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

September 15, 2016 3 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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I just watched THE DARK KNIGHT RISES again… (spoilers)

February 28, 2013 5 comments

…and this time around I definitely noticed a lot of the flaws that have been pointed out in the film by various reviewers. The stock market and chase sequence going from broad daylight to pitch darkness in under 8 minutes of story time is one of the most glaring. And while, sure, the cops still being clean-shaven after months in the sewers is a problem, I’m more troubled by a) why they sent virtually the entire police force on the manhunt in the first place instead of keeping a reasonable number of cops in reserve aboveground and b) why all the cops were still trapped by the explosions even though we saw Matthew Modine order the cops out of the sewers a whole minute before the bombs went off.

As for Commissioner Gordon still having the speech in his jacket pocket at least a day after the scene introducing it, I can buy that. I’ve been known to leave things in my coat pockets by accident. So that part didn’t bother me. Although I did wonder if maybe the scenes with Selina getting her payoff and the police raid afterward, leading to Gordon’s capture in the sewers, were perhaps scripted to take place on the same night as the opening scenes but then shuffled later in editing to improve the pacing.

But there was a problem that occurred to me about the film’s plot that I haven’t heard anyone else point out. Namely, the idea that Bruce developed this revolutionary fusion reactor technology, the key to clean energy and saving the world from environmental disaster, and he just sat on it and refused to put it to use because… because he was afraid someone would use the technology to make nuclear bombs.

Now, never mind the physical absurdity of turning a fusion reactor into a fusion bomb. In real life, fusion bombs need fission bombs as triggers, so the only way to make a fusion reactor explode is to drop an atom bomb on it, in which case it’s pretty much going to explode anyway. But this is fiction, and it’s supposed to be a whole new kind of fusion power, and only one guy in the world has ever figured out how to turn it into a bomb so clearly it’s not easy to do. That’s enough of a fudge that I can suspend disbelief for the sake of the story.

No, my problem is with Bruce’s moral reasoning. I can understand someone not wanting people to build nuclear bombs. I think just about everyone not of the supervillain persuasion can agree that those are bad things. But, see, here’s the thing… we’ve already got nuclear bombs. There are already more than enough of them in existence to destroy all life on Earth multiple times over. So, really, how would things have gotten any worse if Bruce had distributed the reactor technology? He deprived the world of something very beneficial and positive in order to avoid the creation of a threat that was already created nearly 70 years ago! I’m sorry, but that seems like an indefensible moral calculus. Okay, maybe the danger was of the reactors falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue nations, but there’s already that same danger with nuclear arsenals and weapons-grade materials. Bruce was desperately holding the barn door closed, but the cattle were long gone. He should have released the reactor tech — and made the world’s governments fully aware of the potential dangers of its abuse so they could be safeguarded against. There was no good reason for him not to do that.

Also, if Bruce and Lucius Fox were so concerned about preventing dangerous technologies like the reactor and the various weapons and military vehicles in Fox’s secret warehouse, then why did they keep them? Why not dismantle them or not build them at all? Didn’t it occur to them that if you don’t want the bad guys to get their hands on this stuff, then maybe it’s not wise to stockpile it all in one handy location?

On the plus side, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is still awesome. It’s totally unfair that they aren’t making a spinoff movie about her.

BIRDS OF PREY (2002 TV series) review

February 6, 2013 5 comments

Recently I rewatched the 2002 TV series Birds of Prey, a loose adaptation of the DC comic of the same name, which was produced for The WB (one of the two networks that later combined into what’s now The CW) by the executive producers of Smallville, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, and developed for television by Laeta Kalogridis. The series ran for only 13 episodes, all of which are on DVD along with the unaired initial version of the pilot.

The BoP comic is a spinoff of DC’s Batman titles, and in the version of the DC Universe that existed at the time, it was about Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl who had been paralyzed by the Joker and gone on to become Oracle, information broker for the superhero community and leader of a team of female crimefighters including Huntress (Helena Bertinelli) and Black Canary (Dinah Lance). The TV series took some liberties with the backstory. Its version of Oracle, played by Dina Meyer, was quite faithful to the comics, but Huntress was a blend of the modern version and the original Earth Two version who was the daughter of the retired Batman and Catwoman. In this version, Batman (played briefly in flashbacks by Bruce Thomas, who had played Batman in a series of OnStar commercials) and Catwoman had been involved fairly early in his career, and Catwoman/Selina Kyle had borne his daughter, Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott), without informing either of them of their relationship. Seven years before the series begins, Batman and Batgirl had broken the Joker’s criminal empire once and for all, but the Joker (whose brief dialogue in the flashbacks is dubbed by Mark Hamill, voice of the Joker in the DC Animated Universe) had eluded capture long enough to murder the retired Selina in front of Helena’s eyes and to shoot Barbara, paralyzing her. A few months later, a mentally broken Batman left Gotham, leaving it in the care of Oracle, who eventually recruited Huntress. The series is set in the city of “New Gotham,” rebuilt at some point after a massive earthquake much like the “No Man’s Land” storyline in the comics, although the chronology of when these events happened in the series’ past is quite nebulous.

Oh, and in this version, apparently Catwoman was a metahuman with catlike superpowers that Helena inherited — a weird twist that was probably something the network insisted on so the series would be more like Smallville. Dinah Lance (Rachel Skarsten) is also changed considerably — she’s a 16-year-old runaway telepath/telekinetic who turns out to be the daughter of Black Canary, who in this universe was named Carolyn Lance. She’s drawn to New Gotham by a psychic vision of Oracle and Huntress and becomes their apprentice. The cast is fleshed out by the late Ian Abercrombie as Alfred Pennyworth, now serving the BoP as he served Batman; Shemar Moore as Jesse Reese, a cop who starts out unaware of metahumans (in this world, Batman and his foes waged their war in secret) but becomes Huntress’s colleague and eventual romantic interest; and Mia Sara as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a prominent psychiatrist who’s secretly the Joker’s moll Harley Quinn and his successor as leader of the New Gotham underworld.

Conceptually, BoP is a bit of a mess. That’s not entirely its fault, since it was adapting a series that was an offshoot of a larger comics continuity and built on a lot of complicated backstory. But some of the choices made in the adaptation complicated things still further and made it harder to swallow. The writing is inconsistent, often bordering on the campy in its deadpan utterances of corny superhero cliches, while simultaneously trying to deconstruct superhero tropes, keep costumes to a minimum, and approach the characters in a more grounded way — or at least a more WB-melodrama sort of way in the vein of Charmed, say.

Also, the whole thing feels far too insular — both in the sense that it looks very stagey and confined to studio sets and backlots, and in the sense that everything seems to happen to the same small cast of characters. Harley isn’t just the evil mastermind, she’s also Helena’s therapist and the police’s go-to psychiatric consultant. Reese is not just seemingly the only detective in the entire city, but he also turns out to be the estranged son of the city’s leading mobster. And Dinah just happens to be the daughter of Black Canary, who was the archnemesis of that same mobster. It’s all pretty contrived.

The artificiality of the show’s look and dialogue, and its somewhat broad approach to superhero tropes, was most likely due to influence from the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films (since Batman Begins and its more grounded version of Batman was still three years in the future). The show does recycle costumes from those films; Barbara’s Batgirl costume, seen mainly in flashbacks, is a repainted version of the one Alicia Silverstone wore in Batman and Robin.

The main thing that makes this series worth watching is the cast, though that might only be true on a rather shallow level: to wit, all the women in the show are quite beautiful. I suppose Shemar Moore is rather good-looking too if your tastes run toward men. As for the acting, it’s a little more uneven. Dina Meyer is the standout; she’s a fantastic Barbara/Oracle, the best thing about the series by far. Mia Sara, playing very much against her usual type, does an excellent job as a version of Harley Quinn who’s more mature, menacing, and high-functioning than the Harley of Batman: The Animated Series and later the comics, but still has recognizable traces of Harley’s accent and her zany style of psychopathy. Ian Abercrombie makes a fantastic Alfred. Skarsten and Moore are just okay; Skarsten has improved greatly as an actress, and become significantly hotter, in the decade since she did this show (she was 17 at the time), and it’s been interesting to contrast her work on BoP with her current appearances in the third season of Lost Girl.

The greatest casting failure of this show, and perhaps part of the reason for its quick cancellation, is Ashley Scott as Helena/Huntress. She’s certainly nice to look at, but not a very strong actress (at least not at the time she did this series) and a rather poor choice for the part. Helena is supposed to be the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, and should be as impressive as they are. She’s intended to be feral, aggressive, driven, morally ambiguous, and embittered by tragedy — basically a distaff Wolverine. But as played by Scott, she comes off more as snarky, playful, kittenish, and pouty. I don’t know, maybe that was largely what the network wanted — again, I get the feeling they were looking for another Charmed and thus pushed for a similar tone. But it just didn’t fit what the character was supposed to be. And Scott simply didn’t have enough substance to carry the show as its nominal lead (yes, she got first billing), or to be convincing as Batman’s heir.

Also, the show seemed to lose track of the Dinah Lance character in the last few episodes. She had an arc that was developing in a promising direction, but in the last couple of episodes she was barely there, and was either ignored or depicted as useless in situations where her powers could’ve been instrumental in solving a problem. Although, granted, the writing in the final episode or two was forced and accelerated because (I think) the producers knew they’d been cancelled and wanted to bring the show to a resolution.

As for the unaired pilot, there are several things about it that didn’t work well and were correctly changed in the aired version. Mainly, in the original version, Sherilyn Fenn played Harley, and she gave a much more mediocre, much less distinctive performance than Sara’s (she wasn’t even blonde). Also, the Barbara-Helena relationship was played with more hostility (the dialogue was much the same but the performances were harsher), making both characters less sympathetic. It did make the emotional climax of the pilot more significant, but the trade-off wasn’t worth it. And Barbara’s romance with schoolteacher Wade (recurring cast member Shawn Christian) is portrayed as ending uncomfortably due to her secret crimefighting life, rather than just beginning as in the aired pilot. However, one thing about the unaired pilot is much better. In the aired version, the extended backstory sequence at the beginning is narrated by Alfred, but in the unaired version, it’s shown without narration, with exposition coming via newsreaders on TV. It’s actually a lot clearer that way. I think the execs must’ve thought the narration was needed to clarify things, but it just clutters the sequence and makes it feel more complicated and forbidding, because it comes off as a massive infodump, a lecture of stuff we need to know before the story starts, rather than just the first phase of the story we’re watching. “Show, don’t tell” is very true here. Every episode of the series had a trimmed-down but still rather lengthy version of this opening exposition at the start, and I think it may have been off-putting for viewers. Maybe a concept dependent on so much backstory just wasn’t a good choice to adapt for TV. And having Abercrombie deliver it as if he were telling a fairy tale didn’t make it easier to take the show seriously.

So basically, this was a show that had a few really worthwhile aspects, a few promising but mishandled elements, and a lot of mediocre and disappointing ones. It has one of the best ever screen portrayals of Barbara Gordon (even allowing for the rather dull romantic subplot with Wade that she’s saddled with) and of Alfred, and it deserves note for an interesting alternate interpretation of Harley Quinn (also the first live-action Harley, and still the only one outside of fan films). It also deserves credit for what, at the time, was a rather impressive digital cityscape of New Gotham. (Although its version of the BoP’s clock tower headquarters didn’t make sense; the clock was far too small to be visible from street level. Ironically, I think a different skyscraper from this virtual city ended up recycled as the exterior of Chloe’s clock tower in Smallville.) And it was kind of nice to have, for once, a live-action series set in a world where superheroes were abundant and had a whole pre-existing community and history like in the comics, even if it was handled somewhat awkwardly. But there was so much else about it, from concept to casting to writing to production values, that just didn’t work. It’s an interesting novelty but ultimately not a success.

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Ups and downs at NYCC

Back from Comic-Con. It was kind of a mixed day for me, but one that turned out mostly positive. First, my Tor publicist and I found that the Barnes & Noble booth that was supposed to have copies of Only Superhuman on sale for the autograph table didn’t have them, 15-20 minutes before the session was to begin. Turned out they were still en route from the store, so an arrangement was made for the Tor folks to bring down some of the copies meant for my later signing at their booth, with an appropriate trade to be made later.

But it turned out we needn’t have bothered. Anyone who’d been interested in my book must’ve already gotten in the autograph line before the books actually got there, so all I got were a few people asking where the book was. At least I was able to sign my homemade flyer for them and let them know about the later signing. The signing was linked with the panel I was on yesterday, with the same group of writers, and most of the people in line were there for the more famous authors in the group, including Jacqueline Carey and former Buffy the Vampire Slayer cast member Amber Benson, who’s got her own series of fantasy novels. So aside from those three or so people, I had a very quiet hour.

I was feeling pretty bummed when the session broke off, but then I got a chance to talk to Amber Benson, who was really nice and approachable and had some complimentary things to say about my comments on yesterday’s panel. So we had a nice little chat, and then she actually tagged along with the publicists and me when we left. We walked past other people who were signing, including Lou Ferrigno and Adam West, and when I mentioned how I would’ve liked the chance to say hello, Amber encouraged me to just stop by for a moment and give them signed copies of my book as gifts. Unfortunately I couldn’t get past Adam West’s handlers even with my publicist’s help, but his people did accept the book. And then Amber led me over to Lou Ferrigno’s table and I got to thank him for his work as the Hulk and shake his hand. So I just felt great after that. I’d expected that Amber would be the busy celebrity and get swept away by her staff or whoever as soon as she was done with the signing, but she was really friendly and just one of the guys, and I was touched that she would go out of her way to help me with my little problem. So that was a definite high point. Wow.

I had a while before the Tor signing so I wandered the floor and talked to some folks I knew, mainly Keith DeCandido, who as usual was selling his books at the table for the Chronic Rift podcast (which will probably be interviewing me tomorrow). I also ended up giving a spur-of-the-moment video interview to another podcaster who dropped by, although I don’t currently have specifics about where to find it, if it’s even up yet.

The Tor signing went much better than the earlier event. That was a con-exclusive giveaway, a good way to drum up interest, so I’m told, and there was a nice-sized line already there when I arrived. We gave away all the books pretty quickly and that was very gratifying.

After that, I had a nice talk with fellow Trek author Kevin Dilmore over at the Hallmark booth (his day job is for them), and then I made my way back to where I’m staying, which was a long walk to and from the subway. But I’m back now, and the day is over, and on the whole it was a pretty great day.