Saturday, February 28, 2015

Movie review: Batman and Robin (1949)

PosterI wasn’t very impressed with the original 1943 Batman serial, though I had hoped that the follow-up, 1949’s Batman and Robin would be something of an improvement. It’s more or less the same basic story with the same tropes, clichés, sets, cliffhangers, and repetitiveness. That being said, this second serial has something going for it that the first installment did not have: a sense of mystery.

It’s been a while since I’ve done any heavy reading of the old Golden Age comics, but from what I remember, each one always played tricks on the reader. Scenes would end with impossible predicaments, yet the hero would always escape (and how they did so would always be revealed after the fact so as to trick the reader as well as the villains). That’s a method you don’t really see any more in either comics or movies. Personally, I think it’s a good device as it creates for genuine suspense, though it often comes across as corny (and how!). That’s certainly true of Batman and Robin, in which the true identity of the head villain is a mystery to both the heroes and we the audience. There’s a lot of clues, but I have to admit that once it’s finally revealed in the fifteenth chapter, even I was caught by surprise.

The premise here is as equally ridiculous as the first serial, as it deals with completely implausible sci-fi technology that constantly confounds both Batman and the police. A mysterious masked villain known as “The Wizard” has stolen a device that allows him to remotely control all forms of transportation. I suppose that’s a good weapon for a maniacal villain to have since he can cause chaos from a distance, but the way in which it’s depicted is ludicrous. It’s just a bunch of cabinets with switches, dials and gauges; but how it can pinpoint on one car or plane or train at a certain place and time is never explained. There’s no radar screen or any kind of output that indicates where and what is being controlled. It’s the kind of mad scientist machinery you see in these old works of fiction, so the audience at the time probably just accepted it at face value. The original Batman serial also utilized this type of trope, but at least the villain’s motive was clear; here, it’s impossible to tell what exactly his endgame is. Unlike, say, The Joker, he’s not just causing chaos for the sake of chaos – he wants something, but what it is I never did catch.

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This serial relies more on an over-arching plot than the original. It’s dependent upon certain characters adding specific elements to the story, without whom it would fall apart. It’s also fairly repetitive in its episodic approach of Batman and Robin being at the right place at the right time only to be ambushed and have to escape in the nick of time every time. There is some use of detective work here, though it’s more due to silly sci-fi gizmos and gadgets that enable Batman and the police to figure out what’s what. The cheesiest of them all involves Vicki Vale using an “infrared flash bulb” of some sort to photograph an invisible man.

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There isn’t much point in critiquing the story’s specifics. It’s often silly, ridiculous and unrealistic, though I don’t think anyone expected these serials (nor the comics at the time) to be a gritty, dramatic, earnest thriller (unlike the Christopher Nolan films of the current day). I will say that I appreciated that it opted for a more mysterious approach than the original, but the overall production quality is pretty poor. Absolutely no one has any acting chops here. They are all monotone beyond belief with no real emotion (other than Jane Adams as Vicki Vale who is constantly the damsel in distress). Robert Lowery’s Batman is fairly stern, but whether he’s fighting the bad guys or just relaying information to Commissioner Gordon he’s equally stoic. John Duncan is awful as Robin, though! Each line sounds as though he’s whispering, or that he’s tired. Was every scene shot 30 seconds after he climbed out of bed? I will say I thought the voice of The Wizard worked well as it was very creepy and genuinely evil.

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It’s difficult to believe that by the time this movie was released, Batman had been appearing in comic books for ten years and six years had passed since the first serial. Yet, it doesn’t seem like there had been much evolution or development of the characters, the settings, and worst of all – the production quality of the film itself. I’d like to read some of those old Golden Age comics and see how they compare to these serials. In fact, I’ll do just that over the next few months.

Not Arkham, Markham. Though that's quite a coincidence!
Not Arkham, Markham. Though that’s quite a coincidence!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Movie review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The_Dark_Knight_Rises_posterThe Dark Knight Rises should’ve been the second installment in the trilogy since The Dark Knight was so epic, so well-crafted, and so well-received by audiences and critics alike there really was no way to follow up, much less top it. But if you’ve got a winning formula, why change it, eh? And though I think The Dark Knight Rises is indeed a fun film, it doesn’t have the emotion or intellectual impact its predecessors had.

When I first saw this movie I was rather conflicted coming out of the theater. Did I love or hate what I had just seen? There were plenty of sequences that were fantastic to watch and really excited my inner fanboy, but at the same time I just couldn’t overlook the various flaws and plotholes that were prevalent throughout the movie. Roger Ebert once said that if a movie is “working,” you don’t notice these things, but when it’s “broken” you can’t not see them. If you absolutely love The Dark Knight (and a lot of be do, understandably so), I’d recommend you re-watch it after familiarizing yourself with all the plotholes and chances are you’ll overlook them and not let them distract you. The same cannot be said of The Dark Knight Rises, unfortunately.

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Now, there have been numerous articles, blogs, reviews, and internet videos made exposing the inconsistencies in this film, but of the whole lot of them I would cite Doug Walker’s “Bum Review” as being one of the most accurate and by far the funniest. See for yourself:

I think all those aforementioned commentaries lead me to believe I genuinely disliked this movie all along. Re-watching it last night I was pleasantly surprised by how well it held up; the moments that were fun in 2012 were still pretty fun in 2015. However, the corny parts, the completely implausible parts, and the glaringly obvious inconsistencies were much worse than I remembered. I had always considered The Dark Knight Rises to be a basically good movie with some problems, but now I see it as a surprisingly generic Hollywood superhero flick that’s well-made from a technical standpoint and still visually amazing, but leaves much to be desired, artistically speaking.
"When I looked at you I could just tell you were Batman" WTF
"When I looked at you I could just tell you were Batman" WTF
There’s nothing I can say to critique this film – good or bad - that hasn’t already been said, so let me just mention some moments that had me nerdgasming:
  • Batman’s return from retirement and his subsequent return from Bane’s prison are very Rocky-like in that he’s now the underdog overcoming all odds. It’s corny and clichéd, but I couldn’t help but find it riveting.
  • When Batman flies over the phalanx of police officers and makes them cheer and then rush the criminals.
  • Though the Batsymbol on fire on the bridge is completely implausible, it was still an awesome visual.
  • When Catwoman slips away from Batman and he says “So that’s what that feels like” made me laugh.
  • Just before Batman appears on screen for the first time and the veteran cop tells the rookie he’s in for a show.
  • When it’s revealed that Detective John Blake’s real name is Robin.
  • There are other aspects of the film I enjoyed, but other critics have already done a thorough job analyzing it much better that I can, so I’d recommend you read their reviews for those points.
  • When Batman faces off with Bane at the end, I was very much reminded of both The Matrix and the Star Wars movies (that battle should’ve been much more epic than it was).
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This fight would've been much better if it had been just the two of them... AND AT NIGHT!
The only serious problem I have with this film is the same as I had with The Dark Knight: it does come across as neoconservative propaganda.

The Dark Knight Rises was made right around the time the “Occupy Wall Street” movement began, so it’s blatantly obvious that when Bane sacks Gotham and tells the people to take the power back from the oligarchs, this is an allusion to that movement. Though I suppose you could view it as an allegory to the various socialist/communist coups that occurred throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. As an ardent opponent of those political ideologies I appreciate that they are portrayed as villainous in nature, but it’s also a form of “reductio ad absurdum.”

Additionally, when Batman appears to sacrifice his life to save Gotham City, this is the second time in as many movies that it has ended with a clear-as-day parallel to Jesus.* Self-sacrifice for the greater good is a fictional trope that goes back centuries, so it’s nothing original here. That it turned out to be a ruse actually did the film a disservice. Yes, it’s nice to know that Bruce Wayne survived, but taking that route is a cheap cop-out and weakens the film, artistically.

People don’t look to Hollywood blockbusters for insightful political, philosophical or religious commentary (or at least they shouldn’t); they want escapism, so why be so obtuse about it, Mr. Nolan?

*I wonder if this inspired the Impractical Jokers? (sorry for the lousy quality)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Movie review: The Dark Knight (2008)

Dark_KnightPeople don’t tend to think of comic book movies as having any real depth to them beyond simple entertainment. But The Dark Knight stands out as a glaring exception. It’s probably so revered for its ability to combine fun action and adventure along with real world symbolism. But by the same token, the fact it’s so clearly a commentary on the political landscape of the time is also, in my opinion, its biggest flaw.

Right from the opening frame, this is clearly intended to be a serious depiction of a serious story. I like how it begins with showing The Joker’s elaborate (and creative) bank robbery scheme. Though violent and grim, I can’t help but find it humorous as well.

Clearly, The Joker is a sociopath, but he also likes adulation, so he’s constantly doing things to draw attention to himself while at the same time showing how twisted and deadly he can be. He’s pretty far removed from all previous incarnations of the character wherein he was always a fun-loving guy who enjoyed being a deadly pest (or, in the older comics and cartoons – just another costumed villain). He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he is an absolutely brilliant planner and conspirator. So much so that his repeated sinister schemes put those of Ra’s ah Ghul to shame.

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In fact, it’s because this Joker is so powerful, so cunning, so brilliant, so well trained, so charismatic, and so well equipped that he almost fails as a villain because he’s just way too good at it. Throughout the movie we see him spring massively elaborate capers and conspiracies that seem plausible at the time, but all it takes is a moment of reflection to realize how implausible they really are. How did he recruit a veritable army of goons? Where did he get all this training on explosives and weapons? How can he single-handedly outsmart all the organized crime gangs? When and how did he have the opportunity and the materials to rig two warehouses, an entire hospital and two ferries with explosives without anyone noticing!? You’ll also notice all of his plans involve absolute perfect timing such as when the time bombs go off seconds after Batman and the police arrive. Critics and audiences have always lauded The Dark Knight for having such a brilliant screenplay, but all you really have to do is watch this episode of Cinema Sins and you’ll realize how many glaring plotholes this movie has.

Where does he get those wonderful explosives?
Where does he get those wonderful explosives?

That being said, I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed The Dark Knight as much on the tenth(ish) viewing as I did on the first. It really is captivating, thrilling, fascinating and beautiful to look at. However, it is a bit mentally exhausting. I have no idea what Christopher Nolan’s political views are, but watching it with seven years of hindsight, it almost comes across as neoconservative propaganda.

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Batman seems to represent the Bush/Cheney administration, seriously. In the first act he illegally kidnaps (aka extraordinary rendition) the mobsters’ accountant Lau from Hong Kong and brings him back to America (much like the CIA does with alleged terrorists, but at least Lau isn’t denied due process). Secondly, Batman uses a massive electronic surveillance scheme to spy on all the citizens of Gotham in order to find The Joker’s location (the only caveat is he must wait for the Joker to actually use a cell phone). I appreciate the fact Lucius Fox has the chutzpah to tell Batman to his face that it’s completely illegal and unethical, but he helps him out anyway. Lastly, Batman tells Jim Gordon to blame him for all the trespasses Harvey Dent (in his “Two-Face” persona) committed. Because Harvey was so pious and so successful at cleaning up Gotham City, if his dark side was exposed it might undo all the good he had done. If that’s not a blatantly obvious allusion to Jesus, then I don’t know what is (though the next movie will take this even further).

cracked.com
cracked.com

Any way you look at it, the theme seems to be “The ends justify the means.” That’s a very ugly message to send, especially in times like these, with such an on-the-nose political allegory. Though I suppose that’s the message of every comic book and comic book movie ever made. Since the kind of vigilantism that Batman engages in is technically illegal, it raises the philosophical question of whether you can condone their actions because they bring criminals (and the occasional super villain) to “justice.” It’s actually quite funny in retrospect to look at the massive destruction of both public and private property that occurs in order to catch one single criminal (though it’s not quite as funny in reality knowing how many people – the guilty and innocent alike – have died in the name of “war” on an abstract concept).

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But for all of my political and philosophical disagreements with this movie (intentional or not), I will say that The Dark Knight still holds up as a smart thriller. I can certainly understand why it’s received the accolades it has over the years. I don’t know if we’ll ever see another comic book movie on the level of this one again.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Movie review: Batman Begins (2005)

batmanbeginsposterAs we wind down Batman Movie Month, it’s time to discuss the three Christopher Nolan films, which most people would agree are the best live-action Batman movies of all time, if not some of the best superhero movies of all time. I’ll go on record right now and say that Batman Begins is the greatest Batman movie ever made.

This was pretty much the movie I had always wanted to see, even as a child. The Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher movies were just too campy and Hollywood. As a comic book reader, I wanted something that more accurately reflected the character as he appears in the comics rather than some silly popcorn flick. Much like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, one of the reasons it’s so great is the fact that it stays true to the comics. The problem with taking that route is you run the risk of alienating the audience with obscure, esoteric material that only makes sense if you’ve read the comics. You also run the risk of going the Batman ’66 route and making a live-action cartoon. But with Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan, along with writer David S. Goyer managed to have it all: a thrilling superhero movie that’s true to the comics, but presupposes nothing about the audience. And best of all, they took the most earnest approach to a comic book movie that’s ever been tried. That’s another reason it’s so great.



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Now, when I say “earnest” it shouldn’t be interpreted as “realistic.” While there’s definitely a sense of realism here, it’s relative to the previous Batman movies as well as other superhero flicks. Sure, there’s plenty of stuff that would never work in reality, but Nolan and Goyer do an excellent job of making it seem realistic and believable in the context of this film.

I was something of a film geek in my teens and early 20s. I always liked the gritty dramas about street life, crime, gangs, prison, etc. because they were truly works of art rather than big budget blockbusters made my studio execs and they seemed so earnest. I always thought it would be awesome to see Batman fight the kind of scumbags in these types of films. And while Batman Begins isn’t exactly a dissertation on socioeconomics and the like, at least it involves Batman taking on the fairly realistic villain of organized crime and political corruption. Up until this point, all previous Batman movies had a super villain as the antagonist (and this one does as well – but more on that shortly), in this incarnation Bruce Wayne addresses the reality of trying to undo decades of ingrained corruption that has led to rampant poverty and high crime. Sure, Jack Napier was a mob boss before he became The Joker in Burton’s Batman, but he was still a generic, cookie-cutter gangster in a fancy suit on a sound stage. Contrast that with Carmine Falcone who is a fairly realistic (or at least earnest) gangster in the Scorsese or Coppola mold (all that’s missing is brazen profanity, but this is a family-friendly flick after all).  Obviously, this movie is not exactly Batman vs. Robert DeNiro, but I appreciate that it makes the harsh reality of crime the basis.

I liked how it spent the entire first act concentrating on Bruce Wayne’s backstory and his training on becoming Batman. As far as I know, there’s no comic book story concentrating exclusively on this aspect of his life. Not even Year One dealt much with Bruce’s actual training, but rather alluded to it in flashbacks (as many comics have done over the years). Batman Begins is aptly-titled because it takes the time to show Bruce transition from traumatized child to a man on a mission (I will admit that some of the flashback sequences are a bit confusing, especially when a college-aged Bruce decides to murder Joe Chill – was this before or after he decided to become Batman?).

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It was also quite believable that Bruce would be recruited by Ra’s ah Ghul and the “League of Shadows.” Liam Neeson is absolutely perfect as the Ducard character (though he’s secretly Ra’s ah Ghul all along). He’s much more the Jedi Knight in this role than he was in the actual Star Wars movie. He’s not quite as stoic, cold and heartless as the comic book character, but in this context it works very well. In fact, I’ll bet the editors as DC Comics kicked themselves for never having ret-conned Ra’s ah Ghul as the trainer of Batman.

The first time I saw Batman Begins I was caught by surprise when Ra’s ah Ghul shows up at Bruce Wayne’s party and proceeds to burn down his mansion and sack Gotham. Re-watching it again last night I noticed there was plenty of foreshadowing. Including this character as the real villain is a pretty predictable move I suppose. After all, if you’ve got a superhero you need a super villain. The difference between Ra’s ah Ghul and say, The Joker is that The Joker can’t lie in wait until he’s needed to further the story whereas Ra’s can appear only as needed.

The League of Shadow’s sinister conspiracy to destroy Gotham walks a fine line between brilliant and corny. I must admit the first time I saw this movie I did not see it coming. Re-watching it again, it does seem a bit far-fetched and the kind of plot device that’s used in a big budget Hollywood movie in order to create for an action-packed third reel. But action, adventure, thrills and spills aren’t good or bad in and of themselves – it’s how they’re used that matters. And they’re used quite well here I must say (again, that’s not to say the film is perfect and realistic, just that it’s a lot of fun and holds up every time).

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By the way, a lot of people complain about Christian Bale’s performance in the Nolan movies, but in this film he’s great. He’s definitely the most well-cast Batman to date as he plays the character like a true human being whereas previous actors played him as a living, breathing cartoon character (then again, that’s how they were written). He definitely has an imposing presence in the Batman costume (which is the most realistic and best-looking it’s ever been) and he really doesn’t do the coarse voice except when he’s yelling at a villain. For my money, he’s the best Batman on film.

Why Ra's ah Ghul's plan would fail (quickly). -Cracked.com
Why Ra’s ah Ghul’s plan would fail (quickly). -Cracked.com

Monday, February 23, 2015

Red Hood | Gotham | vlog #17

Season 1, Episode 17. Originally aired February 23, 2015.
Written by Danny Cannon. Directed by Nathan Hope.
A crew of bank robbers heists a bank and throws some of stolen money into to crowd to ensure their escape. Gordon and Bullock track down a member, Gus Floyd (who called himself the Red Hood), but find him dead in the hideout. After another robbery led by Carl Destro, who took the position of the Red Hood, Gordon and Bullock track him to his house where they find him wounded. With information given by Destro, the police find and gun down the remainder of the gang in a shootout. Meanwhile, Oswald Cobblepot struggles from Maroni's actions against the restaurant, but Butch uses some cops on his payroll to seize Maroni's supplies. Fish Mooney discovers that the facility she is kept in is run by the Dollmaker. When his manager (Jeffrey Combs) tries to take her eye for organ trade purposes, she removes it herself and destroys it before passing out. An old comrade of Alfred, Reginald Payne (David O'Hara), visits him in Wayne Manor and stays over night. On the next day, however, he steals some of Bruce Wayne's files, stabs Alfred to evade capture and reports to Wayne Enterprises Board of Directors.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Movie review: Batman: The Movie (1966)

Back in November, I wrote about the recent fascination with the 1966 Batman television series by modern pop culture. A lot of that is due to the fact the show has finally been released on DVD/Blu-Ray, as well as the publication of many comic books based on the series. The thing a lot of people forget when discussing that series is that it spawned a feature film which actually has been available on home video for years; namely, Batman: The Movie. Since this was the only legitimate video of Batman ’66 available, it’s been largely ignored and relegated to the discount bin. Funny how now that the show is seeing a resurgence in popularity, the movie is too (by me at least).

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I never really watched Batman ’66 as a kid, so it has no nostalgic or sentimental value to me. Until recently, it was something I, and a lot of fans of the Batman comics, disowned because of how radically different it is from the badass we consider the character to be today (it wasn’t too far removed from the Silver Age comics at the time, though). But I’ve come to appreciate the 1966 TV show for its place in pop culture history, even artistic history. And when viewed within that context, Batman: The Movie is actually really fun.

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I suppose the timing couldn’t have been better for me to have watched this, considering I recently reviewed the very campy Batman Forever and Batman & Robin (even though they shouldn’t have been) and the 1943 Batman serial. This story of this film is told almost like that of a serial as there isn’t exactly one central plot that runs from beginning to end, but rather a series of smaller adventures that add up to one big one. I think it actually works well because of this format; as the hijinks, shenanigans, pratfalls and other comical elements are fine in sporadically small doses rather than anything continuous.

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Much like the Batman movies of the 1980s and 90s, Batman: The Movie is too silly to be viewed as a genuine thriller or adventure of any kind. I doubt anyone other than a small child was on the edge of their seat while watching this. This is a comedy first and foremost and it works quite well as such. Actually, it’s more a work of intellectual pop culture satire; I would consider the film “cute” rather than laugh-out-loud funny. For example, consider the infamous Batman-versus-the-shark scene. It’s so clearly obvious that it’s a rubber shark, but that the Batcopter would happen to have a can of shark repellant spray on board is either ridiculously corny or completely brilliant. Another scene later in the movie involves Batman and Robin about to crash in the Batcopter but just happen to land on a pile of foam rubber. This isn’t really the kind of comedy that inspires belly laughs authentically, but does make me smirk because of how unapologetic it is for this cartoony nature.
Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!
Shark repellant: ridiculously corny or secretly brilliant?
Batman: The Movie isn’t the type of film that can or should be critiqued on its merit as a film. Either you get the joke or you don’t, so either you’ll like it or hate it. And while I’m not saying it’s the funniest movie of all time, it still holds up after all these years because it’s so unique and memorable. Even though the entire Batman ’66 phenomenon was well before my time, it’s a craze that pop culture refuses to forget (and for good reason). Any Batman fan worth his or her salt owes it to themselves to add this movie to their collection.
Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!
Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Movie review: Batman (1943)

Batman Serial 2
In the spirit of “Batman Movie Month” on this blog, I decided to give these serials a look. I have never actually watched them before; I’ve only seen pictures in books and clips here and there. Frankly, I’ve just never been interested because archaic films and TV shows have always bored me (except for the true classics).
Batman Serial 1
This premise is rather interesting in that it’s a combination of science fiction and action, rather than pulp-style crime and mystery stories like in the comics. Though Batman is still millionaire Bruce Wayne, complete with Robin, Alfred, Wayne Manor (with a secret entrance to the Batcave), Gotham City (which is clearly set in California), and a Batmobile (of sorts), he’s also a wholly different character since he’s not a vigilante fighting crime but a secret agent working for the government. He’s been assigned to foil the nefarious plots (and I do mean plots) of “Dr. Daka” – a Japanese mad scientist who has a small army of Caucasian goons to do his bidding (how and why he convinced them to work for him is never explained).
Batman Serial 6
Batman is probably even more cartoonish than the comic book was at the time. At least it comes across that way since it transplants the character from the page to the screen verbatim without accounting for any difference in the mediums. The central plot involves Daka’s schemes to sabotage the United States from within. He’s able to turn anyone into a brain dead “zombie” through a Frankenstein-like contraption. He also built a gun that’s powered by radium that can destroy pretty much any form of matter. But Batman and Robin never actually fight Daka directly; rather, they encounter his goons time and time again and manage to somehow win out despite always being outnumbered. Much like cartoons, the goons tell their boss that this time they killed the Batman for sure, but when he appears again, Daka is annoyed by his henchmen’s incompetence.
Batman Serial 8
But is it fun to watch? Is this a quality film? Yes and no. It’s the kind of work that we watch today as a way of looking at a pop culture artifact. The same could be said of any comparable serial such as one featuring Zorro or Superman or Flash Gordon. It’s cute what passed for entertainment in the early days of cinema. When viewed in the small, episodic format, Batman is easily watchable; but more than two chapters at a time is a little grating. There’s a lot of repetitiveness, predictable stories, bad acting, cheap sets, and the fight scenes are hilarious because they’re so uncoordinated. Additionally, the costumes are hideous; though they demonstrate that what is totally plausible within the context of a comic book would look foolish in reality.
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My Halloween costume from 1980 wasn’t all that different than Batman’s in 1943.
Batman Serial 4
If you consider yourself a hardcore Batman fan, then you owe it to yourself to read the old Golden Age comics as well as watch the two “serials” that featured him back in the 1940s. Both the comics and the serials have been re-packaged for modern times and are remarkably affordable these days. For the comics, I highly recommend The Batman Chronicles trade paperback series, and for the serials I recommend “Gotham City Serials” which collects the 1943 and 1949 films on two DVDs.
Batman Serial 9
Some random observations and trivia:
    1943serial
  • At age 23 and 13, Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft were by far the youngest actors ever to play Batman and Robin, respectively. Though neither looks their age. Wilson appears to be about 44 and Croft looks closer to 18 (he also bears a striking resemblance to David Faustino).
  • For whatever reason, Batman has 13-year-old Robin drive the car most of the time!
  • Wilson definitely has the face of Bruce Wayne, but does not have the physique of Batman. In his skin-tight costume, his lack of muscle definition is clearly visible (see photos above).
  • Bruce Wayne’s sweetheart, Linda Page, is kidnapped no less than three times throughout the series! Imagine the trauma she must’ve suffered from constantly being accosted by criminals. In reality, she would probably have a nervous breakdown after the second kidnapping.
  • When Dick asks Bruce why he doesn’t just tell Linda he’s Batman, Bruce responds with “I don’t want her to worry.”
  • Some of the sci-fi technology back then is real technology today. For example, Daka’s lair is rigged with CCTV security cameras he can monitor from a central hub. Additionally, all the goons have some kind of biometric security device Daka scans with an x-ray whenever they buzz into the lab. Batman Serial 7
  • The serial was clearly shot in California and little attempt is made to skirt this issue. In fact, at one point Bruce Wayne receives a letter bearing an address of Los Angeles!Batman Serial 3
  • Bruce is shown doing actual forensics work – silly sci-fi forensics – but forensics nonetheless.
  • Alfred is constantly chauffeuring around Batman and Robin, even going undercover a few times, and more often than not he finds himself getting clobbered by the goons. Bruce apparently has no qualms about putting his surrogate father into jeopardy. For that matter, he has no problem with putting 13-year-old Robin into these situations either (doesn’t this kid ever go to school?).
  • Nearly every fight or chase scene ends with Batman getting knocked out only to revive at the last minute and escape danger. Robin rescues Batman many times throughout the serial, yet Batman never has to rescue Robin once! I think Robin might actually be the superior crime fighter.
  • This Batman serial introduced the Batcave (just a dark room with a table and chairs); Alfred as a tall thin butler (he had been a short, fat butler in the comics, previously); the secret entrance to the Batcave through the grandfather clock in Wayne Manor;
  • Every villain has a pencil mustache.There are so many cliches I’ve seen in cartoons from Looney Tunes to Family Guy over the years that I never thought were real, but they are here, including:
    • Alligator pits
    • Boys hawking newspapers with "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!"
    • eyes in the painting
    • goons sitting around playing cards all the time
    • the villain’s refusal to believe that Bruce Wayne could be Batman: “That simpering idiot could never be the Batman!”
    • Speakeasies
    • Indiana Jones-like elaborate death traps
    • “Fast Talking High Trousers” with quips like “you mugs!” and “so long, suckers!”

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Movie review: Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)

Batman_&_Mr._Freeze_SubZeroThere are a lot – and I do mean a lot – of straight-to-video animated Batman movies based on the various television shows produced since the 1990s. One that seems to be forgotten is Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero. This was intended to be a tie-in to the 1997 Batman & Robin movie which also featured Mr. Freeze as the villain. However, because that film flopped and was so universally panned, Warner Bros. delayed its release until early 1998.
I didn’t see this movie until the summer of 1999 and I remember hating it at the time. I haven’t watched it since, so I decided to give it another look last night. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was, but it certainly has its share of problems:
  1. This is marketed as a Batman movie, but it should more accurately be marketed as a Batman Family movie since it features Robin/Dick Grayson and Batgirl/Barbara Gordon more than it does Batman/Bruce Wayne. Batman only appears onscreen for a minute in the first act in an action scene completely unrelated to the main plot, and then doesn’t appear again until the last 15-20 minutes. Call me crazy, but when you put Batman in the title of the movie, the viewer expects to see Batman! If anything, Dick Grayson is the main protagonist here and Batman is acting as his sidekick.
  2. Mr. Freeze isn’t maniacal or villainous enough. Really, all he wants is to be left alone; but when an American submarine blows up his spot, it’s understandable that he’d flip his lid. The entire plot is based on him kidnapping Barbara Gordon (strictly a coincidence – he has no idea she’s Batgirl) because she’s a perfect match for his wife Nora’s DNA and will make an ideal “organ donor” (which organ[s] they need to transplant from Barbara to Nora is never mentioned). I assume Barbara will not survive the surgery; so why bother kidnapping her when they could just kill her instead? Seems like it would save a lot of trouble. But then again, it’s a “kid’s movie.”
  3. The epilogue states that Nora wound up being saved thanks to emergency surgery paid for by the Wayne Foundation (but what about the lack of available donors and epic wait lists?!). This would also seem to indicate that if Mr. Freeze had simply asked for help in the first place he would’ve gotten it and the movie would’ve been over in 10 minutes.
Mr. Freeze: maniacal villain or sad sack?
Mr. Freeze: maniacal villain or sad sack?

These are my only beefs with Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero. Otherwise, I think it’s a pretty solid watch. The animation does look great (it even incorporates some CGI that was state-of-the-art at the time) and the story is breezy and never lags. It is, however, essentially just a two or three-part episode of Batman: The Animated Series, whereas Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm was indeed a true film. A lot more could’ve been done, but it’s not bad for what it is. That’s all I have to say about it now in 2015.

Of course, I had a lot more say about this movie back in 1999, and my review is still archived on the Internet Movie Database. Re-reading it now, it seems I was a little too harsh and maybe held it to too high of a standard. I present it below verbatim:

Anyone who knows something about the modern comic book industry knows that no other single character has had more comic series and specials than Batman. Unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of mass production, the quality can’t always be pinnacle and the result is often gratuitous, weak meaningless stories told because they can be, which `Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero’ is the equivalent of in terms of an animated motion picture. It’s a product produced just because it could be and the lack of effort is clear.

There really isn’t too much to say about the film because there’s hardly anything to it. It’s a direct-to-video movie obviously intended for parents to buy their children, but it’s also based on a television series which is most certainly not your average kid’s cartoon. The show is as dark as an Alex Proyas film with an equal amount of artistic styling and very smart teleplays. But this movie has very little to do with the series itself and at times feels like the producers threw together a bunch of unused clips and added in a few new scenes to tie them all together.
In fact, the movie is so dependent upon the fact it’s a spin-off from the show, it doesn’t take the time to define any back story which is why it never succeeds for all the reason the show does.batmanmrfreezesubzero12
It starts off simple enough, we’re shown a man living in the arctic with an Eskimo boy and his cryogenically frozen wife. For the Batman-ignorant, his name is Victor Fries (Ansara), a/k/a `Mr. Freeze’ – one of Batman’s supervillains whose power is based on ultra coldness, and he has a cool gun that can spray ice for hundreds of feet at anything (that gun never seems to run out of ammo, and they never explain how it’s powered either). His secluded home is accidentally invaded by a submarine crew which also destroys the casing of his frozen wife, Nora, who suffers from a rare blood disorder. Freeze winds up in Gotham City and forces Dr. Gregory Belson (voiced by George Dzundza) into helping her. The doctor is a shady character with a serious credit problem and helps out Freeze because he is told he’ll be rewarded soundly.

The real problem ensues when it turns out that the only available match of the rare blood type and necessary organs is Barbara Gordon (Bergman), the daughter of James Gordon (voiced by Bob Hastings) – Gotham’s Police Commissioner. Also for the Batman-uninformed, Barbara Gordon just happens to be Batgirl and the girlfriend of Dick Grayson (Lester) – a/k/a Robin.
It’s not too difficult to tell where this story’s going to go and what the net result of mixing all the appropriate characters in such a convenient plot will be. Superhero stories rely on these kind of coincidences on top of coincidences both for story and for comedy, but neither of those is resulted here. Instead, it’s just a lot of scenes of Mr. Freeze trying to capture Barbara Gordon, then Mr. Freeze arguing with the doctor, then Batman (Conroy) and Robin trying to locate Mr. Freeze’s secret lair while Babs makes several unsuccessful escape attempts.
subzero
The film has a very cyclical feeling. To say it’s predictable is an understatement. And given the fact it’s only a 67-minute-long movie doesn’t help much either.

There’s just so much more room for expansion here. Why not delve into Mr. Freeze’s history a little for those who aren’t familiar? Maybe we could feel a little sympathy for him because he certainly does seem to be concerned about his wife who is nothing more than a popsicle the entire film. Why not play up the connection between Freeze and Dr. Belson a little more? Why would such a supposedly respectful doctor be such a goon? And why not actually stick to the title and show Batman [for more than just the ending]? The comic books and the cartoon program have gone to extreme lengths to show that Batman is not just a guy who punches out the bad guys, but that he’s an extremely intelligent detective who more often than not relies on brain over brawn. To show him as only the typical superhero who goes against all the odds and performs the fantastic stunts is fine to placate to children, but I don’t think children would be too excited watching him do his thing since the story is so thin and light. A climax after only 20-odd minutes of actually storytelling is quite boring.

I hate to rag on `Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero,’ because it’s not meant to be taken very seriously, at least not by anyone over age 10. It just doesn’t seem like something the people behind the show would come up with considering all the material they have to work with. They do succeed in one aspect by making the film absolutely beautiful to look at, but with such resources available at their disposal, why not at least make something worth watching more than once?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Legends of the Dark Knight: issues 21-30

I was going to limit these entries to every 20 issues, but beginning with #21, the series went from a 5-issue story arcs to 3-issue story arcs. Which means it’s telling more tales in less space. So I guess we’re going to do this on a more frequent basis from now on.

Batman_Legends_of_the_Dark_Knight_Vol_1_22Faith (issues 21-23)

Written by Mike W. Barr. Penciled by Bart Sears. Inked by Randy Elliot

It’s not inconceivable that Batman would inspire the people of Gotham to rise up and become more vigilant themselves. In fact, it’s been done already – most notably in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. This story arc seems to be inspired by that, though the conditions that lead up to this event are quite different. In Faith, a former junkie named John Ackers recovers from a beating at the hands of the local mob boss and vows to turn his life around. He recruits an army of runaways and other street urchins and they don the Batsignal and use baseball bats as their weapon of choice. The police hate this, but Batman is okay with it since they aren’t killing anyone… yet.

faith1That’s a great premise for a story, especially within the context of Legends of the Dark Knight. The only problem is, this story lacks mystery since there’s no specific plot conflict to overcome. It’s just the rise of the “Bat Men” and their quick ascension into megalomania (Acker’s ascension, that is). It’s extremely difficult to believe that a ragtag group of kids with no combat or police training whatsoever can become this powerful. Had Ackers been a former cop, or someone with some kind of connection to the underworld, rather than just an anonymous junkie – this story would’ve been a lot more plausible. At one point he shoots Batman in the back three times at point blank range. Not surprisingly, all it takes is the removal of the bullets by Tompkins and Batman is back on his feet.

Bart Sears’ artwork is hit or miss. He’s great at page layout and using unconventional panel styles for cinematic effect. However, unless he’s drawing a close-up or a splash page, the characters are rather cartoony. It actually looks rather amateurish at times (ironic, since Sears was Wizard Magazine’s “How to draw like a comic book artist” columnist back in the early days). Notice that his faces look a lot like Rob Liefeld’s faces (well, the female characters, that is).

I must admit I liked the reduction of the story arc down to three issues instead of five; it keeps the story less bloated. Though this actually might’ve benefited from more character development and a more complex, evolving plot.

Score: 3/5

flyer1Flyer (issues 24-26)

Written by Howard Chaykin. Drawn by Gil Kane.

I’ve criticized every story arc in LOTDK, but I will say that they were all at least pretty good works. In the case of Flyer, it’s just plain bad.

This series is Murphy’s Law incarnate: everything that could’ve been bad about is bad. Kane’s artwork is ugly; it looks like it was drawn by a teenager with little artistic talent (ironic, consider he’s a veteran comic artist). The story has an interesting premise; Curt Eisenmann was a GCPD helicopter pilot until his bird went down thanks to Batman’s bats (a deliberate flashback to Year One). In the style of Robocop, he was badly injured, but rebuilt by his mad scientist mother – a former Nazi, apparently. But his mother hates him and lusts after Batman. She has Curt kidnap him and bring him to her supervillain laboratory where she tries to seduce Batman in the most unsexy way possible. The rest of the story involves Curt and his mother arguing while beating Batman to within an inch of his life.

That a crazy female villain would want to rape Batman in order to bear his child isn’t exactly new. We saw something similar to this with Ra’s Ah Ghul insisting that Batman marry his daughter Talia (she was always okay with it) in order to bear him an heir. That was always somewhat plausible within context. Here, Chaykin takes the route of cheesy exploitation cinema. This reads like a work of fetish fan fiction coupled with someone with a terrible Oedipus Complex. If this is intended to be satirical or comical it never appears as such and fails miserably.

Score: 1/5

Batman_Legends_of_the_Dark_Knight_Vol_1_27Destroyer (issue 27)

Part 2 of a 3-part crossover between Batman, Legends of the Dark Knight and Detective Comics.

Written by Alan Grant and Dennis O’Neil; drawn by Norm Breyfogle; Chris Sprouse and Bruce Patterson; and Jim Aparo and Mike Decarlo (respectively).

When LOTDK was first published, DC made a point of saying that it wasn’t intended to be part of current DCU continuity and the editors re-iterated this in the letters column monthly. But only two years into the run and that promise was broken? Pretty weak. Perhaps sales were down at the time and by forcing readers of the two regular Batman series to buy an issue they’d see how superior this comic was to the other two? That’s certainly the impression I got reading these three comics. The middle chapter was definitely easier and more pleasurable on the eyes, as well as on the fingers I might add. The higher grade paper was more comfortable to hold whereas the other two issues seemed so cheap in comparison. The computer coloring looked great, whereas the traditional coloring looked washed out and messy.

As for the story itself, it’s one I do recall reading at the time. It’s rather simple: an ex-Navy SEAL has gone nuts and is blowing up buildings around Gotham so that they don’t obscure the view of buildings designed by a 19th Century architect. Initially, Batman suspects terrorism, then insurance fraud, then he realizes it’s all about the art. A lot of typical comic book tropes occur throughout this series. It’s not nearly to the quality of some of the previous LOTDK runs, but it’s much better than the previous Flyer story arc. If anything, it’s par for the course.

Score: 3/5

Batman_Legends_of_the_Dark_Knight_Vol_1_28Faces (issues 28-30)

Written and drawn by Matt Wagner.

One the best Batman stories I’ve ever read was Matt Wagner’s Batman/Grendel crossover (the first one with the green covers). I remember him writing the Sandman Mystery Theater series back in the 90s, too. He definitely knows how to tell a good detective story and with Faces, it’s a good attempt at one.
Wagner_faces1Two-Face kidnaps a bunch of people with deformities and has one of them seduce a realtor into selling him a private island (that Bruce Wayne wanted to buy) for nothing. It’s meant to be a sanctuary for these “outsiders,” but none of them really have much motivation for this exodus.

What I liked was that this story didn’t just concentrate on Batman and his pursuit against Two-Face, it also tells a side story of the real estate agent. I’ve noticed telling parallel stories seems to be Wagner’s forte, and here it works pretty well.

The art is rather cartoony, though. In fact, it’s rather messy at times. Wagner’s style reminds me of Bruce Timm – the designer of Batman: The Animated Series. It makes for an odd read considering the tone is so grim and the art is so simplistic. I do like how he uses sequential art and creates unique, eccentric page layouts.

Score: 4/5

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Blind Fortune Teller | Gotham | vlog #16

When a snake dancer at Haly's Circus is murdered, James and Leslie investigates suspects. An old psychic approaches James, claiming to have received a message from the dead dancer. James is sceptical, and thinks he is covering up for the killer, who he deduces is the dancer's (and secretly the old psychic's) son Jerome. Jerome (Cameron Monaghan) has a psychotic breakdown and confesses to the murder, claiming to have hated her for her insistent "nagging." Elsewhere, Fish Mooney formulates a plan in order to save herself and the other prisoners when they discover that they were kidnapped so that their organs can be harvested. When costumers begin to steadily decrease at Oswald Cobblepot's newly obtained club, Zsasz gives Cobblepot a brain-washed Butch Gilzean who he says is knowledgeable when it comes to maintaining clubs. Barbara returns to Gotham to discover Ivy Pepper and Selina Kyle in her apartment. Taking advice from the two, Barbara attempts to re-unite with James but is enraged when she sees him kissing Leslie, though neither of them notice her. Bruce holds a board meeting at Wayne Enterprises and voices concern to the executives that the company is involved with criminal activities.
Originally aired 2/16/15
Written by Bruno Heller; directed by Jeffrey Hunt.

Movie review: Batman & Robin (1997)

batmanandrobinposterBelieve it or not, I never saw Batman & Robin in the summer of 1997 when it was originally released. I’m not really sure how that’s possible since I was very much into comics at the time. It was probably due to a busy work schedule and so little extra cash for entertainment back then. Or maybe it was because I was disappointed in Batman Forever and heard nothing but bad things about this movie. I figured I’d catch it on home video eventually but I never did… until last night.

Yes, it’s true. Up until now I had never seen Batman & Robin in its entirety. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of clips from various reviewers (see below); but I never once sat down and watched it from beginning to end. Going into this, I was expecting the absolute worst; something on an epic-fail scale of Waterworld, Cutthroat Island or Battlefield Earth. What I saw was Batman Forever: Redux. Having just watched that movie a few days prior, I realized this movie was more or less the same, but with the outrageous comical and campy elements maximized. In fact, I must say I am a bit baffled by the vitriolic hatred this movie receives because it’s quite clear from the moment it begins that it cannot be taken seriously. Consider that this is the opening scene:

SCENE: Batcave
Robin: I want a car! Chicks dig the car.
Batman: This is why Superman works alone.

Oh, did I use that exact same trope in my review of Batman Forever? If Joel Schumacher can do it, then why can’t I? I must admit that the montage of the Batsuits and the zoom-in on Batman and Robin’s butts made me laugh out loud. When a movie begins on this juvenile of a note you know it cannot – in a million years – be seen as anything approaching realistic or earnest. That was the tone set by the previous film, and it continues here to an even higher and more ridiculous degree. I think the people that hate this movie feel that way because they view it through the lens of a movie trying to be suspenseful or thrilling. Those previous mentioned “epic fails” bombed because they wanted to be taken seriously and didn’t realize how stupid they were. Batman & Robin knows it’s stupid, embraces its stupidity and never apologizes for it. Given that premise, I think it actually kind of works.


batmanandrobin

That’s not to say that I think this is a genuinely good movie, just that it’s not the god-awful unwatchable drivel I had been lead to believe it is. What makes bad movies truly bad is that they’re inconsistent. There really isn’t any inconsistency to Batman & Robin – it’s actually quite consistent with its silliness. Since it’s so inherently cheesy, you really can’t fault it for whatever unbelievable moments and elements it contains. Within this context, everything that happens is not just par for the course – it’s expected. If its clichés and tropes were missing, then it would be grating. Take it at face value, view it as a live action cartoon, and think of it as a comedy and it’s remarkably watchable.
And with that in mind, allow me to point out some of the things I liked about this flick:

Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a good villain

sl11batmanrobin


Much like Jack Nicholson in the original 1989 film, it looks like he’s having a blast with this role (if only Ah-nold were 1/100th the actor that Nicholson is). We usually associate him as playing the tough guy, so it’s pretty funny seeing him depicted as a buffoonish villain. A lot of people hate his constant puns, but I thought they were funny.

George Clooney is the best Batman of the Burton/Schumacher franchise

As I said in my reviews of Batman, Batman Returns and Batman Forever, I always thought Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer were incredibly stiff and monotone. Keaton was just too small in frame to pull off either Batman or Bruce Wayne, and Kilmer could’ve been better had he just emoted a little. In this movie, Clooney demonstrates actual range (though limited, at least it’s more than a 1-degree deviation). His constant head bobbing is a little annoying, but I can at least buy him as Batman/Bruce Wayne. I could even see him playing Batman earnestly a la the Christopher Nolan films (or maybe someday in the future as a retired Batman if they ever make The Dark Knight Returns into a live action movie).

cracked.com

There’s actually more than one female character!

Brivy
The three previous films all failed the Bechdel Test miserably, but this one passes it (barely). Not that Batman & Robin is a feminist manifesto, but it does feature three female characters instead of the usual one: Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), Barbara Wilson/Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), and Julie Madison (Elle MacPherson). And sure they’re all stock characters and sure Poison Ivy is just a redux of Catwoman and Barbara is a redux of Dick Grayson and Julie really doesn’t do anything other than stand there and look pretty, but at least they’re there is my point. I was hoping the Batgirl versus Poison Ivy fight sequence would last a bit longer than five seconds, but it was fun while it lasted. Of all the Burton/Schumacher/Nolan films, this is the only one to feature a female hero (as small as her role might be).

The villains don’t die in the end

If you know Batman, you know he has a no-killing-allowed honor code. That’s not something that works well in big Hollywood productions like these. He pretty much assassinated The Joker, The Penguin and Two-Face in the previous films; but here he’s more concerned with saving Gotham City. In fact, he actually needs Mr. Freeze’s help at the end. Granted, this was probably the lamest and least thrilling ending of the four Burton/Schumacher movies, but it was rather original.

It works as a comedy

Whereas Batman Forever desperately clung to the notion that it was a genuine action and adventure thriller (that was lighthearted in nature), Batman & Robin ups the ante to the extreme and goes all-out in its campiness. It even uses stock cartoon sound effects at some points. Pretty much everything that was meant to be funny in this movie I laughed or at least smirked at. I know a lot of people face-palm or forehead-to-desk when watching this movie, but for whatever reason it just didn’t bother me (including the infamous Bat Credit Card).

batman-credit-card1


Final Thoughts

Someone should get a Kickstarter going to have Batman & Robin adapted verbatim into an animated feature and drawn in the style of the old Filmation or Hanna-Barbera series like Super Friends. If viewed in that style, it would be a completely different (and more accurate) experience.

The Nostalgia Critic’s review (probably NSFW)