Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Eternal Youth"

“But you haven’t seen my most intriguing trees. Actually, Batman, you and I are surprisingly alike. We both strive to see evil-doers punished. But while you have your gallery of rogues, I have my grove.”

Far too busy between running a major corporation and a one-man fight against crime, Bruce Wayne sends his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth in his stead to Eternal Youth, a health spa which promises a free weekend of rejuvenation at the hands of Dr. Daphne Demeter. But the good doctor is anything but – a slew of industrialists have gone missing at her spa, and Batman realizes his steward is now in the green-thumbed clutches of Poison Ivy.

It’s been a string of strong episodes from Batman: The Animated Series – four unqualified winners, by my count – and Ivy makes five here with “Eternal Youth.” Like its immediate predecessor, “Dreams in Darkness,” this is an episode that fits Ivy like a skintight leotard, and in some ways it feels like an episode of Batman ’66. You’ve got the themed henchmen, toga-clad nymphs Lily and Violet, though if this were an episode of The New Batman Adventures they probably would have been actual tree creatures, and you’ve got a villain hiding in plain sight in a poor disguise at a remote location. (I mean, really, Alfred, you didn’t recognize her?)

Poison Ivy first appeared in the comics the same year that Adam West donned the ill-fitting tights, but she never crossed over into the television world. This episode would seem to offer a theory as to why, because it (like her debut, “Pretty Poison”) plays up the character’s unavoidable connection to human sexuality. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a Poison Ivy story that is entirely sexless, something that’ll raise an eyebrow or two by the time the show pairs her up, in however you define that phrase, with Harley Quinn; the alternative, of course, is Poison Ivy the nurturer, as we’ve seen her in the comics take on a gang of orphans in an abandoned and overgrown city park. But here, with a matched pair of aforementioned be-toga’d henchbabes, boasting the cure for aging amid Alfred’s ostensibly romantic getaway, Poison Ivy lacks only a colossal Freudian metaphor of a plant to tie all this erotic subtext together. (See the unambiguous Venus flytrap in “Pretty Poison.”)

Then there’s the matter of Alfred’s lady friend, Maggie Page, who I always have to remind myself is not voiced by Angela Lansbury. (She is, in fact, voiced by Paddi Edwards.) It’s evident that the writers wanted to establish her as a recurring love interest for our esteemed butler, but it’s equally obvious that the writers didn’t really have much in the way of character development on the roster for her. We don’t quite know who she is or how she knows Alfred or even whether he actually likes her or if he’s just begrudgingly playing along, since his more amorous moments occur only under the influence of Ivy’s toxin. It seems she’s only present as someone around whom Alfred can act increasingly more randy, though the idea that something’s off about Alfred is more compellingly (and less nauseatingly) accomplished by his efforts to spruce up the Batcave with a few ferns.

Perhaps the Angela Lansbury trigger in my brain is borne out of her turn as cozy detective Jessica Fletcher on Murder She Wrote and an ensuing wish to have Alfred hook up with a detective of advancing years. As it stands, both butler and paramour are reduced to unwitting victims, and the last laugh is on Maggie when she muses that Bruce Wayne seems “not too bright.” Maggie’s presence is a blemish on what’s otherwise a fine episode, lacking only a nudge of character focus beyond what ends up just an uncomfortable pair of oversexed geriatrics.

Original Air Date: September 23, 1992

Writer: Beth Bornstein

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villains: Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing)

Next episode: “Perchance to Dream,” in which Bruce Wayne discovers he can’t read.

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

Monday, June 26, 2017

Inferno (2016)

Let’s be very clear about one thing: although the Dan Brown “Robert Langdon” series has always tried to be Indiana Jones for the art history crowd, I can’t say that the films have been as first-rate as Raiders of the Lost Ark or as transcendently resplendent as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (The books do manage to capture a striking breakneck pace for prose, such that I do have a hard time putting them down, though I now wonder how much of that is due to the fact that each chapter ends on a cliffhanger.) At any rate, I liked The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons well enough at the time, playing along with the outlandish plots and high-profile performances, but Inferno is the third and hopefully last in the series, a spiral of utter rubbish that manages to be muddy, dull, and unpalatably preposterous.

Tom Hanks is back as Robert Langdon, the jack-of-all-trades academic whose expertise on Dante Alighieri is brought to bear when a dead futurist (Ben Foster) releases a warning that a plague will be unleashed on the world, bringing about an apocalypse intended to curb the earth’s growing population. Felicity Jones, late of Rogue One, plays Sienna Brooks, Langdon’s physician who becomes embroiled in the hunt for the plague after treating an amnesiac Langdon for an unremembered head injury.

I read Inferno a whole year and several dozen other books ago, so my memory of it is a little fuzzy, but I recall at least modestly enjoying it, even if the ending was utter claptrap. The good news, I suppose, is that the ending has changed for the film version, although a good number of things have also changed, evidently because they’d simply take too long. There are whole subplots excised from the novel, and while I’ll never be the guy who says a movie must match the book verbatim, the effect of these omissions is such that the movie starts to crumble into procedure. Rather than follow the puzzle-box mentality of the previous films, where it seemed clearer why we had to go from Point A to Point B, plotlines don’t materialize so much as arrive like leaden parachutists. There’s a particularly egregious moment – well, two, now that I think of it – where the film “reveals” that something we thought we’d seen was actually something else all along, and although I remember those moments coming off a little more effectively in the novel, the film deposits them with minimal buildup and next-to-no fanfare, as if to say, “Oh, time for the twist. Here you go.”

Part of the reason the film doesn’t feel like it’s following a strain of logic is that it’s not comprised of puzzle pieces weaved from preexisting artwork so much as Dan Brown has come up with his own maze, a path devised by the film’s antagonist to lead to the plague – which is inherently nutty, because if the goal is to release a plague, a plague which would be time-released whether you find it or not, why on earth would you point a colossal neon sign in its direction? Why put a ticking clock on the thing? Moreover, why tell anyone at all? This sort of plot works better when it’s an ancient mystery designed to be read by the initiated, but it’s a bit of a headscratcher why this story exists in the first place, other than to give Tom Hanks something to do for two hours; heaven knows Langdon is a busy enough man, a career symbologist with a newfound expertise in Dante studies alongside a reputation that draws the World Health Organization to enlist his help.

And speaking of the World Health Organization, hold onto your plague masks, because there’s a ludicrous diversion from the novel in that the film posits a foregoing romantic relationship between Langdon and the WHO’s director (Sidse Babett Knudsen, who you might recognize from her stint on Westworld). I’m not miffed that screenwriter David Koepp has expanded the role of this character or even tried to humanize Langdon a little beyond being a human decoder ring. But in a franchise that has seemed to pride itself on outlandish leaps in logic, this one takes the cake because it contributes nothing to the plot and goes literally nowhere, approaching character development but turning tail and thinking better of it.

As I recall, the first two Robert Langdon films had some semblance of suspense, some air of mystery that demanded solving. Inferno, however, ends up fairly boilerplate, with an attempt to reinvent the formula by giving Langdon amnesia and forcing him to piece it together along with us, but the payoffs are increasingly absurd and the twists uninspired. With Hanks at 60 and director Ron Howard joining that galaxy far, far away, it might be better to let Inferno burn out the franchise before a geriatric Langdon is called upon to solve the dispiriting mystery of who stole his oatmeal from the retirement home.

Inferno is rated PG-13 for “sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements and brief sensuality.” Directed by Ron Howard. Written by David Koepp. Based on the novel by Dan Brown. Starring Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Ben Foster.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Dreams in Darkness"

“‘There’s always time to heal,’ the doctor told me, but he was wrong. There was no time left. Not for me, not for him, and not for Gotham City.”

Batman finds himself incarcerated in Arkham Asylum in this noir-narrated episode. Exposed to Scarecrow’s fear toxin, Batman grapples with his own sanity while trying to convince a well-meaning dunderhead of a doctor both that he’s compos mentis and that the clock is ticking on Scarecrow’s latest scheme. But has Batman finally snapped? After all, the good doctor knows that The Scarecrow hasn’t left Arkham...

“Dreams in Darkness” is the third appearance of The Scarecrow, but it’s the first one where I felt that Batman: The Animated Series really made him a compelling adversary for Batman. (Tragically, it’s also his last major appearance until The New Batman Adventures.) In the past, I’ve lamented the way that series reduced Scarecrow to the level of a common criminal who uses his remarkable intellect and terrifying chemical abilities to grab up some cash and maybe squeeze in a bit of revenge on the side. Here, though, writers Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens remember that Scarecrow is also the noted academic psychologist Jonathan Crane, and so his big scheme this time around is to douse Gotham City with fear toxin in order to study its effects. What I love about this plot is that it’s finally a Scarecrow-specific story, one into which you can’t readily swap another villain, with an endgame that only makes sense for The Scarecrow. (Imagine: The Riddler bombards Gotham with questions to see how they’ll react? Two-Face sends every citizen a silver dollar to test the city’s odds?)

This episode introduces a feature that is somewhat unique in the world of Batman: The Animated Series – voiceover narration. I mentioned above that it feels noir-esque to have Batman narrate an episode, especially one with a mysterious hook like “Batman’s locked up in Arkham.” (“I’ve Got Batman in my Arkham”?) However cool Kevin Conroy’s foreboding voiceover can be, though, it does undercut the initial mystery of Batman’s sanity; that is, despite what we see on screen, we’ve got a Batman in our ear telling us that all is not what it seems. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I know that I may be asking for a bit more psychological sophistication than possible from what is at the end of the day a children’s cartoon, but we’re two episodes away from “Perchance to Dream,” which is one of the show’s finest (half-)hours and delves into very similar themes with less willingness to hold the audience’s hand through the valleys of Batman’s psyche.

Appropriately, this is the second Scarecrow episode that takes Batman into the bowels of Arkham, and the idea that Batman’s nightly quest for justice might have broken him – even if the episode never takes it seriously – is a fascinating one, and I greatly appreciate that Arkham psychiatrist Dr. Bartholomew (Richard Dysart) isn’t an opportunistic glory hound out to make a name for himself. Instead, he’s genuinely saddened by Batman’s apparent fall from sanity and has the utmost faith in his institution’s curative properties. Unfortunately for Dr. Bartholomew, he’s an employee at Arkham Asylum, which renders laughable his straight-faced protestations that no villain could have possibly escaped. (Light spoilers: then again, Scarecrow hasn’t technically escaped Arkham, with a plot point that feels as if Batman Begins might have sat up and taken notice.)

Where “Fear of Victory” featured a memorable moment of Batman pacing the halls of Arkham, the leering faces of his foes following his every footfall, “Dreams in Darkness” moves those figures into a nightmarish sequence in which Batman is confronted by funhouse mirror incarnations of his foes, his friends, his parents, and the gun that changed his life that one fateful night. While Batman: The Animated Series has always been a little gun-shy (no pun intended) about the particular circumstances of Batman’s origin, gesturing obliquely and sporadically toward jigsaw pieces of the whole puzzle, it’s intriguing that this episode hangs its climax on the things that Batman fears the most. Strikingly, though, losing his identity as Batman is never on that list.

Original Air Date: November 3, 1992

Writers: Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Director: Dick Sebast

Villains: The Scarecrow (Henry Polic II)

Next episode: “Eternal Youth,” in which Alfred finds a lady-friend who can’t see the forest for the trees.

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Monday at the Movies - June 19, 2017

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, it’s another classic case of “57 Channels And Nothin’ On.”

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016) – Back in April, I had a soul-crushing experience with Dirty Grandpa, an utterly unbearable nightmare of a movie, and so I’m not quite sure why I stayed in my seat when Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates appeared on my television screen. Actually, I know why – Dirty Grandpa has been like a bad stomach flu that I just can’t shake, and I wanted to remind myself that Zac Efron and Aubrey Plaza weren’t to blame. But the bad news is that Mike and Dave, starring Adam DeVine and Efron as the titular brothers, is almost exactly the same film as Dirty Grandpa, with essentially the same grisly randy plot, though it is significantly less viscerally offensive and has quantitatively more chuckles and even the occasional laugh. The good news is that, in those moments of levity, it’s Efron and Plaza to blame, because they’re much improved from Dirty Grandpa, if only by dint of working from a script that doesn’t aim to offend every single decent sensibility. This is not, however, to say that Mike and Dave is squeaky clean, with at least two staggeringly racist jokes and a few more revolting bouts of physical comedy, to say nothing of the jokes that fall flat on a purely technical level. Then there’s DeVine, who seems to be trying much too hard and has never met a joke he couldn’t mug his way through, while Anna Kendrick really looks to be slumming it in scenes where she’s alternately depressed or doped up. But every once in a while, Efron and especially Plaza land a solid snicker or two, and while the film is overall a louse, the dingy light from Dirty Grandpa won’t reach it for a million years – that’s how far from polite civilization Dirty Grandpa resides – and Mike and Dave does pass a “five laughs” test, though it’s not memorable enough for me to repeat most of them.

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Mad as a Hatter"

“Twinkle, twinkle, little bat; how I wonder what you’re at!”

Paul Dini returns to scripting duties with another supervillain origin story, this time for the Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowall). A gifted scientist named Jervis Tetch falls head over heels for his coworker Alice, and as his mind warps into a wonderland of his own making, his obsession with Alice leads him to conflict with Batman, who can’t help but notice all the strange mind-control devices plaguing the city.

“Mad as a Hatter” is a strange episode for me because I remember really loving it as a kid (maybe just because for a while I had a difficult time getting a Mad Hatter action figure). The older I get, however, the more unsettling this episode becomes, the less sympathetic the villain, and the more genuinely dark I find “Mad as a Hatter.” This is somewhat unique for a Paul Dini origin story – I’m thinking specifically of “Heart of Ice” and “Mad Love,” both of which give their villainous main characters a humanizing and sympathetic backstory. Even though we’d probably never become the villains ourselves, we understand them, and we see just where and why it all fell apart for them.

With Jervis Tetch, however, there isn’t that moment where his life changes. His wife doesn’t die; he doesn’t meet a sociopath who manipulates him. He’s just a creepy loner who develops an unhealthy obsession with his coworker and the Lewis Carroll novel from which he will eventually take his criminal moniker. What’s striking, though, is the way that Dini makes Gotham City the initially unlikely but ultimately inevitable site for Tetch’s distinctive brand of madness to run wild. His Wonderland-inspired mania, combined with the coincidence (or perhaps not) of his friend Alice’s name, play out in a bizarre amusement park modeled after – you guessed it – Alice in Wonderland. (Sidebar: years later in the comics, Paul Dini would create a character named The Broker, whose job it was to find these happy coincidences of real estate and sell them to the optimal villain; fortunately for The Broker, Gotham City was – under Dini’s pen – revealed to have been a tourist trap many years ago, populated with this daft superfluity of derelict theme parks.)

“Mad as a Hatter” is an engaging enough episode, highlighting that mainlined insanity Dini so frequently brings to his stories, but it does lack a little in the department of psychological complexity; put another way, The Mad Hatter is more pathetic than sympathetic. There’s also a pronounced lack of detective work on Batman’s part, as he chases Tetch around the city, waylaid by the mind-controlled goons in Lewis Carroll attire, until the grand guignol climax at Storybook Land, which takes all this allusive subtext and renders it on the level of the literal. Batman encounters the Hatter at a mad tea party, wards off the Red Queen and her soldiers, and encounters an actual flying jabberwock (of sorts).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t draw out the episode’s most remarkable strength – not its deliberate peculiar brand of strangeness, though that’s certainly memorable. No, it’s Roddy McDowall’s casting as The Mad Hatter; McDowall’s unique cadence gives Tetch a titch of lilting deranged pathos, but he does indignant fury almost as well as Mark Hamill’s Joker at the moment when his mind irrevocably snaps and he blames Batman for forcing him into the role as this episode’s villain. “Mad as a Hatter” is maybe a B-list episode at worst (a high-B from Paul Dini, which is as good as an A from anyone else, mind you), but McDowall’s characterization and the abject unapologetic weirdness push it just shy of Top 10 material – as I’ve said before, if only because there is so much other good stuff coming down the pike.

Original Air Date: October 12, 1992

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Frank Paur

Villains: The Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowall)

Next episode: “Dreams in Darkness,” in which Batman finds himself on the wrong side of a cell at Arkham.

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Mummy (2017)

Going to see The Mummy, ostensibly the first film in Universal’s monster mash-up “Dark Universe,” is a bit like going on a first date with an overeager suitor. After a number of headscratching decisions regarding the opening course, said suitor quickly begins planning out your entire future together, only for you to slam the breaks on and say, “Hang on a minute, we’ve only just met! What was your name again?” By the end of the date, you’re asked, “Shall we do this again for the next few years?” while you struggle to form a response that won’t insult by asking your suitor to change everything that brought you two to this moment.

Put another way, and I don’t imagine this has been said by too many people very recently, I would have rather spent the foregoing two hours with Brendan Fraser.

(Note: there’s some degree of disagreement about whether or not the identity of Russell Crowe’s character is a plot spoiler. I had thought Universal had long ago announced this, but I’ve seen critics be cagey about it. I’ll say that it’s not revealed until about halfway through the film, although Crowe appears here and there in the first half, and if you’d really rather not know, skip the plot summary and just imagine it says “Tom Cruise meets a mummy.”)

Tom Cruise stars as Nick Morton, soldier of fortune and antiquities looter in present-day Iraq who stumbles upon – or rather, quite literally falls headlong into – the hidden tomb of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), the forgotten princess of Egypt who was mummified after a string of wicked misdeeds. Morton falls in with Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) and her shadowy employer Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who have their own designs on the unearthed sarcophagus.

I’ll not say that The Mummy is a travesty; I won’t get angry about it or inveigh against it. I’ll say, however, that The Mummy is clunky and mechanical and, like its eponymous villainess, more than a little bit lifeless. Perhaps it’s a case of over-trailer-itis, which seems to be going around these days, and indeed more than three-quarters of the plot of The Mummy, in precise chronological order, is contained in the trailers, such that the only real turns of the plot left for the film proper involve how exactly Tom Cruise gets himself out of this pickle. (The climax of the film, meanwhile, is its own little bundle of problems, about which I’ll say more later.)

Take for example the centerpiece action sequence, a plane crash that was done with a surprising amount of practical effects. And if you’d seen the trailers, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a page out of the Mission: Impossible playbook, but where it’d be a rousing thrill over there, here it’s somewhat leaden, devoid of much suspense (again, partially because the trailers outright revealed who survives the crash, and how). At least one horror/thriller set piece ends up being just a product of a character’s imagination, while death itself becomes quite impermanent – par for the Mummy course, I grant you – resulting in a film that feels bereft of consequence and ultimately void of significance.

Unfortunately, the things in the film that feel of the most significance are the elements one senses are being introduced, with all the subtlety of a flashing “detour ahead” sign, to set up future films in the Dark Universe franchise. The director, Alex Kurtzman, had done the press rounds in December talking about making these aspects – including a secret organization, Prodigium, which is essentially a monster S.H.I.E.L.D. – organic to the story of The Mummy, and I have to say on that front the film fails spectacularly. It is, in fact, akin to entering another film entirely; Tom Cruise leaves the plot of The Mummy, enters the Prodigium plot, and then returns to The Mummy without that second act doing much more than introducing a plot-sized bottle of continuity glue to hold the franchise together. The worst of it is that the Prodigium plot is actually a little bit interesting, a bit unpredictable, and a bit audacious for a film that otherwise plays so safely by the numbers. That is not, however, to say that the Prodigium plot works particularly well as the second act of The Mummy, overladen as it is with exposition that continually reminds us of the inorganic, grafted-on quality of this subplot. Russell Crowe turns up, monologues a bit about the film we could have been watching, and then ushers us away to our regularly scheduled movie, already in progress.

Then the film ends – or rather, doesn’t end, because every plot thread that’s tied up gets unraveled almost immediately, and you can hear any one of the six screenwriters saying, “Hold up a second, we might want to use that in another film.” (Six screenwriters! No wonder this film feels more like a collection of bits than a singular narrative.) The film is trying to end, but the corporate demand for a franchise results in, appropriately enough, a Frankenstein’s corpse of a creature that isn’t permitted to fade away. Consequently, The Mummy ends up being more Iron Man 2 than Iron Man, forgetting that it was the insular success of the first film that allowed the series to bend toward franchise, in all its best and worst excesses. Then there’s a bit that feels unfinished and deferred to another film when you realize that one of the main characters closes the film in shadow and obscurity because something has very probably changed about that character’s face, but you’ll have to come back for another film to see what precisely that change looks like. In yet another way, then, this Mummy refuses to wrap up.

The Mummy would have been in a better place had it decided what it wanted to be. Is it a Tom Cruise action vehicle? Is it a horror film about ancient evil? Is it an espionage thriller about monster hunters? Or is it an origin story for a shared universe that, quite honestly, not many audiences were requesting in the first place? And although it shares next to nothing except a core concept with 1999’s The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser, this Mummy emerges all the worse for the comparison because of how fluid, energetic, and frankly well-crafted the former Mummy flick was. I still carry fond memories of the 1999 Mummy and wish I’d been watching that film instead. It had a sequel, yes, but it also had a singular plot leading to a singular ending. Rick O’Connell, we hardly knew ye.

(And what does it tell you that, nearly 20 years later, I still remembered Rick’s name but had to look up the name of Tom Cruise’s character a scant day later?)

The Mummy is rated PG-13 for “violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity.” Directed by Alex Kurtzman. Written by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman, John Spaihts, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet. Starring Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, and Russell Crowe.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Appointment in Crime Alley"

“I told her to be careful. Bad things happen to people in Crime Alley.”

Industrialist Roland Daggett (Ed Asner) won’t take no for an answer, so after Gotham City declines his bid to rezone Crime Alley, he hires a pair of goons to level the block at precisely 9 p.m. Little does Daggett know, though, that this evening holds a special significance for Batman, and he has an annual appointment to keep with the neighborhood physician Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Diana Muldaur).

There’s a trio of episodes from Batman: The Animated Series that always ran together for me – “It’s Never Too Late,” this one, and “Paging the Crime Doctor.” They’re all underworld episodes, and the latter two star Leslie Thompkins, but more importantly none of them left an impression on me. I’d always gloss over these on rewatches, but I’m really glad to go through the series again because “Appointment in Crime Alley” is actually a great episode. You might not think it to look at it, since it’s not written by Paul Dini, nor does it feature a big-name villain, but that’d be an underestimation. And if I didn’t know we have so many perfect episodes down the pike, I’d wager this might be a new “Top 10” episode.

“Appointment” is written by comics veteran Gerry Conway, who’s best known for creating Killer Croc and The Punisher as well as killing Gwen Stacy, and what’s not immediately apparent is that he’s working from a story written by Dennis O’Neil, a man who probably belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Batman stories (if only for creating Ra’s al Ghul with Neal Adams). That’s a colossal assembly of authorial talent, but director Boyd Kirkland is no slouch, either, he of “Joker’s Favor” and “Beware the Gray Ghost.”

Kirkland’s direction here is really quite amazing, creating a great atmosphere of suspense as he continually reminds us of the ticking clock governing the action of this episode. Add to that a notably remarkable score by Stuart Balcomb, which makes long scenes without dialogue all the more punchy (and often literally, given Batman’s nocturnal activities). This is a very fluid episode, one that works exceptionally well, and it does so without much pomp or flair. Indeed, there’s a “just another night” feeling to this episode, showing what Batman’s nights are like when he isn’t involved in saving the city on a macro scale. It’s small acts of heroism, only some of which add up to the larger plot, showing that Gotham City is a massively dysfunctional place in need of a protector even if all the colorful rogues are incarcerated.

Yet as much as the episode goes for the quotidian, there’s something pointedly noteworthy about this particular evening, and I believe this is the first time that BtAS has gone into the concrete specifics of what happened to Thomas and Martha Wayne. We’ve known that they died and that Batman feels intensely guilty about this, but seeing the details – even in newspaper clippings – carries a power that those earlier dreams and flashes could only glimpse. Moreover, tethering those feelings to Leslie Thompkins, who struggles to do good in a part of town on which Gotham has entirely given up, anchors Batman’s drive for justice in his core optimism that there are still good people in Gotham, even in the darkest part of town. It’s a lesson that Ben Affleck’s Batman needed to relearn – “Men are still good...” – and indirectly this episode shows why it’s so important for Batman to remember that. As much as the city would seem to fall apart without its caped crusader, Batman is continually reminded that there are others who, in their own small way, are holding the city together. It’s damned poetic that one such hero held Bruce Wayne together after his parents died.

The episode closes with the revelation of Batman’s appointment in Crime Alley, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, there’s a spoiler here, but it’s one you’ve probably seen in other adaptations of Batman – The Dark Knight returns to Crime Alley once a year to lay flowers at the spot where his parents were gunned down. It’s a theme that originated in the O’Neil story back in 1976, but it’s chill-inducing here; no matter how many times I’ve seen a variation of this image, be it in Tim Burton’s Batman or in the Arkham City game, it’s sobering to see the humanity and the tragedy of Batman laid bare in a moment of remembrance. “Appointment in Crime Alley” does it in a moving way that reinforces the optimism of Batman, particularly important for a young audience seeing this animated show.

Original Air Date: September 17, 1992

Writer: Gerry Conway

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villains: Roland Daggett (Ed Asner), Nitro (David L. Lander), and Crocker (Jeffrey Tambor)

Next episode: “Mad as a Hatter,” in which the vorpal blade goes snicker-snack.

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

In a word, wow.

Diana, princess of Themyscira (Gal Gadot), has trained her whole life – against the wishes of her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Connie Nielsen) – to defeat the god of war should Ares return centuries after his defeat at the hands of his father Zeus. When man’s world, in the form of downed fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), comes to her island home, Diana has the chance to fight the war to end all wars, joining the First World War as Wonder Woman. As she crosses the trenches of no man’s land, she faces Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), the German general intent on avoiding an armistice, and his chemist, Dr. Isabel Maru, alias Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya).

Let’s get the preliminary out of the way up front: I’m perpetually aghast at the fact that it took more than 75 years for Wonder Woman to headline her own live-action feature film, but if that’s time we spent “Waiting for Gadot” I’m almost inclined to say it was worth the wait. Gal Gadot is frankly definitive as Wonder Woman, and I’m relieved that audiences are embracing her as much as she has embraced the role; I look forward to many more films with her as Wonder Woman because it’s almost as if she’s stepped out of a comic book and onto the silver screen. The moments when she’s unleashing her warrior’s fury, backed by Tina Guo’s electric cello theme (thankfully maintained from Batman v Superman), are at once fist-pumpingly thrilling and simultaneously genuinely awe-inspiring.

There’s certainly a meta-level reading here, with Steve Trevor telling Wonder Woman that no one can cross a no man’s land before watching her accomplish just that. In many ways, that’s an echo of all the bigwigs and even audience members who sniffed at the notion that a female-led superhero film could do big business, and here we are, $100 million later. But even on its own merits, the moments when Wonder Woman charges into battle are legitimately inspirational, as is her continual emphasis on personal acts of heroism; for all that Wonder Woman is looking to defeat Ares, she never neglects the personal cost of war, as in the deeply touching moment when she heals a traumatized soldier by asking him to sing. Gadot embodies the character’s unique blend of compassion and ferocity, as well as her welcome sense of humor amid the absurdities of man’s world.

Wonder Woman is unquestionably Gal Gadot’s show, but she’s surrounded by strong supporting characters. Chris Pine is a well-nuanced Steve Trevor, funny and somewhat dunderheaded but never incompetent; previous incarnations have struggled with whether Steve is a patronizing patriarch or an empty-headed buffoon, but Pine finds a way to make Steve capable yet human. The Amazons who dominate the first act are wonderful enough that I’d have gladly taken a ticket for a movie just about them, particularly Robin Wright’s fierce Antiope, and I do hope we’ll see more of Themyscira, perhaps as soon as Justice League in November. And our villains are clearly having a good time playing evil to the hilt; there’s a fascinating backstory to be told about Dr. Maru, while Danny Huston’s Ludendorff takes the occasional chomp out of the scenery in a snarling, vamping performance that manages also to be scary.

What I loved the most about Wonder Woman – aside from the mere fact of its existence and the notion that, finally, others love a DC movie as much as I do – is that it takes subtext from Batman v Superman and literalizes it. We have had to imagine and defer the promise of Jor-El’s prophecy to his son – “They will stumble, they will fall, but in time they will join you in the sun” – but Wonder Woman shows us what that looks like in the real world. The audience who joined me for Wonder Woman was probably the most diverse audience (in terms of age, gender, and race) I’ve seen at a superhero movie, at least in recent memory, and that alone is something to celebrate, that finally everyone understands the power of the superhero, that we see what they can do, and that we’re standing behind them.

Put another way, you go, Gal.

Wonder Woman is rated PG-13 for “sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content.” Directed by Patty Jenkins. Written by Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs. Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, and David Thewlis.