Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne"

“But you wanted to do something. You were filled with anger. You desired... what? A need filled you... all-consuming, all-controlling. What was it, Mr. Wayne? What was it?”

After Batman rescues a judge from blackmail, he tracks her blackmailers to Yucca Springs Health Resort, nominally a relaxation spot for top executives. As Bruce Wayne, he infiltrates the spa but discovers that the unorthodox treatments from Dr. Hugo Strange (Ray Buktenica) are anything but relaxing. But Dr. Strange has learned something as well, and he’s about to auction off Bruce’s terrible secret to the highest bidder.

First of all, different Dr. Strange. This isn’t Marvel’s narcissistic neurosurgeon but rather one of Batman’s earliest foes, originally of Detective Comics #36 (Feb. 1940) but late of Arkham City and Gotham (where he’s played by B.D. Wong, doing his best George Takei). Here Strange is a goblin of a man, a scientist implied to be in the employ of Roland Daggett, though I’m sorry to report that throwaway line doesn’t pay off by episode’s end. Strange does manage, though, to be a pretty compelling villain, particularly for one who doesn’t throw a punch or try to take over Gotham City. With a shifty Eastern European accent and a quick-thinking mind, the terror of Strange is all implication.

I’ve said throughout, in episodes like “Appointment in Crime Alley” and “Dreams in Darkness,” that there is great potency in the moments when BtAS approaches, like infinity, but does not explain the circumstances of Bruce’s turn to Batman. Like “Robin’s Reckoning,” which masterfully used only the silhouette of a broken trapeze to convey its eponymous hero’s orphaning, “Strange Secret” invokes a hallucinatory dream of Bruce’s memory of that night – two gunshots, akin to the thunderclaps that follow, fired from a gun held by an invisible man, leaving Bruce surrounded by graves and raging his fists against the stormy sky. It’s a scene whose language is so undeniably effective that you completely forget the improbability of the mind-reading machine used to conjure it. The dialogue, too, between Strange and Bruce, overlaps the images in fascinating ways.

At the risk of sounding like “Strange Secret” does a lot of the good things we’ve seen earlier, the team-up between Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face echoes and one-ups the hallway scene from “Fear of Victory.” Here the villains disembark from an airplane (oh, to have been a fly on that wall!), deliver a line that sums up their personalities, and step in time to the melodies of the musical themes crafted by Shirley Walker and company. It’s a moment that the show has earned, and it’s among the episode’s highlights because now, finally, we can see some of these radiant rogues side by side – and get some of that first-rate Mark Hamill Joker voice. (Sidebar: if you’ve ever wondered whether The Joker has an answering machine, this episode answers that question, to glorious effect.)

And lest you think “Strange Secret” is but a best-of compilation, it’s notable for being an episode in which Batman isn’t the main focus. We seem him every now and again, but the episode really plays up the notion of a true Bruce Wayne beneath both Dark Knight and playboy billionaire personas. It also concludes on one of my favorite gimmicks in any Batman story – reconciling the revelation of Bruce Wayne’s secret identity by having Batman and Bruce Wayne appear in the same room at the same time. I won’t spoil how it’s accomplished here, but the script is particularly clever in its use of Chekhov’s guns, dropping a line of dialogue that pays off much later in the episode, usually once you’ve forgotten it’s coming.

By dint of how strong so many other episodes are, “Strange Secret” probably isn’t a Top 10 episode, but it’s through no fault of its own. The episode is smart, intriguing, and rife with memorable characters. Neither strange nor a secret, it’s a winner.

Original Air Date: October 29, 1992

Writers: David Wise, Judith Reeves-Stevens, and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Director: Frank Paur

Villains: Dr. Hugo Strange (Ray Buktenica), The Joker (Mark Hamill), Two-Face (Richard Moll), and The Penguin (Paul Williams)

Next episode: “Heart of Steel,” a two-parter in which Batman meets Blade Runner, Harvey Bullock takes Robocop to a whole new level, and we meet a certain commissioner’s daughter and her Woobie Bear.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Between Atomic Blonde and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I’m really digging the “retro spy” genre – and I’m including throwback spy flicks like Kingsman. There’s something very satisfying about the technological limits placed on the story, which must proceed without the advantages of cell phones and Wi-Fi; usually that careful crafting leads to a more cerebral script – something I always appreciate – and ends up having a trickle-down effect on the rest of the creative process. Going into the theater, I hadn’t known that Atomic Blonde was a period piece, nor had I realized quite how much I’d like the film – both of which were welcome surprises.

It’s 1989. The Berlin Wall is about to come down, and MI6 sends Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) behind the Iron Curtain to find a list of operatives stolen from a dead agent. Berlin station chief Percival (James McAvoy) helps her into East Berlin and enlists her help with East German defector Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), who’s stolen the list. While Lorraine looks for the truth amid a dalliance with French operative Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), she begins to wonder who she can trust.

I was exhausted after Atomic Blonde – not because the movie was overlong or boring to the point that my hindquarters went numb, but because I’d had to keep up with the film’s sneaky storytelling while enduring the intense and enervating action sequences. Atomic Blonde is not a film that goes for easy moments; none of it looks effortless, and the audience has to work just as hard as Lorraine to discover the identity of Satchel, a traitor in the ranks of MI6. But at least we have the good fortune not to get in the middle of those fight scenes, because they’re incredibly vicious.

Director David Leitch has done a fair job of staging his action scenes like single takes; there’s some digital trickery, to be sure, but in the moment it looks as though these long fights are all done in a straight cinematic line. We’ve got two long and arresting fights staged in apartment buildings – one in the living room, one on the stairs – that most other directors might have done in forty-cuts-per-second shakycam, but Leitch’s patient attention to the intensity of the fights allows them to exhaust the moviegoer and the characters, whose breathy pauses and stumbles make the combat even more real. Brownie points are due to the storytellers who devised Lorraine’s creative uses of an extension cord, a record player, and a doorframe.

In the interminable wait for Bond 25 and the ever-present question of whether Daniel Craig will suit up once or twice more, Charlize Theron proves herself a capable “Lady Bond,” although that does a disservice to Lorraine Broughton. There are certain similarities – their capabilities in close combat, their equal dexterity in the art of seduction – but Lorraine almost feels more of a piece with Bryan Mills in Taken, possessed of a “certain set of skills” that make her unstoppable, even as the odds against her increase. She’s more vulnerable than Mills, though, emotionally and physically; her stake in this fight is personal, and her fling with Delphine seems more genuine than any Bond girl’s. Moreover, those moments where she picks herself off the floor and continues to fight, even as she’s bruised and short of breath, give the character a smartly-crafted strength.

The soundtrack to the film is a smashing mix tape of 80s tracks, and the cinematography is as unforgivingly fluorescent as I imagine the 1980s would have been. It all adds up to a nicely unified experience, where the stark white lights of an interrogation room echo the neon pipes of a Berlin hotel room. Amid it all, there is the brainy sense of needing to keep up and the fervent hope that, as the credits roll, this won’t be the last time we see Lorraine Broughton. I’m ready to enroll her in the same camp as Wonder Woman, welcome alternatives to the same-old/same-old dudes who have run these genres for fifty years. Roll on the new, but please give me a moment to catch my breath.

Atomic Blonde is rated R for “sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.” Directed by David Leitch. Written by Kurt Johnstad. Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, and Toby Jones.

Friday, August 11, 2017

10 @ a Time - Batman v Superman, Part 4

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Part Four: The Greatest Criminal Mind of Our Time

Welcome to the fourth installment of “10 @ a Time: Batman v Superman.” Last week we talked about the continuing contrasts between Superman and Batman’s brands of justice (in the case of the latter, quite literally). We’ve had half an hour of good guys, so it’s time to see our film’s vision of villainy.

[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 0:29:17 to 0:40:45.]

"Miss Teschmacher!"

A lot of people really had a problem with Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor, and so it may not surprise you to learn that I actually kind of liked it. I understand that there are shades of Mark Zuckerberg in Eisenberg’s Luthor, but I don’t think that’s accidental. Like Batman and Superman, Lex Luthor has always been something of a sliding signifier; he was a world conqueror in the 1940s, a small-town rival in the 1950s, a new-money titan in the 1990s, and so on. I think it makes sense, then, that well into the first quarter of the twenty-first century the apex of sinister human potential, then, wears the guise of social media and political savvy while still maintaining the two traits I feel are at the center of Lex Luthor – his abject hatred of that which is not human, and his smug sense of superiority over that which is.

Look, would I have wanted a version of Lex Luthor played by Bryan Cranston in all his snarling bald furor? Of course I would. It would have been amazing to see an actor of Cranston’s caliber seething over his hatred for “the alien,” but between Gene Hackman, Clancy Brown, and Kevin Spacey, that’s a Luthor we’ve seen several times before. However, there’s still enough recognizable that I think the core of the character remains unchanged. This isn’t, as some critics said, a Riddler disguised as a Luthor, though they both share the same penchant for planning and contempt for anyone less intelligent than they are – which is, to say, everyone. His verbal tics mask his insecurity, as we’ll see later at the charity ball, but his constant repetition of “y’know” is meant to insult his audience – he assumes they don’t know and need enlightenment from him.

There is also a kind of performative playfulness to this Lex, which we’ve seen on film before but not quite in the comics, from Hackman’s nutty wigs to Spacey’s train set. (The comics Lex, by contrast, is usually quite deadly serious.) Here, Eisenberg’s Luthor plays basketball with his employees, smiles often, claps like a nervous tic, and speaks in prose that is deliberately designed to show how clever he is. “Rocky is radioactive,” he alliterates of the kryptonite fragment, “among the fishes, a whale!” That particular line reads like a reference to the biblical account of Jonah and the whale, and it ties in with another thing I really appreciate about this Lex Luthor: he’s quite well-read, and he’s used that to inform his worldview. Superman just wants to be a man, while Batman is suspicious of how human he can actually be, but Lex alone sees this conflict as one of high mythology. The so-called “metahuman thesis” is, Lex proclaims, “the basis of our myths, gods among men.” Despite being the villain, Lex gets it – Batman v Superman is a mythic tale of the rightful place of gods in the lives of men. What makes him the villain, though, is how badly he mistakes the moral of the story. (We’ll see him make another overt mythic allusion at the charity ball next week, again misjudging the relationship he seeks to dismantle.)

Lex’s playfulness extends to his own supervillain costume. Did you catch it? No, you won’t see his green and purple super-suit (though we’ve spotted it on Supergirl). Nay, it’s the fact that twice in these ten minutes, he dons an all-white jacket – first, a white sport jacket to greet his governmental contacts, and then a lab coat to receive the remains of General Zod. I can’t say with absolute certainty just yet, but I’ll hazard a guess that Lex’s clothes get darker over the course of the film, culminating in the bright orange prison jumpsuit. Let’s keep an eye on that, shall we?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note two more pieces. First, the Jolly Rancher he feeds to the senator’s aide. I’ll admit this is a weird and unsettling creative decision, though I think that’s exactly the point. If we didn’t know it already, this would be the moment we’d start to see the perverse mind games Lex is playing with everyone in his employ. I think it accomplishes what it needs to do, but I’ll concede this wouldn’t have been my first choice in presenting Luthor’s pertinacious puppetry. What I wouldn’t change, though, is Hans Zimmer’s “The Red Capes Are Coming,” which serves as Lex’s theme. Unlike Superman’s motif, which repeats a two-note ascent, Lex’s theme descends, darkly inverting the “Flight” theme, yet the quick fiddle, lightly reminiscent of Saint-Saens’s “Danse Macabre,” has a ludic streak to it, as does the synchronized camera work matching Eisenberg’s footfalls. This is a Luthor who, for all intents and purposes, plays at not being taken seriously, though the quirky spontaneity and giddy playfulness masks a sinister and manipulative intentionality.

"I teach you the superman. Man is something that shall be overcome."

Although we don’t know it yet, Luthor’s machinations extend beyond the moments we see him on screen. Wally Keefe defaces the Superman statue with the “FALSE GOD” graffiti, spurred on by Luthor’s manipulation of checks from Bruce Wayne (we’ll talk more about the shape of Lex’s plan, such as it is, when we get to the “problems up here” monologue). Clark Kent, meanwhile, is reassigned to the sports beat, then to the let-them-eat-cake beat; though Perry White theorizes it’s the request of “a charity crone with a thing for nerds,” but when Lex tells Clark and Bruce that he “love[s] bringing people together,” I think he tips his hand. (Note: the “charity crone” line appears only in the Ultimate Edition, and while I intuited such in the theatrical cut, I understand Joe Popcorn might not have done.)

Surprisingly but I must say gratefully, it’s Lois Lane who remains fully in charge of her own plotline. And as we approach the long-overdue filmic debut of Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman – the character, recall, debuted in 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor – it’s refreshing to see that Lois Lane is just about the only character who acts on her own agency, of her own volition, for her own purposes. Batman and Superman are being manipulated by Lex, who labors under the burden of abuse, self-loathing, and father issues to make Tyrion Lannister blush; while Wally, Knyazev, Martha Kent, and so many others get caught up in Luthor’s web, Perry White tries to bail out the water from the sinking Daily Planet. Senator Finch gets the upper hand only briefly, and even the dead body of General Zod gets implicated in the conspiracy. You might say that Wonder Woman, too, is in charge of her own destiny; having walked away from mankind, she rejoins the world after Luthor attempts to steal her identity, but I would say that Luthor doesn’t know she’s coming and is never actually aware she’s there. Bruce can’t control her, and she joins the fight when she wants, on her terms.

I’m actually surprised this isn’t a bigger deal in reactions to the movie – Batman v Superman gives its female characters far more credit than most Women of Marvel scrape together (Black Widow aside, but even then...). After the dismal laddish misogyny of Sucker Punch, I’d say Snyder redeems himself with the female characters in a movie named for its male protagonists. Lois pursues the story about the ambush in the desert, even against Clark’s advice – remember she hid the bullet from him? She admits now that she doesn’t want to be protected; she’s in pursuit of the story, the truth.

And in a way, isn’t that the same struggle everyone in the film is undertaking? The great questions of Batman v Superman are mythological and epistemological – how do we know what we know, and how do we acquire knowledge of the truth? Man of Steel was more ontologically grounded, asking questions of identity and being. Clark asked “Who am I?” until he got his answer, and not surprisingly his ancestors were also seekers of truth, explorers. Man of Steel put the “man” back into the Superman (the word “Superman” is only ever used once or twice, far fewer than “Kal” was), and Batman v Superman puts the truth back into “truth, justice, and the American way.”

I didn’t anticipate making a defense of Batman v Superman as solidly feminist, but that’s the whole point of “10 @ a Time” – to get deeper into these movies and see what’s buried beneath the surface. We’ve come a long way from Man of Steel’s “I think he’s kinda hot.”

"The line, it is drawn; the curse, it is cast..."

Next time, we issue a statement in support of books and muse about a certain mysterious, albeit wonderful, woman.

Observations and Annotations
  • Luthor’s xenophobia isn’t just a driving force to his character. It informs his very word choice. When he calls Zod’s body “the complete remains of the dead alien,” he’s refusing to cede any degree of humanity to Zod. He won’t even repeat it when the senator’s aide corrects him – “Zod’s body?” “Mm, okay.” 
  • Wally’s corkboard of Superman clippings has one in which Superman lifts a car over his head while the citizenry flee. It is, of course, the cover to Action Comics #1. 
  • The statue of Superman in Metropolis is bending down to help, which is interesting for a public monument since it doesn’t seem the world shares this benevolent vision of Superman. It’s also a far cry from the heroicmonument erected upon the comic book death of Superman in 1992.
  • In a story as mythologically reverent as Batman v Superman, it’s entirely appropriate that Clark’s story brings him to a blind man, who echoes the Greek seers and prophets. Like those blind oracles, this one rightly predicts of Batman, “he’s angry, and he’s hunting.” 
  • At the underground fight club, Bruce Wayne mentions a few nights of passion he spent with a “Bolshoi ballerina.” While the story is likely fictitious, a thin cover for why Bruce Wayne knows Russian, I can’t help but wonder if it’s a nod to the moment in The Dark Knight, when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) brings a yacht full of Russian ballerinas to international waters, leaving Alfred (Michael Caine) to slather on the suntan lotion.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Cat Scratch Fever"

“I do hope you’ll be seeing Ms. Selina again now that she’s free to prowl again.”

Released on probation after saving the city, Selina Kyle (Adrienne Barbeau) vows to hang up her Catwoman suit, only to discover that her beloved cat Isis has been cat-napped by Roland Daggett. When Catwoman is bitten by Isis, who’s been infected with a virulent toxin, Batman races against the clock to save her life.

I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like this one, but in my head I was thinking this was the episode where Catwoman is turned into a were-cat. The bad news is that it isn’t, which means that episode (“Tyger, Tyger”) is still to come; the worse news is that “Cat Scratch Fever” isn’t much better. It is, in fact, largely rubbish, which means Catwoman is oh-for-two (hilariously, her best appearance so far is the one in which she was only a hallucination, in “Perchance to Dream”). The plot wanders and missteps, the characterization approaches development but never lands, and the animation is so bad that the animators (Akom Studios) were literally fired after this.

I said in Catwoman’s debut episode, “The Cat and the Claw,” that her characterization as a conservationist is peculiar and overly moralizing, and evidently the writers wanted to extend that trait to animal testing. We learn that Roland Daggett, ostensibly the upstart challenger to Rupert Thorne’s place as Gotham’s resident crime lord, has been rounding up stray animals to infect them with a plague, for which he plans to sell the cure to the city. The scenes in his facility’s basement, lined with cages of scared and injured animals, obviously invokes the idea of testing products on animals, but it’s a leaden comparison because Daggett is literally plotting to murder most of the city to turn a buck. Moreover, the episode enlists Professor Achilles Milo, which is a colossal waste of a solid second/third-tier Bat-villain.

Ultimately, I just don’t buy any of this episode. I can’t believe Daggett is in a position to market a major pharmaceutical after his public embarrassment in “Feat of Clay,” and I don’t believe that he’s mustache-twirlingly evil enough to introduce a viral pathogen into the city. Moreover, the episode suffers from a bifurcated identity; in the first half of the episode, which isn’t entirely bad, Catwoman takes center stage, but after she’s infected the writers seem to remember that this is a show about Batman, who promptly takes over the action while Catwoman rests in a sickbed. One of their only scenes together is surprisingly electric – in perhaps the best dialogue of the episode, delirious with fever, Catwoman smiles up at Batman as he remarks, “You’re hot!” and replies, “Now you notice.” This playful relationship, hyper-aware of the divide between them posed by the law, could have been the stuff of BtAS legend, but the Batman/Catwoman dynamic almost never gets off the ground on this show because, frankly, most of Catwoman’s episodes are clunkers.

To top it all off, the animation in “Cat Scratch Fever” is lousy. It’s jerky, flat, and uninspired; the dialogue doesn’t sync up with the video, and it features what might be the strangest-looking cat I’ve ever seen. (But on the plus side, it’s Frank Welker voicing the cat, in one of his patented “Wait, that wasn’t an actual animal?” roles.) The rest of the characters look astonishingly generic, particularly Milo’s two henchmen, and it’s no wonder that Akom were dismissed after “Cat Scratch Fever.” It’s not a good episode anyway, but it could have at least looked good.

Boy, after the winning streak we had, it’s almost karmic that we’ve got two in a row for the thumbs-down column.

Original Air Date: November 5, 1992

Writers: Sean Catherine Derek & Buzz Dixon

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villains: Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau), Dr. Milo (Treat Williams), and Roland Daggett (Ed Asner)

Next episode: “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne,” in which Batman’s secret identity can be purchased on VHS.

Friday, August 4, 2017

10 @ a Time - Batman v Superman, Part 3

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Part Three: Funnel Ferry Butter Bar

Welcome to the third installment of “10 @ a Time: Batman v Superman.” Last week we talked about Lois’s relationship to Superman and how that foreshadows much of the rest of the world’s inability to understand him. Maybe he’s just a guy... having said that, let’s check in with the other guy.

[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 0:19:55 to 0:29:17.]

"I am vengeance, I am the night..."

While I’m not going to pretend that this is deliberate – at least, I won’t argue that it is (it very well might be) – there’s an interesting structure that reveals itself by taking BvS ten minutes at a time. In short, thus far: Bruce, Superman, Batman, Clark, Bruce. If we extend our gaze, the last thing we saw in Man of Steel was Clark Kent, and the pattern’s going to broken in the next ten-minute chunk by (appropriately enough) Lex Luthor.

What I see in this pattern is an explication of the differences between these two men – first, the difference in their motivation (Bruce’s loss v Superman’s love for Lois), then a difference in their methods (Superman’s quickness v Batman’s shadowplay), then a distinction in public perception (Batman as fearsome but necessary, Superman as a figure of some controversy), and finally the difference between each man’s domestic life. Clark Kent has apparently moved into Lois Lane’s walk-up apartment in the eighteen months since Man of Steel, bearing flowers and offering to cook before joining Lois in the bathtub (compare to Bruce’s solitary shower later in the film). Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, appears to live in a subterranean techno-bunker of a Batcave with Alfred. We’ll see later that Wayne Manor is moldering, while the fogbound boathouse-style studio hardly seems homey.

Snyder stages the two heroic entrances very differently. Superman’s had something of an international adventure flair reminiscent, for this reviewer, of Sommers’s The Mummy, but he stages Batman’s entrance as a horror film, which works out exceptionally well. Christopher Nolan dipped a toe into the horror pond with The Scarecrow, but Snyder goes full-on, with one of the women saved by Batman describing him as “the devil.” In this movie, that’s a very loaded term to throw around casually. Lex Luthor recognizes that Superman is seen "as something of a god, and so he pits the human equivalent of the devil against him in order to demonstrate that demons come from the sky, not from beneath our feet. And yet, of course, we know that Superman is neither god nor demon – he’s just a guy – and what is truly demonic, truly devilish, is that (sinful) human nature which leads us to mistrust and deceive. Lois has seen that and chosen to trust, and it will be up to Bruce and Lex (and, to an extent, Wonder Woman, who has walked away from mankind itself) whether to embrace their better angels or to regard their cohort as inherently untrustworthy.

"If it's suicide you're after, I have an old family recipe. It's slow and painful. You'd like it."

With Batman’s arrival straight out of a horror movie – a Bat out of hell, if you will – replete with Hans Zimmer’s thrumming bass strings, we’re also introduced to one of the more controversial aspects of the film: the Bat-brand. And to those who cry foul, who tweet #NotMyBatman, this is exactly the point. Batman branding criminals is supposed to be seen as wrong, a casualty of moral bankruptcy, and Alfred recognizes it. (Sidebar: Jeremy Irons is inspired as Alfred. He’s got that dry, droll sarcasm down pat.) Snyder hides this in some playful banter between Bruce and Alfred – “You’re getting slow in your old age, Alfred.” “...Even you got too old to die young, and not for lack of trying.” – but Alfred has always been the character to speak the truth to Bruce Wayne, even when he doesn’t want to hear it. Bruce claims, “We’ve always been criminals; nothing’s changed,” but Alfred wisely points out that “Everything’s changed” and that Bruce has fallen victim to “the fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel.”

To wit, while Batman and Lex Luthor spend their time worrying about what might happen if Superman will fall – obsessing over that “1% chance” Batman will cite later – they have not noticed the fallen state of their own souls. But remember – what falls is fallen, but what has fallen may rise. For now, though, Alfred remains by his employer/ward’s side, equal parts chiding and guiding, continuing to work on Bruce’s armory despite fundamentally disagreeing with his mission. That was one note that always struck falsely for me in The Dark Knight Rises – that Alfred would ever walk away from Wayne Manor voluntarily. The two ought to be tirelessly inseparable, in spite of the grave misgivings they have about the other’s behavior. Bruce describes them as criminals, but they’re soldiers in the same war on crime. This Bat-soldier, though, has lost his way.

On the subject of lost and found, Lois gets to be a journalist big-time in this movie, finding the stray bullet fired, it would seem, from Chekhov’s gun. This iteration of Lois Lane has always been quite sharp, even deducing Superman’s identity in record time back in Man of Steel, and it’s refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t treat her like a damsel in distress. Indeed, quite the opposite is true – Lois actively hides the bullet from Clark because she doesn’t want to be that. She’s bristling ever so slightly against the idea of being his damsel. She also recognizes the intense pressure under which he labors, wondering if it’s possible “for you to love me and be you.” But that’s the point of Superman, right? He’s the ultimate ideal of good. He can do anything.

"I've got to find a job where I can keep my ear to the ground, where people won't look twice
if I want to go somewhere dangerous and start asking questions."

Next time, the zigzag continues as we nip over to Metropolis and shoot some hoops with our antagonist.

Observations and Annotations
  • The score of the football game is Metropolis 58, Gotham 0. It certainly doesn’t prefigure the way that “Fight Night” turns out for Batman and Superman, and I’m more than a little disappointed the score wasn’t at 52, a number so central to DC Comics. 
  • The two cops are Officer Rucka and Officer Mazzucchelli, both named after major contributors to the Batman mythos. Greg Rucka was, with Ed Brubaker, author of Gotham Central, arguably the greatest Batman comic not to star Batman, focusing instead on the Gotham police who work in his shadow. David Mazzucchelli, meanwhile, was the artist on Batman: Year One, to which this scene owes a great debt. 
  • Speaking of annotations, the Russian Bruce has been tracking is Anatoli Knyazev, known to comics fans as KGBeast, a late Cold War-era villain who’s persisted beyond the fall of the Soviet Union. He’s also been turning up on Arrow as a Russian mobster, though I doubt we’ll see him suit up in the films or on television. Incidentally, KGBeast’s creator Jim Starlin has spoken about drawing residuals checks for KGBeast and not, surprisingly, for Starlin’s most famous creation, Thanos. 
  • Clark Kent’s glasses fall on the bathroom floor, suggesting perhaps that that identity is a performance and that the real man, Superman, is in the tub with Lois. For me, though, that shot always reminds me of the cover of “The Death of Clark Kent,” in which Clark’s high school friend Kenny Braverman becomes the supervillain Conduit after deducing the hero’s true identity. Probably just a visual wink if not straight up apophenia on my part, though perhaps the ending of the film begs to differ. 
  • Alfred inquires whether the White Russian exists, “if he is indeed a him.” Alfred intimates that Bruce might be chasing a “phantasm,” and while on the surface it could just be a synonym for “ghost,” there’s no way this isn’t a reference to Batman: Mask ofthe Phantasm, in which Batman’s latest villain (SPOILERS) turns out to be a woman from his past. It’s exactly the kind of thing about which Alfred might rib Bruce, to boot.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Night of the Ninja"

“I did some research, Mr. Wayne. I know you spent some time in Japan. Do you think this ninja person is connected to that?”

A specter from Batman’s past appears when a slew of Wayne properties are burglarized by the ninja Kyodai Ken (Robert Ito). Kyodai harbors a grudge against Bruce Wayne, who embarrassed him years earlier in a training dojo, but even Batman isn’t sure he’s ready for this rematch.

I’m coming into this episode with a very heavy bias – I have never liked the intersection of ninjas and superhero narratives, and I am not even convinced that the two stories belong together. I understand the allure of the samurai, isolated warriors bound by a code of honor; these stories have worked well for Wolverine, for one, and I think you can do interesting things with Batman as a kind of ronin (a samurai without a master). But here and in Daredevil, I just don’t understand the appeal of ninjas, whom Batman describes as “spies and assassins. Their only code is to get the job done.” But if one mark of a good Batman story is that you can’t imagine another character in his place, this episode roundly fails; I could just as easily imagine this as an episode of Daredevil, and I still wouldn’t care.

I do like that the episode gestures toward Bruce Wayne’s formative years on the road to dark knighthood, but the episode doesn’t really do anything with the flashbacks other than use them to introduce Kyodai Ken. We’re left with a good number of questions, chief among them what drew Bruce Wayne to Japan in the first place, but it’s also apparent that the past doesn’t fully bear on the present. I can’t believe for a moment that Batman needed special ninja training to defeat Kyodai, though the scene in which Bruce Wayne has to fake incompetence because Summer Gleason is watching ends up being pure gold.

There are some good ideas in “Night of the Ninja,” though they’re not given much development. Summer Gleason, a top journalist in Gotham, sets her sights on the connection between Bruce Wayne and Japan, but she’s shuffled offstage to be bound and gagged without ever really pursuing the story; one could imagine, for example, a version of this episode in which she gets dangerously close to exposing Batman’s true identity through the Japanese connection. On the other hand, Kyodai’s vendetta against Bruce Wayne never really lands because his motivation is quite weak, on top of which Bruce actually calls him out on that – “I was forced to become a thief after I was cast out of the dojo.” / “As I remember it, being a thief was what got you thrown out in the first place.” Had the episode developed Kyodai’s lower-class envy of Bruce Wayne, there might have been more compelling subtext to the episode, particularly to this day. Then there’s the Batman/Robin relationship, in which Batman refuses to trust Robin, only to be bailed out by his sidekick in the episode’s climax. It’s a decent subplot for the pair, even if it does retread territory from “Robin’s Reckoning,” and I have to say Robin has two of my favorite moments in the episode (one, a goofy face made behind Bruce’s back; the other, an unwitting double entendre when he chastises himself, “Way to go, Dick.”).

After more than ten strong episodes, we were playing with the house’s money. I don’t know if “Night of the Ninja” is material for a “bottom ten” list – it’s light-years better than “The Underdwellers,” for one – but it probably won’t land on any other lists for me. That is, unless I come up with a “Top Ten Stories Ninjas Didn’t Improve.”

But the episode might all be worth it for the way Kevin Conroy pronounces “Kyodai,” as though he becomes a sumo wrestler for the span of two syllables.

Original Air Date: October 26, 1992

Writer: Steve Perry

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: Kyodai Ken (Robert Ito)

Next episode: “Cat Scratch Fever,” in which a leopard fails to change her spots.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Legion (2017)

Between weekly looks at Batman: The Animated Series and the occasional voyage into the realm of Marvel’s Netflix offerings, I may have to get around to rebranding myself – with all this television floating about, can I really call myself “The Cinema King” anymore? Then again, when television is as cinematic as Legion – eight episodes, closer to a miniseries or just a serialized long film – do those distinctions really matter?

Legion stars Dan Stevens as David Haller, a troubled young man who’s either the most powerful mutant in the world or a psychologically troubled lifer at Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital. David’s world is rocked when he meets Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller), a new patient at Clockworks with a pathological aversion to being touched. When things go awry at Clockworks, David starts seeing things that might not be there; his best friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) appears when she shouldn’t, while David is dogged by painful childhood memories, competing agencies who fear his capabilities, and a morbidly obese demon with yellow eyes.

Legion is the sort of show that’s difficult to summarize because it changes tracks so quickly that the boundaries of a spoiler are almost imperceptible. For example, and without spoiling too much, one character dies partway through the first episode but continues to appear regardless, even remarking on the peculiarity of life after death. Legion is riddled with this sort of thing, head-scratchers that turn the screen into an irresistible magnet. Each episode contains at least two moments where everything you thought you knew about the show changes, prompting questions like, “Wait, why is he the coffee machine?” and “Was he always the deep-sea diver?” (Yes, actual questions I asked during the show.)

Legion is among the most visually stylized shows in recent memory, and it exploits that to its full advantage. The temptation now is to watch television with a phone in hand or while doing some menial task, but Legion is a different beast altogether. Long sequences play out with no dialogue, scored by some of the most inventive music on TV, courtesy of composer Jeff Russo – including an impromptu dance number set to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and one very memorable sequence from Episode 7, staged like a silent film, replete with dialogue cards, set to an electronic version of Ravel’s “Boléro.” The music plays into the wild unpredictability of the show, and – along with the nightmares – it’ll stick with you after the show ends.

For as brief as the show is, it’s got an impressively sized cast who get a striking amount of material. Stevens is fascinating as the unreliable protagonist, who’s never quite in control of himself or his rapidly evolving environment. Keller is sweet and mysterious, and she has a genuine chemistry with Stevens. Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder are ones to watch as Cary & Kerry (about whom I really can’t say anything else), while Jemaine Clement is his quirky compelling self as an icy beat poet with a slipping grasp of the English language.

Far and away, though, it’s Aubrey Plaza who hogties the show, absconds with it, and then brings it back around to show you all the madcap things she’s done with it – and thank God for this, because after the one-two punch of Dirty Grandpa and Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates, I had just about given up on the actress who was perennially my second favorite character on Parks & Recreation (though, to be fair, she was the closest thing to a bright spot in those dismal, dismal movies). It’s become the stuff of television legend now to remark upon the fact that the role of Lenny Busker was originally written for a man, though Plaza insisted the role not be altered once she was cast, and yet it is impossible to imagine a man making this part work because Plaza’s offbeat gender-bent presence adds still one more dimension of existential uncertainty to the show. As Lenny, Plaza is Janet Snakehole by way of Inception, a wolf in Beetlejuice’s clothing with a penchant for delivering, baldly straight-faced, immortal lines like, “Unhand the reptile, space captain!” And if we could talk plainly about the show, I’d tell you so many more delightful things about Plaza’s performance, but the real delight of her act is that you’re never quite sure what to expect from her, and as David’s grasp on reality begins to falter (which is to say, within the first few minutes of the pilot), you can’t be certain what – if anything – is real.

Legion is gripping in a way that most television shows struggle to manage; Westworld aside, I can’t remember a show debuting this strongly. (Even Game of Thrones took a few episodes to really get going.) And for those who feel a slight creep of superhero overload, a numbing disappointment that maybe-just-maybe we’ve seen everything the genre has to offer, Legion rejects that premise out of hand and then proceeds to destabilize your faith in the very language in which you proposed that premise. Better still, though, Legion never leaves its audience in the dust (at least, not for very long) and instead patiently unfolds the answers to the mysteries it postulates in a way that never feels compulsory. Aside from a post-credits sequence, this first season of Legion manages to address very nearly all its central questions and wrap things up in a way that feels both satisfying and enticing; put another way, I didn’t need the slightly gimmicky cliffhanger after the credits to guarantee my attendance for a second season.

Legion is rated TV-MA for “language, sexuality, and violence.” Created by Noah Hawley. Based on the Marvel Comics. Starring Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Bill Irwin, Jeremie Harris, Amber Midthunder, Katie Aselton, Mackenzie Gray, with Jean Smart and Jemaine Clement.

Friday, July 28, 2017

10 @ a Time - Batman v Superman, Part 2

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Part Two: Road to Nairomi

Welcome to the second installment of “10 @ a Time: Batman v Superman.” Last week we talked about how the opening ten minutes established the film’s operatic tone and the necessity of seeing the murder of the Waynes one more time. Having met Batman, it’s time to check in with Superman to see how he’s conducted himself in the intervening eighteen months since Man of Steel.

[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 0:10:07 to 0:19:55.]

"Among the fishes, a whale!"

These ten minutes (re)introduce us to Superman, who has embraced his role as the world’s protector, though this sequence in Africa demonstrates that his priority has always been Lois Lane. Of course the relationship has always been a staple in the comics, occasionally to the point where Lois has bristled under the supervision of her hero husband, but it’s of paramount importance to the film that Lois is both Superman’s entire world and his greatest vulnerability. (Lex will say as much in one of his big closing monologues.)

And it’s a real credit to Zack Snyder, Henry Cavill, and Amy Adams that we learn so much about their relationship dynamic without a single line of dialogue to elucidate or explicate. When Superman lands before the African general holding Lois hostage, I love the little smile he and Lois exchange as she subtly lowers her arms from the line of danger. She acknowledges to Superman that she trusts him, and each knows how the other operates well enough to avoid any further bloodshed. When I hear complaints from moviegoers that Superman doesn’t save anyone in this movie, I have to ask if they missed the first fifteen minutes, because it’s literally the first thing Superman does.

Speaking of bloodshed, though, we see Lex Luthor’s thugs round up and murder the soldiers in the village. I had said last July that the Ultimate Edition “clarifies Luthor’s plot by revealing that it’s all his plot, an effort to discredit the Man of Steel.” Remember, at least some of the mourning villagers are on Lex’s payroll, too. The name of the game is reasonable doubt – Lex is throwing everything he can at Superman, from framing him for murder to harvesting Kryptonite and cloning Zod’s body, from putting him on trial to siccing Batman on him. Put another way, as Lois will say later in the film, “Everywhere Superman goes, Luthor wants death.” All of his machinations are designed to come up with something that will ultimately defame, defeat, and destroy an unkillable man. Lex’s plot seems convoluted and desperate, almost as though he’s compensating for his own tremendous insecurity in the face of a god-like being. Hmm...

“He answers to no one – not even, I think, to God,” the villager Kahina Ziri tells Holly Hunter’s Sen. June Finch. But she’s asking the wrong question. Rather than wonder about Superman’s relationship to the deity, Batman v Superman invites us instead to consider our relationship to God-through-Superman. Throughout the film, we’ll see characters attempt to judge Superman based on their reading of him; indeed, moviegoers judged the content of Superman’s character based on Man of Steel, in which he had been Superman for literally one single day. The film clearly positions those judges, though, as in the wrong; Lex Luthor is among them, as is the misguided Batman. “Maybe he’s just a guy,” we’ll hear later in the film, and maybe we should hear what Superman has to say for himself before we judge him based on what we might expect him to be. We’ve seen that what this Superman does is save lives.

Next time, we’ll nip back to Gotham to see how the Battle of Metropolis embittered our Bat.

Observations and Annotations
  • As a fan of the comics who’s always wondered why all this Kryptonite happens to land on earth, I applaud the interpretation of Kryptonite as terraformed earth left over from Zod’s invasion. 
  • The Ultimate Edition confirms that the deceased photographer is Jimmy Olsen. It’s a somewhat radical breach of canon, but then again this isn’t exactly the kind of Superman that has a “pal.” (Of course, a subsequent film could reveal that this Jimmy Olsen borrowed the identity of the freckled photographer.) 
  • In Africa, we’ve got another close-up of a horse going rogue, evoking once more that image of Batman astride a horse from The Dark Knight Returns. 
  • Lois tells the general, “I’m not a lady; I’m a journalist,” which is a much better summation of her character than the on-the-nose “I’m a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter” from Man of Steel.
  • Last time we saw Superman in Man of Steel, he was dismantling a $12 million drone. It’s good to see that some things never change – Superman still doesn’t like drones.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Laughing Fish"

“They’re finny and funny and oh so delish / They’re joyful and jolly Jokerfish!”

The Joker’s latest scheme unfolds when a trawler brings in a catch of fish bearing the Clown Prince of Crime’s patented grin, which The Joker promptly attempts to copyright. But when he’s told that copyrights don’t apply to natural resources, his fury knows no bounds, and Batman has to protect a string of patent agents until Joker can be found.

Any time you see an episode written by Paul Dini and/or directed by Bruce Timm, it’s usually a pretty safe bet that you’re in for a winner, and “The Laughing Fish” does not disappoint. In fact, it’s a little tough to review “The Laughing Fish” without just throwing my hands up and saying, “Great job, guys.” This episode is engagingly scripted, and the direction is on point for a fast-paced episode. Some of the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series leave you wanting more, perhaps with the hope that they’d been two-part episodes, but that’s certainly true of “The Laughing Fish” – I could watch an entire season revolving around The Joker’s giddy absence of logic and Batman’s struggle to keep up.

Dini’s script, as in the best they do, draws on classic comics, including some of Joker’s most memorable appearances. There’s “The Laughing Fish” itself (an Englehart/Rogers classic that every Bat-fan needs to read and own), the climactic shark tank from “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” (by O’Neill and Adams, the team that would give us Ra’s al Ghul), and even a plot structure from Joker’s first appearance way back in Batman #1, in which he threatened his victims on television before murdering them, daring Batman to stop him first. If that sounds ticklingly familiar, it’s the skeleton of Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight, as well. The Joker is at his terrifying best when he’s working from a playbook that makes sense only to himself. As ever, Mark Hamill is definitive as the sinister jester, with his infectious laugh and spot-on mannerisms proving just why this particular ghoul is Batman’s greatest adversary. (I have yet to watch a Joker episode where that laugh doesn’t carry over to my own giggles of glee. It was, you may recall, the first good thing about The Killing Joke.)

And then there’s Harley Quinn, and for this to be only her second episode, it’s remarkable how fully-formed she is. In “Joker’s Favor,” she was something of a visual gag, a harlequin-themed henchgirl with a New Jersey accent straight out of Goodfellas; here, though, she’s alternately head-over-heels in love with her “Mistah J” while also being the only one in the plot to call him out for his mad deviance. “You’re really sick, you know that, boss?” she asks after becoming the involuntary punchline to one of The Joker’s sadistic gags. The Joker’s henchmen have always been more than a little expendable, often finding themselves on the wrong end of their boss’s oversized handguns, but Harley’s already the only one who stands up to him, even if she’s by his side at the end of the day. Last episode was a spotlight on Robin and how he makes Batman a stronger character, and we can think of Harley as serving a comparable function for The Joker, clarifying his grim nature with her bubbly persona.

One of the surprise delights of going back through BtAS, which I’ve done more times than I can count, is seeing what a treat Harvey Bullock can be. Maybe it’s just seeing what Donal Logue has done with the character over on Gotham ("What's altruism?!"), but I’m hyper-attuned to how this show portrays Bullock as a gruff but capable figure with a moral shade of gray that gets the job done by any means necessary while repudiating Batman for the same. He’s a gently incompetent cop for whom we nevertheless end up rooting, and kudos to Robert Costanzo for giving Bullock an emotional center even when he snarls his preferred nickname, “Bats.”

“The Laughing Fish” is pretty airtight as episodes go, and it’s a wonderful case study for how this show has treated The Joker (and indeed most of its villains in their stronger appearances). It’s an episode that only works with The Joker because of how daftly bonkers it is, yet for all its absurdism it never loses that sense of weight that the best episodes contain. In short, it continues to cement Dini’s rightful place as one of the top Bat-scribes of the last twenty-five years.

Original Air Date: January 10, 1993

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Bruce Timm

Villains: The Joker (Mark Hamill) and Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin)

Next episode: “Night of the Ninja,” in which the thing I never liked about Daredevil comes to Gotham.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

For a while there, Dunkirk ruined more than a few movies for me. The trailer for this movie, particularly the seven-minute IMAX preview, is so good that every time I saw it, I thought to myself, “Well, forget this movie. I want to see more of Dunkirk!” Thank heavens it’s finally here, so I can get back to my regularly scheduled programming, and thank heavens it was worth the wait because it shall come as no surprise that this Christopher Nolan disciple found much to love in the master’s latest work.

Dunkirk is the true story of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, France, in the midst of World War II, told across three intersecting narratives – the land evacuation (starring Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, and Kenneth Branagh), the civilian boats recruited to aid the effort (starring Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy), and the air cover provided by British fighter pilots (starring Tom Hardy).

With Interstellar in 2014, Nolan drew more than his fair share of comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – including from myself when I said that Interstellar “combin[ed] Kubrick’s science-fictional aesthetics with Nolan’s knack for tight and highly personal storytelling.” Surprisingly, though, Dunkirk also feels a bit like 2001, with its trio of timelines looking at what it means – and takes – to be human in a time of crisis, but Nolan out-Kubricks Kubrick by intermingling the timelines (one week, one day, and one hour) and playing them off against each other in a cerebral way that takes for granted an audience’s ability to keep up. For those of us who didn’t need navigational charts for Inception and Interstellar, Dunkirk is similarly smart, though it is less self-reflexively clever than past Nolan ventures; where Inception had occasional bouts of exposition and Interstellar made the MacGuffin of time travel a function of the plot, Dunkirk proceeds with its narrative play as a matter of course, again cycling back to the classic Nolan theme of the subjective experience of the time and the way we form communities around common goals.

Nolan veterans like Tom Hardy (playing to type as an unintelligible masked man) and Cillian Murphy (playing against type as a shell-shocked soldier) turn up and do the good work we expect of them, while Nolan newcomers like Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance – the closest we get to expositional figures – appear as sobering reminders of the moral challenge presented by Dunkirk, gifted actors prepared for the subtle challenges of their sophisticated roles. Dunkirk is largely, however, fleshed out by fresh and nameless faces who don’t have long and recognizable filmic pedigrees like their named counterparts, but there is something even more humanizing about a nameless sea of evacuees, and these actors are remarkable for their abilities, like Keaton or Chaplin, to evoke a range of emotions in largely silent stretches of the film.

In this way, too, Dunkirk evokes 2001 with its extended, silent, balletic scenes of aerial combat, of divebombing and running along the beach. 2001 began and ended sans dialogue, and there are similarly few conversations in Dunkirk, opportunities for Nolan and his performers to show off their command of the visual language of film. And again Dunkirk steps beyond 2001 with a dynamite score by Hans Zimmer; 2001 included the “Blue Danube Waltz” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” but by and large didn’t carry the auditory weight that Dunkirk does. Like Inception before it, Dunkirk succeeds largely on the shoulders of Zimmer’s score, which is masterfully, unrelentingly, elegiacally tense.

“Unrelenting” is probably the best word for Dunkirk. From its first scene, the film grabs the audience by the shoulders and demands attention until the film is over. There are moments when that ending seems to come sooner than expected – even without noting that the film is, at 1:46, much shorter than most Nolan fare – doubtless mirroring the false hopes given throughout the Dunkirk evacuation, but Nolan’s actual finale grounds the film in a surprising way, a kind of echo of Inception’s last-frame fakeout but with more heart than Nolan is often acknowledged as having. It is an affirmation of Nolan’s continued status as a master filmmaker and – and I do not throw this word around lightly – a true genius.

Dunkirk is rated PG-13 for “intense war experience and some language.” Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Based on a true story. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Barry Keoghan, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hardy.