Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "You Scratch My Back"

“He’s a big Boy Wonder now. A Man Wonder, in fact.”

On a patrol of the Gotham docks, Nightwing (Loren Lester) tracks a shipment of smuggled South American guns to Enrique El Gancho. While fighting off the goons, Nightwing finds an unexpected ally in Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau), who offers her help in an effort to prove she’s gone straight. Batman and Batgirl are suspicious, but Nightwing opts to trust Catwoman, further straining the former Robin’s relationship with the Bat-family.

I don’t think I have terribly much to say about this episode because it’s particularly dull. The episode writes a lot of checks – Nightwing’s tension with Batman, his will-they-won’t-they with Catwoman, an ostensibly reformed villainess, plus a few third-act surprises – but it doesn’t manage to cash those checks as fully as it could have. Instead, it plays incredibly safe and ends up rather boring.

Worse yet, this episode leans on my least favorite kind of Batman story, which was all too common in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In these dreadful Bat-stories, the writers played up Batman’s gruff loner status far too heavily, turning him into an unlikable jerk with no social skills and no desire to play on anything remotely resembling a team. He drives away everyone close to him, who in turn all behave like petulant children. These stories are terrible because they overemphasize the fallen state of Batman’s soul without acknowledging that he uses the Batman identity to overcome that same fallenness; that is, Batman makes Bruce Wayne a better person, not a worse one. For this episode to fall into that trope, then, makes it an unbearable extreme version of something The New Batman Adventures often does – dramatize Batman’s clashes with his ostensible protégés. This friction trickles into Nightwing’s relationship with Batgirl, heavy with its romantic tension; instead of continuing the playful pairing we saw in Batgirl’s early adventures and in SubZero, this episode sees the two junior crimefighters bickering over what should be a non-issue – namely, the implausible reformation of Catwoman, standing in as a metaphor for their inexplicable inability to be with each other.

“You Scratch My Back” is especially infuriating because of its third-act reveals, which I can’t help but spoil here. The one-two revelations are that Catwoman didn’t actually reform (because of course she didn’t) and that Nightwing knew this the whole time, stringing her along until he and Batman could apprehend her. On the first count, this episode is a good indication that the writers have finally figured out Catwoman. She doesn’t need to be immersed in moralistic stories about animal cruelty; she just needs something shiny to chase onto the gray corners of the moral spectrum. What doesn’t work, however, is the twist that the Bat-family was spoofing her, and it doesn’t work because Nightwing’s reveal is entirely emotionless, completely unbelievable after all the acrimony we’ve seen. Recall that we still don’t know why Nightwing quit being Robin, and it’s much more plausible that he’s still mad at Batman than to believe that they fought, reconciled, and are now pretending to fight. Never mind the fact that Loren Lester’s monotone line reading of “She led us right to the emerald, like you said” is perhaps the most misjudged beat since Batman’s apparently insincere “Harvey, no...” from “Two-Face.” Worse yet, if Nightwing and Batman had planned the whole thing, they don’t seem to have included Batgirl in the scheme, seeing as how she and Dick Grayson carried on a private conversation with no incentive to perform being angry at each other. 

“You Scratch My Back” is an episode with a lot of unmined potential which chooses to focus instead on petty squabbling and immature silent treatments until an unearned conclusion that pretends everything’s all right. It’s an episode that feeds us sour milk and tries to pretend it’s ice cream. Catwoman is in rare successful form here, but the rest of the episode might end up bumping its way onto the “Bottom Ten” when all’s said and done.

Original Air Date: November 15, 1997

Writer: Hilary J. Bader

Director: Butch Lukic

Villains: Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau) and Enrique El Gancho (Sal Lopez)

Next episode: “Never Fear,” in which phobia fails.

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Double Talk"

“When the muscle starts thinkin’ it’s the brains, then it’s time ta amputate!”

Arnold Wesker (George Dzundza) has been cured of his Scarface persona, and after six months without an episode he’s released from Arkham Asylum. His rehabilitation is going well until he starts to hear that familiar voice again, even as his old gang pressures him to lead them once more. Desperate never to become the Ventriloquist again, Wesker tells himself it’s all in his head – until the dummy calls him up on the phone and eludes a pursuing Batman.

Batman: The Animated Series frequently, though not exclusively, lived or died on the strength of its villain, and the same is widely true for The New Batman Adventures. Last week, I lamented that the series was leaning on the trope of “bad guy wants to destroy the city.” There’s only so much emotional investment to be wrung from seeing the same third act over and over again, and so with “Double Talk” it’s almost as though the show was listening to me, bringing back one of my favorite underrated villains in the process. “Double Talk” takes a deep dive into the psyche of The Ventriloquist amid a very compelling rehabilitation arc.

In a way, “Double Talk” reminds one of “Harley’s Holiday,” in which Harley Quinn’s furlough from Arkham Asylum went awry after she lost her temper and fell into an escalating series of misunderstandings, spiraling toward madness. Here, Arnold Wesker faces a Gotham that doesn’t believe he can reform, even as he himself remains uncertain that he’s mentally sound enough to be on his own. There’s a wonderful aura in this episode, as if Hitchcock directed an episode of The Twilight Zone, where the audience is kept in suspense as the episode draws out its main question. Has Scarface come to life, or is it all in Arnold’s head? Or is it something else altogether? I won’t spoil it here, but I’ll say that “Double Talk” plays with this question in interesting ways, even leaving a little room for interpretation.

We also get to see an underappreciated side of Bruce Wayne in this episode as we learn that he’s practically bankrolling Wesker’s rehabilitation; Wesker is staying at a Wayne-sponsored halfway house, and he’s in a work program at the mailroom of Wayne Enterprises. Bruce even greets him by name and shakes his hand, proof positive that Batman is invested in saving his city through more methods than just vigilantism. I don’t get the feeling, however, that he’s keeping Wesker nearby in case of recidivism; I think he’s genuinely invested in seeing a mentally ill criminal find inner peace. But he’s equally deft with the over-the-shoulder punch perfected by Michael Keaton in Batman ’89, which he whips out in a real crowd-pleaser of a moment.

Even as the episode revolves around whether or not Wesker can truly be free of the Scarface aspect of his personality, “Double Talk” plays it coy about how independent Scarface truly is. The episode is empirically clear about how the Scarface dummy manages to walk independently (and it involves, surprisingly enough, a guest role by none other than Billy Barty), but like their debut in “Read My Lips,” The Ventriloquist and Scarface seem to have a give-and-take relationship as to who is the more powerful, the more real personality. This is, alas, the final Ventriloquist episode, giving him a pretty good trilogy and concluding his story in a refreshingly optimistic way. It’s the kind of optimism that needs to remain at the core of Batman – that one good man can make a difference, that evil (even the evil within us) doesn’t have to win.

Original Air Date: November 22, 1997

Writer: Robert Goodman

Director: Curt Geda

Villain: Scarface and The Ventriloquist (George Dzundza)

Next episode: “You Scratch My Back,” in which a cat seizes the night(wing).

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

Monday, August 20, 2018

Monday at the Movies - August 20, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, a murder/suicide.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) – Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel isn’t quite a remake of the 1974 Sidney Lumet version, starring Albert Finney, but it doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from its predecessor; it doesn’t misstep, to be sure, but one comes away feeling very much underwhelmed by the sense of having seen all of this already. Branagh all but drowns in a veritable river of ham as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, perfectly suited to the detective’s (well-earned) ego but overly distracting with an exaggerated accent (compare, for one, to Judi Dench’s subtle accent as the Princess Dragomiroff). It doesn’t help that I can’t get past the mustache, which suggests that Kurt Russell is owed a royalty check. Because the film makes only cosmetic changes to the plot, it all feels rather inevitable, losing a great deal of suspense in the build-up toward solving the murder, and comes off like two hours of “Kenneth Branagh and Friends” – which, don’t get me wrong, is a roundtable I’d certainly watch week after week. Johnny Depp is suitably smarmy as murder victim Edward Ratchett, while Daisy Ridley proves she’s got a long and fruitful career ahead of her once she’s done with Star Wars. The aforementioned Judi Dench is resplendent as an imperious royal, while Branagh’s affection for Derek Jacobi is more than apparent in a warm interview sequence. If you’re a fan of anyone in the cast of all-stars – which includes also Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, and Michelle Pfeiffer – it’s worth a look, but there is little about this Murder that is particularly imperative. 

Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay (2018) – Perhaps it is just the circumstances of how I watched it, but Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay really feels like a Saturday morning cartoon for grown-ups (I watched on a Sunday, though). I say grown-ups, because Hell to Pay is unflinchingly adult in its objectionable content, almost to the point of being unnecessarily graphic. Don’t get me wrong, a Suicide Squad movie ought to be violent – maybe I’m just getting too old for this sort of thing – but there’s more blood here than anticipated, even from its R-rating. What I did appreciate, however, was the film’s strong connection to one of Gail Simone’s better Secret Six storylines, here appropriated so that Amanda Waller (Vanessa Williams) sends Deadshot (Christian Slater), Harley Quinn (Tara Strong), and the rest of the Suicide Squad in search of a magical, literal “Get Out of Hell Free” card. Part of the fun of a movie like this is that you never know quite who’s going to show up, as the filmmakers dig deep into DC’s stable of characters; Professor Zoom and Doctor Fate show up, though not in the ways you’re expecting, while Professor Pyg and Scandal Savage appear exactly as you’d imagine. All of this is inside baseball for those of us who live in the superhero dugout, particularly the film’s late-second-act surprise tie to another animated film (spoilers?), and I don’t imagine Hell to Pay will hold much appeal for anyone not already invested in the premise or its characters, but the curiosity of a big star like Christian Slater doing a voice might be incentive enough to check out this strange and gruesome flick.

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Cold Comfort"

“Search your hearts for the thing you value most, then despair, for I have come to take it from you.”

Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara) has returned to Gotham, paving a path of pain as he destroys an archaeological find and a recently-debuted work of art. With his wife no longer cryogenically frozen (after the events of the film Batman and Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero), Freeze’s plan baffles Batman until Bruce Wayne becomes a target, as Mr. Freeze aims to share his despair by taking from Gotham the things its citizens love best.

If you remember one thing from this episode, it’s almost certainly the moment when Mr. Freeze is revealed to be (spoilers) naught but a head in a jar mounted on robotic spider legs. You may even have had the action figure (as, surprise surprise, did I). And you’re probably wondering, as I have done all these years, why this episode takes one of the show’s best villains and runs him through a Cronenbergian body horror plot. In the “Arkham Files” features on the DVD set, Bruce Timm and Dan Riba talk about making Mr. Freeze more monstrous, more divorced from his humanity, after Sub-Zero “essentially took away his motivation.” There’s a cynical part of me that wonders how much the toy market factored into this move, but it’s worth noting that Timm and company don’t really phone in narratives like this one; put another way, the show hasn’t been very toyetic over the course of nearly ninety episodes, so why start now?

A relevant sidebar: I first learned the word “toyetic” from Joel Schumacher, who has famously deflected criticism of his Batman and Robin by saying that the powers that be at Warner Brothers had asked his movie to be more “toyetic.” (As someone who misspent his allowance on these figures, I’d say it worked.) It’s worth noting that Batman and Robin, widely regarded as the worst Batman film ever made, was released in 1997, the same year that “Cold Comfort” first aired on Kids WB, because it does seem that this episode tries to be very different from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pun-laden portrayal of Mr. Freeze, even as it can’t help but retread some territory. Both are surrounded by henchpeople in parkas, owing as much to Batman ’66 as to each other. And yes, Schwarzenegger’s Freeze plundered the masterful “Heart of Ice” origin, as did the comics, but recall that the filmic Freeze planned to immerse Gotham in eternal winter, just as this Mr. Freeze aspires to drop a “Reverse Fusion Bomb” on the city.

What’s interesting, though, is the philosophical depth in this episode, which I don’t recall Batman and Robin approaching. In the film, Mr. Freeze planned to hold the city for ransom to fund a cure for his wife, dropping the financial pretense when he presumed her dead. Here, though, we get something much closer to Bane’s plot in The Dark Knight Rises, with both rogues more invested in how much despair they can wring from Batman’s soul after his city falls (there, fire; here, ice – cf. Robert Frost?).

Ultimately, however, “Cold Comfort” really feels like a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You know by now that I’m a proud evangelist for “Heart of Ice,” labeling it the all-time greatest episode of this show in last month’s rundown. It might seem like a loaded assessment, but compare this episode’s “A touching scene. I would be moved, if I were still capable of it” to Mr. Freeze’s original line, “Yes, it would move me to tears if I still had tears to shed.” One I’ve committed to memory; the other strikes me as a pale reflection. There’s also something strange going on with Michael Ansara’s voice; where BtAS cast him as emotionless with a deliberate pace to his words, here he seems like he’s rushing the lines, and the hollow echo on his voice doesn’t have the same tinny effect as in his earlier episodes.

The suit is sleeker and his face more skeletally gaunt, but overall this newer Mr. Freeze just doesn’t live up to the original. It’s in service to a very effective third act, however, in which Batman and Batgirl lurk through Freeze’s horror-inflected lair, and the revulsion at seeing Freeze’s disembodied head is a major success. Moreover, the show is really working when it’s focused on Batman’s partnership with Batgirl, whose black and gold costume looks great bounding around. They work exceptionally well together, and their professional dynamic marks a major evolution from Batman’s incontestable condescension upon her debut. (I’m plugging my ears at the faint suggestion of romance, though - #NotMyBatman, even if it’s framed as a schoolgirl crush.) All told, though, “Cold Comfort” takes a Shakespearean tragic antihero and reduces him to a sadistic bully. Mr. Freeze would return to the DC Animated Universe once more, in an episode of Batman Beyond, but here he’s effective as a visual, an idea, and a toy – but little more.

Final sidebar: three episodes in, and I’ve already lost track of how many supervillain plots orbit around destroying the city for the sake of destroying it. Joker gets a pass in “Holiday Knights” because of his quirky motive by way of a New Year’s Resolution he could never keep, but Two-Face and Mr. Freeze ought to be better than this. I’d say it almost makes one long for the petty days of “The Terrible Trio,” but let’s not say things we can’t take back.

Original Air Date: October 11, 1997

Writer: Hilary J. Bader

Director: Dan Riba

Villain: Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara)

Next episode: “Double Talk,” in which Arnold Wesker is no dummy.

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

Monday, August 13, 2018

Monday at the Movies - August 13, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, a pair of movies that are – shall we say – exceedingly British.

Paddington (2014) – Despite my reservations that the titular bear was neither as cute as the Peggy Fortnum illustrations nor voiced by Colin Firth, I found myself captivated by the shameless whimsy and defiant British-ness of Paddington. In the case of the former, the bear looks much better in motion than he does in still photos, charmingly expressive; on the matter of the latter, Ben Whishaw is a fine Paddington, imbuing this unique bear with a roguish innocence that never misses a giggle when he pulls a marmalade sandwich from under his hat. There is something striking about the way writer/director Paul King (no relation; himself helming his first movie, a remarkable moment) manages to capture the madcap logic of a children’s story, in which a renegade shower massage can flood a bathroom while a sinister taxidermist (Nicole Kidman, between proud mouthfuls of scenery) plots to stuff and mount a living creature for a surprisingly well-developed and narratively integrated reason. I was also impressed at how artfully developed many of the film’s gags proved to be; for instance, a mishap with a handheld vacuum cleaner establishes the strength of the device for a pivotal and deft setpiece late in the film. For a character as prominent and marketable as Paddington Bear, it would have been exceptionally easy to make a lazy film that cashes in on the character’s adorable reputation, but it was quite apparent that everyone involved on Paddington cared deeply about the character and his legacy, and it strikes me that they have done right by him.

Victoria and Abdul (2017) – Here’s a film that offers Judi Dench the chance to be alternatingly heartwarming and cantankerous for two hours while breathing life into one of Britain’s most prominent figures (returning to a role, incidentally, for which she was nominated for an Oscar in Mrs. Brown). If that’s not a recipe for a good time at a film, I haven’t found one, because Judi Dench is riveting in this “mostly” true story about Queen Victoria’s friendship with an Indian subject, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who becomes a teacher (“munshi”) and a confidante in the regent’s final years. Victoria and Abdul is funnier but no less delightful than I anticipated, taking a wry postcolonial approach to the British Empire, acknowledging its dehumanizing aspects in a sobering scene with Abdul’s friend Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) but also highlighting Victoria’s efforts to learn more about her subjects, even if her naiveté is somewhat charming (“This mango is off,” she repeats in one notable scene). The cast is rounded out by Tim Pigott-Smith, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, and Eddie Izzard, all of whom play their xenophobia rather broadly in a quintessentially British tongue-in-cheek interrogation of prejudice; it’s all Izzard can do not to twirl his mustache as Victoria’s eldest son, horrified that a lowborn subject has his mother’s ear in a way he never has. The film is irrevocably and undeniably Dench’s, though, equally enthralling while asleep at tea or while insisting that her faculties have never been sharper, in a single-take monologue that lays bare in equal measure her insecurities and accomplishments. It’s a powerhouse moment in a potent performance, a real shame that she was snubbed at last year’s Oscars.

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

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Sins of the Father"

“It’s your kind of show, Puke-Face – a double feature!”

Young street rat Tim Drake (Mathew Valencia) runs afoul of the police and the mob alike after his father disappears. Having stolen something valuable from mob boss Two-Face, Steven “Shifty” Drake vanished, and Two-Face has his eyes on the boy to recover his stolen property. After saving Batman’s life, Tim finds his way into the Batcave, where he finds a new destiny as the next Robin.

This episode has always felt a little bit like bookkeeping to me. We met the new Robin last week in “Holiday Knights,” but this episode goes back to give him a proper origin story. I’ve never thought, though, that he needed one, much less that it needed to be the second episode of The New Batman Adventures. “Robin’s Reckoning” was a masterstroke, but it found a way to weave Dick Grayson’s origin into a compelling story through the use of flashbacks. It told us that the most interesting thing about Robin wasn’t his backstory; it was how he used his crimefighting skills to heal. 

“Sins of the Father” is no “Robin’s Reckoning,” though it is a very competent Robin story. (It’s a little like saying “Deep Freeze” is no “Heart of Ice.”) The other major sticking point with this episode is that it isn’t Tim Drake’s origin story. It’s Jason Todd’s, the second Robin in the comic books. Tim was the third Robin, introduced in 1989 after Jason Todd’s murder at the hands of The Joker the previous year. Possibly due to his rough upbringing on the streets of Gotham, Jason Todd had been increasingly more violent as Robin, leading to a fracture with his mentor before his untimely death. Tim Drake, on the other hand, was brought on as a purer version of Robin, someone who understood the necessity of a light in Batman’s darkness. All of this is to say that the Tim Drake we get is rather a watered-down version of both Jason and Tim. Though The New Batman Adventures is looser with censoring content, Jason’s fate and roughness had to be tempered, but in changing his very name we lost something essential about Tim. 

It’s not that “Sins of the Father” does anything wrong. It’s a very safe episode, and that safety leads it to feel formulaic and a little boring. Two-Face is reduced to a fairly basic gangster villain, with only a passing flirtation with the number two. Robin’s origin feels very preordained, with little room for surprise. The only real bombshell in the episode is Batgirl, who continues to make a stronger presence in TNBA than she did in BtAS; she’s got a great sequence where she catches Tim prowling in Wayne Manor, and it’s just a treat to see her fighting next to Batman as equals. 

One last thing about “Sins of the Father” is that it bristles against what seems to be the story it would rather have told. Throughout the episode, it’s noted that Robin has vanished, that Dick Grayson has divorced himself from the Bat-family, and it’s established as a kind of mystery, albeit one for which the episode has very little time – until, that is, Dick Grayson makes his big return in the episode’s final moments, with a wide grin on his face and a big “welcome back” atmosphere. We know, of course, what happened – that Dick grew up, in more ways than one, and assumed the mantle of Nightwing – but we won’t get the full story until “Old Wounds,” another Rich Fogel/Curt Geda episode. (That story was told, roughly simultaneously, in a tie-in comic book miniseries, for which you will not be surprised to learn I have fond memories.)

Original Air Date: September 20, 1997

Writer: Rich Fogel

Director: Curt Geda

Villain: Two-Face (Richard Moll)

Next episode: “Cold Comfort,” in which Mr. Freeze’s problems come to a head.

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

Monday, August 6, 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)

In a word, wow. I’m a week late to the Mission: Impossible – Fallout party, and while I would have liked to have seen the film in an entirely packed house, the fact is that Fallout is such a punchy film, so aggressively laced with adrenaline and bombast, that I suspect it’d work just as well on an airplane headrest as in a half-packed IMAX auditorium. It’s a film bursting with energy, firing on more cylinders than you knew a film could have, with a clever knack for surprise. The more hyperbolic in the review community are calling it one of the greatest action films of all time, and while that’s a bridge I’m not ready to cross just yet, I’ll say it’s an appropriate accolade because Mission: Impossible – Fallout is one of the finer action films in recent memory.

In the fallout (see what we did there?) of Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is still working to dismantle the terror network organizing in the wake of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). After his team (comprised of Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg) loses a cache of plutonium to Lane’s successors, Ethan is assigned a CIA escort (Henry Cavill) to make sure the weapons are recovered. Little does Ethan know that former MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is also chasing the plutonium, in a globetrotting chase that will lead Ethan closer to Lane than he imagined.

As someone who still hasn’t seen the first three Mission: Impossible movies (and with no legitimate reason for not having done so), I’m always a little surprised to think that this is a 22-year franchise with six films, a consistent lead, and an ability to persist without getting bogged down in reinventing itself or in lingering slavishly on the past. It is, in a sense, the purest version of a franchise, shaving off what didn’t work in the last installment and inheriting only a bare skeleton on which to hang a powerful action story. With returning director Christopher McQuarrie (the first time the franchise has brought back a previous helmsman), there are nods back to Rogue Nation, but the story is constructed in such a way that Fallout may as well be a standalone.

And boy does it work. The action setpieces are remarkable, literally breathtaking in a way that lets you temporarily forget the indestructibility of Tom Cruise (both on screen and, evidently, in real life, thanks to his much-ballyhooed refusal of a stuntman). These action scenes are refreshing for their clarity, astonishing in their choreography, and addictively compelling for their ability to raise the stakes like a cinematic Shepard tone. There’s a second-act car chase in Paris that feels like The Dark Knight had a baby with The French Connection, which includes also a motorcycle chase, a shootout, and a marine getaway for good measure; just when you think the fever has pitched, McQuarrie finds a way to raise the mercury with another twist. It’s as if McQuarrie, pulling double-duty as screenwriter, looked at each bad-as-it-can-get moment in the film and asked, “But what if it were on fire?”

Fallout is a movie that feels like anything could happen, but all under the umbrella of certainty that the good guys will prevail and, in fact, that they always already have it in the bag. Between the rubber face-changing masks, the continual double-cross reversals, and the sheer unstoppability of Ethan Hunt (who can, if the occasion requires, pilot a helicopter with no training or reorganize a hostage extraction with minimal time to prepare), Fallout is a movie that just feels right, leaving an audience with a big dumb grin. It’s a movie that doesn’t need a lot of frilly analysis because the movie is very no-frills in its approach to earnest straightforward action. There are a lot of moving parts in the film, with action sequences evolving and morphing even as the plot splinters and diverges. At one point, just when things start to go smoothly and umpteen new challenges arise, Cavill bursts out, “Why do you have to make everything so f—ing complicated?!” If Fallout is overly complicated, it’s in service to the immense satisfaction to be gained once Ethan barrels through the problem with a direct and unilateral solution that takes not a single human life. Ethan Hunt is an American James Bond, yes, but he’s also at home in the superhero genre because of his abiding belief that no mission is worth the life of a teammate; his super power is that aforementioned jack-of-all-trades ability to roll with any punch and salvage any mission gone awry.

The real thrill, then, is not in whether Ethan and the IMF will save the day, because of course they will. It’s in how much will be thrown their way, how much they have to overcome, and how creative a solution they’ll devise to get there. It’s in the payoff when you discover all the steps that have led to this moment, all the ways Ethan has prepared to get what he needs and how much he’ll have to improvise along the way. It’s a lot of fun; I can’t overstate how compulsively fun this movie is and how thoroughly it earns all the moments you want to stand up and cheer, little frissons when Chekhov’s gun gets to fire. If Sicario was the unlikely franchise, Mission: Impossible is the little franchise that could, and it’s earned its day on the hill.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is rated PG-13 for “violence and intense sequences of action, and for brief strong language.” Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Starring Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Michelle Monaghan, Vanessa Kirby, and Alec Baldwin.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Holiday Knights"

“Hi-ho, couch potatoes! I’m interrupting the Toilet Bowl to bring you my very special New Year’s resolution: Starting tonight at midnight, I – your loving Uncle Joker – do solemnly vow not to kill anyone for a whole year. Which means I’m going to have to work extra fast to bump off a few more of you today!”

In a trio of holiday-themed tales, Gotham prepares for the Christmas season with its usual lawless abandon. First, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn step out of their hideaway to do a little Christmas shopping, courtesy of brainwashed bachelor Bruce Wayne. Then, Batgirl stumbles upon Clayface’s latest crimes, a rash of department store robberies. Finally, The Joker swears off homicide for the New Year, daring Batman to stop him before his last big kill at midnight.

There’s a lot of material to cover in this episode, which packs in three stories and the debut of the New Batman Adventures redesign. So let’s begin by acknowledging that this episode is pretty much a masterstroke; Paul Dini adapts three wonderful stories from The Batman Adventures Holiday Special  (1994) into a perennial favorite which deserves a place on every respectable Bat-fan’s list of annual traditions. Never mind that the episode debuted in September; it’s a modern Christmas classic.

The Ivy/Harley opener is pure Dini, an irreverent “girls just wanna have fun” short in the vein of “Harley and Ivy.” Arleen Sorkin and Diane Pershing remain absolute gems in their roles, and the low personal stakes of this story allow us to see how close these two have become. They don’t miss a beat in completing each other’s sentences, teaming up for a madcap shopping spree that almost ends in accidental homicide (about which the pair is gleefully nonplussed – “Ah, well, we were gonna do it anyway.”). It’s a rare moment where Kevin Conroy gets to lead with his Bruce Wayne voice, struggling against Ivy’s mind-control lipstick and playing bachelor to the hilt. 

This vignette ends with a triumphant debut of Batman’s new look; gone are the blues and yellows of his last costume, replaced by (more) blacks and grays. Batman’s is a tough costume to mess up, and this redesign works well toward what we’ll see is TNBA’s attempt to make Batman more of a father figure to his Bat-family. Ivy, too, gets a modest redesign, giving her chalky green skin and a darkened costume that accentuates her pixie features. (Sidebar: the tie-in comics would eventually go on to reveal that “New Ivy” was actually a plant-based creation that Pamela Isley used to escape Gotham and join Alec “Swamp Thing” Holland in his botanical research.)

Next up, the big headline in this episode is the news that Tara Strong has replaced Melissa Gilbert as Batgirl. As much as I praised Gilbert in her outings as Barbara Gordon (recall, I singled out her “playful adultness” as key to Babs), there’s something just right about Strong, such that I didn’t initially notice the change. She maintains Gilbert’s spirited spunkiness but layers in an element of snark that Gilbert’s more genuine Batgirl would have rejected out of hand. The rest of this segment of the episode is fairly straightforward, including a few great jokes about Harvey Bullock taking on an undercover role as Santa Claus; it’s always a treat to hear from Ron Perlman, too, since his Clayface got fairly short shrift after a first-rate debut in “Feat of Clay.” (Lest you think your ears deceive you, Perlman picks up the slack as a caroler and as Joker’s stooges – Mo, Lar, and Cur, who’ll later be played by Billy West.)

Finally, we arrive at The Joker. I have to say, I’ve never been an inordinate fan of the redesign, with pale (almost blue) skin and jet-black eyes; he looks a little too much like Freakazoid, and the absence of lips makes any Joker grin seem a little hollow. The good news, however, is that Mark Hamill remains in the role, continuing to do some of the best Joker laughs of his career, and the show’s network relocation from Fox to The WB equaled a slackening of the censorship reins, as evidenced when Joker actually shoots Batman in the arm. His overtly homicidal plot, too, is something we might not have seen in Batman: The Animated Series (compare to “The Last Laugh,” in which gassing Gotham is but a prelude to robbery; here, the endgame is unapologetically mass murder).

We’re also introduced to the new Robin in this episode, but being that next week’s episode gives him a more proper introduction, I’ll reserve my commentary until then. I’ll conclude by confessing (for those playing the home game, take a drink) that this episode always gets me a little choked up because of its epilogue, in which Commissioner Gordon and Batman reunite for their annual New Years’ coffee. Especially given that we know Gordon is precisely the same age as Thomas Wayne would have been (cf. “I Am the Night”), this tradition built on mutual respect and devotion to saving their city is especially touching. “Close one this time,” Gordon says; Batman replies, “They’re all close ones.” For all the sturm und batarang, this animated series has never forgotten the intensely human core of Batman – that he is a wounded man building a new family of allies to prevent others from suffering as he did. Among Batman’s superheroic feats is his dedication to this yearly ritual, in which he and Gordon remind each other that they’re not alone; Batman covering the check before pulling his standard disappearing trick is itself a wonderful acknowledgement of how much he values Gordon’s friendship and loyalty.

Comics fans are particularly inoculated against change. We’re so used to books being relaunched with yet another #1 issue, so accustomed to new costumes and revamped origin stories. We roll our eyes when we’re told “nothing will ever be the same again.” We’re cynical about all that because we’ve seen it many times over, yes, but we also know that all that stuff is but window dressing. What matters are the stories, and this debut of The New Batman Adventures suggests that what we loved about Batman: The Animated Series – the engaging storytelling, the spot-on voice casting, and the intermarried respect and love for these characters – remain solidly in place.

Original Air Date: September 13, 1997

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Dan Riba

Villains: Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing), Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin), Clayface (Ron Perlman), and The Joker (Mark Hamill)

Next episode: “Sins of the Father,” in which the new Robin has a reckoning all his own.

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