Friday, October 20, 2017

10 @ a Time - Batman v Superman, Part 14

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Part Fourteen: Gotham Roast, Well Done

Welcome to the fourteenth installment of “10 @ a Time: Batman v Superman.” Last week we saw eight ways to read the “Martha” scene (ten, if you read all the way through the post). Today, we return and begin again to save Martha and fend off an abomination.

[For those playing the home game, we’re looking at the “Ultimate Edition” home video release; for today’s 10@T installment, we’re looking from 2:13:06 to 2:24:15.]

"Pew pew pew!"
Time is of the essence in this installment of the film, and as we wind down (I’d guesstimate we have about three more segments of “10@T” to go) it’s kind of astonishing to think about how much the film still manages to pack in. As I’ve said before, I would much rather a film be overfull of substance than of style and would prefer it if a film packed in too much plot rather than protract too little. That being said, it’s a funny little coincidence that this segment begins with a shot of a clock, ticking down from ten minutes – it’s as if the film knew I’d be reviewing it in this manner.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Birds of a Feather"

“What's the matter, Penguin? Maybe the cream of society’s curdled, huh?”

Upon his latest release from prison, The Penguin (Paul Williams) finds himself alone, dogged by a Dark Knight who mistrusts his intentions. A call from socialite Veronica Vreeland (Marilu Henner) sets Penguin on a path to reform and perhaps true love, but poor Penguin remains unaware of Veronica’s true intentions – to use Penguin as an accessory to spice up her dimming importance in Gotham’s social scene.

“Birds of a Feather” is this amazingly unsettling blend of tragedy and comedy that behaves like something very unique on Batman: The Animated Series. We had high tragedy in “Heart of Ice” and laugh-out-loud comedy as recently as last week with “Almost Got ’Im,” but to blend the two on a level that feels self-consciously operatic isn’t something the show does very often. We’ll see a similar plotline further down the line in “Riddler’s Reform,” but where that episode delves into Riddler’s psyche, this one asks pointed questions about how precisely how monstrous Penguin can be compared to the suave sociopaths jousting for party-crowd superiority.

For being an episode not written by Paul Dini, the script is surprisingly punchy. There are several lines in this episode that catch one off guard, like the afore-quoted prison guard’s quip to The Penguin. Veronica’s plot is hatched when her friend Pierce – think a droll, effete Jimmy Stewart – recalls with an impeccable deadpan, “Remember when the Joker crashed Muffy Van Alten’s last affair? He robbed us blind, but hey, what a giggle.” Then there’s Penguin himself, who ascends the ladder of metafiction amid the episode’s fiery climax astride a giant flaming dragon to intone, “And who says opera has to be boring?” If opera were like this, it might have a less patrician reputation.

You’ll see below that I list The Penguin as the villain of this episode, but it’s equally viable to say that Veronica Vreeland is the episode’s real antagonist. The writers of this episode do a remarkably fearless job portraying a human being as vile as Veronica and yet inescapably human; indeed, it does appear that Veronica grows disgusted with her own role in treating Penguin like a social prop, particularly when it seems Penguin really does have feelings for her. The episode allows us to fill in whether Veronica’s change of heart is genuine or merely convenient, but it’s not afraid to let us know how contemptible her plan is and how black her soul must at least initially be. (Her spineless friend Pierce comes off even worse, though coding him as gay seems a bridge too far these twenty years later.)

Meanwhile, Paul Williams turns in a killer performance as Penguin. Even if his episodes haven't been the best, he’s done well to play the pseudo-sophisticate in episodes past, winding his way around impressive polysyllabic tongue twisters and bird puns, but here he’s given the opportunity to humanize Penguin. We see that Penguin’s reputation is important to him, that his image matters, but we also get to glimpse some of the acute loneliness the bird-man feels. The closest thing he has to a friend in this episode is Batman, which isn’t saying much; Batman comes around to believing in Penguin’s efforts to reform, but let’s not forget this episode largely consists of Batman stalking Penguin to see if he’ll slip up. The tragedy of The Penguin, then, is that no one gets past seeing him as a monster; no one looks at the soul of The Penguin. (Sidebar: for a twisted take on this episode, seek out Joker’s Asylum: The Penguin, a tale in which Penguin’s own paranoia prevents him from falling in love; the standout sequence is a chilling page in which Penguin presumes he’s being laughed at and proceeds systematically to destroy the laugher’s life.)

This idea of a lovelorn lonely Penguin has caught on in recent years; you’ve seen it on Gotham, for one, but it’s a staple Penguin story (just like the one where he runs for mayor, also late of Gotham) because it accesses something true and unique about the core of the character. And if every Bat-villain is a dark reflection of Batman himself, it’s because Batman is a monstrous perversion of Bruce Wayne that could destroy his life if he lets it. At Batman’s core, though, is a good man; Penguin defaults to a monster with delusions of sophistication and is all too happy to revenge himself on Gotham. He is, in a sense, Shylock with an exploding umbrella, and Veronica is the spitting image of Venice itself.

Original Air Date: February 8, 1993

Writers: Chuck Menville and Brynne Stephens

Director: Frank Paur

Villain: The Penguin (Paul Williams)

Next episode: “What Is Reality?”, in which The Riddler mishears the Olivia Newton-John lyric as “Let’s get digital / digital.”

Friday, October 13, 2017

10 @ a Time - Batman v Superman, Part 13

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Part Thirteen: Martha

Welcome to the thirteenth installment of “10 @ a Time: Batman v Superman.” Last week we got right down to fighting, without losing sight of the film’s ongoing interrogation of what it means to be human. Today, we’ll visit the hill on which I’ve chosen to die.

[For those playing the home game, we’re looking at the “Ultimate Edition” home video release; for today’s 10@T installment, we’re looking from 2:10:56 to 2:13:06.]

"Why did you say that name?!"
I’ve rewritten this opening paragraph several times, my approaches ranging from waxing philosophical about significant single words from 2016 (“covfefe” was, alas, in 2017) to effusive rage at the glib and willfully ignorant crowd who sneered at these two minutes. I’ve thought about going into a deep historical dive (Martha Kent’s original name was Mary, then Sarah, then back to Mary), considered recapping the film to this point to get us primed, and mulled simply dropping the word MARTHA in big bold letters. What do you say about a moment like “Martha”?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Almost Got 'Im"

“The fact of the matter is, we each have an ‘Almost Got ’Im’ Batman story. I know mine’s the best, but let’s hear yours anyway!”

It’s poker night in Gotham City, and gathered around the table are those rogues who’ve managed to evade capture – The Joker’s dealing, with Poison Ivy joining Two-Face, Killer Croc, and the Penguin. Between hands of cards, each villain shares an “almost got ’im” story about how Batman slipped through their deathtraps. Joker saves the best – his own – for last, but he’ll be surprised to learn who’s holding the winning hand when the night is up.

“Almost Got ’Im” is handily the second greatest episode of the show (between this and “Mad Love,” at least, it’s a dead heat), and one can almost hear Paul Dini crack his knuckles over the title card, getting ready to show us how it’s done. “Almost Got ’Im” is full of sizzling dialogue, with recognizable giddiness emanating from Dini’s typewriter. “I find your petty machinations mildly diverting,” Penguin interjects at one point, “but for sheer criminal genius, none surpasses my latest ornothologically-inspired entoilment.” Dini takes Penguin’s self-aggrandizing sophistication to the nth degree, feeding the patrician Penguin a thesaurus to console him over his losses against Batman. Of course, the episode has also been remembered as the source of Killer Croc’s famously proud declaration, “I threw a rock at him!” and the many layers on which that joke operates are a testament to Dini’s creative dexterity.

“Almost Got ’Im” masterfully mashes up everything that works about Batman: The Animated Series, putting the show into an anthology format similar to “P.O.V.” (BtAS would go this route at least twice more, with “Holiday Knights” and “Legends of the Dark Knight,” the latter an homage to previous interpretations of Batman, while the former stands as a Christmas tradition for all respectable households.) Here, Dini takes these individual segments to give us the third acts of episodes we didn’t get to see – Poison Ivy’s Halloween bombing spree, Two-Face’s $2 million heist, and Penguin’s aviary of doom – and they’re great moments of storytelling because they juxtapose each villain’s idiosyncrasies with Batman’s (largely silent) relentless pursuit of justice.

As most Dini episodes do, “Almost Got ’Im” ends up becoming a Joker episode, and it’s mad alchemy when Dini and Mark Hamill get together under these circumstances. From Joker’s stint as a talk show host – “Living proof that you don’t have to be crazy to host this show, but it helps!” – to his perpetual cheating at cards, right down to the zany perfection of every giggle and guffaw, “Almost Got ’Im” bottles the anything-goes unpredictability of The Joker and rides it into a topsy-turvy sunset where villains are heroes, heroes are villains, and the phone book is the funniest thing around. As “the man who puts a smile on your face whether you want it or not,” Hamill’s Joker is irrepressible, darkly comedic in a way that’s both infectiously funny and downright uncomfortable (as in the best he ought to be), and watching this episode on Hamill’s birthday felt like a special way to pay tribute to the definitive screen Joker.

And speaking of definitive, can we take a moment to acknowledge that this is far and away the best Catwoman episode? Dini dispenses with all that animal rights activism and lycanthropic claptrap, instead portraying Catwoman as a seductive partner to Batman, just shy of the right side of the law. Her chief contributions to the episode include rescuing Batman and coyly flirting with him on a rooftop – the latter of which is surprisingly reciprocated, as only Batman can, with a terse but emotionally loaded “Maybe.” It’s wise of Dini to dismiss what had been done with/to Catwoman up to this point, and it’s notable that much of where Catwoman has been in the last twenty-five years is neatly encapsulated in this sequence. (Hush and Tom King’s current interpretation of Catwoman, I’ll argue, owe much to this scene.)

Before watching this episode for the umpteenth time, I was musing about the villains who didn’t make the cut, but I quickly realized that Dini carefully constructed his cast of characters such that any other villain wouldn’t fit; it is, to push the pun, a perfect hand. The Riddler would have been too smart for the crowd and would have seen through Batman’s trap quite quickly; conversely, Clayface would have overlapped with Killer Croc’s less than cerebral nature. Mr. Freeze hardly seems the sort to play cards, while I’d forgotten entirely that Mad Hatter’s off-screen capture is the inciting action here. (We haven’t met Ra’s al Ghul yet; see “Mr. Freeze” above.) No, Dini’s done it well; The Joker is a natural for the dealer, and Penguin’s a perfect foil for the dimwitted Croc; moreover, it’s a real continuity tickler to see Two-Face and Poison Ivy on-screen together given their tumultuous romantic history from her debut (and Dini’s), “Pretty Poison.” The union of Batman villains in “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne” felt almost obligatory and perfunctory compared to the smart craft Dini shows here.

Usually when I come across an episode this good, I struggle to find something to say beyond “Great episode, go watch it.” But I could go on about “Almost Got ’Im” for hours. Maybe it’ll be the inaugural edition of “Two @ a Time,” a theoretical feature which dissects cartoons two minutes at a time. There’s so much genius at play in this episode – the visual revelation of Batman’s place in the Stacked Deck bar, the decision to play Joker’s story in black-and-white – that we could be here all day. “Heart of Ice” may be the show’s finest hour, but “Almost Got ’Im” is easily the most fun, a veritable playground for the rogues gallery.

Original Air Date: November 10, 1992

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Eric Radomski

Villains: The Joker (Mark Hamill), Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing), Two-Face (Richard Moll), Killer Croc (Aron Kincaid), The Penguin (Paul Williams), Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin), and Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau)

Next episode: “Birds of a Feather,” in which a fowl fiend flies straight, finds love, and learns a cruel lesson.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

I’ve had a roller coaster of prerelease emotions when it comes to Blade Runner 2049, from skeptical that we needed to revisit the 1982 classic to nervous that Ridley Scott might direct (after he’d done the Alien franchise a disservice with Prometheus); from cautiously optimistic that Harrison Ford was involved to exuberant upon hearing that Denis Villeneuve would ultimately helm the film. Now that I’ve actually seen it, I can attest that Blade Runner 2049 is the success it needed to be, another strong science fiction outing from the man who brought us Arrival and a potent reengagement with the central questions that the original Blade Runner continues to pose.

Ryan Gosling stars as K, a blade runner thirty years after the events of the original film. On a routine “retirement” of one of a new breed of replicants, K discovers a mystery that sets him on a new case, one that will lead him to seek out Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

That’s about all I’d like to say about the plot of Blade Runner 2049 – indeed, I almost wish that the marketing hadn’t revealed that Harrison Ford was returning, because the film unfolds at such a deliberate and methodical pace that each of its reveals feels carefully measured and deployed at just the right moment. At two hours, forty minutes, and then some, 2049 is long – not slow but disciplined, walking through the world of Blade Runner without failing to stop and take notice of the sprawling landscapes, the colossal neon billboards, and the depth of the imagined future world. There’s so much content in the film that I would have appreciated being surprised by Ford’s inclusion, but then again, I recognize that Deckard is something of an elephant in the Blade Runner room, and so his presence does feel like a legitimizing agent to plant 2049 solidly in place.

I had the opportunity to rewatch the original Blade Runner the night before seeing 2049, and it’s an arrangement I’d highly recommend for an optimal viewing experience. (Back to back might numb the bum, to say nothing of the back!) Blade Runner 2049 does rely on parts of its predecessor, picking up plot elements and referencing iconic visuals, but by the same token I do think the film works well enough as a standalone that develops in a new but consistent direction, in that sense reminding me a great deal of Tron Legacy. Indeed, there’s been a trend lately of dusting off these classics from decades past – Harrison Ford himself had already done it in The Force Awakens – and seeing what they have to say these years later. By and large, these efforts have to my eyes been roundly successful, resisting the impulse to reboot (and the creative liberties that might come therein) but rather working within the confines of the established universe and layering in new roads, not unlike the way The Godfather Part II filled in the world of the first Godfather and extended its lifespan in gripping ways.

You have, of course, the continuing saga of Rick Deckard, who’s as striking when he’s absent as when he’s present; where has he gone, but more importantly why’s he gone away? (Here Ford is both the returning Han Solo and the vanished Luke Skywalker.) But aside from extending the narrative of Blade Runner (melding nicely with whichever of the umpteen cuts you prize), 2049 looks for new opportunities; Jared Leto plays the erstwhile heir to the Tyrell replicant empire, while Dave Bautista plays a surprisingly graceful farmer, a far cry from either Drax or Mr. Hinx. Gosling is solid as always, a well-deserved heir to Harrison Ford’s remarkably deft career, but I was surprised that it’s Ana de Armas who steals more than her fair share of the film, playing K’s holographic companion Joi (think a slinky, autonomous Alexa). Joi allows the film to continue to probe the question of the lines between simulation and reality in ways related to, but also quite distinct from, the mystery posed by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in the original.

Simply put, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the better sequels in recent memory. Early in production, Christopher Nolan had been bounced around as a possible director, but – while I’ll never say no to more Nolan (particularly since his frequent collaborator, Hans Zimmer, appears to have discovered the vuvuzela with his follow-up to Vangelis) – I do think Villenueve is the ideal candidate here. As we saw with Arrival, Villeneuve has mastered the balance between wonder and revelation, in portraying immense scope with the weight of narrative to match. (Has anyone called him yet for a Star Wars film?) Villeneuve’s direction is capable and confident, taking its time but earning that extended runtime by doling out information and momentum to keep the audience right where he needs them to be.

I almost don’t want there to be a third Blade Runner, but then I didn’t know I wanted the second one, either. It’ll be exceedingly difficult to capture replicant lightning in a bottle once more, and though there’s a thread here and there left unknotted the film does seem to end in a place that feels whole and proper. If Villeneuve is in the driver’s seat once more, though, I’m confident we’ll be in a good place.

Blade Runner 2049 is rated R for “violence, some sexuality, nudity and language.” Directed by Denis Villenueve. Written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, and Jared Leto.

Friday, October 6, 2017

10 @ a Time - Batman v Superman, Part 12

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Part Twelve: Boys Share Too

Welcome to the twelfth installment of “10 @ a Time: Batman v Superman.” Last week we continued the discussion of fathers and transfigurations, of rises and falls. Today, our protagonists get down to the titular “v.”

[For those playing the home game, we’re looking at the “Ultimate Edition” home video release; for today’s 10@T installment, we’re looking from 1:57:46 to 2:10:56. No, we’re not rebranding as “Twelve at a Time”; we’re running a little long because a) this is mostly a big action scene, and b) we are going to cover much less next week.]

The bulk of this segment is devoted to the all-out brawl promised by the title of the film, and we’ll get there in just a moment, but first we have to check our email.

Who was Lex's graphic designer?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Terror in the Sky"

“Reports of a huge bat creature the size of a man. Remind you of anybody?”

The sound of leather wings has returned. Kirk Langstrom (Marc Singer) awakens in a cold sweat from a nightmare, but the evidence around him suggests that his darkest fears are real – he’s become the Man-Bat once more. Infuriated that his city has been imperiled, Batman pursues the creature through Gotham, but the scientific evidence is in – it’s not Langstrom. So just what is the secret of the Man-Bat?

I’ve always had a soft spot for the depiction of Man-Bat in Batman: The Animated Series, doubtless stemming from my fondness for the action figure, whose wings flapped if you pressed a spot on his back. Hat-tip to the Kevin Nowlan design, too; the creature’s expressive eyes and pronounced underbite give it an almost cuddly menace. As we’ve noted throughout this rewatch, BtAS tended to hold its villains in reserve after they had knockout debut episodes – Mr. Freeze, Clayface, The Riddler. (Notable exception, of course, being The Joker, who appeared in more than twenty episodes, and not a one of them did damage to his reputation as the show’s greatest antagonist.) Man-Bat is no exception to this pattern of exclusivity – indeed, given this episode’s “big reveal,” we might even say that Man-Bat only appears in one episode. (While the spoiler policy on these reviews tends to be pretty liberal, this episode does have a twist, which I’ll inevitably spoil here. Take twenty minutes to watch the show if that’ll bother you.)

After “On Leather Wings,” which is a meaty episode that holds up exceptionally well as a pilot for BtAS, “Terror in the Sky” is not as strong an episode narratively, but visually it continues the proud tradition of the show. The Jekyll/Hyde nature of the Man-Bat gets played up in this episode, with Kirk Langstrom terrified that he’s relapsed and Francine Langstrom horrified at what she becomes when she begins to transform. Kudos to director Boyd Kirkland for the downright petrifying sequence in which Francine mutates in an airplane bathroom, shattering the mirror and escaping via the emergency exit. It’s a scene that brought back childhood fears of flying, giving a punny dual meaning to the episode’s title but grounding the show’s grotesque monster madness in a real-world setting. Indeed, I’ve dubbed recent episodes of the show as “creature features,” and of those “Terror in the Sky” is indisputably the best.

When I think of a “Top 10” list, I envision it as containing the best episodes, the standout examples of all that the show can accomplish, but if I were to rank the episodes purely on visual style, “Terror in the Sky” would surely make that list. Saddled with abjectly awful animation on “Cat Scratch Fever,” Kirkland more than redeems himself here; the scenes of aerial pursuit – replete with swooping wings and spiraling flight patterns – positively dazzle, aerodynamic in the freeing way that animation permits. The new visual gimmick of Man-Bat’s sonar vision is a success, too, making this creature at once more alien and more recognizable as something of our world.

Narratively, though, “Terror” isn’t a triumph. Once we realize Langstrom hasn’t relapsed, there are really only two other possibilities, one of which is so painfully obvious that it can’t be correct. The explanation for Francine’s madcap evolution is so contrived and treated so disposably that it’s evident the writers developed it as a throwaway, which is a painfully thin device on which to hang an entire episode. And when the dialogue is as on-the-nose as “I’m sick of my life! I’m sick of you!” let’s just say there’s a reason I spend so much time talking instead about the visual style.

It’s a testament to the animation of “Terror in the Sky” that a so-so script is stratospherically elevated by the visuals. The episode goes down as a strong one by virtue of its memorable animation and its methodically crafted direction. There’s probably an element of nostalgia in the way that “Terror” invokes “On Leather Wings,” but it’s neither unwarranted nor unsuccessful.

Original Air Date: November 12, 1992

Writers: Steve Perry and Mark Saraceni

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: Man-Bat (Meredith MacRae)

Next episode: “Almost Got ’Im,” in which four of a kind find an ace in the hole, but it’s the audience who wins with a straight flush.

Monday, October 2, 2017

American Made (2017)

Lest 2017 go down as the year that the otherwise bankable Tom Cruise made a disappointing go of universe building in The Mummy, late in the game comes American Made, which sees Cruise reteam with director Doug Liman, both of whom made a rather good show of it in Edge of Tomorrow (later renamed Live. Die. Repeat. for the DVD crowd, a worse title for the fact that it sounds more like a shampoo tutorial than a science-fictional Groundhog Day). American Made ends up a strong outing in the “hapless intelligence agency” genre, almost as if the Coen Brothers had directed American Hustle.

Cruise stars as Barry Seal, a TWA pilot bored of his repetitive career and too weary even to pay attention to his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright). That’s all about to change for Barry, though, as he meets CIA agent Schafer (Domnhall Gleeson, doing a spot-on American accent), who recruits Barry for reconnaissance flights in Central America. Ever the capitalist, though, Barry, finds his way into smuggling drugs and guns for the cartels and later the Contras, all the while earning more money than he knows how to spend.

Tom Cruise is seldom anything less than engaging on screen. He’s a charismatic presence, a real charmer, but he’s also got a manic glint that makes him a little bit unpredictable, a touch dangerous. Recently he’s used that to great effect in the Jack Reacher films, and he sent up the sociopathic end of the spectrum as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. Here we see a man who is increasingly over his head, in scenarios that are entirely his fault, without the ability, the resources, or the intellect to ask for help. When we first meet him, Barry creates a little turbulence from the cockpit just to liven up the red-eye flight. It’s horrifyingly reckless and self-destructive, but there’s an infectious gleam in Cruise’s eye, an impish madness that invites us to play along. And as we saw in Edge of Tomorrow, Liman knows how to harness Cruise into a performance that bends that mad twinkle into something of comedic value, playing a touch against type as someone who’s not fully in control of a situation. Ethan Hunt, let’s just say, would never have gotten himself into this mess.

As the puppet master of said mess, Gleeson is fascinating. Indeed, I had a very difficult time to believe that Schafer, General Hux, and Tim Lake were all played by the same man within five years, let alone that he’s also the poor chap at the center of Oscar Isaac’s robotic machinations in Ex Machina. I’ve already mentioned his flawless concealment of his native accent for the nondescript voice of Schafer, but what’s truly compelling is the way he manages to make a smile sinister, imbuing subtle menace with every raise of the eyebrow, as if to indicate that things could go very badly for Barry Seal if he utters so much as one incorrect word. From behind that mighty beard – truly not since Aaron Eckhart in Sully has facial hair been so capacious – and in between impromptu dance moves, Schafer presents with the lean and hungry look of Cassius, the frantic desperation to escape blame. As if we needed one more reason to be excited for The Last Jedi, Gleeson proves himself a creditable supporting performer.

Although largely not advertised as such, the true-story nature of the film gives it an uncanny sense of madcap possibility. One almost expects the film to reiterate halfway through, “This is all still true.” (However, a crucial news broadcast, for one, actually aired after the events of the film but is rejiggered for dramatic effect.) But the truth, as they say, is often so much stranger than fiction, and the film gives Barry’s wild exploits just enough allure, wrapped in just enough of the American dream, that the film should also come with a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer. Despite the sparkle of the lifestyle Barry creates for himself, the film is careful to remind us that Barry is either too dumb or too ambitious to know when he’s in over his head – he acknowledges that he leaps before he looks, but it’s done in that disarming Cruise brand of self-deprecation. Nestled between blockbuster season and Oscar season, American Made shouldn’t be drowned out in that middle ground; it’s mind-boggingly true without losing the sense of fun I look to have at the box office.

American Made is rated R for “language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.” Directed by Doug Liman. Written by Gary Spinelli. Starring Tom Cruise, Domnhall Gleeson, and Sarah Wright.

Friday, September 29, 2017

10 @ a Time - Batman v Superman, Part 11

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Part Eleven: Transfigurations, Part II

Welcome to the eleventh installment of “10 @ a Time: Batman v Superman.” Last week we talked about how the major players are readying their positions for the final act. Today, fathers take the floor before the sons duke it out.

[For those playing the home game, we’re looking at the “Ultimate Edition” home video release; for today’s 10@T installment, we’re looking from 1:44:51 to 1:57:46. We’re running a little long because some really fascinating symmetry shows up if we think of this batch all together.]

The blood on whose hands, Lex?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Day of the Samurai"

“Batman is the essence of samurai, Wayne-san. You would do well to remember that.”

Smarting from his defeat in “Night of the Ninja,” Kyodai Ken (Robert Ito) retreats to Japan to seek out a deadly martial arts technique guarded by Bruce Wayne’s sensei. Sensei Yoru summons Bruce to Japan with the winking hope that Bruce might enlist the help of Batman in safeguarding the secret of kiba no hoko and saving Yoru’s star pupil from Kyodai Ken.

I had a lukewarm reaction to “Night of the Ninja,” which introduced Kyodai Ken to The Animated Series, and so I had been putting off “Day of the Samurai” for some time. Indeed, I had at one point considered combining “Night” and “Day” into one post to get them out of the way. I’m glad I didn’t, however, because it turns out I have a lot of thoughts about “Day of the Samurai,” which isn’t quite a new favorite episode, but it’s certainly gone up in my estimation and is a marked improvement over its predecessor – largely on the beauty of its visual style.

The real star of this episode is director Bruce Timm, who guides this episode into a riveting ocular spectacle. Timm gets a lot of credit – and rightly so – for his hand in designing the look of the show and most of its characters (hat-tip, though, to Mike Mignola’s Mr. Freeze and Kevin Nowlan’s Killer Croc), but Timm also does yeoman’s work directing individual episodes. “Day of the Samurai” is the only Timm-directed episode not also written by Paul Dini, but it displays all the virtuosic artistry you might expect from the show’s co-creator. Timm imagines Japan as something out of Blade Runner, all swooping angles and towering advertisements, but he juxtaposes the city with the pacific dojo and its idyllic landscaping. Ever the master of a visual metaphor, though, Timm sets all this with the looming backdrop of the rumbling Mount Kajiiki; it’s essentially Chekhov’s caldera, as we expect the volcano will erupt before the episode ends, and setting the climactic duel in the heart of the volcano is damned inspired. (Sidebar: “Day of the Samurai” was animated by animation studio Blue Pencil, who only animated one other episode – Riddler’s “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”)

Steve Perry returns to writing duties for another pass at Kyodai Ken, and while I had lamented that “Night of the Ninja” was overfull of good ideas with not enough development, “Day” is the exact opposite, an exercise in streamlining that lasers in on Batman as samurai. There are only five speaking characters in this episode, so the plotting is necessarily sleek, and everything flows logically without needing to hit the pause button and inquire, “Hang on a minute?” Moreover, it’s like Perry read my mind twenty-some years ago and foregrounded the notion of Batman as samurai in a compelling contrast to Kyodai Ken as the codeless ninja. The samurai subtext becomes metatext as Bruce Wayne wonders about whether his nocturnal vigilantism is another iteration of the ninja way, and the slick manner in which the script handles this question is a testament to Perry’s prowess. It also demonstrates once more the seamless way Batman can fit into any story; you can’t put Superman or Spider-Man into this tale (though I’d have liked to see Wonder Woman as a different kind of warrior for Kyodai Ken to face).

As polished as the episode is and artfully constructed though it may be, Kyodai Ken still hasn’t landed for me. In a sense, he’s a less successful version of Ra’s al Ghul, an Eastern figure of mystery and martial proficiency, but he’s demonstrably not as strong or intelligent as Batman. He never quite poses a challenge to the quick-thinking and fleet-footed Dark Knight, and his greatest skill seems to be that he’s occasionally difficult to find. He’s petulant and fairly easy to outthink, so I’m not terribly bothered by this being his last episode. One wonders, though, at the lost potential had his character gotten a stronger introduction that positioned him as a proper menace; conversely, one could also imagine an episode that plays up his clear disadvantage and how that rage at his own impotence makes him dangerous. Instead, he’s just sort of there.

Though its villain is far from the best of the bunch (check back in two weeks for said bunch), “Day of the Samurai” is a treat to behold, some of Timm’s finest work and with an insular script that hits all the right beats in a tight twenty minutes. We all know how great Batman: The Animated Series can be as a superhero cartoon, but “Day of the Samurai” is a good case study into how good the show can be at being something else, at trying on a new hat for the day.

Postscript – this episode makes me wish I’d been keeping track of Kevin Conroy’s greatest hits in each episode. From changing voices mid-sentence in “If You’re So Smart” to his heartbreaking gravitas in “Beware the Gray Ghost,” Conroy has earned every accolade he’s garnered for his definitive take on Batman. Here, though, it’s his pronunciation of “samurai,” which elongates into four feudal syllables and demands instant replay. It’s that compelling.

Original Air Date: February 23, 1993

Writer: Steve Perry

Director: Bruce Timm

Villain: Kyodai Ken (Robert Ito)

Next episode: “Terror in the Sky,” in which our creature features continue, and we return and begin again with Man-Bat.