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Thoughts on AQUAMAN (Spoilers)

I finally got a copy of James Wan’s Aquaman from the library. I’m very impressed. It’s a solid action-fantasy movie, not only with spectacular visuals and worldbuilding and very imaginative action choreography, but with pretty solid characterization and writing too. The plot is a pretty by-the-numbers quest narrative moving from one set piece to the next, but the characters have depth (no pun intended) and nuance, and even the villains have sympathetic qualities and at least partly valid reasons for their actions.

Most of all, I’m pleasantly surprised by Jason Momoa. Pre-Aquaman, I knew him only as Ronon Dex in Stargate: Atlantis, and back then, he barely seemed capable of enunciating vowels and consonants with any clarity, let alone conveying any degree of emotion. But he’s grown far beyond those mushmouthed beginnings and actually gave a really solid performance as Arthur Curry — still in the same basic gruff, tough-guy wheelhouse, but with much more skill, expressiveness, and nuance. If anything, I’d say he was one of the better lead actors in the film, although that’s mainly because both Amber Heard as Mera and Patrick Wilson as Orm/Ocean Master were fairly bland. Wilson in particular gave a flat, robotic, dead-eyed performance that kept his role as the main villain from being as strong as it could’ve been, though I suppose it helped convey his coldness and sociopathy to a degree.

Although what really made Orm despicable was something the movie depicted but never overtly called out as such — his racism. All his talk about Arthur being a “half-breed mongrel” is rooted in the fantasy backstory of Aquaman being half-Atlantean and half-human, but it gains an extra weight and relevance with the casting of the Polynesian Momoa as Arthur and the pale, blond Wilson as Orm. I guess that casting makes the point without the dialogue having to come out and say it. It underlines that, for all that Orm makes a valid point about humanity’s depredation of the seas, his persistent fixation on Arthur’s “impure” blood exposes the real hate and egocentrism driving his push for war. Indeed, given the diversity of the undersea races that Orm tries to force into an alliance, including fishy mer-people and crustacean-people, it’s clear that his intolerance of difference would’ve made him a bad leader. Which, again, feels very relevant right now.

I thought it was very interesting how they made Black Manta, here named David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a sympathetic figure through his close relationship with his father (Michael Beach, who voiced the Black Manta equivalent Devil Ray in the animated Justice League Unlimited), even while simultaneously painting them both as murdering pirate scum, and gave him a legitimate grievance against Aquaman for the latter’s callous refusal to save his father’s life, a decision Arthur would come to regret later on. It’s too bad, though, that the need to save Black Manta for the sequel kept the plot thread from having any real payoff. I suppose it paid off in Arthur’s decision at the end to take the more heroic route and spare Orm, but there should be payoff connecting more directly to Manta.

Back to the technical side, I was very impressed with the visual design. Lately I’ve come to feel that modern CGI movies are just too cluttered with things onscreen, and sometimes I get tired of the sheer visual overload. There were certainly plenty such images in this movie, but they didn’t seem as bothersome to me. Perhaps it’s because I saw them on my old, non-HD television and couldn’t see the details that clearly anyway, but maybe it’s because the images were so creative and unusual. It wasn’t just a horde of soldiers or orcs or whatever, but a wealth of exotic, novel, fanciful images of different types. And they weren’t all the same either — different sequences had different color palettes and thus different tones and styles. It was really refreshing how vividly colorful this movie was, unlike a lot of its DC Extended Universe predecessors and a lot of movies in general. The “Ring of Fire” battle sequence was the only time it fell victim to the “make everything blue and orange” fashion of so many modern films. Although one of the most stunning sequences was nearly monochrome — the “feeding frenzy” sequence with the Trench creatures underwater, lit only by the red of the flares. That was a truly amazing visual sequence unlike anything I’ve seen in a movie before.

It was also nice to see a DCEU film remembering to focus on the civilians. This was more a fantasy epic than a superhero film, but it did take time here and there to show Arthur saving people, or at least to show how bystanders were affected by the action, as in the Sicily sequence. Zack Snyder would’ve contrived some way to evacuate the town so he could blow up a bunch of architecture without having to bother acknowledging the existence of human beings, but the reactions of the townsfolk as their homes are barged into and trashed are an integral part of the flavor of the Sicily sequence — though it would’ve been nice to see some aftermath and cleanup, maybe Mera hydrokinetically hauling up some sunken treasure to help pay for repairs.

If I had a problem with the film, it’s that it was too fond of having quiet or personal scenes suddenly interrupted by explosions and villain attacks as a quickie scene-transition device. I think that happened three or four times, and it got a bit repetitive. The film was also a bit too in love with its elaborate CGI continuous-shot time cuts and swooping camera moves, which generally worked pretty well but were a bit self-conscious at times, as swoopy CGI shots usually are. Also, I’m just generally not a fan of stories about destined kings or chosen ones, although this one did a decent job of subverting that trope by stressing that Arthur was the least likely, least worthy king possible and well aware of it, and that his value was greater as a bridge between worlds and a hero to everyone than as a hereditary elite or whatever.

Also — ending spoilers here — why is Arthur the king if Queen Atlanna is still alive? Shouldn’t she be the ruler and he just the prince? Or is Atlantis a sexist society where only a man can rule? Well, to be generous, maybe he’s king because he defeated Orm in combat. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if he left Atlanna to rule Atlantis in his stead while he continued to operate as Aquaman out in the world.

So anyway, Aquaman is the sixth DCEU film I’ve seen (I’m on the library’s waiting list for Shazam!), and the third one I’ve liked, since I actually liked Justice League better than most people did. Although I liked that one with reservations, whereas Wonder Woman and Aquaman are both solid, enjoyable superhero films. Anyway, it does seem like the DCEU is finally on the right path.

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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.

Thoughts on AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (full spoilers)

Yup, I finally got around to seeing Avengers: Infinity War. I got paid for a writing project at last — a bit later than I’d hoped, but enough that I figured I could spare 5 bucks for a movie ticket on discount day (last week — I’ve been busy since). Honestly, that spoiler warning in the title seems almost unnecessary; despite all the pleas from the filmmakers for people to avoid giving away spoilers, it was less than a day after the film’s release that I got spoiled on the ending by something online, and people have been talking about it pretty openly on the Web ever since. Then again, there were several people near me in the theater who seemed genuinely taken aback by the ending, so I guess not everyone’s been spoiled. So be warned.

Honestly, I’m not sure the film offers much to talk about but the ending. I mean, as a single story culminating the plot and character arcs of 18 previous films and uniting nearly all their casts, it’s a logistically and structurally impressive achievement in its way. It’s kind of a miracle they even pulled it off and that it’s actually a coherent story overall. But the drawback of fitting in all those characters is that few of them really have that much to do. Oh, they get their moments to do their schticks and be the characters we’ve come to know and love, and we get to see various pairs or groups of characters meet for the first time and play off each other in novel ways. (I liked it that they paired Spider-Man with Iron Man and Dr. Strange, two characters he’s often been close to in the comics.) But opportunities for meaningful character advancement and growth are few. The most important character arc left over from previous movies, the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America, is all but completely avoided, with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers never actually meeting at any point in the film.

So it’s certainly a well-done film for what it is, one massive action crossover spectacular. I enjoyed it while I was watching, and had fun seeing the characters I liked do their things (though I could’ve done without Star-Lord, who was really kind of a moron here). I even enjoyed the unexpected return of a long-absent MCU villain in a new role as the Soul Stone’s guardian, and it was fun to see Peter Dinklage playing a giant. (Really, come to think of it, it makes biomechanical sense that a giant would have more squat, vertically compact proportions than an average-sized human, so that’s actually very logical casting.) But it left me feeling less than satisfied after the fact, because there wasn’t much else to it in the way of substance. The biggest thing that happened to any of the major characters, mostly, was that a lot of them died. And that quickly lost its shock value as it happened more and more throughout the film. Really, I’ve kind of gotten tired of lead-character death as a story device, because it’s been used so often. Not to mention that there’s no telling how many of these deaths will stick.

Thinking it over, the only heroes who really get any meaningful character growth are the pairs of Vision & Scarlet Witch and Star Lord & Gamora. And both couples have the exact same arc — one urges the other to kill them to stop Thanos, the other resists but eventually finds the courage to try it, but it fails anyway because of the Infinity Gauntlet’s powers, yet the first one still dies anyway after Thanos got what he wanted from them. With so many different characters to play with, you’d think they could’ve found two different arcs there instead of the same one twice. Similarly, Loki and Nebula play quite similar roles — former villainous siblings who largely redeemed themselves in their last appearances and now solidify their redemption. Except in this case, one lives and the other apparently dies (though as soon as it happened, I was expecting it to turn out to be another of Loki’s faked deaths, and Thor suggested later that it might be).

The one character who has a real, complete story arc in this film is Thanos. In a very real sense, he’s the protagonist of the movie — he’s the guy whose quest drives the story, we learn of his motivations and witness his choices and personal struggles as he pursues his goal and overcomes the multiple enemies opposing him one by one, and eventually he prevails against the odds. And of course he does see himself as the hero of the story, believing his goal is benevolent. Although of course he’s a hypocrite. If he has the godlike power of the Gauntlet and can rewrite reality to his will, why not snap his fingers and double the amount of food and resources available in the universe? Or multiply it by a hundred times so there’s more than enough for everyone? He’s too fixated on his obsession with Death (albeit not as literally as in the comics) to see a better way. Still, he was an impressively rich and nuanced character for an MCU villain, and marvelously played by Josh Brolin and the CG animators interpreting and augmenting his performance. Between him and Killmonger, this has been a good year for MCU villains. I just wish Infinity War had had more room to do good work with the heroes.

You know, one thing that’s bothered me about comics’ mega-crossovers is the way they require the individual series to twist themselves into knots to accommodate the big mega-events, often getting dragged off course and forced to change their plans to accommodate the new status quo when they’ve barely even gotten started. We see that here with Spider-Man and Black Panther, two characters who’ve only just had their solo series get underway and have already been yanked in a whole other direction. Not to mention that the relatively happy ending of Thor: Ragnarok turned out to descend into tragedy literal minutes after that film’s post-credits stinger. (It’s a good thing that I ended up seeing Ragnarok out of order after Black Panther, since it works better there, its stinger leading straight into the opening of A:IW.) I find that the DC Arrowverse shows on The CW have done a defter job with their multi-series crossovers the past two years; instead of swerving the individual series’ storylines off course or negating their plot developments to serve the crossover, they construct the crossover so that it serves and advances the individual series’ existing storylines and character arcs, even if it’s a complete swerve from them in terms of the basic situation and the enemy they’re facing. Granted, this past year’s Crisis on Earth-X crossover had the advantage that most of the heroes had already met in the previous year’s crossover, or at least at the wedding reception early in the story, so there weren’t as many getting-to-know-you moments taking up time as there were in A:IW. (And if you think it was also because they had a lot more running time in a 4-part crossover, think again. With each part only being 40-odd minutes including recaps, they had maybe 10-20 more minutes than the 2.5-hour Infinity War.)

Of course, the saving grace for Infinity War is that it’s just the first half of a 2-parter. Despite the shock of my fellow moviegoers when the film ended with half the cast dead or disintegrated, it’s obvious that the ending will be reversed somehow in Avengers 4, resurrecting at least the characters turned to dust by Thanos’s snap, if not the ones killed earlier as well. After all, several of those characters already have announced sequels coming up after Avengers 4. Meanwhile, the next couple of films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe-adjacent TV series are apparently mostly going to keep themselves in a timeframe before Infinity War, while Agents of SHIELD is saving its next season until after Avengers 4, suggesting that the next film will pick up pretty much directly after this one and mostly restore the status quo in a fairly brief time in internal continuity terms.

Come to think of it, the advantage of killing off half the huge ensemble of IW is that it may give the surviving characters in A4 more room to breathe and develop. In a way, I’m surprised that most of the newer characters like Spidey, Dr. Strange, and Black Panther got dusted while the established core cast like Stark, Cap, Thor, Banner, and Black Widow is intact. But at the same time, I’m not surprised. It makes sense to keep the focus on the big stars. But I, and probably a lot of people, had been expecting that this duology would bring about a changing of the guard, a passing of the torch to the new generation of MCU heroes who will be more prominent going forward. Still, maybe that will happen in A4. Maybe the reason to give the old guard the focus there is to give them a proper wrap-up to their arcs so the new characters can take the lead thereafter. We’ll see.

Anyway, I suspect we’ll learn in A4 that the reason Dr. Strange gave up the Time Stone to save Stark is that the one possible future he beheld where Thanos was beaten was one where Tony saved the day after the Snap and somehow reversed things. It figures that the fate of the whole MCU would revolve around Tony Stark. I wonder if maybe he’ll find a way to reset time and give Thor a do-over for that final strike. Really, why didn’t he go for the head? Or chop Thanos’s hand off? You’d think a warrior with millennia of combat experience would’ve known better. So that was kind of contrived.

Speaking of contrivances, it’s kind of weird that the last Infinity Stone Thanos managed to claim, the Vision’s Mind Stone, originally came from Loki’s scepter — which Thanos gave to Loki in the first place! So did Thanos not know he had an Infinity Stone all along? Or did he give it up as an investment, knowing it would set events in motion that would expose the other Stones on Earth? Maybe Avengers 4 will finally explain that plot hole.

Oh, by the way, while the audience I saw the movie with may have been largely unspoiled on the ending, given their reactions, they did know one thing that most prior audiences in my experience have not: that for an MCU movie, you stay through the credits. Usually I’m practically the only person who sticks around to the very end, but this time, most of the audience stayed. Although it helped that there was only one post-credit stinger here and no mid-credit teaser for the next film. If there had been two stingers, most of the audience would probably have left after the first one.

Thoughts on WONDER WOMAN (2017) (Spoilers)

I finally saw Wonder Woman today, and I pretty much agree with the critical consensus — it’s a terrific movie, and the first DC Extended Universe movie that not only isn’t fatally flawed, but is genuinely excellent and has a coherent, well-defined heroic journey at its heart. Gal Gadot is fantastic in the role, not only a sublimely beautiful, poised, and powerful physical presence but a strong lead actress who handles all the emotional range the film requires of her, which is a lot more than any of the previous three DCEU films have demanded of their leads. Chris Pine is also remarkably good as Steve Trevor, bringing enormous wit and charm to the proceedings (in fact, there were moments when he reminded me more of William Shatner here than he does in the Star Trek movies). The rest of the supporting cast was good too, with Lucy Davis a standout as Etta Candy.

Oh, and first off, let me respond to the inane “Gal Gadot isn’t buff enough” meme that I’m still seeing floating around online, even from the occasional female reviewer. It’s a myth that people have to be bulky to be strong — a myth that comic books have helped to promote by embracing bodybuilders as their standard character design reference over the past few decades. But bodybuilders bulk up for display. Muscles meant for practical use can be strong yet still quite lean; after all, muscle cells are basically long, thin fibers. And people with naturally tall, slender builds can be very strong while still being slender — look at Venus Williams or Maria Sharapova. This is, of course, leaving aside the fact that Diana of Themyscira is a demigoddess with superhuman strength anyway, so even if she were scrawny (which she isn’t by any realistic standard), she could probably still kick any mere mortal’s ass.

I do have some quibbles with the origin presented in the film. I don’t like the retcon that the Amazons were created by Zeus, and that Diana is the daughter of Zeus. In the original comics, it was Aphrodite, goddess of love, who created the Amazons and breathed life into Diana. Making it Zeus makes the backstory too male-dominated, and makes the Amazons feel like an extension of a male agenda. I also wish Kid Diana hadn’t been quite so enthralled with fighting and weapons; I would’ve liked to see more of her well-rounded education in the more positive things that drive her as an adult. (The actress playing Kid Diana was adorably badass, though. Give her a Wonder Tot prequel, stat!) Still, I guess that preoccupation is part of the naivete she has to outgrow over the film. She has a romanticized, simplified notion of what war is, resulting from the fact that she’s never seen it except as a bunch of awesome athletic feats her elder sisters perform.

And I like the acrobatic horseback combat, by the way. The Amazons of Greek myth were probably based on some of the horse-nomad peoples of Asia Minor, peoples that had a fair amount of gender equality (out of necessity — nomads can’t afford to have anyone not pulling their weight) and thus could’ve been seen as female-dominated by the intensely misogynistic Athenians. And horse nomads were historically known for their impressive mounted-fighting abilities, which seemed to be the basis for the Amazon combat methods shown in the film. So that’s a nice bit of historical context in a film with a generally fanciful portrait of antiquity.

In thinking back on the film, considering how it succeeds where the previous DCEU films failed, I realize that on the surface, it doesn’t seem that different from the previous films. It has a very dark and grim subject matter — it’s set in the quagmire of World War I and has characters lecturing Diana on humanity’s fundamental capacity for evil and self-destruction. It has a hero who kills. And, like Man of Steel, it has a hero whose journey to adopt the role is in defiance of a parental figure trying to hold them back. So why does it work so much better when it has many of the same elements?

As for the parental-defiance issue, part of it is that it fits the character better. Wonder Woman’s origin story has always involved her defying Hippolyta to leave Paradise Island/Themyscira — and has always had Hippolyta grudgingly accept her daughter’s decision and allow her to make her own path in the world. But Superman’s backstory has usually portrayed Pa Kent as Clark’s inspiration and role model, the one who taught him his value system and implored him to use his gifts to help others. Making Jonathan Kent someone whose advice Clark had to reject in order to become a force for good was too great a change, and too cynical for the Superman narrative. Then again, as much as I hated Man of Steel‘s version of Jonathan, I felt one of the more successful aspects of the film was the way Clark refused to be guided by his father’s fear and pettiness, and instead innately tried to do the right thing. So the thing that worked best about MoS’s Clark Kent is also something that worked about Diana of Themyscira. The difference is, in the case of Wonder Woman, it worked for the parental figure too.

As for the dark and grim subject matter, I think part of the difference is that the grimness was necessary in the context of the WWI setting, rather than just being there for its own sake. More importantly, the difference is that the Snyder Superman films tried to impose the darkness on Superman himself, to make him succumb to it and thus diminish him as a figure of nobility and inspiration. MoS and BvS paid lip service to some people seeing Superman as a savior and inspiration, but they didn’t really earn those reactions because they were more interested in showing Superman failing and struggling than in showing him actually helping anyone. BvS also defaulted to grim version of Batman based on a graphic novel (Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) that was meant to be an exaggerated, worst-case extreme and that’s too often been misinterpreted as a template for how Batman should normally be portrayed.  But in Wonder Woman, the grimness is around Diana. It doesn’t become a part of her. On the contrary, her basic goodness and compassion stand against the darkness of her surroundings and give hope and inspiration to others. She does what a superhero should do — she makes things better. The darkness is her incentive to shine, rather than something that infuses and darkens her. And though she sees the darkness in humanity, she also sees the goodness and love, and stands up for it and instills it in others. This is what Superman should do. It’s even what Batman should do — by using his own darkness to counter the crime and corruption of Gotham, he brings hope to its people and to its forces of law and order, and by taking Robin under his wing, he gives him a better life and allows him to be purer and happier than Batman was in the same circumstances. But Wonder Woman is the first DCEU protagonist who’s actually done that as a central element of her film.

As for the violence… yeah, I’m not a fan of heroes who kill, so that is an issue for me. But it helps somewhat that it’s in the context of a war story, rather than a crimefighting story where that level of force seems excessive. And it helps more that it’s balanced by the more positive things Diana does. The problem with Superman’s actions in Snyder’s films is that they’re too detached, too impersonal. In MoS, he’s literally on the opposite side of the planet while the people of Metropolis are fleeing in terror and dying in droves, and then he (or rather, Snyder) doesn’t even seem aware of the civilians while he and Zod are smashing up the city. In BvS, his acts of heroism are impersonal vignettes about Superman manipulating big heavy objects, and whatever people he’s helping in the process are barely noticed — whereas the film focuses more on his failures to save people when it bothers to pay attention to him at all. But Wonder Woman’s battles are clearly, centrally about saving people. We see the people she’s helping, and we see her connect to them. So there’s a better sense of who and what she’s fighting for, and a greater emphasis on that human element rather than just nonstop CGI destruction. The climax does get a bit heavy on the CGI for a few minutes, but unlike MoS, it doesn’t grind the story to a halt and lose focus on the human stakes of the battle.

A key difference: In both MoS and WW, the climax has the villain urging the hero to accept his nihilistic view and kill an enemy. MoS has Kal-El succumb to the argument and choose to kill, which means that the villain basically wins the philosophical battle and the hero is thus weakened. But here, Diana makes the opposite choice, sparing Dr. Maru. (At least, I think she does. The editing is a bit unclear, since she seems to throw the tank in the same direction Maru ran, and we don’t see Maru after that. But I presume the intention is that she defied Ares and spared Maru.) Okay, yeah, she also kills Ares, but the difference is, it’s not because he told her to. Both sparing Maru and killing Ares are her own choice, driven by her own judgment. Throughout the film, she had a strong point of view and wouldn’t let anyone tell her what to do. She did listen and learn, did modulate her actions in response to what she learned, but her choices were always her own. Even though I might wish she’d made a different choice in the case of Ares, she still ends up a stronger protagonist than Clark did, because she didn’t just let the villain talk her into abandoning everything she believed in. And her choice not to show mercy to a predator is balanced by the fact that she did show mercy to someone she recognized as a victim.

Of course, part of the reason the film worked so much better than its predecessors is simply that it had a more coherent story with a better narrative flow and pacing. It felt like a normal movie with a good balance of character, action, ideas, emotion, and humor. It wasn’t trying too hard to affect a certain style or attitude as an end in itself, but was telling a story in the way that worked best for that story. And most importantly for a superhero franchise, it was actually about heroism and inspiration.

There was also a lot of respect for the source material, with some nice homages to the comics. There are two points in the film where Diana recreates the pose Wonder Woman struck on the cover of her debut issue — when she smashes through the window to rescue the hostages (I think it is), and in the final shot of the film (though I think she’s in the mirror-image pose there). The montage of her childhood seems to homage the three life stages that were frequently featured in ’50s and ’60s WW stories by Robert Kanigher — Wonder Tot, Wonder Girl, and Wonder Woman. (Kanigher started out telling stories about Wondy’s youth, then got into the habit of doing “imaginary stories” where the child, teen, and adult versions of Diana impossibly hung out together. Then another writer failed to realize that Wonder Girl was a younger Wonder Woman in the past and added her to the Teen Titans comic that was set in the present, so they had to retcon her into being a separate character, and it got immensely more complicated from there.) The climactic battle with Ares even nods at William Moulton Marston’s heavy use of bondage in the early WW comics, when she’s wrapped up and squeezed in the armor plates.

One thing we didn’t get was the name “Wonder Woman” actually being spoken at any point in the film. I think they missed an opportunity to use it in the Veld scenes. It seems that it would’ve been fairly natural for the rescued villagers to call her Das Wunder-Fraulein, and for Steve to translate it into English as “the Wonder Woman.” It was German that gave us wunderkind, after all, so it seems like it would’ve been a plausible origin for the name.

By the way, I’ve seen a number of people say that the Wonder Woman theme used in BvS and here reminds them of a riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” — but I can’t help but notice that it has the same 7/8 time signature and 3-note ostinato as Joseph Lo Duca’s Xena: Warrior Princess theme. Fitting, no?

Wonder Woman goes mod: The “Diana Prince” era (spoiler review)

February 13, 2013 2 comments

For a while now, I’ve noticed that my local library branch had all four volumes of the Diana Prince: Wonder Woman trade paperbacks. These are a comprehensive collection of the 25-issue (bimonthly) run from 1968 to 1972 when Wonder Woman gave up her superpowers and star-spangled costume and became a civilian crimefighter modeled on The Avengers‘s Emma Peel, a fashionable martial artist who was easily the equal of any man. (This was initially billed as The New Wonder Woman, then Diana Prince as The New Wonder Woman, and finally Diana Prince as Wonder Woman.) The change was masterminded by writer Dennis O’Neil, who did a lot in the early ’70s to bring new maturity and relevance to DC Comics. O’Neil is known for bringing Batman back to his serious, gritty roots (at least compared to the former goofiness of ’50s/’60s Batman comics which the Adam West sitcom quite accurately captured, contrary to popular belief) and for bringing Green Lantern down to Earth and sending him on an extended road trip with liberal activist Green Arrow to find America and explore the conflict between the letter of the law and true justice. The New Wonder Woman reboot was an earlier attempt to make one of DC’s iconic figures more grounded and relatable — and more to the point, an attempt to revive flagging sales of a series which had been under creative decline under former writer/editor Robert Kanigher and was verging on cancellation. The reboot succeeded in that respect, creating new interest and saving the title from the axe, but critical reactions to it in retrospect have been mixed, making me hesitant to read the issues. But recently I read this column on Comic Book Resources which examined the beginning and end of the era, and the excerpts made me curious enough to want to read the whole thing. And yeah, it’s a bit of a mess, but an interesting one.

Also quite a good-looking one. The pencil art for most of the run was by Mike Sekowsky (who also wrote most of it) with inks by Dick Giordano, and their version of “Diana (Wonder Woman) Prince,” as she was referred to in captions, was rather striking and glamorous. The character was not generally sexualized in the way modern comic-book heroines tend to be (although there are a couple of covers of Diana in bondage), but she was definitely nice to look at. Rather than wearing a costume, she went through a variety of “mod” fashions, initially in a range of colors, but by about a quarter of the way through the run, the colorists had settled on dressing her in pure white all the time — perhaps a sort of compromise between the original fashion-plate idea and the comic-book convention of having the main hero in a recognizable “costume.”

The story begins by dismantling the series’s old tropes. First, in issue 178, WW’s love interest Steve Trevor is framed for murder, and WW’s honesty forces her to give damning testimony that Steve had hated the victim, leading to his conviction. Feeling she’s failed him as Wonder Woman, she decides to investigate as Diana Prince — and to blend in with the “hippie crowd” she needs to investigate, she gets a “mod” makeover, ditching Prince’s former frumpy-Army-secretary look for a much more glamorous and contemporary one. She frees Steve, who gains a new appreciation for Diana (unaware that Diana is WW), leading WW to think she has to change to hold Steve’s interest. But clearly the ideas were in flux, because this isn’t followed up on at all. The big changes that happen next issue arise from entirely unrelated factors.

And they happen quite quickly, within a few pages. Steve is convinced by a superior to go undercover as a traitor to infiltrate the organization of the evil Doctor Cyber. WW intends to help prove his innocence, but she’s summoned home to Paradise Island. In just two pages, she learns that the Amazons are leaving for another dimension to recharge their fading magic, chooses to stay behind to help Steve, renounces her costume and powers, and sees her home vanish forever. Now she’s just an ordinary, broke mortal looking for a job and a home. Within another page, she encounters an elderly, blind Chinese man who turns out to be a martial-arts whiz and has unexplained mystical knowledge of her identity and past. He’s named I Ching, improbably enough, and he initially speaks in a stereotyped broken English that fortunately gets toned down later. He’s also an enemy of Dr. Cyber, and spends weeks (but only two montage panels) training Diana into a martial-arts expert. Steve shows up injured and beaten by Cyber’s agents and is hospitalized. But in the next issue, Diana, Ching, and a hardboiled detective named Trench pursue Cyber, and as they enter her lair, Steve randomly shows up with no explanation and gets randomly shot dead. Which is far from the most cursory and ill-justified major change we’ll see in these pages. For one thing, we’re subsequently shown that Diana has opened a clothing boutique sometime during all this training and tragedy. She was thinking about opening a shop of some sort just before she met I Ching, but the details were skipped over and the shop is later presented as a fait accompli.

Dr. Cyber turns out to be a beautiful woman in a high-collared cloak, a Bond-style evil scientist out to conquer the world with various convoluted schemes involving high technology and sexy henchwomen. Diana, having added to her repertoire with spy gadgets disguised as jewelry, works with Ching and Trench to pursue Cyber over the next few issues, though Trench bails on them at the same time that O’Neil turns over the writing reins to Sekowsky with issue 182. From here on, there will be a different romantic interest for Diana turning up every few issues, and she’ll kind of chastely fall for all of them within a few pages even though many of them are kind of jerks. As Sekowsky writes her, Diana is less in control of her emotions now that she’s mortal, and has to learn to cope with this thing we humans call love.

Sekowsky wastes no time reversing one of the key ideas of O’Neil’s reboot. He uses his first issue to wrap up the Dr. Cyber arc, then right after that, Diana is summoned back to Paradise Island to help them fend off an invasion by Ares — just four issues after Diana supposedly cut ties with the Amazons forever. The island is still in an alternate dimension, but now easily accessible — though Sekowsky doesn’t bother to explain why Diana still has to go without her superpowers and equipment if this is the case. Here we also get our first demonstration of the fact that, as written by Sekowsky, Diana is a warrior with no qualms about using deadly force — something that’s often part of how she’s written in modern times, but apparently made its debut here. (Also, weirdly, Diana summons help for the Amazons from other dimensional planes where mythic heroes like Arthur and Siegfried dwell, but it never occurs to her to ask her old Justice League teammates for help.)

The weirdness continues when Diana returns home. She liberates a young girl named Cathy from a trio of weirdly dressed women called “THEM” who keep her as a slave, then gives Cathy a job in her boutique — whereupon in subsequent issues the ex-slave repeatedly jokes quite cheerfully about Diana being a slave-driver of a boss. Either it’s a serious failure of character consistency, or it’s implying that Cathy actually liked being a sub and had something kinky going on with Diana.

The trades include Diana’s crossover appearances in other comics during the era, starting with a completely insane Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane issue by Robert Kanigher, WW’s former writer. The way Lois was portrayed at this time is hard to reconcile with the strong, independent Lois we know today — in her own book, she’s completely, pathologically obsessed with getting Superman to marry her and seeking to destroy any real or imagined rivals for his affections, in this case a Diana who suddenly seems to have her powers back and then some, though all is not as it appears. The cover sums up the whole mentality behind this issue, with Superman cheerfully watching the catfight as Wonder Woman tosses Lois, his own official, titular girlfriend, over her head. Superman really was a jerk back then. This issue is followed by a somewhat less insane crossover, a Sekowsky-Giordano issue of The Brave and the Bold teaming Diana with Batman as they take on an evil race-car driver who kills all his opponents and is somehow still allowed to drive race cars professionally. In this story, Bruce Wayne recognizes Diana as the former Wonder Woman, but she doesn’t know he’s Batman (even after Bruce is injured and “calls in a favor” to arrange for Batman to race in his stead).

Next comes a multiparter set mostly in Hong Kong and bringing back Dr. Cyber, as well as I Ching’s daughter Lu Shan, who turns out to be working for Cyber and accuses Ching of murdering her mother. It’s never explained why she thinks this or whether it’s true. Cyber has her face scarred by hot coals in one issue, and in the next is rather definitively killed off. We next get another rather violent issue where Diana follows I Ching across the Chinese border to help some villagers escape the Communist government.

But the book continues to veer from topical to fanciful, since the next storyline has Diana swept into a parallel dimension where she helps some noble “barbarians” defeat an evil queen who rules from Castle Greyskull (okay, just Castle Skull) by violating the Prime Directive big time and inventing gunpowder and cannons for them. Sekowsky sure didn’t stint on the violence. This story was published across three issues, but the middle issue is actually a reprint of issue 179 with a few framing pages setting up the flashback. The TPB collection doesn’t include the reprint part.

After another more down-to-earth issue where Diana helps catch a murderer, we get an ill-conceived retelling of The Prisoner of Zenda (the credits actually read “Adapted from a story by Anthony Hope Hawkins.”). Diana’s traveling in Europe and turns out to be an exact double for the local princess, and ends up impersonating her to protect her from an abduction plot. Sekowsky seems to forget that our mod mortal heroine spent most of her life as an Amazon princess, since Diana seems clueless about the whole royal lifestyle. I could buy it if she were putting on an act to conceal her past secret identity, but it extends to her private thoughts as well. And this is just two issues after a storyline that depended on her Amazon ties. The inconsistencies in this run are very weird.

After a ghost-story one-shot, we get World’s Finest 204, crossing Superman with Diana in an O’Neil-scripted story touching on the student riots that were topical at the time, though mainly dealing with time travel to a desolate future resulting from the death of a key person in the riots. The story has an interestingly, though awkwardly, ambiguous ending.

Issue 196 combined three stories: a new Sekowsky-Giordano story about Diana protecting an ambassador from assassination, and a couple of Golden Age reprints, one previously unpublished. The trade includes only the original story. This is Sekowsky’s final issue, and I wonder if his departure was abrupt, because the next two issues are double-length reprints of issues 181-184, with only the covers included in the trade.

O’Neil returns as writer for the next few issues, with Don Heck pencils and Giordano inks in #199 and Giordano solo art for the rest of the run. The first 2-parter brings back Lu Shan and the supposedly dead Dr. Cyber, who wants to put her brain in Diana’s body to restore the beauty she lost (an all too typical motivation for female villains in the era). Oddly, in these later issues, O’Neil assumes that Diana Prince is publicly known as “the Wonder Woman,” even though there was no prior indication that the secret of Diana’s former identity had ever been exposed. It’s just another bit of sloppy continuity. However, there’s no specific reference to Wonder Woman ever having been a costumed Amazon superhero; it’s treated as just a nickname that Diana’s picked up through her exploits.

After this is a 2-parter in which Diana gets dragged into the pursuit of a sacred jewel that Catwoman (in one of her less flattering costumes) is also hunting — and in part 2, with SF writer Samuel R. Delany taking over as scripter, the cast gets dragged by the magic jewel into the world of Newhon, home of Fritz Lieber’s prose characters Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser! Apparently this was a backdoor pilot for a short-lived, O’Neil-scripted comic series starring the duo. There’s another random continuity change here, since O’Neil has Diana sell off her boutique to fund her trip in pursuit of the jewel. I don’t know why this is, since it was O’Neil who gave her the boutique in the first place. Lu Shan is also in this storyline, but is rather cavalierly written out, and her accusation that I Ching murdered her mother is never resolved or explained.

Next comes another Brave and the Bold Batman team-up by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo, and in this story, Diana knows that Bruce is Batman, though she didn’t discover that in their previous meeting. It’s also the first story in quite a while where we’ve seen Diana wearing anything that wasn’t pure white, presumably due to a different colorist at work (though it’s still mostly white). Diana is randomly assisted by an “Amazon guardian angel” who shows up in all of three panels and is never explained.

The final mod-era issue, scripted by Delany, is something of an embarrassment. It’s billed as a “special women’s lib issue,” and involves Cathy (remember her?) trying to persuade Diana to support a women’s-lib group fighting for equal pay at what turns out to be a crooked department store. Bizarrely, Diana resists supporting women’s liberation and says she doesn’t even like women much.

Um.

Yeah. The former Amazon princess… who spent her formative years and perhaps centuries of immortal adulthood on an island completely devoid of men… and who was sent to the outside world to teach patriarchal society the superior ways of her Amazon sisters… and who’s spent much of the past two dozen issues giving her enemies backtalk about how they shouldn’t assume women are helpless… and she doesn’t like women and needs to be talked into standing up for women’s equality. Excuse me?!

Apparently this was meant to be the first in a 6-issue arc by Delany in which Diana confronted women’s issues, culminating with Diana protecting an abortion clinic. But if this was how it began, maybe it’s just as well that we didn’t see the rest of it play out. And perhaps this rather screwed-up take on women’s lib was a somewhat fitting wrap-up for this era, because it was around this time that Gloria Steinem complained about feminist icon Wonder Woman having her superpowers and costume stripped away. Because of the public protest she raised, DC hastily abandoned the mod era and brought back Kanigher as writer/editor to restore the former status quo.

This happened in a painfully cursory way in issue 204, the final issue in the trade collection, written by Kanigher and illustrated by Heck and Giordano. I Ching is unceremoniously killed by a random sniper, and the police inexplicably allow Diana, a civilian, to ride on their helicopter as they go after him. She’s injured defeating the sniper and wakes up with total amnesia, but feels a salmon-like compulsion to go home, so she steals a jet. She’s conveniently shot down just off the coast of Paradise Island, which is back in our dimension without explanation. The Amazons restore her memory and her old costume; there’s no mention of restoring her superpowers, but she’s implicitly back to her old self, apparently with no memory of the entire mod era. She’s hired as a UN translator by some old guy who thinks she’s a “plain Jane” just because she’s in glasses and a sweater but otherwise looks exactly like she did before. Thus she is somehow “reborn” and the comic is restored to status quo in the most slapdash and creatively bankrupt way possible.

Was Steinem right? I don’t think so. It’s not as if Wonder Woman had been portrayed in a remotely feminist way over the decade that Kanigher had been writing the comic prior to the “mod” reboot. And for all the inconsistency and wackiness of the mod era, I think that removing Diana’s powers made her more effective as a feminist symbol rather than less. It showed that even a typical mortal woman could be a hero on the same level as Batman, achieving great things just with training, intelligence, courage, and compassion. And her wardrobe in this era was rather more practical and less objectifying than the star-spangled bathing suit. For its time, I think it did a good job at portraying Diana in a feminist way, and more understatedly than Delany attempted to do — just matter-of-factly treating her as ultracapable and independent. True, I Ching was an unfortunate stereotype, but less so than he could’ve been, given the era. I think there were definite merits to this version of Wonder Woman, and it didn’t deserve to be retconned and abandoned as completely as it was. At the very least it deserved a better wrapup than that dreadful Kanigher story.

(Some may remember the 1974 Wonder Woman TV pilot starring Cathy Lee Crosby as a non-superpowered Diana who wore a star-spangled track suit rather than the classic costume. That came about because the project began development during the time when the comics’ Wonder Woman was powerless and costumeless. Since the book returned to its original format during development or production of the movie, it ended up being sort of a hybrid of the two different versions of the character.)

Here’s an interesting essay I found covering Wonder Woman’s history in the comics from the beginning through 1986. It reveals (on p. 7) that as soon as issue 212, new editor Julius Schwartz and writer Len Wein did acknowledge that the mod era had happened, and that Diana had lost all her memory of it. Kanigher’s return as writer and editor of the series didn’t work out and lasted only seven issues. Which is no surprise, considering that he’d presided over its decline to the verge of cancellation. The mod era saved the comic and was the first attempt to make Wonder Woman a strong, serious hero since her creator William Moulton Marston had stopped writing her. I’m definitely glad I read it, and I wish it had lasted longer, or at least been allowed to have more of a lasting influence on later storylines. Although in its way, I think it did pioneer some important aspects of the modern version of the character.

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BIRDS OF PREY (2002 TV series) review

February 6, 2013 6 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 goes by Dinah Redmond (her adoptive name) and 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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BATMAN: YEAR ONE — DVD adaptation review

I just got the DC Universe Animated Original Movies adaptation of Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One miniseries, courtesy of Netflix.  This was a story written back when Miller was still capable of doing good work, before he became a parody of himself, and I don’t even want to talk about the depths he’s sunk to recently.  There’s plenty about that on the Internet already.  This is about the movie adaptation, written by Tab Murphy, directed by Sam Liu & Lauren Montgomery, produced by Montgomery and Alan Burnett, and executive produced by Bruce Timm and Sam Register.

In the past, these adaptations of pre-existing comics stories, such as Justice League: The New Frontier and All-Star Superman, have tended to edit them down a great deal in order to fit them into the obligatory 70-odd-minute timeframe — anything longer would require a bigger budget than Warner Bros. is willing to allocate to one of these.  Since this one came out to only 64 minutes, I was expecting a lot to be trimmed.  But after watching the movie, I pulled my trade paperback of the original miniseries off the shelf (it’s the only Frank Miller comic I still own, and the only one other than The Dark Knight Returns that I ever owned) and compared the two.  And it turns out that the movie barely cuts anything from the story, and even adds some new material.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  One is that the miniseries is only 4 issues long, much shorter than the others I mentioned.  Another is that a great deal of it is told through narration.  The main deletions in the movie version are these passages of narration, which tend to be trimmed down, replaced with dialogue, or shown visually rather than told.  Other than that — and the removal of the comic’s references to smoking — the only significant thing that’s missing is a short scene of Bruce Wayne skiing and thinking to himself that he needs Jim Gordon as an ally.  Dropping the skiing scene makes perfect sense — it’s pretty ridiculous of the comic to have Bruce performing elaborate skiing stunts just 8 days after he was repeatedly shot, burned, and otherwise very nearly killed in the tenement scene, and the movie’s approach of treating the skiing purely as a cover to explain Bruce’s injuries is a lot more reasonable.  But having Bruce/Batman express a desire for an alliance with Gordon is something it would’ve been nice to keep in the film.

The new material that’s added is mostly expanded action; some stuff is added to make a couple of scenes even more over-the-top and Milleresque than they were in the comic (like Flass tossing the Hare Krishna at the train station halfway across the platform rather than just shoving him, or making a suspect’s car flip over during a chase).  Some, as I said, is the portrayal of moments only described in narration in the original.  But the best addition in the movie is that Jim Gordon’s wife Barbara gets significantly more screen time, dialogue, and presence.  She was something of a cipher in the comic, but here she’s treated better — at least by the screenwriter and directors if not by Gordon himself, since the plot is extremely faithfully adapted.  My favorite change (spoiler warning) is that in the comic, it’s Gordon’s own words that prompt him to come clean to Barbara about his affair, while Barbara is much more passive and mostly silent; but in the movie, it’s Barbara’s own disgust at Bruce Wayne’s evident womanizing that guilts Jim into confessing.  It’s a definite improvement on Miller’s far more male-centric approach.

There are other directorial choices in the movie that also improve on Miller & Mazzucchelli’s storytelling.  For instance, in the iconic scene where Batman crashes the corrupt politicians’ banquet at Falcone’s mansion to tell them none of them are safe now, the comic’s version focuses far more heavily on Batman’s preparations and actions, but the movie’s point of view stays mainly with the people inside and focuses on their confusion and fear as smoke fills the room, the lights go out, and the wall blows open.  It’s evocative of Christopher Nolan’s approach to Batman’s debut in Batman Begins, where the viewpoint is that of the mobsters under attack and Batman remains a mysterious, largely unseen figure like the monster in a horror movie.

And that’s appropriate here, because Jim Gordon is far more the point of identification in this story, while Batman, particularly in the movie version, is a more remote, forbidding figure, a loner who isn’t particularly humanized.  The casting plays into this.  At first, I was put off by Bryan Cranston’s strong baritone as Gordon and Ben McKenzie’s nasal tenor as Batman.  It was a very different approach than what I was used to.  But once I got accustomed to it, both voices worked pretty well.  McKenzie’s Batman reminded me in voice and manner of a cross between Jim Caviezel’s and Michael Emerson’s  characters on Person of Interest (a show from The Dark Knight‘s screenwriter Jonathan Nolan), and was effective at conveying the sense of a colder, more forbidding Batman, one who’s obsessed to a perhaps pathological degree — not an approach to Batman I’m particularly fond of, but one that fits this story, in which Batman is a driven loner who hasn’t yet gained the alliances and partnerships that temper and humanize him later in his career.  And Cranston’s Gordon is sympathetic once you get used to the flat, matter-of-fact, emotionally dull delivery that characterizes the film’s tone, like something out of a gritty ’70s crime drama (and there’s a dubbed-anime sense to it as well, with Cranston’s voice reminding me of Richard Epcar’s Batou on Ghost in the Shell, for instance).  Katie Sackhoff plays Sarah Essen in much the same no-nonsense, passionless way, but I guess that fits these characters who are so battered down by the hell of living in Gotham at its most corrupt.  Perhaps the most expressive player in the cast is Eliza Dushku as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.  She works very well in the role.

The animation by Moi Animation Studio is top-notch stuff, and the visuals follow Mazzuchelli’s art very closely.  The music by Christopher Drake is good and largely fits the ’80s-style setting of the film; in particular, there’s some music in the sequence where Gordon tails Detective Flass that reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith’s work.  All in all, I’d say this is a very good adaptation that is at once extremely faithful to the original and an improvement upon it in a number of ways.  If you liked the comic Batman: Year One, you should enjoy the movie.

I was pleased to discover that Warner Bros. has changed their policy of leaving their DC Showcase short subjects off of the rental editions of their DC Universe movies.  This rented DVD does indeed include the DC Showcase: Catwoman short that was produced as a companion piece to the movie.  Written by Paul Dini and directed by Montgomery, it’s something of a loose sequel to the movie, bringing back Dushku as Catwoman and including one other character from B:YO whose identity I don’t want to spoil (with all the other voices performed by animation stalwarts John DiMaggio, Kevin Michael Richardson, Tara Strong, and Cree Summer), although it replaces the costume Mazzucchelli gave her in B:YO (which she also wears in the film, although it’s colored closer to black there) with her modern Darwyn Cooke-designed costume with the cat’s-eye goggles and the front zipper.  And it is made to fit the tone of the movie somewhat, with a lot of violence and gunplay and an extended strip-club sequence that, while staying PG-13, features the most overt sexuality that’s ever been included in a DC Universe DVD movie to date.  That part did feel somewhat gratuitous to me; did she really need to put on that show for so long in order to get close to the bad guy?  Though maybe it makes sense in the context of Miller’s B:YO version of Catwoman as a former prostitute.  At least she’s using her sexuality as a tool for her own purposes, I guess, but it still feels like pandering to the male audience, even though a woman directed the short.  But it eventually gives way to an even more extended chase/fight sequence that follows through to the climax of the short and culminates with a set of chain reactions that owe more to Wile E. Coyote than Frank Miller and had me laughing long and hard.

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