Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Chemistry"

“Relationships aren’t supposed to be easy. Even I know that, and I’m a vegetable.”

At Veronica Vreeland’s fourth wedding, Bruce Wayne meets Susan Maguire (Linda Hamilton), who sweeps our billionaire off his feet. The relationship moves fast – fast enough for Bruce to propose marriage and resign the mantle of the Bat – but Robin and Batgirl are suspicious, especially when Veronica’s new husband Michael starts displaying murderous intent.

As the clock winds down on The New Batman Adventures, “Chemistry” is an unexpectedly appropriate antepenultimate note. For a show that has been nominally about family (albeit a family that squabbles, bickers, and at times flirts inappropriately), “Chemistry” is an episode that asks what it would take for the patriarch to leave the family. It’s been a long-standing precept of the Batman universe that Batman is a foster father to the Robins, Nightwings, and Batgirls who have found their way into his fold, with stalwart Alfred as his own surrogate father; in short, Batman creates for himself a family to replace the one he lost in Crime Alley.

For Susan Maguire to come along and destabilize all of that suggests that she must be a very special lady. This episode very smartly invokes some of the most powerful moments of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, in which a young Bruce Wayne was already considering abandoning his nascent vow of justice in favor of a life with Andrea Beaumont; in “Chemistry,” it’s the cave scene in particular, framed and scored like that Phantasm moment, that helps to land the notion that this might be Batman’s swan song. However, one never really gets the impression that this is permanent, even if this were the final episode of the Batman animated project. Like Robin and Batgirl, we recognize that this is all moving a little too quickly, and Kevin Conroy smartly keeps his Bruce voice a little too dispassionate for a man on the verge of wedded bliss. I might have liked a little more convincing that Susan was the woman of Bruce’s dreams, but perhaps writer Stan Berkowitz is more interested in the detective work of Batman’s juniors and the horror derived from the truth about Susan.

The episode begins to destabilize (in a good way) when we learn the truth about Veronica Vreeland’s fourth husband. Veronica has been a fun addition to Gotham’s supporting cast, a useful reminder of what everyone else thinks Bruce Wayne is – a vapid, shallow, and self-absorbed heir to a fortune of ungodly size. She has the early weavings of a moral fiber, having learned half a lesson from abusing Penguin in “Birds of a Feather,” but she’s hardly an altruist. Still, our investment in her, even if only as a consequence of continuity, means that “Chemistry” wrings a successful amount of horror from her husband’s monstrous transformation into – and spoilers, all – a venomous plant creature born in Poison Ivy’s lab. Michael’s shambolic lurch toward Veronica, cowering in a closet, reminds one of the better moments in “Heart of Steel,” though I wonder if I’m the only one who wishes we might have gotten one more good H.A.R.D.A.C. episode out of TNBA.

As the final Poison Ivy episode, “Chemistry” keeps its main antagonist off-screen for a while, building suspense but sadly relegating a major Bat-foe to the periphery. There’s a lot that could have been done with this character – a happier ending with the besotted Harley Quinn, perhaps, or a seed of the long-running redemption plot the comics have entertained for her. Creating plant spouses to take over global industry is perfectly of a piece with Ivy’s ecoterrorist sentiments, but her emphasis on controlling their fortunes seems a little petty for a villain who always tried to do a little good for her planet. (Say, why hasn’t Ivy ever teamed with Ra’s al Ghul to save Mother Earth?)

“Chemistry” is a kind of cold inversion of “House & Garden”; where Ivy found herself incapable of forming a family, even a synthetic one, she’s here ready to dispense with the artifice and take full advantage of her powers of photosynthetic simulation. Years later, the tie-in comics would claim/reveal that every appearance of Ivy since “Holiday Knights” was actually a plant-based doppelganger that Pamela Isley used to escape Gotham and join Alec “Swamp Thing” Holland in his botanical research; as I recall, she even washed up from the watery climax of this episode. It’s an interesting footnote for a character who’s more often than not received a fair shake from this show. 

Original Air Date: October 24, 1998

Writer: Stan Berkowitz

Director: Butch Lukic

Villains: Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing) and Susan Maguire (Linda Hamilton)

Next episode: “Beware the Creeper,” in which a clown prince is plagiarized, and three stooges take a day off.

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇

Monday, December 24, 2018

Aquaman (2018)

I don’t think any of us could have expected that we’d get an Aquaman movie before, say, The Flash or another of DC’s heavy-hitters that hasn’t labored under decades of “talks to fish” jokes. (Thank credited writer Geoff Johns, who spent years recently doing yeoman’s work to boost the profile of Aquaman comics after the character languished following Peter David’s seminal 1990s run.) But here we are, in the wake of a disappointingly passable Justice League and a DC cinematic universe that looks to be more standalone than unified – which is actually smart. Instead of chasing the Marvel method, DC appears to be organizing its universe around its unique and resonant characters, even if they (Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, Aquaman) aren’t the ones you’d expect. 

Enter, then, Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry, rightful heir to the Atlantean throne currently held by his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who wants to unite the seven kingdoms of the sea in an offensive against the surface world. Drafted into the conflict by princess Mera (Amber Heard) and royal advisor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), the man who would be Aquaman sets off on a quest to reclaim his birthright and his destiny.

As a piece of big-screen spectacle – placed at Christmastime, it feels a bit out of place, but so too does its land-and-sea protagonist – Aquaman is a real popcorn movie. Looking like an underwater Tron: Legacy, with a narrative that feels like a cross between Thor and Indiana Jones (and a Rupert Gregson-Williams score that’s part Vangelis, part Henry Jackman, and part Junkie XL), there is something contagious about Aquaman’s gee-whiz enthusiasm for bright lights, big setpieces, and wild monstrous creatures. From merpeople to colossal crabs, from talking krakens to zombie fishmen, director James Wan is clearly having a ball inventing and adapting the daftest denizens of the deep. Moreover, the film carries with it a sense that any mad adventure could be just around the corner – par for the course are a tidal wave or jumping out of a plane without a parachute. Don’t worry too much, the film seems to say; just have fun.

And for the most part, Aquaman is quite fun, thanks in large part to Momoa’s seafaring swagger. When we last saw him in Justice League, he was the surfer bro monarch, howling with glee and cackling “My man!” while spearing parademons. Here he’s lost none of that cockiness, overconfident and scrapping for a fight. His headstrong nature is countered by Amber Heard’s steady Mera, always cautious and deductive but a strong hand in a fight as she defies her father (Dolph Lundrgren, astride a seahorse) and his alliance with Orm.

Poor Heard, though, is saddled with scores of expositional dialogue, as are most of the characters in the film. Atlantis and its rival kingdoms are dense in mythology, and there’s a lot of ground/water to cover, but the film does pack in a lot, including Aquaman’s three biggest villains. On that count, despite the film threatening to buckle under its own weight, it is possibly the most straight-faced comics-accurate superhero film in recent memory, with Mera, Orm, and Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) looking as if they’ve stepped directly off the printed page without any self-conscious jokes. In fact, it’s easy to overlook a lot of the film’s flaws – choppy exposition, cartoonish filters on the visuals and the audio – because of how earnestly it emulates its source material; when Orm puts on that Ocean Master helmet, it’s like looking into the eyes of an Ivan Reis page. Indeed, from Zack Snyder we sense that James Wan has inherited that widescreen approach to the cinematic frame as a comic book panel, slowing down key action beats to give us a fist-pumping rah-rah pose before revving back up.

There are moments in Aquaman that are difficult to engage, moments that take you out of the film because of how ludic and unserious it can be; for me, it was the moments when some of the dialogue, already leaden with exposition, was muffled by an underwater filter that sounds like a kid in a bathtub (Tom Hardy, eat your heart out). But the film is buoyed by its relentless exuberance and my own predisposition to like this sort of movie when it doesn’t step grotesquely out of line. Between a comics-accurate Black Manta and Nicole Kidman wearing a sequined amphibious skeleton, the geeks have well and truly won.

Aquaman is rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.” Directed by James Wan. Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall, Geoff Johns, and James Wan. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, and Nicole Kidman.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Mad Love"

“Face it, Harl, this stinks. You’re a certified nutso wanted in twelve states, and you’re hopelessly in love with a psychopathic clown! At what point did my life go Looney Tunes?”

Smarting from his latest thwarted attempt to kill Commissioner Gordon, The Joker (Mark Hamill) rebuffs Harley’s advances, pushing the clown princess (Arleen Sorkin) to remember how it all began. In flashbacks, we see how she met The Joker as his psychiatrist in Arkham Asylum, before she fell in love and broke him out as his new henchgirl. As Harley remembers her past, she plans her future with her puddin’, plotting a way to rework Mr. J’s old schemes to kill Batman once and for all.

“Mad Love” is, as memory serves, the last great episode of the animated Batman project, which is really fitting in a number of ways. It’s the last episode by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, adapting one of their seminal comic book works, and it remains the definitive statement on Harley Quinn. (We’ll see her once more, in two weeks, for a zany sideplot.) It’s a brisk twenty minutes, giving us a pair of fully-realized villains whose ambitions are clear, and it features Batman cleverly dodging his way out of danger with his trademark sense of black humor. (“She came a lot closer than you ever did... Puddin’.”) Put another way, it’s at once a high note and a mic drop for Paul Dini and Bruce Timm.

Reviewing this episode is a little like reviewing Citizen Kane – even if you haven’t seen it, you know its reputation is titanic, and the central concept is so culturally ingrained that it’s seeped into the culture by four-color osmosis. Everyone knows the story, and you’ll be unsurprised to see it crack the Top Five of my “Best Paul Dini Episodes” when all is said and done. It’s such a tight and engaging exercise in precision, with a wonderful showcase for Arleen Sorkin, who plays Harley as a multifaceted bundle of mess. She’s romantic, lovestruck, tragic, determined, afraid, clever, infatuated, obsessed, angry, and often a mix of most of them at once. What Kevin Conroy can do with the word “Go” pales in comparison to what Sorkin can do with a well-timed “Puddin’.”

Giving a villain like Harley such a complex psychological and emotional profile is a bit brave, but it’s long been the hallmark of this show that the villains are almost more the star of an episode than Batman is. Joker, too, gets his convolutions, obsessed as he is with marshalling all the strength of his comedic genius against Batman’s vast toyetic arsenal. He’s aware of the theatricality of it all, and it’s been this self-aware mania that has marked Hamill’s Joker tenure as indisputably definitive. He’s genuinely funny – on more than one level, as when he gags, “May the floss be with you!” – and yet frighteningly manipulative. This danger is something that Suicide Squad started to get right, this interpretation of The Joker as emotionally abusive and psychologically controlling, with Harley’s true tragedy being her inability to learn from her own mistakes.

Of course, in the comics, she’s long since learned her lesson, but in “Mad Love” she’s incorrigible, swooning over her Mistah J despite his endless violence. Yet at her core, she’s real; we recognize her cheery optimism and believe in her abiding capacity for love. We can’t help but admire her spirited determination to get back up and try again, even if that is the very definition of madness. In this way, she’s become a kind of accidental feminist icon, representing the capacity for strength and growth in the face of astonishing cruelty. No matter what happens to Harley, regardless of how warped her perceptions can be, she’s determined to continue to try to make the world in her own madcap image, whether that involves a shellacking of whiteface or a good thwack of her oversized mallet. 

We’ve seen throughout that this series often lives or dies on the strength of a particular voiceover artist – Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Michael Ansara, even Paul Williams as The Penguin. Here, though, Sorkin makes the case (if she hadn’t already) that she belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Bat-voices – indeed, such that I can’t imagine who a comparable fourth would be opposite Conroy and Hamill. (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., maybe? Andrea Romano? Sound off in the comments.) “Mad Love” is then a kind of farewell gift; though Harley Quinn will appear once more, this episode is the treasure by which we’ll always remember her.

Original Air Date: January 16, 1999

Writers: Paul Dini and Bruce Timm

Director: Butch Lukic

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

Next episode: “Chemistry,” in which our Dark Knight finally settles down.

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Mule (2018)

At 88 years old, it’s a wonder anyone is calling Clint Eastwood a lazy filmmaker. Despite his notoriety for eschewing multiple takes, Eastwood remains a workhorse, turning out two films this year when his contemporaries are browsing leaflets for retirement homes. The Mule is classic late Eastwood, brisk and deliberate without any pretense of political correctness; one can almost hear Eastwood from behind the camera, growling that any young whippersnappers in hearing range ought to take a look and see how it’s done.

Clint Eastwood stars as workaholic horticulturalist Earl Stone, who’s lost his family after years of throwing himself into his work. Short on cash, Earl finds himself a mule for a drug cartel, shuttling contraband across state lines in his dilapidated pick-up truck. The film is complemented by parallel narratives involving a trio of DEA agents (Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, and Laurence Fishburne) and the cartel’s decadent leader (Andy Garcia). 

There is something quite methodical about Eastwood’s directing here, an unshowy pacing that doesn’t descend into cliché; there’s little cat-and-mouse in the DEA subplot, for example. It’s a little like Heat if the classic showdown were set in a waffle house – we get there when we get there, with a minimum of glamour. Indeed, if memory serves, the only firearms discharged are on Garcia’s skeet-shooting range. Eastwood is more interested in a character sketch than an octogenarian Sicario, and his cantankerous Earl is very much of a piece with The Mule’s spiritual predecessor Gran Torino.

Gran Torino shares screenwriter Nick Schenk with The Mule, and it shows. Though Earl Stone isn’t as extreme in his prejudice as Walt Kowalski was, Eastwood is unafraid to show him as a sympathetic throwback, someone surprised to meet a lesbian biker gang but more interested in helping repair their engines than in talking down to them. Walt might have thrown a few slurs their way, but Earl greets them cheerily. It seems Earl is more perplexed by texting and the internet than by issues of difference, scratching his head at a generation raised by search engines instead of fathers. As cantankerous yet genial, Eastwood shines, a commanding if doddering heart to the film.

As good as Eastwood is and as well-developed as his character is, I couldn’t help but wish the rest of the movie were as thoroughly fleshed-out. We don’t know very much, for example, about the DEA agents on Earl’s trail. There’s a gesture toward a parallel with Earl about putting work before family, but much of that rings shallow when it’s told but not shown. A throwaway line about Peña’s five children, for one, never materializes into something meaningful because the movie is almost wholly disinterested in anyone else’s interiority. Similarly, the cartel plotline doesn’t land as forcefully as it could because, as even the film’s characters readily admit, it’s hard to tell one drug lord from the next. The only criminal with a semblance of a personality is Garcia as Laton, though I wonder how much of that comes from the page and how much comes from Garcia’s own magnetic, underrated capabilities. 

The Mule is a wholly unique flick, resembling others only tangentially. It’s itinerant in scope and methodical in temperament, quirksome and curious. It can’t be a big-budget blank check, but it’s certainly a creative blank check in that the premise is something so curiously specific that it takes the clout of Clint Eastwood to assemble it in this particular fashion. It’s also a healthy indicator that Eastwood in all his peculiar specificity shows no signs of slowing down, which is for this reviewer a very good thing.

The Mule is rated R for “language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity.” Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Nick Schenk. Based on a true story. Starring Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Taissa Farmiga, Michael Peña, Alison Eastwood, Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne, and Dianne Wiest.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Girl's Night Out"

“An empty mall, an unguarded cash machine – who says life ain’t fair?”

A prisoner transfer from Metropolis goes sideways when Livewire (Lori Petty) escapes confinement and runs loose into Gotham City. Batgirl (Tara Strong) and Supergirl (Nicholle Tom) team up to recapture the electric supervillain, but in her escape Livewire teams up with Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing) and Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) for a criminal shopping spree. 

In the final scene of this episode, it’s not a spoiler to say that Supergirl and Batgirl cap off their night of crimefighting and bonding in slippers and bathrobes, with their own pints of ice cream. If there’s a better analogy for how this episode is the animated equivalent of comfort food, I can’t come up with it. “Girl’s Night Out” (odd apostrophe placement, I know) is a real treat of an episode, fan service in its purest form. Last week’s episode might be a Top 10, and so too do I need to give this one some consideration. (Next week’s is a lock.)

It’s a little surprising for me to discover that Supergirl only appeared in three episodes of Superman: The Animated Series; even more startling is that Livewire only appeared in two. These two women loom so large in my memory of the show’s 54 episodes, possibly as a consequence of this episode, which throws together the best of two animated shows (which, recall, aired for a time as a one-hour block, The New Batman/Superman Adventures, on the Kids WB network). While there is something lightly discriminatory about pitting two women against three women, given the deep bench of villains Batgirl and Supergirl could have fought, I submit that we look at “Girl’s Night Out” as uniting the DC Animated Universe’s two greatest original creations – Livewire and Harley Quinn, both manic pixies with squeaky voices, too good to be bad but too bad to be good. It’s the perfect team-up of two perfect characters, just different enough to get on each other’s nerves.

This episode also revisits the Harley & Ivy dynamic that works so well. We saw a kind of trial run for this episode in “Holiday Knights,” when the pair abducted Bruce Wayne for a holiday shopping spree and murderous nightcap, so it’s a delight to see that the friendship persists, with Ivy as the gently indulgent den mother and Harley as the impulsive ball of energy. “She tries so hard,” Ivy laments as Harley whacks away at a locked door. Sorkin is in rare form as Harley, grunting her way through endless hammer strikes, gleefully acknowledging her own madness, and knocking herself out (whoopsie-daisy!) when she forgets that Supergirl is invulnerable. We have two more Harley episodes to go after this one, and she’s well on her way to going out on a high note.

One thing that ought not go without saying is that “Girl’s Night Out” is to be commended for an episode in which Batgirl and Supergirl’s friendship is assumed as a matter of course; they have no rivalry, no deep-seated resentment, and no hang-ups about working together. Indeed, they’re only jealous of the quotidian differences between them (namely, technology, farm life, and chores). It took Batman and Superman an entire movie to learn how to get along; it’s refreshing to see these two learning from their mentors’ mistake. While Batman is gruff and agitated at needing Superman’s help to take down Livewire, Supergirl is all too happy to step in for her famous cousin and make a night of it. 

In fact, this refreshing optimism is something from which The New Batman Adventures overall could have benefited. I had to keep checking this wasn’t a Paul Dini episode – it’s not, nor was Livewire’s debut – because the infectious brand of enthusiasm is Dini’s trademark approach to a universe as full of delights as this animated one. As dour and uncomfortably romantic as TNBA could be, it was episodes like this one that left us feeling good about the direction of the DCAU. Better, “Girl’s Night Out” is one of a number of episodes, like “Trial,” that feel like an open toybox adventure, dumping all the action figures onto the rug and having a blast. Sadly, this boy never had a Harley Quinn or a Livewire figure (or a Supergirl, come to think of it), but this would have been a dream of a team-up.

Original Air Date: October 17, 1998

Writer: Hilary J. Bader

Director: Curt Geda

Villains: Livewire (Lori Petty), Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin), Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing), and The Penguin (Paul Williams)

Next episode: “Mad Love,” in which life goes looney tunes.

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Legends of the Dark Knight"

“You guys are both totally clueless. First of all, Batman’s real old – like, about 50. And second, Robin’s a girl.”

While the arsonist Firefly (Mark Rolston) roams the streets of Gotham, four kids (Ryan O’Donohue, Anndi McAfee, Jeremy Foley, and Phillip Van Dyke) argue over what Batman is really like. Is he a giant pterodactyl or a rippling muscle god? Matt (O’Donohue) makes the case for a kinder, gentler Batman, while Carrie (McAfee) pictures the grimmest and grittiest Bat imaginable in this loving tribute to the works of Bill Finger, Dick Sprang, and Frank Miller.

Now that we’re getting down to the wire on the Batman animated project, “Legends of the Dark Knight” marks a number of “last” occasions – it’s the last anthology episode, and it’s the last episode filtered through the eyes of children. It’s definitely the best “kids” episode, handily thrashing “Be a Clown” and “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement.” It’s also a very strong anthology episode, but then we’ve already seen some real winners in that department (“Holiday Knights” and, of course, “Almost Got ’Im”). In other words, “Legends” makes a case for the series ending on a very strong note, and indeed this is the first of three episodes right in a row that I recall as among the strongest of The New Batman Adventures.

The central conceit of the episode – that there is no singular interpretation of Batman, that his value is in the eye of the beholder – is one that speaks very deeply to my beliefs about the value of fiction. Moreover, it’s particularly ingenious to pin the story to a group of children who turn their fandom into a kind of junior detective agency (another advantage over “Batman in My Basement”). It’s even better that this episode wears its creators’ own fandom on its sleeve, adapting two wildly divergent interpretations of Batman into a case study in the art of leaving them wanting more. I’d happily watch more in this vein, and have in fact done so; Batman: Gotham Knight did a segment like this, and an episode of The Brave and the Bold adapted Jiro Kuwata’s Bat-Manga, so it’s become something of a proud tradition for a character as multifaceted as Batman.

In the first segment, we get a cheerful Batman (Gary Owens) preventing a museum heist orchestrated by The Joker (Michael McKean). It’s a throwback to an era when Batman was unburdened of his early pulp roots, with a chest as broad as his smile. The visuals recall Dick Sprang’s 1950s Bat-art, but there’s a handshake with Robin (Brianne Siddall) straight out of Batman ’66, while McKean’s Joker recalls Olan Soule’s version of the Clown Prince from the late Sixties and Seventies. Put another way, it’s a pastiche within a pastiche, and this mash-up quality feels as anachronistic and yet as timeless as the giant props that fill the museum. There’s something very comforting about seeing Joker try to kill the Dynamic Duo by stomping on a giant piano; it’s a far cry from the Nolan and Snyder interpretations of Batman, but it feels right nonetheless, even as the kids reject it. The real star of this segment is McKean, whose Joker makes one wish he’d gotten to do more with the character; his version is rife with puns and cracking himself up, a playful jester with just a dash of sinister menace. “Mother always said I had talent,” he moons, a classic Joker line.

McKean would return to the world of the Bat as Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, Joker’s benighted shrink in the animated adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns. It’s an intriguing coincidence, then, that the next segment of the episode adapts DKR and its gritty 80s aesthetic, boiling its second issue down to a tight sequence storyboarded by the late, great Darwyn Cooke. The great casting continues; Michael Ironside is downright inspired as Batman, his voice gargling gravel over iconic paraphrases like “You don’t get it, son. This isn’t a trash heap. It’s an operating table. And I’m the surgeon.” (Miller’s original, note, was, “You don’t get it, boy. This isn’t a mudhole; it’s an operating table. And I’m the surgeon.”) Ironside would be replaced with Peter Weller for the 2012/2013 adaptation, which is a special kind of shame; though Weller was great, Ironside became a voice for a generation’s reading material. (Don’t cry for Mike, Argentina; he’d get his own day in the sun, though, as the definitive Darkseid over on Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League.)

The Dark Knight Returns segment is moody and expressionistic, capturing Frank Miller’s punchy dialogue and broad cynicism about the dark future. One wonders, with Cooke serving as storyboard artist, whether this segment had any influence or overlap with the similarly futuristic Batman Beyond, whose opening sequence was masterminded by Cooke. Taken on its own, though, this segment is relentlessly cool, with a special thrill for seeing Carrie Kelley – the first female Robin – make a quick jump into animation. The standout visual, though, is the shot of rain washing the mud from Batman’s face as he defeats the Mutant Leader in single combat. It’s enough to make you want a whole show of that world, and I’m sorely tempted to revisit the movies.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is the third segment – the one starring Kevin Conroy – that ends up the weakest of the three, mostly because it can’t help but pale in comparison to two very striking takes on Batman. In this one, Batman chases Firefly and apprehends him for committing arson for hire. Divorced from the #MeToo context I read into him in “Torch Song,” Firefly is little more than a slick costume with a passing interest in lighting children on fire. Despite this part of the episode feeling somewhat compulsory, Conroy manages to hit another career note with a single syllable. When he shouts, “Go!” at the kid detectives as they flee through an opening in the inferno, Conroy packs an unbelievable amount of pathos into the word. Throughout this review series, I have stopped and noted all the wonderful, amazing things Conroy can do with his voice, and perhaps this is his apex moment, distilling an entire character into one syllable. You can hear his sorrow that children have been dragged into this mess, his fear that they will die in the fire, his anger at Firefly for endangering them, and his resilient hope that his nightly war on crime is making a difference. 

“Legends of the Dark Knight” feels like it ought to be a Top 10 episode – and maybe, separated from all the great Dini episodes, it will be – but we must concede that this episode ends up somewhat less than the sum of its parts. It contains two first-rate segments and one a little weaker, and I find it hard to say whether the episode successfully communicates its message or whether I’m already predisposed to hear it. That message – that Batman is for everyone, with all versions being perfectly valid – is somewhat undermined, however, with a particularly mean-spirited joke at the expense of Joel Schumacher, who’s caricatured here as a preening pre-teen with a feather boa and a fetish for rubber-clad muscles. It’s the only sour note in the episode, but it’s pretty sour, reading like an embittered fan thumbing his nose at Schumacher’s Batman & Robin to assert his superiority over that particular interpretation. It’s perfectly legitimate not to like a movie like Batman & Robin, but this short punchline feels like the crankiest axe to grind in an otherwise jubilantly optimistic fable about fandom.

When we talk about Batman, it occurs to me that none of us is really talking about the same guy, and yet we’re all talking about the same elephant from a different vantage point. Some of us will describe Batman as a dark avenger, swooping through the night as a grim specter of obsessive vengeance. Others know him as a jovial square, willing slave to the conservative rules against jaywalking and violence. Still others think of him as a box office icon or a child’s plaything, a personal creed or just one of many in a box of toys. And the truth is, he’s all of those things. At the risk of sounding self-important in my own enlightenment, I think it’s really important for us to look at Batman from a four-dimensional perspective and realize that he’s all of his variations – pulpy, cheery, campy, gritty – a kind of cipher for the ages, telling us how we see ourselves and what sort of hero we need (or deserve). He contains multitudes, and no one interpretation has a monopoly on the character’s tone or history. There’s a part of me that wishes “Legends” were sequenced as the last episode of the series; it’s an effective series finale in the sense that it encompasses everything the show has been able to accomplish, uniting sixty years of history into as close to a unified statement as possible. And it’s a fine farewell to Batman in that it’s not an ending at all; it’s a renewal, a beginning, a reminder that he’s still out there, in all his forms, inspiring us by his example.

Original Air Date: October 10, 1998

Writers: Robert Goodman and Bruce Timm

Director: Dan Riba

Villains: The Joker (Michael McKean), The Mutant Leader (Kevin Michael Richardson), and Firefly (Mark Rolston)

Next episode: “Girl’s Night Out,” in which the Femme Finest team up against the DCAU’s best villainesses.

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "The Demon Within"

“Gone, gone, the form of man / Rise the demon, Etrigan!”

A branding iron at auction in Gotham City draws fiercely competitive bids from occult expert Jason Blood (Billy Zane) and the impish witch boy Klarion (Stephen Wolfe Smith). It’s Bruce Wayne who places the winning bid as a “professional courtesy” to Blood, who Tim Drake is flabbergasted to learn is an ageless wizard who shares a body with Merlin’s personal paladin, Etrigan the Demon. Etrigan escapes when Klarion’s familiar, the were-cat Teekl, steals the iron, and Batman and Robin have a real hellraiser on their hands.

I have a hard time remaining objective about this episode because it was one of my earliest forays into the mad world of Jack Kirby, whose boundless imagination never took a holiday. Even after revolutionizing the “Marvel method” with Stan Lee, after formulating the Fourth World Saga practically single-handedly (and conjuring its god of evil, Darkseid), Kirby continued to churn out new and amazingly original creations like Etrigan and Klarion; the legend tells that workhorse Kirby fashioned Etrigan within the span of a lunch hour, and I believe it. There’s something immediate and dreamlike about Etrigan’s origin, summoned by Merlin to guard Camelot while bonded to a knight, wandering immortal as a god.

Put another way, I’m a real sucker for a Kirby creation, and so I’m not especially perturbed that Batman and Robin essentially become guest stars in their own show when Etrigan and Klarion come to Gotham. (See also Superman: The Animated Series, whose best episodes were the ones involving Darkseid and Kirby’s New Gods.) I’ll also argue that these dark magic characters fit quite nicely into the red-skied ethos of the redesigned Gotham. The implication that Batman already knows Etrigan makes perfect sense, extending his sense of the occult from the training we glimpsed in “Zatanna,” and this episode finally finds a good use for Robin, pitting him as the perpetually amazed sidekick entering a daft world already in progress. Indeed, this episode makes perhaps the greatest use of Robin’s diminutive stature, juxtaposing him with both the slender Klarion and the mammoth bulk of Etrigan.

In the case of The Demon, casting director Andrea Romano hit a home run when she cast Billy Zane as both Jason Blood and Etrigan. As ever, Zane brings a perfectly calibrated performance, flirting with the realm of camp when his Demon speaks in rhyme but also knowing exactly how much gravel to use to differentiate the two voices. We believe his exasperation with Klarion, and we can hear the wink in his voice as he alludes to his past in a conversation with Robin. And in the moments when he speaks the incantation to unleash Etrigan, we can almost see the forceful showiness of a Jack Kirby close-up, replete with bolded lettering and that distinctive “Kirby krackle.” It’s the kind of performance that is just fun to hear, not too far removed from Kevin Conroy’s own distinctive dulcets. This is usually the part of the review where I say it’s a shame we didn’t get more Etrigan, but I’m not sure how much more could have been done with the character while still maintaining this as a Batman show.

In fact, I almost wonder – as we approach the end of The New Batman Adventures, were the writers making a soft pitch for the show to become reinvented as a “Brave and the Bold” team-up series? After this episode, we’ve only got six to go, and two of them can be considered less at Batman episodes proper and more as team-up standalones; over on Superman, meanwhile, the showrunners gave backdoor pilots to Green Lantern, Aquaman, and The Flash (among others). Those of us in the know recall that we did get a team-up show – named, incidentally, Batman: The Brave and the Bold – and with next week’s wink-and-a-nod to a kinder, gentler Batman, perhaps this sort of episode was a necessary course-correction away from the friendless, emotionless, unfeeling Batman of whom we’ve seen all too much on TNBA – even if his friends are literal demons.

Original Air Date: May 9, 1998

Writer: Stan Berkowitz

Director: Atsuko Tanaka

Villain: Klarion (Stephen Wolfe Smith)

Next episode: “Legends of the Dark Knight,” in which there’s no wrong way to read a Batman.

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Old Wounds"

“He was so upset he couldn’t even talk about it. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen him like that. What is it between you two?”

Robin finally asks Nightwing (Loren Lester) why he parted ways with Batman. Though the former Boy Wonder is reluctant to share, he tells his successor about the night Batman went too far, leading to a few confessions with Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong) and a confrontation with The Joker (Mark Hamill) where tensions boiled over.

Although the Batman animated project has largely eschewed long narrative arcs and dense continuity callbacks, “Old Wounds” is maybe the closest the show ever came to addressing its own internal mythology in an episode that promises a major revelation to answer the long-running question of why Nightwing gave up the mantle of Robin. I have very strong memories of this storyline – not as its animated instantiation but as the five-issue tie-in comic book miniseries, The Batman Adventures: The Lost Years, which preceded the episode. I remember that series fondly for its deliberate introspection, getting inside Dick Grayson’s head and tracing his path to a new identity.

Perhaps “Old Wounds” would have benefited from the breathing room that a two-parter would have given it, because the episode moves so briskly through its events that everything seems rushed and a little thin. This is an important story, maybe the second most significant one The New Batman Adventures would ever tell (in four weeks, “Mad Love” makes the case for being the most significant). The way it’s handled, though, seems perfunctory – Batman was a jerk, and Robin had enough – and it doesn’t quite gel with the healthy and positive relationship these characters had in The Animated Series. I’m reticent to pull a “book did it better” with this review, but The Lost Years took two issues to divorce Robin from Batman, establishing the conflict between Bruce’s increasing prickliness and Dick’s bristling under his mentor’s wing. “Old Wounds” distills that pattern down to an incident or two, giving us the acute feeling that we’re being rushed past important backstory. When Barbara says that “It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen him like that,” the problem is that itwas the first time the audience saw Dick like that.

Another drum I hate to beat – but once more feel the unfortunate need to strike – is that the episode gets into very strange territory when it accidentally implies that Barbara Gordon transferred her attraction to Dick Grayson onto Bruce Wayne after the former left Gotham. You can’t say I’m reading into this because of what we’ve seen from the show thus far, and you equally can’t ignore the fact that this episode includes promising sequences of Dick and Babs on a dinner date, followed by a later scene in which he visits her apartment while she’s wearing her other nightwear. I say promising because it’s an age-appropriate gesture to the long history these two share in the comics, building on light continuity with the Sub-Zero movie that preceded the redesign. But the relationship is scrapped as quickly as it’s acknowledged, ending after Batgirl reveals her identity to Dick Grayson, in a scene that uncomfortably reads like Dick thinks Babs is cheating on him with Bruce.

The revelation that Batman has always already known that Barbara Gordon is Batgirl is a clever one (though The Lost Years included sequences of Batman’s process of deduction, noting how Barbara’s tennis moves matched Batgirl’s fighting style), and his compassionate admission takes some of the sting out of the fact that he’s generally an emotionless bastard for most of this episode (and the redesign writ large). Indeed, that whole sequence in the Batcave is note-perfect, from Barbara’s crimefighting gusto to Alfred’s confession that “Yes, I admit it, I am Batman.” It’s a glimpse at a perfectly functional Bat-family, but the rest of the episode, though, does not live up to the promise of that setpiece. Nor, unfortunately, can a single episode sustain the weight of anticipation that’s been building since The New Batman Adventures began.

Original Air Date: October 3, 1998

Writer: Rich Fogel

Director: Curt Geda

Villain: The Joker (Mark Hamill)

Next episode: “The Demon Within,” in which a witch boy and a demon demolish a bakery. 

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Animal Act"

“We got enough yahoos running around this city without having to deal with Yogi and Boo Boo, too.”

A routine evening on patrol turns into a topsy-turvy night of misrule when Batman, Robin, and Nightwing catch a gorilla climbing a radio tower and stealing some gadgetry. Amazingly, Nightwing recognizes the gorilla from his days at Haley’s Circus. Dick Grayson refuses to believe that the gorilla’s trainer, Miranda Kane (Jane Wiedlin), could be behind the theft, but Batman’s hackles are raised when a set of bears robs a warehouse. Yet despite this episode being set in Gotham City, no one notices the strange clown lurking at the periphery.

Contrary to what my synopsis would have you believe – spoiler warning – it’s not The Joker at fault in this episode. (Kudos for that about-face, at least.) It is, in fact, The Mad Hatter, making his full TNBA debut after a cameo in “Over the Edge.” Hewing closer to Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations for the literary Mad Hatter, the redesign gives us a shorter Jervis Tetch, more gnome than man; wisely, Roddy McDowall remains on hand, his dulcet tones providing the requisite lilting madness for a plot that is appropriately off-kilter. 

“Animal Act” is not, however, a worthy use of the Mad Hatter, even more so than “The Worry Men,” in which even Batman was disappointed at the pure greed of the Hatter’s motives. Here the Hatter is once again after money, but his cockamamie scheme involves manipulating his human mind-control technology to allow him to conquer the animal brain. Why he’s taken this additional step is beyond me, and the episode is disappointingly uninterested in why Tetch has changed his modus operandi for such an underwhelming use of his talents. 

This episode also fails to make full use of the connection to Dick Grayson’s past. (For a better version of this idea, within the last decade, comics scribe Kyle Higgins made masterful use of Nightwing’s ties to his circus past.) For a show that hasn’t quite known what to make of Nightwing, a dive into his history can give the character a better grounding in his new identity. One could imagine this episode as a spiritual sequel to “Robin’s Reckoning,” which gave us a good look at Dick Grayson as a circus orphan with a surrogate family of sorts. Seeing any of that family might have tickled the nostalgia keys. Instead, we get a generic bevy of circus types, including the circus’s ostensible new management. (Ph.D. sidebar – Miranda Kane is obviously named for Batman co-creator Bob Kane, but Miranda is the daughter of magician Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, just as this Miranda is the daughter of the circus’s last animal trainers. Circus as magic?)

All told, “Animal Act” is relatively uninspiring yet almost entirely inoffensive. It’s not a catastrophe on the order of “Critters,” but it never soars as much as it ought to. We’ll have to wait until next week to learn more about how the first Robin became Nightwing, but I’d hoped that this episode (which, also like “Worry Men,” I barely remembered) would humanize the character a little bit. Instead, it further entrenches the notion that Nightwing is a humorless cynic, jaded by his time with Batman and unable to carry on a conversation without gritting his teeth lest he strangle his former mentor. “Just following a pattern of obsessive behavior instilled on me at an early age,” he deadpans, and I can’t help but wonder why the lively Loren Lester was allowed (or encouraged) to restrict himself to a monotone for much of his tenure as Nightwing. If anything, Nightwing should continue to be a light in the darkness, especially as he departs Batman’s orbit. You’d think there ought to be more levity in a show where the Dynamic Duo fights trained bears, but there isn’t a whole lot of it to be found in “Animal Act” – or indeed, regrettably, in much of The New Batman Adventures at large.

Original Air Date: September 26, 1998 

Writer: Hilary J. Bader

Director: Curt Geda

Villain: The Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowall)

Next episode: “Old Wounds,” in which we finally learn what broke up the band.

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Cult of the Cat"

“Wait a minute. Cat worship? Theft? Those guys should be praying to me.”

Another night, another heist, but this one runs Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau) afoul of a murderous cult intent on retrieving the statue she filched. After their leader Thomas Blake (Scott Cleverdon) gives orders to kill, Catwoman throws herself into Batman’s arms, but when she discovers that the cult worships all things feline, Catwoman begins to wonder whether there’s another angle to this job. 

This is how Catwoman’s animated tenure ends – with neither a whimper nor a bang, but a fizzle. Aside from episodes like “The Terrible Trio,” the most painful tragedy is that the show has seldom known quite what to do with Catwoman. At her best, she’s been a flirtatious foil for Batman, weaving uncomplicated schemes and snagging her share of shiny-shinies. However, the preponderance of Catwoman episodes have fixated on her namesake, pitting her against cats with the flu, lion-adjacent terrorists, and literal cat people. Throughout it all, I’ve been over here shouting, “Why? Why?”

As Catwoman’s swan song, “Cult of the Cat” is somewhere in the middle. It still has a weird obsession with making the story about cats, but it does a halfway decent job of presenting Catwoman as straddling the line between hero and criminal, using her powers of seduction to trick Batman into helping her. In those moments, this episode is flat-out great – the sequence of her in the Batmobile, slowly doling out information until Batman agrees to help save her life, is vintage Selina Kyle. Even Batman remarks on how frequently he falls for her dangerous ruses when he deadpans, “I might have been knocked out twice tonight, but I still have my long-term memory.”

The bulk of the episode, however, orbits around Thomas Blake and the titular cult, which is shockingly underdeveloped for an episode bearing Paul Dini’s name. (As a “story” credit, Dini’s contribution probably wasn’t enormous; I imagine he was called on to flesh out Catwoman’s role, since it veers close to his take in “Catwalk.”) We don’t really know what the cult wants, what its endgame is, or what its operations look like – only that its intent is murderous and its wild genetic experiments have yielded a monstrous cat-creature in a feeding pit. On this count – and I never thought I’d say this – the writers might have done well to resurrect Emile Dorian from “Tyger, Tyger,” whose mad science and feline fixation would have fed well into this episode’s underdeveloped cult leader. (Sidebar: the gag seems to be that Thomas Blake is the name of Catman in the comics, though this episode does that character absolutely no favors.)

“Cult of the Cat” continues the uninspiring bent of The New Batman Adventures toward action sequences. An opener that reminds one of From Russia With Love’s beginning shows some promise, but a protracted car chase and a dull gladiator pit sequence drag on and lost this viewer with some rapidity. I don’t have strong memories of watching this episode when it first aired, and indeed even on this rewatch I had trouble distinguishing it from “You Scratch My Back” less than three months ago; I kept waiting for Nightwing to show up, forgetting I’d already watched that episode. Worst of all, it sounds like Kevin Conroy had a head cold during this episode, depriving us of what has consistently been one of the show’s greatest joys. It’s not a terrible episode – it is at best passably, passively watchable – but it is also not especially memorable.

Original Air Date: September 18, 1998 

Writers: Paul Dini and Stan Berkowitz

Director: Butch Lukic

Villains: Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau) and Thomas Blake (Scott Cleverdon) 

Next episode: “Animal Act,” in which Nightwing wrassles a gorilla in a trenchcoat.

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Take Two Tuesday: Tomorrowland (2015) ...or, Put a Pin in It

2015 does not sound like that long ago, but three years feels like an eternity. I have distinct memories of seeing Tomorrowland in the theaters, and objectively it feels like only yesterday, even though the calendar tells me it was more than 1,200 days. Time flies, it seems, whether you’re having fun or whether you’re hurtling toward dystopia. The world seems like a grimmer place than it did three years ago, which is really saying something because I think we all recognize that the sky has been falling for some time now.

I’ve had a lot going on in my life of late, spending a lot of unpleasant time in my own head, and it feels like I hit a crisis point a few weeks ago. It was perhaps, then, appropriate that I came back to Tomorrowland at exactly the moment I needed it. When I reviewed it in 2015, you’ll recall that I was of two minds about it. “Tomorrowland is an important film,” I wrote, “playing to some of my political/aesthetic predispositions, but it’s not as good as it ought to be.” I was cynical about the film’s attempt to kickstart an imaginative revolution, frustrated that the film hadn’t delivered on its utopian promise. I wanted to goto Tomorrowland, and I expected the film to take me there.

Reader, I missed the point. Put another way, I had spent far too long asking, “Wasn’t the future wonderful?” without realizing that I should have been asking, “Won’t the future be wonderful?” (Light spoilers follow.)

In a way, Tomorrowland has never really left me. As a lifelong visitor to Walt Disney World, it’s around every corner of my memory, a direct right turn off Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. I’ve listened to the Michael Giacchino score more times than I can count; iTunes tells me I’ve listened to one track, “Pin-Ultimate Experience,” a whopping 113 times (which makes it #59 on my Top 100 Most Played list), and it’s almost certainly my favorite Giacchino score. A few months back, I finally read the tie-in prequel novel, largely because it includes a comic book, and I’ve continued to study Brad Bird’s career with great interest, most recently with Incredibles 2. And I bought the Blu-Ray about six months ago, knowing that I’d never fully dislodged the film, and noodled around the special features until finally plunking down a few hours last week to rewatch the film.

There is a great big beautiful tomorrow animated short on the Blu-Ray, “The Origins of Plus Ultra,” that was originally intended to be the film’s opener. I understand it was cut for reasons of pacing and because it reveals some of the film’s mythology a little too early (Clooney covers some of it at the top of the third act, in Paris). But it does queue up the film such that I find it difficult to imagine the film without it, because the short prepares the audience for the central question of the film – “What happened to human endeavor? Aren’t we better than this?”

Tomorrowland is an intervention film, no doubt about it, but I think critics mistook Bird’s frustration for mere crankiness, and I share his frustration. Our world seems paradoxically broken, with one crowd shouting that the world’s problems don’t exist, and the other insisting that the problems aren’t fixable. Then there’s Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) in the middle, amazed that no one has thought to ask how to save the future. There’s something endearing about Casey’s deadpan naiveté, about her complete disbelief that no one has considered pursuing a solution. Bird has stacked the deck, no question; you get to do that when you’re writing an allegory. But there is something so inspiring when Casey’s relentless optimism forestalls the apocalypse, if only for a few seconds – a jarring moment of hope for fallen cynic Frank Walker (George Clooney). The way the film stops on this beat is downright chilling, and it’s a credit to Bird that the film doesn’t need to overexplain what’s just happened; a pause on a ticking clock is enough for a thinking audience to understand that Casey is, quite literally, our last hope. And yes, I am a sucker for films that talk about how to save humanity from its fallen state (cf. Batman v Superman).

The film remains a little bit clunky, with an occasional exposition dump like the ones co-writer Damon Lindelof employed on Lost, but there is here a simultaneous charm to them. “Now I finally answer your question, you’re gonna interrupt me?” Walker interjects, at which time I realized that the mythology of the film was all just window dressing for Bird’s real message – that there is no time to waste, that the future is now, and that someone has to step up and build it. It’s as if Brad Bird is shaking the collective audience by the shoulders and imploring us, “Get off your ass and build Tomorrowland!”

There’s a wonderful line in another Bird film – Ratatouille, one of my all-time favorites – in which a critic discards his pessimism upon realizing, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” It’s this message that infects the film’s final moments, in which the next generation of prime movers is recruited. Many of them come from humble beginnings, yes, but if Casey believes in them, we’re in good hands. I realized only now that the film’s framing device, narrated by Walker and Casey, isn’t a screenwriting cheat. It’s a fully integrated part of the story because the entire film is the advertisement on the pin. When Casey touches the pin in what is undoubtedly the film’s best, most breathtaking sequence, she sees the promise of Tomorrowland; the next set of pins, then, will essentially show the film Tomorrowland and take its beholders to that promised land. In this way, the film teaches us how to read it; we are, all of us, the next Casey Newtons.

It’s a scary position, but it’s a promising one. It’s a hopeful one, and heavens, do we need it. I no longer think the film is a failure – I think its success will be measured by what we do with it. As a piece of fiction, the film is a bit unwieldy, as the ambition of its ideas perhaps surpasses what you can reasonably accomplish in a two-hour Disney movie, but I’ll always take a movie of ideas over a movie of mere spectacle. Bird has denied that his work is influenced by Ayn Rand (the director doth protest too much, methinks), but both are creators whose stories are life-support machines for philosophies; Bird is more optimistic than Rand, but he shares her notion that the creators of the world cannot be shackled by conventional wisdom, that they must be allowed to save the world. “I was designed to find dreamers,” the animatronic Athena (an underrated Raffey Cassidy) declares, and I think Bird senses a kinship with her. Athena oddly becomes the heart of the film – oddly, because she has no heart – but then that’s the way of most science fiction. She’s the one who dispenses the pins, and she points the way for the dreamers, but she can’t take us to Tomorrowland without our help.

On second watch, I think I’m ready to go so far as to say that Tomorrowland is a Personal Canon film. Remember that the idea of the Personal Canon was always that these were movies that helped explain me to the world, and I think so much of what I believe about politics and art is in Tomorrowland. It’s the reason why I sought out an orange T pin (the Chevrolet giveaway, not the unreasonable facsimile) even after having a lukewarm reaction to the film; it’s the reason I can’t stop listening to the Giacchino score. I wanted to possess the film’s ideas in some tangible remnant. Maybe I couldn’t have exactly the film I expected, but I could distill that ideal into a few symbols – a circular enamel promise of tomorrow and a majestic swooping score that flies as lofty as our aspirations. 

Tomorrowland is a film that looks at me and asks me to get out of my rut and help save the world by doing the things I am uniquely qualified to do. It’s a film that makes me laugh and makes me cry; it’s a film that has high philosophical debates and spectacular explosions. It’s got nods to Star Wars and Disney World and the promise of a bright future. It’s a movie that needs to be seen because it’s an idea that needs to be heard. I’m so glad to have given the film another chance, because Tomorrowland asks me to give myself a second chance, too.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Monday at the Movies - November 5, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, two magnetic idiosyncratic performances.

My Dinner with Hervé (2018) – This HBO biopic has been something of a passion project for Peter Dinklage, so I’m glad to see him cash in that Game of Thrones check and do something that fascinates him. Dinklage is indisputably commanding as Hervé Villechaize, best known for his work in The Man with the Golden Gun and Fantasy Island. Jamie Dornan co-stars as journalist Danny Tate, assigned to a puff piece on Hervé before it turns into an all-night confessional bender. The cast is rounded out by some heavy hitters: Andy Garcia as a pretty unflattering Ricardo Montalbán, David Straithairn as Hervé’s long suffering agent, and Oona Chaplin as Tate’s ex, lost to him before his days of sobriety. As biopics go, this one is fairly by-the-numbers, leavened with the added pathos of Villechaize’s increasingly debilitating dwarfism. The central attraction for My Dinner is Dinklage’s masterful performance; though he does not quite physically resemble the distinctive Hervé Villechaize, he has his voice down pat, capturing the curious nasal way that Villechaize’s French accent crept into his performances. Moreover, Dinklage has an earnest sympathy for Villechaize, which overrides the issue of physical resemblance and gives his performance something of the weight of Tyrion Lannister’s confession speech from Game of Thrones. It is enough as an acting showcase and should earn Dinklage his fair share of awards on his gift of impersonation alone, but it is not, I think, a gamechanger in the genre nor a film that needs much revisiting unless one, suffering aphasia, forgets what a talent Dinklage is.

Phantom Thread (2017) – Here, on the other hand, is a film that I know I need to see again. The latest collaboration between director Paul Thomas Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis follows the life of cranky fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), caught in a bizarre triangle between his unwed sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, simmering), guardian of the fashion house, and muse Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), who begins to upset the established order in the House of Woodcock. That’s all I’ll say by way of summary, because the marketing only prepared me for a film about an uptight fashion designer whose life changes when he falls in love, and I can safely say that that description barely scratches the icebergian surface of what Anderson is up to in this film. In the way that There Will Be Blood was “about” an oil man but only barely, and The Master was “about” Scientology and huffing Lysol, Phantom Thread is more about the idiosyncrasies that power Woodcock and his petulant reactions as those habits are challenged. But it’s also about Alma, and Cyril, in ways I did not expect. I suppose I had anticipated a more demure outing from Anderson and Day-Lewis, in his ostensible swan song, but that was a fool’s bargain; both are in rare form, collaborating on a puzzle of a script and setting loose its peculiar questions on an unsuspecting audience. As ever, Anderson is invested in process, lovingly photographing the intricacies of sewing and the careful preparation of mushrooms, suggesting that perhaps he too is as demanding of his art as Woodcock is of his own life. I think the best of Anderson’s work takes so many turns that demand a second viewing just to sort it all out, but I’m equally looking forward to reveling in the quiet menace of a Day-Lewis stare, the withering retorts clipped by Manville, and the quiet ferocity of Krieps in the kitchen.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” If it sounds like Phantom Thread might be a candidate for a “Take Two Tuesday,” you may not be far off the mark. Indeed, “Take Two” returns tomorrow, but for a 2015 film. We’ll see you then!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Critters"

“That’s a lot of bull.”

A year after a court order banned him from using experimental steroids on his livestock, Farmer Brown (Peter Breck) returns to Gotham with his daughter Emmylou (Dina Sherman) to unleash their latest breed of monsters. Waves of critters stomp their way through the city, with the Bat-family stumped as to their motives or how to defeat them.

“Critters” has a broad reputation as one of the worst episodes of the Batman animated project, and so I won’t bury the headline here – it’s in my bottom five. I don’t like it; it’s off-putting and uninspiring, weird for the sake of being weird, and its creators have proven themselves capable of better (Steve Gerber has a delightful range of absurdist comics to his name, while Joe R. Lansdale gave us “Perchance to Dream”). While I’ve said in the past that Batman’s greatest strength is that he is genre-bulletproof, this isn’t a story that serves him well, struggling to find a place for his skill set in a tale that feels in part like an unproduced episode of Batman ’66

Perhaps more appropriately, “Critters” feels more like an episode of Superman: The Animated Series, with oversized monsters inspired by Jack Kirby and an emphasis on fisticuffs over conventional detective work. At the risk of drawing a line in the sand, Superman always seemed to prioritize action over story, a natural extension when your main character’s big thing is punching stuff. I felt acutely that the show never quite captured the key fact that Superman’s greatest superpower is that he always knows what the right thing is, resorting instead to finding behemoths and baddies for him to devastate with his fists. (It got some things right, of course, Lex Luthor among them, but that’s perhaps a story for another review series.) Batman, on the other hand, always seemed to be about something other than the fighting – there was a purpose, a quest to be fulfilled, a metaphor to be made. “Critters,” on the other hand, is comparatively wordless, pausing instead for visual gags like an oversized bull crashing into a china shop (yes, yes, rimshot). We saw him fight a dinosaur last week, but this is precisely what I meant when I said, “It’s not the sort of wild flight of fancy that the show should have indulged too frequently.”

And as if to emphasize that Batman’s fallen headlong into the wrong episode, he spends a good deal of time flying – yes, flying – in what feels like a vaguely toyetic Bat-hang-glider. (Yes, I’ve checked, and yes Virginia, there was a “Knight Glider” action figure.) To make matters more disorienting, the episode’s third act sees Batman duke it out in Farmer Brown’s underground bunker, which isn’t of itself a locale ill-suited to our Dark Knight, but it’s a bunker that’s dolled up to look like a sunny Midwestern prairie, which is particularly unforgiving toward the two-dimensional redesign of Batman and his Bat-family. They pass for perfect amid a red night sky, but in the stark (artificial) daylight they’re not especially robust.

If there’s one saving grace in the episode, it’s that the writers know exactly how preposterous the premise can be, and they run headlong toward that territory. If you had any doubts about the episode’s sincerity, the moment when a talking goat delivers a ransom message (with the stipulation, “No Baaaaaaa-tman”) to Commissioner Gordon ought to assuage those jangled nerves. But for the moment when we see our storytellers have their fingers crossed behind their backs, it comes entirely too late, long after the episode lost me. And the conclusion of “Critters” makes the fatal error of reminding me of “Tyger, Tyger,” another mad science-gone-wrong episode with a lackluster villain, except this one is empirically dull and never even gives Kevin Conroy a slice of poetry to recite.

Original Air Date: September 18, 1998

Writers: Steve Gerber and Joe R. Lansdale

Director: Dan Riba

Villains: Farmer Brown (Peter Breck) and Emmylou Brown (Dina Sherman)

Next episode: “Cult of the Cat,” in which the show hits 100 and closes the catflap.

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Mean Seasons"

“Another season, another reason... for making trouble.”

Meet the Calendar Girl (Sela Ward), who debuts a new festive outfit every time she abducts a top Gotham citizen, leaving behind a torn page from a calendar. It’s Batgirl who pieces together the pattern – that Calendar Girl is Page Monroe, a model whose contracts ran out once she turned thirty. With Calendar Girl collecting the hostages she blames for her downfall, Batman and Batgirl have to guess her next move before the abductions become murders.

“Mean Seasons” is a quick one-and-done, a gender flip of a comics villain (Calendar Man) that ends up being lightly topical in the same vein as “Torch Song” a few weeks ago. Calendar Man began life as a sort of joke character, wearing an oversized calendar and theming his crimes around various holidays; over time, the character has gotten much more sinister, dropping the theatricality and becoming a contemplative Hannibal Lecter type (cf. The Long Halloween and the Arkham videogames). Calendar Girl, on the other hand, is less menacing and more mentally ill, believing herself to be disfigured by her age.

Calendar Girl is particularly relevant today of all days, considering that Jamie Lee Curtis just this weekend posted the biggest movie opening with a female lead over 55 with her Halloween reboot/sequel, an important (and belated) defiance of this episode’s position that the entertainment industries unfairly discriminate on the basis of age. It puts “Mean Seasons” in an odd dialogue, too, with “Baby-Doll” as an episode that covers a pretty obvious point about show business on a cartoon that has no real business exploring that particular topic, and it makes me wonder how Calendar Girl and Baby-Doll might have fared in a team-up (a Harley and Ivy for the red carpet crowd?). Sidebar: why might so many of the also-ran animated Bat-villains have fared better with Baby-Doll than on their own?

I say it’s odd terrain for this episode to tread because of the curious way it bends Batman himself to accommodate the plot. First, the episode establishes Batman as a casual misogynist – he observes passingly, “Pretty girl,” before Batgirl gives him a note-perfect clapback. In doing so, however, she opens the question of just how old Batman is supposed to be: “Don’t you mean woman? She was your age when she made that commercial, Bat Boy.” But if Monroe was forced out of the industry at thirty, she had to be younger in the commercial, which means Batman himself can’t be older than thirty. It’s a silly argument to begin to have – Grant Morrison has handwaved the question by saying Batman is (currently) 79 – but it’s a sign of the episode’s slipping engagement and needless focus that I had time to be distracted by this issue. Recall, however, that Batman is far from misogyny – he is, as we learned in “The Cat and the Claw,” “an equal opportunity crimefighter.”

But “Mean Seasons” does two things really well, one of which is to give Batgirl a pivotal scene as a detective. Where “The Ultimate Thrill” presupposed Batman’s detective skill as a matter of course, we get to see Batgirl do the hard work of trolling through the Bat-computer (speaking of whom, remember the good old days when Batman would spend long hours clicking through evidence?). It’s a neat wink to Barbara Gordon’s legacy as Oracle, DC’s hacker guru for most of my life (itself a fun update on her background as a library scientist), and it gives her something better to do than flirt with Bruce Wayne.

Finally, the other thing “Mean Seasons” has going for it is that it finds a way for a dinosaur to attack Batman and Batgirl (is Robin still on this show?). It’s an action setpiece that would probably be more at home over on Superman: The Animated Series, with the main villain stepping away from the plot in order to let this sequence play out, but there is something undeniably cool about seeing the two Bats take on a (robot) dinosaur and use their wits to defeat it. It’s not the sort of wild flight of fancy that the show should have indulged too frequently, but it’s a great primal treat for those of us who had a wide assortment in our own toyboxes.

Original Air Date: May 4, 1998

Writers: Rich Fogel and Hilary J. Bader

Director: Hiroyuki Aoyama

Villain: Calendar Girl (Sela Ward)

Next episode: “Critters,” in which we see if this really is the worst episode of the DCAU.

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Over the Edge"

“Ten minutes on Barbara’s computer told me everything. Like a fool, I allowed you to run wild on your private crusade. A psychotic misfit playing masked hero. Now I’ve paid for it with Barbara’s life.”

Not since the likes of “Perchance to Dream” have I had to toss up a spoiler warning this big, but “Over the Edge” is one of the greatest episodes of The New Batman Adventures and indeed of the entire Batman animated project because of how fearlessly Paul Dini breaks all the rules and yet manages to put all the toys back without feeling like a cop-out. It’s an episode akin to a long chain of dominoes, toppling over in logical succession but with profoundly destructive influence.

This episode starts with a bang as Commissioner Gordon pursues Batman and Robin through the Batcave, firing a hail of bullets after them. He calls for their surrender, revealing that he knows their secret identities. All of Gotham has turned against the Dark Knight, and Batman recounts to Nightwing how it all went wrong, beginning on a night when the Scarecrow broke loose, haunted Gotham – and killed Batgirl.

And yet, it’s all a dream, the ultimate fake-out ending when it’s revealed that the entire episode has been one long nightmare inside Batgirl’s mind as she exorcises Scarecrow’s fear toxin from her body. This is an imaginary story, Alan Moore might say, but aren’t they all? In the hands of any writer less talented, it’d feel like an insult, a waste of an episode, but Dini takes the opportunity to say something new and otherwise impossible about the Bat-mythos and the family relationships that hold it together. Where The New Batman Adventures has struggled to give us a non-dysfunctional Bat-family, leave it to Paul Dini to give us a story of two fathers – Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne – both blaming themselves (and both blaming Batman, too) for Barbara Gordon’s demise. If you’re anything like me, and you care more about Batman than most real people, this episode is a real tearjerker because of how tangible Dini makes the family dynamics feel.

It’s heart-wrenchingly believable to imagine that Barbara’s death would drive her father to investigate, finally, Batman’s secret identity, and that furthermore his rage would lead him to try to destroy his one-time friend. Bruce’s sad defense, that “the only way I could hold on to my sanity was to take matters into my own hands,” is a moment of pure pathos until Gordon replies bitterly, “That makes us even.” It’s a sobering reminder that the real power of the Batman myth is that it’s the story of one man’s efforts to heal himself by healing others, by expelling any internalized grief and manifesting it into something productive; without that impulse to save, we get something like this episode’s Gordon, a sad shell of a man who wants to eradicate his own loss by exploding it out onto others. (There’s a third father in play, of course – Alfred Pennyworth, who sacrifices his freedom to ensure that his charges can escape the police. The episode doesn’t dwell on him, for Dini is careful not to overplay this moment of quiet, selfless heroism, but his inclusion is not accidental.)

And because it’s a Paul Dini episode, the man jams as many villains as he can into the plot – six, by my count, including new redesigns for Riddler, Mad Hatter, and Bane. The talk show appearance of four villains protesting Batman’s unfair vigilantism is classic Dini, head-scratchingly funny and yet entirely plausible that this blend of nutcases would find this avenue of deluded self-justification. “We were helpless, lost souls crying out for understanding,” laments the Mad Hatter as Harley Quinn sobs about the nightmares she endures because of Batman. The idea of a television audience sympathetic to the villains isn’t quite new to Batman – Frank Miller did it in The Dark Knight Returns twelve years earlier – but its execution here is quintessential Dini humor. While the Scarecrow’s appearance in this episode is fairly brief, it’s Bane who emerges as a figure of pure terror, first a warped weapon of Gordon’s fractured psyche before revealing himself as the self-serving mastermind brute from the source material. He works better here than he did in his debut because he’s allowed to serve his own goals, even in spite of working as a gun for hire, a mercenary in the service of Gordon’s pain.

It’s an episode littered with heartbreak and grief, in big moments and small. The beat where a broken Gordon, dangling from the GCPD rooftop, bites back tears and accepts Batman’s hand is a quiet emotional scorcher, but the episode’s most powerful moment comes in the real world, when Barbara tries to admit her secret identity to her father (having already received the tacit permission of her Bat-father). I just want to quote the Commissioner’s response, because it’s damned beautiful, aided by the underrated Bob Hastings in the role that will always be the voice I hear in my head when I read a Gordon story:
Sweetheart, you’re capable of making your own decisions. You don’t need me to approve or even acknowledge them. And in this case, I can’t. All you need to know is I love you. All of you. (kiss) And that is all I have to say on the subject.
The whole episode, we learn, is borne out of Barbara’s deep-rooted fear that her secrets will destroy her families, so this quiet revelation – that Gordon both knows about her alter ego and is protecting them both by not admitting it – is a masterclass in concise writing, resolving the episode’s central conflict for maximum emotional effect. Again, Dini has found a way to take an imaginary story and give its revelations significant weight in the “real” world of the story. Moreover, he manages to craft an episode in which the bad guys, despite being largely imaginary, nevertheless do not win; the fears that crippled Barbara prove both unfounded and insufficient. Both her fathers are always already on her side, wanting what’s best for her despite any jeopardy it might create for them. It’s a love much stronger than whatever romantic relationship The New Batman Adventures has been trying to generate between Bruce and Barbara, and as a result it’s one of the best episodes of what has been an odd and uneven run.

Original Air Date: May 23, 1998

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Yuichiro Yano

Villains: The Scarecrow (Jeff Bennett) and Bane (Henry Silva)

Next episode: “Mean Seasons,” in which Gotham doesn’t love its little calendar girl.

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇