Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Bane"

“I will observe the Bat in action. And when I understand how he thinks and fights, I will break him.”

After Batman closes down another of his illegal operations, Rupert Thorne (John Vernon) decides he’s had enough and hires the assassin Bane (Henry Silva) to rid Gotham of its Dark Knight. As brainy as he is brawny, Bane studies his opponent carefully, knowing that defeating Batman could be the key to taking the city for himself.

At a brisk twenty minutes, this episode feels much like a whirlwind. “Bane” introduces us to the eponymous criminal mastermind (himself only introduced a year and change earlier in the comics). The show largely preserves the character’s visual design from Graham Nolan’s original concept – the massive bulk, the stylized luchador mask, and the tubes of Venom running into his skull – but I feel it shortchanges the character by making him a gun for hire, twice removed from the ostensible main villain of the episode. “Bane” is an episode that could have really benefited from the two-parter treatment, giving the titular villain room to breathe in a plot that does him fuller justice. One could imagine, for example, a “Bane, Part 1” in which Bane roundly thrashes Batman and defeats him in a cliffhanger ending before the Dark Knight recovers and gathers himself for a second chance against his adversary. 

There’s a persistent internet rumor that the producers of Batman: The Animated Series didn’t much care for Bane and regarded him as gimmicky. I’ve never been able to source that claim, but there’s circumstantial evidence in that he only appeared once more, on The New Batman Adventures (and, to be fair, once on Superman: The Animated Series), and never again as the lead villain. It’s possible that this lack of enthusiasm for the character speaks to the disappointing way he’s depicted in this episode. There is much about the character that is, however, the direct opposite of gimmicky; he’s a far cry, for example, from Doomsday, who was created roughly around the same time and for largely the same reason (to incapacitate his heroic rival for a time). Bane is among Batman’s smarter adversaries, able to plan methodically his nemesis’s downfall, but he has a specific code of honor that prevents him from becoming a wanton force of destruction. For my money, turning Bane into a contract killer cheapens him, because I like the idea that Batman represents not a job but a personal challenge for Bane. This episode approaches that concept, but it’s again devalued when Bane takes the idea from Thorne’s assistant Candice, herself caught in a halfhearted seduction plot. (And if you want to talk about characters who never got their due, let’s hear it for the ever-capable, ever-cunning Candice, who matched wits with Two-Face and Bane and still came out on top.)

It’s a shame that this episode didn’t hew closer to the “Knightfall” storyline from the comics, particularly since it’s quite obvious that writer Mitch Brian had read them. Brian includes the obligatory “Bane lifts Batman over his knee” shot, maintains the language of “breaking” him, and even pits Bane against Killer Croc as a first foray into Gotham’s underworld. Hats off to Croc, by the way, for a great first act in which he, astonishingly, does not attempt to throw a rock at Batman and Robin; he does, however, become the butt of a surprisingly effective Bat-joke when Batman dismisses him with a droll “Later, gator.” What’s missing, though, is the sense that Bane is a player in his own game; here, he’s just a pawn in someone else’s.

I’ve spent the bulk of this week’s review diminishing the episode for what it isn’t. In the moment, however, “Bane” is exactly the whirlwind I mentioned earlier. The episode proceeds briskly and ably, doing well what it sets out to do – tell a kid-friendly version of the “Knightfall” story inside of twenty minutes and within the constraints of the universe established by BtAS (that is to say, in deference to the mobster underpinnings of Gotham’s underworld, never wholly supplanted by the more theatrical supervillains). It’s only on further reflection that the episode emerges as something of a disappointment, because in the moment it was enough to make me want to dig out my Bane action figure, who could hoist aloft another figure and (with the aid of a switch on his back) throw them to the ground. Luchadors, indeed – there is something elemental about a big guy taking on Batman, and this episode manages to walk the line between the philosophical weight of Tom Hardy’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and the heroically lunkheaded version we got from the late Jeep Swenson in Batman and Robin

Original Air Date: September 10, 1994

Writer: Mitch Brian

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villains: Bane (Henry Silva), Rupert Thorne (John Vernon), and Killer Croc (Aron Kincaid)

Next episode: “Baby-Doll,” in which I recall Paul Dini turning in his first and only clunker.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

Monday, April 16, 2018

Monday at the Movies - April 16, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, a movie described by the Hollywood Reporter as “the Godfather 2 of road movies.” 

The Trip to Italy (2014)– The Trip was a miniseries turned film about Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, a pair of comedians playing fictionalized versions of themselves, touring the English countryside, reviewing restaurants, and antagonizing each other. Its sequel is the best kind of sequel – more of the same, self-aware of the absurdity of just doing it again, and just as riotously funny as the first. Coogan and Brydon continue to one-up each other on every topic from careers to impressions (on the latter, they’re in Italy, so you can imagine the Godfather allusions that proliferate, including one direct reenactment), from philosophical observations to precise trivia about seminal English poets. The pair have an undeniable combative chemistry, which really manifests in the deleted scenes, where they occasionally break “character” and laugh at the absurd rhetorical circles into which they chase each other. Where Coogan was more the straight man in the first Trip, exasperated by the ease with which Brydon can trigger a laugh, here he’s more laidback, more ready to get in on the fun, as when a conversation about Batman delves first into dueling Michael Caine impersonations before musing on the fact that Tom Hardy is “in a contest to see who can be the least understandable.” A subplot about infidelity is surprisingly sobering in The Trip to Italy, wallpapered over though it is by a stammering Hugh Grant impression, and one wonders if director Michael Winterbottom is musing about boorish vacuity or if he’s likening the fictional avatars to the storied biographies of the poets they’re chasing. There is a third film, The Trip to Spain, and the laughs-per-minute quotient here guarantees that the third will be well worth seeing.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you next week!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Catwalk"

“I was the cat who walked by herself, and the city was my hunting ground.”

Retired from a life of crime, Selina Kyle, the former Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau), finds herself unable to fit into Gotham high society. One gala event ends when she butts heads with Veronica Vreeland (Marilu Henner), apologizing to their mutual flame Bruce Wayne for her struggle to blend in. Outside, though, Selina receives a tempting offer from Scarface and The Ventriloquist (George Dzundza) – a way to play to her strengths and stick it to the Vreeland name. But even the best robberies have a catch, and soon the feline felon finds herself in a cat and mouse game between Scarface and Batman.

Not only had I forgotten entirely about this episode, I was equally amazed to (re)discover that Paul Dini was its author – he of the greatest episodes Batman: The Animated Series has ever seen. So “Catwalk” is something of a double treat, or perhaps even a triple when we consider the wildly unexpected team-up of Catwoman and Scarface. As good as Scarface’s debut episode, “Read My Lips,” was, this episode might even be better; moreover, it’s far and away the best Catwoman episode thus far, remaining faithful to this incarnation’s animal rights activism without losing sight of the cat burglar core of the character. Dini doesn’t give her cat fever or turn her into a literal cat-woman but rather plays up her flirtatious rapport with Batman and her weakness for shiny things.

That a Paul Dini script is unbearably clever is no surprise by this point. As ever, Dini gets right down to the nugget of his characters and bounces them off each other in unforeseen ways. “I needed a dummy to keep the cops busy” is a fantastic line when you put it in the mouth of a ventriloquist dummy, and the idea that an enraged Catwoman might see Scarface as a “scratching post” is the kind of gag that’s obvious in hindsight but takes a special kind of mind to put together. The opening and closing narration, in which Catwoman likens herself to something out of Rudyard Kipling, is perhaps too clever by half, especially for a show that has largely eschewed voiceover narration, but it does remind one of the best bits of “Tyger, Tyger,” in which Kevin Conroy was called upon to read some William Blake poetry. But Dini keeps it light, including one of his many riffs on Looney Tunes when Scarface growls, his unique speech impediment giving an even better impression, “I t’ought I taw a puddy tat.”

I mentioned that this is Catwoman’s finest episode, and it’s because Dini is careful to give her an arc that takes stock of her history on the show but doesn’t bind itself to that odd batch of storylines. (Remember, in her debut, Catwoman fought international terrorism in order to save some mountain lions, because apparently there are wild mountain lions in Gotham City.) Even just within the boundaries of this episode, Dini manages to give Catwoman an arc that’s better than anything she’s had to date: she’s a criminal trying to go straight for the man she loves, but she can’t escape that part of her that wants to punish the morally bankrupt and line her own pockets in the process. The temptation Scarface presents is all too apparent, and Dini ably scripts the nuances of their first meeting, in which Catwoman first scoffs at taking orders from a “log” before realizing that his plan might be mutually advantageous. Her fury in the third act and her impatience with the simpering Ventriloquist gives her the kind of dynamic range Dini has always brought to villains like Harley Quinn, The Mad Hatter, and Poison Ivy.

It’s hard not to fall in love with an episode that features the memorable line, “Could you please give me a hand? This dinosaur seems to have fallen on me.” It’s equally hard to fathom that there was a forgotten Dini gem in the pile. But for handily the best Catwoman episode since “Almost Got ’Im,” “Catwalk” is one that shouldn’t be missed.

Original Air Date: September 13, 1995

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villains: Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau) and The Ventriloquist and Scarface (George Dzundza)

Next episode: “Bane,” in which the show does its strongest anti-drug episode yet.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Last Jedi (2017) [Score-Only]

Anyone who has known me long enough has heard me say some version of the following: so much of what works in Star Wars is due to the music of John Williams. I said over and over when I reviewed the prequels four years ago that if anything in those films works, it’s because John Williams crafted scores that, quite frankly, the films neither deserved nor lived up to. I even claimed, “Put the dialogue on mute, and the score alone could carry the plot better than the acting.”

With the home video release of The Last Jedi, I finally have the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is, because the digital copy of the film includes a score-only version – that’s the visuals, the John Williams score, and nothing else; no sound effects, no dialogue, not even subtitles to walk you through the film. It’s just you and the maestro. I won’t say that it’s the definitive version of the film, and I won’t say that the score-only version will necessarily work for everyone; my sense is that it might work better with a few listens to the score under your belt, because it’ll be easier to notice how the score is playing off the visuals when you have a sense of where the score is going. But I will say that it’s a special treat to watch The Last Jedi with Williams alone in your ears, particularly for those who haven’t been impressed with the Sequel Trilogy’s score work thus far. John Williams is still doing grand work, if only we had ears to hear it.

(I’m going to loosen the spoiler reins a bit, and by dint of talking about the score I can’t help but spoil a few things, particularly character interactions. I’ll keep it to a minimum, but please do watch The Last Jedi; it rises in my estimations each time I see it.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Time Out of Joint"

“If it’s any comfort, my revenge will encompass more than just you. I intend to pass a most timely sentence on the entire judicial system.”

In retrospect, it should have been obvious, but Batman and Robin are shocked when Temple Fugate – the Clock King (Alan Rachins) – steals an antique timepiece at auction by using a device that allows him to slip between seconds and freeze time. The Dynamic Duo rightly assumes that Fugate is about to continue his quest for vengeance against Mayor Hamilton Hill (Lloyd Bochner), but stopping a man who can stop time is an entirely different sort of challenge.

This episode tickles a lot of my fancies, beginning with the title’s reference to my favorite Shakespeare play (though it’s a real shame we never hear Alan Rachins deliver that line in this episode). Moreover, the episode challenges our conception of what a Batman story can do while simultaneously proving the elasticity of the character in his ability to accommodate something like this episode’s far-out science-fiction concept of altering the passage of time. You’re probably sick of hearing me say that Batman stories can go anywhere in a way that other characters can’t oblige, but this episode proves just how effective Batman’s detective skills can be when faced with an adversary whose modus operandi defies the very laws of physics. Simply put, Batman has to imagine himself into another universe in order to stop the Clock King.

And hello to the Clock King, the maestro of minutes, the sultan of seconds, and – I will go so far as to assert – the most underrated villain in the rightly well-regarded canon of BtAS episodes. At only two episodes, the Clock King leaves me screaming for more, more, more – more of his unique elitist snobbery, more of his pinpoint precision, more of his clever crimes, and more of that astoundingly elegant costume design. In this episode, he trades in his brown suit for a sleek black one, though he retains his clockface spectacles and minute-hand cane. He also clings to his single-minded desire for revenge on Mayor Hill, a drive that puts all of Gotham in danger through that particularly comic book form of metonymy (e.g., you have wounded me, ergo the city you lead must suffer). I had previously described Rachins’s performance as “an arrogant nasal clip of a voice, a perfectly irritated how-dare-you quality that can’t believe Batman would interfere with his perfect plans,” and I haven’t come up with a better descriptor. Now that we’ve met The Riddler (we hadn’t by the time of Fugate’s debut in “The Clock King”), it’ll forever be a tremendous sorrow that this show didn’t pair them up for the ultimate battle of wits.

Though I recalled liking this episode, it presented a few surprises. I was pleasantly surprised to see this episode riff on “See No Evil,” an episode which I had assumed no one else remembered. “So we don’t have another invisible man running loose,” Batman muses, a nod to another episode which strained the limits of believability but which was nevertheless ably carried by Batman. (Both “Time Out of Joint” and “See No Evil” were, incidentally, directed by BtAS mainstay Dan Riba.) I was also delighted to hear Roscoe Lee Browne in a small role as Dr. Wakati, the unwitting inventor of Fugate’s chrono-device. Browne has a long and illustrious pedigree as an actor, but this reviewer will always remember him as the definitive Wilson Fisk on the mid-90s Spider-Man cartoon, which shared a curious number of its alumni with Batman: The Animated Series (including, most bizarrely, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., as Doctor Octopus).

The Clock King’s pair of appearances stands as a great example of fine episodes that you wouldn’t expect of this show but which display the level of craft, thoughtfulness, and entertainment that made this series so much more than a kid’s cartoon. Back to back, “The Clock King” and “Time Out of Joint” are a case study in how to introduce and develop a villain in two distinct single episodes, a fine golden moment for a supremely underrated villain.

Original Air Date: October 8, 1994

Writers: Alan Burnett and Steve Perry

Director: Dan Riba

Villain: The Clock King (Alan Rachins)

Next episode: “Catwalk,” in which two unlikely villains have a team-up I can’t believe I didn’t remember.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

Monday, April 2, 2018

Monday at the Movies - April 2, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, I double the number of John Wayne movies I’ve seen in my life.

The Searchers (1956)– How do you review a film that was in the inaugural class of the National Film Registry? It’s hard to believe that this is only the second John Wayne movie I’ve seen in my life, or that it’s roundly considered a classic and I’ve only just gotten to it with more decades of birthdays under my belt than I’d care to admit. But maybe it’s a good thing that I’ve only just seen The Searchers, because so much of what I enjoyed about the film was the level of deliberate craft on display, which has to be appreciated before it can be enjoyed. Take the starring performance of John Wayne, deliberately self-conscious in a world that doesn’t quite have room for him – reflected in the way other characters treat him, but also in the number of doorways he has to stoop to enter. As Ethan Edwards, Wayne is notable as a character whose moral center the film clearly endorses – he is, after all, the hero – but his narrative arc isn’t contingent on the other characters in the film coming around to his way of seeing things. Director John Ford is not interested in that kind of metaphorical harmony; he is instead interested in surprisingly long takes, harsh and unforgiving landscapes, and all the ways that Ethan bristles against the world he inhabits. The Searchers is the kind of film that I am sure I will need to see more than once to fully comprehend it, now that I know the basic shape of it, but on first viewing it looks pretty good to my eyes.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you next week!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Harlequinade"

“And here you thought I was just another bubble-headed, blonde bimbo. Well, the joke’s on you – I’m not even a real blonde!”

Gotham’s worst nightmare has come to life – The Joker (Mark Hamill) has taken possession of an atomic weapon, and he’s just crazy enough to use it. With the mayor insistent on covering up the threat to avoid a panic, Batman realizes he doesn’t have time to catch The Joker on his own. He’ll need the help of a mind as twisted as Joker’s, so he deputizes Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) to help him catch her puddin’ before he turns Gotham City into a crater.

By now you’re probably sick of me saying it, but “Harlequinade” demands I repeat the mantra that’s guided me through this rewatch: the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series are written by Paul Dini, and the best Paul Dini episodes invariably star The Joker and/or his checkered jester moll, Harley Quinn. And boy is “Harlequinade” a soaring return to form for the show after last week’s letdown, “The Terrible Trio.” This episode is filled with a bonkers energy, from its opening at a gangland arms auction to the very premise of Harley riding shotgun in the Batmobile, through the roller coaster of emotions as Harley realizes that, yes, Mr. J is actually going to detonate this bomb.

In traditional theatrical pantomime, the harlequinade is the moment when the jester and the harlequin take center stage, and so it’s quite appropriate that “Harlequinade” is a real farce of an episode, with Batman ceding control of the investigation and the narrative to Harley Quinn. The result is wildly entertaining, as Harley proves to be an exceedingly poor substitute for Robin; she has her own grappling gun, yes, but it’s in the shape of a clown head, and it inevitably bonks her on the noggin. She ably defers the suspicion of gangster Boxy Bennett (voiced by Dick Miller, in a definitive mob boss accent), but it involves apparently betraying Batman before belting into a violent rendition of “Say that We’re Sweethearts Again” (“And I thought it was a lark / When you kicked me in the park / But now I think it was rude”).

When I reviewed “Harley and Ivy,” I had said that it was “the start of a thematic trilogy for Harley,” of which “Harlequinade” is the ostensible second entry in Harley’s peculiar attempts to go straight and fly away from The Joker. As before, Harley seems aware that her relationship with The Joker is unhealthy – her musical interlude explicates as much – and yet she finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. “He’s a genius,” she swoons; “it’s just a joke.” Perhaps more than any episode before, Arleen Sorkin really shines as Harley Quinn, a role quite literally written for her and which she owned in ways no other performer has quite accessed. She’s believable in every iteration of Harley this episode presents – lovesick puppy, independent woman, serenading siren, white-hot rage, demented admiration – “Harlequinade” asks so much of her and yet she rises to every challenge.

The beautiful tragedy of Harley Quinn – at least, as far as she’d be presented on BtAS – is that she comes so very close to learning her lesson, only to fall for her puddin’ one more time. And in a way, how could she not? She and Joker are perfectly evenly matched, furious anger and creative flair unequalled by any soul in Gotham. Dini pads the episode out with quintessential Joker moments – his old-style bathing suit, his aviator’s cap and tommy gun – but the episode is careful to give Harley her own unique touches, like her love for her hyenas, her need to “slip into something more comfortable” (namely, her red-and-black costume), and her “ha-hacienda.” Dini is such an eccentric writer that his episodes are filled with so many lovely touches, but he’s also a writer who understands the souls of his characters, even if they are warped and perverse. They love each other, and we can’t help but love them right back. “Baby,” Joker closes the episode by telling Harley, “you’re the greatest!” And on the subject of “Harlequinade,” I can’t help but agree. It’s one of the best.

Original Air Date: May 23, 1994

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villains: The Joker (Mark Hamill), Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin), and Boxy Bennett (Dick Miller)

Next episode: “Time Out of Joint,” in which an underrated villain returns, “faster than a speeding bullet.”

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

Monday, March 26, 2018

Monday at the Movies - March 26, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” Today we look at a forgotten entry in the history of comics at the movies.

Dick Tracy (1945) – There’s a video of me from an age younger than five, reading (or reciting) the names of characters from Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy adaptation. Imagine my surprise to learn that there were not one, but four, preceding adaptations of the iconic Chester Gould comic strip from the RKO studio. It seems that these films have been largely forgotten because of their B-picture quality, filmed quite transparently on a tight budget with a dearth of recognizable players (though Boris Karloff would ultimately appear in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome [1947]). Morgan Conway stars as Dick Tracy; though he lacks the chiseled profile and yellow coat that Beatty brought to the role, he plays the detective like a lean noir Fred MacMurray, avuncular but never resting in his pursuit of justice. In fact, I was surprised at how lean and noir the whole film is – at a tight 61 minutes, the film does all the beats of a police procedural, and it does so with an atmosphere of surprisingly effective dread and a soundtrack that recalls The Maltese Falcon on more than one occasion. I was also struck by how effectively the film apes the Gould comic, with narrative pauses to explain forensic clues (like footprints from a puddle of oil or tire tracks leading off into a garage); moreover, the moments when Tracy interrogates a suspect are framed like comic strip panels, over which one can almost imagine a nervous speech bubble or Gould’s caricatured linework. The film is not ultimately a slamdunk, though it is about the best B-movie treatment of Dick Tracy one could imagine; its villain, Splitface, is rather underwhelming, especially given the more famous foes who appear penciled over the opening credits, and Conway feels somewhat undercooked as Tracy. But what is surprising is how quickly and how effectively the film captures the ethos of the Gould comic strip, a noteworthy if forgotten installment in the exciting history of comics on film.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you next week!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Terrible Trio"

“Ah, therein lies the problem. After all, what do the rajahs do when there are no more tigers to hunt?”

I’m at a loss on how to summarize this episode. Usually I try to retell the plot in an exciting way, giving a full summary of the first act and teasing what’s to come, but there is really no way to make “The Terrible Trio” exciting or interesting. The eponymous threesome are a band of spoiled rich kids who dress like a fox, a vulture, and a shark to rob from the rich and give to themselves, and it takes far too long for Batman and Robin to catch them.

Bruce Timm has notoriously apologized for “The Terrible Trio,” decrying it as “my nomination for all-time worst dcau ep[isode].” I’d have to take that under advisement, perhaps in the form of a “Bottom 10” list – we’ve had some real stinkers in the bunch – but this episode is surprisingly, disappointingly, basic. The plot is something much closer to the less scientific bits of a CSI episode, and aside from the fact that it takes place in Gotham, nothing about the scale of this case ought to draw Batman’s attention. For all the high-stakes action we’ve seen Batman undertake – for heaven’s sake, next week’s episode literally threatens Gotham with an atomic bomb – a trio of privileged fraternity brothers seems laughably under-menacing.

Then again, maybe I’m reacting to the fact that this episode essentially stars the Terrible Trio, with Batman in a minor supporting role, and these characters are so deplorable in their very essence that spending any amount of time with them quickly becomes unbearable. For all their faults, the villains of Batman: The Animated Series have often been the best part of the show because of their entertainment value, their tortured souls, or their Shakespearean flaws. But the Terrible Trio is just, well, terrible. They’re grotesque caricatures of the affluent, with nothing redemptive or even entertaining about them. Their voices are nigh indistinguishable, a rare misfire from casting director Andrea Romano. But I don’t know that it’s fair to lay any of the blame at her feet, especially because everything else about the episode is so bland and uninspiring that the voice cast weirdly fits into that atmosphere.

As I usually do with lackluster episodes, I can point to a few pieces of gold in “The Terrible Trio.” The visual design of the animal masks is a good starting point, particularly the unsettling way we can’t see any moving mouths; however, the episode biffs that touch because we can see the wearer’s mouth beneath the mouth of the mask, and that’s not always moving either. Some of the best moments in “The Terrible Trio” belong, unsurprisingly, to Kevin Conroy, who gives the necessary humanity to this episode. When one of the trio asks snarkily if Bruce Wayne stoops to thanking his garbageman, Conroy gives a strikingly heartfelt “If I happen to run into him.” There’s a reprise of one of my all-time favorite Batman gags, in which Bruce admits slyly, “Well, I do have a nightlife.” Finally, Conroy gets one of his heavyweight champion moments of righteous indignation when he fumes, “Scoundrels like these are worse than the Joker. At least he’s got madness as an excuse.” Conroy’s Batman is at his best when he’s shouting with all the divine rage of his vigilante alter ego, and seeing a set of characters who ought to be his precise opposite number puts Batman in a position of furious integrity.

That’s the thing that disappoints me most about “The Terrible Trio” – it’s objectively bad and its creators have distanced themselves from it, but there’s a nugget of something quite good at hand. That’s an old chestnut in this review series – Batman: The Animated Series almost never missteps with everything it’s got – but this episode might be the most boring misstep in the show’s long and storied catalog.

Original Air Date: September 11, 1995

Writers: Alan Burnett and Michael Reaves

Director: Frank Paur

Villains: The Fox (Bill Mumy), The Vulture (David Jolliffe), and The Shark (Peter Scolari)

Next episode: “Harlequinade,” in which Batman sponsors a jailbreak, Harley croons a tune, and The Joker considers buying a goldfish.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Take Two Tuesday: Justice League (2017) or... Looking at the League through Snyder-Colored Glasses, Everything is Whedon Now

Last year, I spent more than four months going through Batman v Superman in exhaustive detail, and so it may not come as a surprise to readers of this blog that I do occasionally find it difficult to remain objective about this sort of thing. Though I maintain that there is objective gold in BvS, occluded by its occasional thematic indigestibility, I freely admit that much of what I like about Justice League is born out of my desire to like the movie.

I can see why the average filmgoer would not have liked this film, and I can certainly sympathize with the disciples of Zack Snyder (largely being one myself). As before, I do not want to relitigate the “Snyder v Whedon: Dawn of Reshoots” guessing game; indeed, I’d wager that within five years, if Snyder’s recent social media presence is any barometer, we’ll know more concretely about one or both sides of the question. What I think is key, though, is not to think of this as a Snyder film – it isn’t. It is closer to a Joss Whedon film, particularly his Avengers duology, but like the Justice League comic itself it more closely resembles a “greatest hits” collection of all the things that work so far about the DC universe. We have the strong casting of Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, and Henry Cavill; we have the striking visual design of Gotham, Metropolis, and Themyscira; and we get new pieces bolted on to those aspects, including – most striking on this rewatch – a terrifically engaging Ezra Miller as The Flash, whose boisterous Spider-Man charm is a brilliant audience substitute for a guy who’s really just excited to be in the company of gods and heroes.

Sitting a few feet from the screen on home video rather than dozens of feet in the theater, the film looks different. Some of the CGI on Henry Cavill’s Gumby mouth looks dodgier, though Steppenwolf acquits himself better, and there are at least two surprising moments when a green screen is solidly visible (once on Aquaman’s cheek, once on Flash’s boot). Where Batman v Superman worked very hard to bring superheroes into our world and give us a stylized vision of the struggles of their souls, Justice League follows instead the giddiness of The Flash and runs with an aesthetic that reminds one of the original X-Men film, in which the prevailing mood was, “Look, the comics are walking around!” While a lot of folks took Whedon to task for apparently altering the color grading of the film, I think it helps distance the film from the “Snyder Cut” we may never see, instead taking the movie into a surrealistic cartoon corner that feels more like a comic book come to life, rather than a comic book coming into my life.

On rewatch, consciously trying to watch Justice League as the next superhero film in a long tradition and looking for points of connection rather than disconnect, it does feel very much like an episode of the 2001-2004 Justice League cartoon as informed by The Avengers. We have the same emphasis on team dynamics, informed by the unhealthy mistrust that, for better or for worse, holds the Avengers together. Whedon (or Snyder – at this point, who cares?) cribs a few notes from his playbook with a scene that echoes the “we’re a timebomb” argument from The Avengers; in the film’s climax, which I previously described as “airlifted from Sokovia,” reprises the family-as-microcosm we saw menaced by Ultron, which in turn syncs up with Batman’s direction to The Flash: “Save one.” Save one, then a truck, then the world. These heroes ought to be about hope, about the belief that one human being can become something greater and can save the world, and in Justice League I believe that Batman learns that lesson enough to teach it to the next generation. I buy that Wonder Woman is the gifted and capable leader of the team. I buy that Flash and Cyborg rise to the challenge. And I completely accept that the very idea of Superman is enough to make them all believe in the promise of tomorrow, not least because I believe that too.

Back in November, I found myself enjoying Justice League. Five months later, I still liked Justice League, but I liked it from a different angle, a sideways enjoyment of the film for what it was and not in spite of what it could have been. I don’t know that I will go to the mat for Justice League in the way that I will, every time, for Batman v Superman, and I will always believe that there is a universe out there somewhere in which Zack Snyder was given the time and the resources to complete the vision he introduced with Man of Steel. I had hoped to change minds about Batman v Superman with my “10 @ a Time” series, but I accept that it’s not worth the effort to try with Justice League. You get out of this movie what you seek to find in it, and as it stands, this Justice League is fun enough to justify each matching set of hours I choose to spend with it.