will balance her two sides better. Overall, I agree with the consensus that Diana is the one element of the film that really works, and that’s almost entirely due to Gal Gadot’s presence and charisma rather than the flimsy storyline the script gave her.

So… This was bad. Not potentially great but critically flawed like MoS — just plain bad, a clutter of disparate pieces pretending to be a narrative. It had some ideas that had promise but were ineptly or fitfully explored or simply mentioned in passing and forgotten. It had a few scattered lines of good dialogue amidst a word salad of pretentiousness and random subject changes. It had some interesting imagery, but dwelled too heavily on a lot of it. It had… well, it had some good actors, but I can’t say anything positive about the characters, since they were little more than devices to advance the fragments of what passed for a plot. And it was trying too hard to be a promo for future films. This wasn’t a story, it was a corporately mandated piece of connective tissue between other movies. It’s pretty at times, but virtually brainless and utterly soulless. It doesn’t even make me angry like the horrible climax of MoS did. Nothing about it has enough weight to evoke that kind of emotion. At most, it evokes a weary frustration at the Hollywood system that puts such huge amounts of time and money and labor into these elaborate, beautifully made productions but perennially fails to understand that it’s all a waste without the foundation of a strong story and script.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THRONE OF ATLANTIS review (spoilers)

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis is the third movie in the New 52-based continuity that the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line has adopted in the past couple of years. As I remarked before, I really disliked the first one, Justice League: War, and found the second, Son of Batman, to be better but still deeply flawed and excessively violent. So I wasn’t expecting much from ToA, and wasn’t even sure I wanted to see it at all. Fortunately, it’s a great improvement on the previous JL installment, even while being a direct continuation of it.

As the title indicates, it’s mainly the story of how Arthur Curry discovers his birthright as Aquaman and battles with his half-brother, the evil Orm (Ocean Master), for the rule of Atlantis, with Orm trying to engineer a war with the surface world as a means to gain power. But it’s also a continuation of the story of the Justice League coming together, its disparate members learning to work together and commit more to the team. The character work is thus rather better this time out. The action still tends to be bloodier than I like, but at least there’s more character exploration going on between and during the action. There are some pretty good moments in the script by Heath Corson.

Although there are a couple of bits that don’t make much sense at all — spoiler alert. One, when Queen Atlanna (Aquaman’s mother) realizes that Orm and Black Manta are attempting to overthrow her, she stands with her back to Orm while speechifying, leaving herself totally open to being stabbed. Now, maybe I misread the scene and she thought that only Manta was involved, still trusting her son, but I don’t think that was the case. The other, more serious logic problem is toward the climax, when Orm is sending a tsunami to wipe out Metropolis and Gotham and the heroes fear there’s nothing they can do to stop it. Now, first off, between them, Superman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and the Flash should be able to stop a tsunami in its tracks. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that, just as the tidal wave is cresting and about to smash into Metropolis, Orm stops it in its tracks, then parts it Moses-style to reveal… a bunch of infantry soldiers who invade the city on foot. I’m sorry? That tidal wave could’ve done a hundred times as much damage to the city as that entire army, a hundred times faster, without a single Atlantean life being at risk. Orm had a weapon of mass destruction at his disposal. But he didn’t use it, and instead launched a far smaller, conventional attack that was much easier for the heroes to fight back against. The whole tidal-wave thing was a total fakeout. That’s just lame.

Although it’s in continuity with War, a number of the voices have been recast. Returning are Jason O’Mara as Batman, Sean Astin as Shazam, Christopher Gorham as the Flash, Shemar Moore as Cyborg, and George Newbern (Superman from the Justice League/JL Unlimited TV series) in a small role as Steve Trevor. But Alan Tudyk has been replaced as Superman by Jerry O’Connell (who was Captain Marvel/Shazam in JLU), Justin Kirk has been replaced by Nathan Fillion in his fourth DC Universe iteration of Hal Jordan (fifth if you count Robot Chicken), and best of all, Wonder Woman is now Rosario Dawson (who was Artemis in the DCU Wonder Woman movie), taking over from Michelle Monaghan, who was simply awful in the role in JL: War. Fillion and Dawson are improvements, but I’m not sure about O’Connell. I wasn’t too impressed with Tudyk as Superman in JLW, but that’s probably because he had so little to work with. I wouldn’t have minded hearing him get another shot with better material. (And honestly, Dawson is kind of mediocre as Wonder Woman, but better mediocre than dreadful.)

The new characters are pretty well-cast. Arthur/Aquaman is Matt Lanter, Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Roman from The CW’s Star-Crossed. His ally and future queen Mera is Sumalee Montano, who was Katana in Beware the Batman. And Orm is Sam Witwer — aka Crashdown from Battlestar Galactica, Davis/Doomsday from Smallville, Darth Maul from The Clone Wars, and soon to be Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars: Rebels. This is a great choice, because Witwer is a fantastic voice actor, bringing a lot of operatic menace to his villain roles. Harry Lennix is Black Manta, Sirena Irwin (Mera from Batman: The Brave and the Bold) is Atlanna, and Juliet Landau has a minor role as Lois Lane, who’s quite marginalized due to the decision to pair Superman up with Wonder Woman in this continuity.

This is the first time the DC Universe movies have reached three installments in a single continuity — unless you count Batman: Year One and their 2-part The Dark Knight Returns as a common reality, but I’m not sure that flies in either the comics or the movies. (Maybe this even counts as a fourth installment, since The Flashpoint Paradox was based on the comics storyline that created the New 52. But there’s been nothing in the movies themselves to link that one to this new series, and not even any voices in common until now, with Fillion reprising GL and Steve Blum reprising Lex Luthor in the post-credits teaser.) Anyway, using continuity has given the DCU filmmakers opportunities they didn’t have in the previous standalone films, the chance to develop the characters and relationships over time and establish arcs and running gags. I appreciated the sense of continuity and growth that the links to JLW provided, even though I hated JLW itself. I’m hopeful that as the line continues, the chance to develop the world and the characters more fully will continue to enrich it, making sure we never get anything as superficial and dumb as JLW ever again.

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Batman advisory: There is no alley in Crime Alley!

September 27, 2014 1 comment

This is a repost/edit of comments I made on Tor.com, in response to a YouTube supercut which purports to depict every screen depiction of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, although it omits the recent flashback version from Beware the Batman‘s episode “Monsters” and the dream-sequence alternate version from Justice League Unlimited‘s “For the Man Who Has Everything” (which is not a depiction of the actual murder, but is the closest the DC Animated Universe ever got to showing it, since Batman: The Animated Series was made under severe censorship and could never do more than symbolically allude to the event).

One thing that virtually all these screen adaptations have in common (albeit something that was pointed out to me on another site recently but that I think is worth passing along): They make the mistake of interpreting “Crime Alley” as an actual alley, of the sort that a rich couple would have no conceivable reason to take their child into at night. In fact, when Crime Alley was introduced in 1976 in Detective Comics #457 by Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano, it was introduced thusly:

Twenty-one years ago, this neighborhood was the dwelling place of the rich and soon-to-be rich… a place of gourmet restaurants and fashionable theaters… of elegant women and suave men…

But the dry rot of time set in, and the laughter stopped and the lights dimmed, and those elegant women and suave men sought their pleasures elsewhere… and now, only the forlorn and the desperate walk these streets…

For one night, two brutal slayings occurred signaling the beginning of the end… The area known as Park Row acquired a new name — Crime Alley… and —

“THERE IS NO HOPE IN CRIME ALLEY!”

(That last being the story title. All ellipses are from the original text — I’ve deleted nothing.)

So “Crime Alley” is just a nickname for the street/neighborhood — it’s not a literal alley. The artwork shows that the spot where the killings occurred — or the spot where Batman stops a mugging and gets inordinately angry at the mugger for daring to draw a gun on him there, on the exact spot and anniversary of his parents’ murder — as the sidewalk in front of a row of brownstones, just a couple of doors down from the movie theater (which has become a porno theater in the story’s present day).

Before that, in the original 1939 depiction of Batman’s origin and later in 1948’s “The Origin of Batman,” the murder occurred on a street corner right under a streetlight. So in the comics, it was consistently portrayed for decades as a crime that happened right out in the open, making it all the more shocking and brazen. In O’Neil’s version, the fact that such a brutal crime happens in an upscale neighborhood just adds to the shock, to the extent that it scars the reputation of Park Row forever and triggers its decline into a slum as the well-to-do residents flee. The tendency of TV and movies to put it in a literal back alley, the kind of place where you expect a crime to happen, detracts from that impact, and creates the impression that the Waynes were killed as much through their own carelessness as Joe Chill’s brazenness (of course you should never blame the victim, but the impression exists nonetheless).

The only accurate screen portrayal is in Batman: The Animated Series. “Appointment in Crime Alley” (by comics scribe Gerry Conway) portrays it just as O’Neil did, as the former Park Row, now become a slum neighborhood. The actual site of the murder is shown as a sidewalk under an elevated train track. A couple of dozen episodes later (and presumably a year later in story time, since they’re both on the anniversary), “I Am the Night” shows the same, but now the tracks are wider, the sidewalk under them looking darker and more enclosed, thus drifting farther from O’Neil’s intent.

But then there’s the hallucination sequence in “Dreams in Darkness” where Batman sees his parents in a surreal, twisted alley and they then walk into a tunnel that becomes the barrel of a giant revolver. And JLU’s “For the Man Who Has Everything,” supposedly set in the same universe, shows it in Bruce’s memory/dream as an alley directly across the street from the movie theater showing The Mark of Zorro. So that’s another one that gets it wrong. B:TAS is really the only screen adaptation that followed O’Neil’s intention behind the name “Crime Alley,” and yet it was inconsistent about it, and never actually got to show the murder.

Oh, and while we’re at it, how about that movie the Waynes were coming home from? In the 1939 version, it was just “a movie,” no title given. In 1948, it says merely that Bruce was “walking with his parents,” no movie mentioned. The movie was back again by “There is No Hope in Crime Alley” and by Len Wein and Jim Aparo’s 1980 storyline “The Untold Legend of the Batman,” which consolidated all the backstory established about the character up to that point; but still no title was given. The first time an actual movie was proposed, to the best of my knowledge, was in the very first screen portrayal of the murder, in the 1985 Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians episode “The Fear” by Alan Burnett, which I’ve discussed before. In Burnett’s version, the movie was Robin Hood, perhaps meant to inspire Batman’s future choice of nickname for his sidekick. (Note that Burnett’s version also debuted the practice of portraying the murder site as a dark, scary alley, which suited the episode’s theme of Batman overcoming fear, but set an unfortunate precedent.) However, just a year later in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller established the film as The Mark of Zorro, which is what most versions have used since then — the main exception being Batman Begins, which changed the movie to an opera, Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito (though it’s often mistakenly assumed to be Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus — “The Bat” — because of the bat-costumed performers in the movie scene).

Since “The Fear” was the first version I saw, I assumed for a long time that the movie was supposed to be Robin Hood and that the Zorro version was a later retcon. Turns out the Robin Hood version was just a blip. It was no specific movie at all from 1939 to 1985, Robin Hood in 1985, and The Mark of Zorro from 1986 to the present, except once. Still, I’m partial to it,  not only because it was the first version I saw, but because it’s really hard to explain Robin’s nickname and costume any other way. Well, maybe Dick Grayson was the one who liked that movie while Batman was influenced more by Zorro. That would really make more sense, wouldn’t it?

So the moral of the story for film and TV producers is, when adapting a story, make sure to double-check the details. And the moral for comics and prose writers is, when naming a pivotal location in your story, avoid metaphorical names that film and TV producers might end up taking literally. We’re lucky we didn’t end up with a supercut of scenes where the Waynes are murdered while going bowling.

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DC DVD movie reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR, SON OF BATMAN, JLA TRAPPED IN TIME (Spoilers)

Lately, since James Tucker replaced Bruce Timm as the producer of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies DVD line, the series has begun adapting storylines from the current “New 52” comics continuity, as opposed to the classic adaptations and original stories they’d been doing before (although there are still original movies in other continuities on the upcoming slate — the next movie, for instance, is a new story in the universe of the Arkham Asylum computer games). Here are my reviews of the first two, Justice League: War (based on the introductory JL story in the New 52) and Son of Batman (based on Grant Morrison’s Damien Wayne storyline which I think began before the New 52 but was folded into it).

Justice League: War (review reposted from The TrekBBS)

I finally saw this… and I wish I hadn’t. It was pretty bad. Mostly nonstop action without a lot of characterization. It had a few nice moments, but they were outnumbered by the weak or stupid moments.

Superman, who should be the heart of the team, was barely even there as a character, just a big dumb overconfident lug who punched things and flirted with Diana. Wonder Woman herself was far worse, a caricature who claimed to be a “warrior” but was shallow, impulsive, and reckless without a trace of discipline. Come on, no “warrior” is going to casually swing her sword around and point it at people merely as a form of address. A warrior would have more respect for her weapon and its danger.

Didn’t think much of how the other characters were handled either, but the worst was probably Darkseid. He’s supposed to be a monarch, a commanding figure who rarely needs to dirty his hands with actual combat because he has so many underlings to do it for him. The threat he poses is generally more psychological, in the way he manipulates and corrupts and bends people to his will. So when he does strike physically, it has a real impact from a story point of view. But this Darkseid was a barely literate, grunting thug. They pretty much turned him into Doomsday, a threat that’s all brute force and no personality or intelligence. I wondered why they even bothered to call him Darkseid.

Some of the voices were fairly good, but they didn’t have much to work with. Even Alan Tudyk wasn’t all that much of a standout, since he was given such a shallow, one-note Superman to portray. The one real standout was Marjorie Monaghan as Wonder Woman, who stood out for how terrible she was — although I think the blame there lies more with how the character was written.

If this is going to be the DCU movies’ primary continuity from now on, I’m not optimistic about what lies ahead.

Son of Batman

This one started out problematically, with a battle scene in which mercenaries led by Deathstroke launched an attack on the League of Assassins led by Ra’s al Ghul, with tons of bloodshed. The movie is full of the most graphic violence I’ve seen in the DCU line, to the point that I’m surprised it got away with merely a PG-13 rating. And a lot of it was gratuitous and badly handled. In the climactic fight between the boy Damien Wayne and Deathstroke, Damien sustains some very serious and graphic stab wounds in his arms, yet they do nothing to impede his fighting ability afterward, at a time when he should be unable to use his arms at all and passing out from shock and blood loss. If they’re going to put in so much gore, it should at least be relevant. Otherwise it’s purely a gratuitous indulgence.

Still, there is some merit to the story, scripted by Joe R. Lansdale from a story by James Robinson based on the Grant Morrison/Andy Kubert comics, and directed by Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s Ethan Spaulding. My favorite part is the portrayal of Alfred as he meets Damien’s imperious condescension with scathing sarcasm. And there’s some decent character interaction between Batman, his son, and his surrogate son Nightwing. As for the animation, it’s kind of stiff without a lot of expressiveness to the characters, but the design work by Phil Bourassa is reasonably good.

But there is just so much that doesn’t work. For one thing, the film’s treatment of women is poor. Pretty much every female character in the film, of which there are only a few, is there to be either a wife, lover, daughter, mother, or hostage to a male character — the one exception being a member of a gaggle of Wayne Industries execs talking business with Bruce Wayne. Even Talia al Ghul, the only major female role, is there mainly as a love interest, mother, and hostage, and the times when she’s portrayed as a warrior are undermined by the fact that she’s showing off an enormous amount of cleavage in every single scene she’s in. But the creepiest part by far is when it’s pretty much stated outright that she gave Batman a roofie in order to put him in the amorous mood that led to Damien’s conception. In other words, she raped him. But because a woman did it to a man, the blatant double standard of so much fiction is entirely in force here, with Batman being pretty much okay with it and saying it wasn’t that bad. That’s just sick and wrong. And it’s so unnecessary to the story. Couldn’t they have just said that Batman had a moment of weakness that he later regretted? Or even that he actually just cared for Talia and their son’s conception was an act of love, however doomed and forbidden? Did they have to send the viewers such distorted, outdated messages about gender and consent?

And speaking of distorted messages, the ending of the movie is awful on that count. Throughout the movie, Batman is trying to teach Damien, who was raised as an assassin, that there’s a better way than killing, and of course in the climax Damien chooses not to take lethal revenge on Deathstroke. Fine, all well and good. But then Batman and Damien blithely leave the injured, immobile Deathstroke lying there in a flooding undersea base! How completely hypocritical is it to have Batman spend the movie arguing that killing is wrong and then unhesitatingly leave a wounded man to die? How is that supposed to be different? It’s a corruption of everything Batman stands for, and it ruins a story that had been going relatively well up to that point.

The casting is mixed but reasonably good. Jason O’Mara returns from JL: War as Batman, and though his voice is unusual for Batman, he gives a pretty good, nuanced performance with the emotional stuff here. Stuart Allan is reasonably good as Damien, allowing for the low expectations I’d generally have for a preteen actor. David McCallum is awesome as Alfred (a role he previously played in the Gotham Knight DVD anthology that was more or less set in the Nolan films’ universe). Sean Maher is an interesting and very effective choice for Nightwing/Dick Grayson, and his Firefly co-star Morena Baccarin (whose voice work I’ve found rather mixed in the past) is reasonably good as Talia. Giancarlo Esposito does a fairly good job in a brief role as Ra’s al Ghul, and Xander Berkeley does well enough as Langstrom. But Thomas Gibson is utterly awful as Deathstroke, giving a broad, forced, cartoon-villain performance with no nuance or sincerity. It does almost as much to undermine the story as the other problems I’ve mentioned.

It’s becoming increasingly evident to me that these movies are being targeted to an audience that no longer includes me. That seems to be the direction DC’s going in general these days; what I’ve glimpsed of the New 52 comics is just as self-consciously grimdark and gory, and Warner Bros. seems committed to making DC-based movies that are all as dark and somber as they can be. I’ve seen DC’s current attitude compared to that of a teenager self-consciously acting all adult and serious in an effort to prove their maturity, which is an intrinsically juvenile view of maturity. Those who are really mature aren’t afraid to have fun and be a little childish sometimes. Which is why I’m so much looking forward to the CW’s The Flash series, since — even though it spins off from the somber and Nolanesque Arrow — it looks like it’s going to be embracing a much lighter, more upbeat tone, something that we rarely see being done with DC characters anymore.

Which reminds me, I should also talk about the other DC animated movie I’ve recently seen, the younger-skewing JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time. This was originally a Target exclusive (now more widely available, including on Netflix) that was released with little fanfare compared to the increasingly kid-unfriendly DC Universe line, but in a lot of ways it’s a more satisfying adventure — a bit simple, but willing to have fun with its idea and its characters. It’s directed by Giancarlo Volpe of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and it’s basically an updated, more sophisticated Super Friends type of story, with the Justice League fighting the Legion of Doom, and both operating out of their Super Friends-style headquarters (including the Hall of Justice based on my favorite Art Deco building, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal). When Lex Luthor (Fred Tatasciore) is frozen in Arctic ice and apparently killed, he’s then thawed out a thousand years later and uses time travel to go back and erase Superman and the League from existence, and the only people who can stop him are a pair of wannabe Legion of Super Heroes members, Karate Kid (Avatar‘s Dante Basco) and Dawnstar (Laura Bailey), who have to learn to have faith in their abilities and correct their mistakes that led to the situation in the first place. The temporal physics make no sense whatsoever, but then, they rarely do in any time-travel story. The danger in the climax is also very unclear and arbitrary. Sure, it’s a little simple, but it doesn’t have the disturbing elements or gratuitous excesses of the so-called “adult-oriented” movies.

Peter Jessop (the Vision from The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) is a decent but unremarkable Superman. Diedrich Bader reprises Batman from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and the endlessly versatile Grey DeLisle Griffin (Avatar‘s Azula) does an effective Wonder Woman (her debut in the role, though she’s played Wonder Girl in the Super Best Friends Forever shorts). Kevin Michael Richardson reprises Black Manta from TB&TB as well as playing Solomon Grundy, and Jason Spisak, Young Justice‘s Kid Flash/Wally West, plays the Flash (which may or may not be a reprise, but it seems more like Wally in the suit than Barry Allen). Volpe brings another A:TLA veteran, Jack DeSena, in to play Robin, though it’s an unusual portrayal, as if Robin is still new and trying to prove himself to Batman. Corey Burton (Clone Wars‘ Count Dooku, among many other roles) plays the Time Trapper, the time-manipulating entity that’s basically the genie in the lamp for Luthor — until he gets out of Luthor’s control.

As for the decision to focus on Dawnstar and Karate Kid, I can’t blame the filmmakers for wanting to focus on just about the only two LSH characters who aren’t white — after all, the kids watching this movie are sure to be a diverse group and they all deserve inclusion — but I’d be happier if they weren’t both such blatant stereotypes in conception, the Asian guy defined by knowing martial arts and the Native American defined by tracking abilities and psionic “arrows.” Unfortunately that’s the problem with using decades-old characters, no matter how much the current storytellers try to downplay the stereotypes. (Although apparently the psi arrows were an invention of the movie, so maybe they weren’t downplaying the stereotypes as much as I thought. She was also given some kind of shamanistic spiritual powers.)

So pretty much all we have to choose from in DC animation these days are the really adult-skewing, grim and violent and female-unfriendly stuff and the kid-skewing, light and silly stuff. Anything that aspires to the middle ground between those, like Young Justice or Beware the Batman, has a short lifespan because WB and Cartoon Network don’t perceive a market for it anymore. And that’s a shame, because it was in that middle ground that Batman: TAS and the DC Animated Universe were created and thrived, setting the stage for the animation boom that followed. But even though the kid stuff isn’t entirely satisfying to me, I know I found Trapped in Time more watchable than the PG-13 movies.

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