Clash of the Titans

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice overcame terrible reviews to crush the box office over the weekend. If you believe the critics, it’s pretty much the worst movie of all time and if you like it in any capacity then you are a stupid pathetic excuse for a human being.

As usual, I feel that the critics have vastly overstated the movie’s badness. Batman V Superman is not a terrible movie, unfortunately, it is also not a particularly good one.

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Batman V Superman joins the ranks of Spider-Man 3, Iron Man 2, and Avengers: Age of Ultron as a vastly overcrowded superhero movie. It is the kind of movie that has so many things it needs to accomplish that it threatens to collapse under the weight of its many parts. It’s a sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, it introduces several iconic DC comics characters, it sets up future sequels and spin-offs, and on top of all that it still has to attempt to tell its own story.

As a result, it sometimes feels like the movie is going through the motions, checking off items on the list of things it needs to accomplish. This is really too bad, since this movie had so much potential, but the end result is a little disappointing.

I didn’t leave the theater feeling like my spirits were completely crushed. Instead I was left feeling vaguely unsatisfied, which is not a good thing given the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour running time.

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But at the same time, there were things about the movie that I liked. The opening scene, for example, is terrific. It presents the climactic city-levelling battle from Man of Steel from the perspective of the people on the ground, as Bruce Wayne rushes through the city, dodging falling debris as he attempts to reach one of his Wayne enterprises buildings. It conjures images of 9/11, and gives the movie a sense of real-world relevancy.

Unfortunately, this feeling doesn’t last for the entire movie, since it goes overboard by the end. This is exemplary of much of the rest of the movie: it has good ideas but doesn’t know what to do them, and ends up feeling like it’s going through that superhero-movie checklist.

For example, a lot of people on the Internet complained that the final battle in Man of Steel caused far too much collateral damage, and that Superman was irresponsible for allowing so much destruction to happen. The new movie runs with this idea, and presents some intriguing questions about what could happen if Superman’s godlike powers went unchecked. This does lead to a very bizarre dream sequence, where Bruce Wayne has this crazy nightmare of the end of the world that could happen if Superman turned evil, which involves black-clad Stormtroopers with Superman S-logos on their shoulders and weird winged creatures of some kind.

Wait, what? Yeah, it’s a weird scene. As soon as it started I knew it had to be a dream sequence of some kind, since there was no way that it could actually be happening. The scene contains some cool imagery but feels cheap, since you know from the start that it can’t be real, and it isn’t.

The movie was directed by Zack Snyder, who is a fantastic visual stylist but struggles with making the stories in his films as compelling as the visuals.

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Take Lex Luthor. Theoretically the main villain of the movie, I honestly could not figure out what his motivation was. Seriously, what was his deal? Why did he do anything that he did? Is he just a power-hungry, absurdly rich megalomaniac? Does he just like screwing with people? I dunno. He’s basically an evil Mark Zuckerberg.

And Jesse Eisenberg’s performance didn’t really help. I like Eisenberg, but I feel he was miscast in this role. Snyder’s direction to him must have been “be as quirky as possible,” because Eisenberg spends the entire movie trying to out-quirk both Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey. Eisenberg’s is a truly odd performance, full of so many strange little tics that you’re never sure what this dude is thinking. Normally I would be okay with that, I don’t mind a little ambiguity but in this case the weirdness of Eisenberg’s performance leaves the movie’s central villain feeling like an enigma.

Not every performance in the movie is quite so frustrating, however. Amy Adams is perfect as Lois Lane, Henry Cavill makes an appealing Superman, Laurence Fishburne is fun as Perry White (Clark and Lois’ boss at the Daily Planet) and Diane Lane as Superman’s earth-mom Martha Kent gives the movie some much needed warmth.

But we’ve seen these actors play these characters before. Let’s talk about the real elephant in the room: how is Ben Affleck as Batman? The internet exploded when his casting was announced, does he totally butcher it like stupid people on the internet said he would?

Well…no. No, he doesn’t. He’s fine. Not fantastic, but fine. He won’t make you forget Christian Bale any time soon, but he does solid work as the Dark Knight. Much of the inspiration for the film’s interpretation of Batman comes from Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which is a personal favorite of mine. The Batsuit Batman wears and the armored Batsuit he uses to fight Superman look pretty much exactly the same as they do in that book, and there are a couple scenes from the book that are directly referenced in the film, which is cool to see as a comics nerd.

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Sadly, the movie muddles the Batman mythology. We see the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and young Bruce falling into the Batcave, and that’s about all we get for Batman’s origin. This is fine, since the movie has so much other stuff to get through and there’s a good chance many viewers will be familiar with Batman’s origin if they’ve seen any of the previous Batman films.

But that’s not where the problems come in. The movie presents Batman as a grizzled crimefighting veteran, multiple references are made to how he’s been fighting crime for 20 years. But this doesn’t jibe for me. I can’t make it work with how everyone seems to view Batman in the movie: he still seems like a complete mystery to the inhabitants of both Gotham and Metropolis. If he’s been around for 20 years, how come nobody seems to know anything about him? Even the cops don’t seem to know what to make of him, and there’s no Commissioner Gordon in the movie to tell them otherwise.

I don’t know, maybe this is something that would become clearer to me on subsequent viewings. But on my first viewing, it seemed jumbled. I certainly didn’t hate the movie’s version of Batman, Affleck was pretty good and I also liked the various bat-vehicles on display. But trying to condense so much of the character’s history (there are also Joker and Robin references) into a fairly limited amount of screentime can’t help but feel rushed. I’m not saying the movie would have been better without Batman (blasphemy!) but it’s a movie that would not have suffered by getting rid of a subplot or two.

One thing the film does deliver on is the action. The centerpiece title fight between Bats and Supes delivers the awesomeness. It’s a satisfyingly brutal battle that delivers on the promise of the trailers, and it is undeniably thrilling to see these two iconic characters on screen together. Zack Snyder may be uneven as a director, but one area he really excels in is the action scenes. He is a very good action director, staging fast-paced and brutal fights that are easy to follow and exciting to watch. I absolutely loved the scene where Batman busts into a heavily-guarded warehouse and lays down some serious whuppins on about 20 henchmen. That scene alone is probably the best Batman fight scene ever put on film. As a hardcore Bat-fan, it was just about the best thing ever.

The movie climaxes with a rather silly battle against an ugly monster called Doomsday. If you are a comics fan you know what Doomsday is most famous for in the comics, but this film handles him poorly. Most of the time I like big monster fights, but in this case I thought the monster was just kind of…stupid. Doomsday is a big, ugly, stupid brute with no personality. The only reason he exists is so that Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman can have something to fight against that is stronger than they are individually, so they have to team up to defeat it. I understand that, but this movie doesn’t handle that idea nearly as well as the Avengers movies did.

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Part of what made the first Avengers movie so good was that it felt like a payoff. It had five movies of buildup leading up to it, so when it finally happened, it felt like a big deal. It felt like its own movie, and didn’t seem too concerned with setting up more sequels. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a clunky name for a clunky movie. It had all the necessary ingredients to be great, but instead has to settle for being merely okay. I didn’t hate it as many other people seem to, but I didn’t love it either.

And I forgot to even talk about Wonder Woman. She’s played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot from the Fast and Furious movies, who I thought was pretty good in the role. She shows up intermittently throughout the movie in her civilian guise and makes her actual appearance as Wonder Woman during the climactic battle. I liked Gadot but Wonder Woman’s inclusion in the movie felt like more sequel-baiting (she’s getting her own movie next year).

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It also bothers me that Batman kills people in this movie. He blows up several truckloads of henchmen and brands criminals with a bat symbol, and there is never any discussion about whether or not he is taking things too far. Alfred is in the movie, played by Jeremy Irons, but he is relegated more to tech support and his usual role as Batman’s moral compass is largely if not entirely absent.

Was I disappointed by this movie? Overall, yeah, I was. For me it’s not that it was completely terrible, it’s more that there was so much potential that the movie didn’t live up to, it can’t help but feel like a bit of a letdown.

On Love, Loss and Superheroes

Hey look, I’m writing about Batman again! I didn’t expect this to happen so soon, but this time I am talking about an animated Batman movie, 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

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Mask of the Phantasm is done in the style of the animated series that began in the early 90’s, simply called Batman: The Animated Series. It is my humble opinion that the show was one of the best interpretations of Batman that has ever been done in any medium, and Mask of the Phantasm featured all of the elements that made the show so great, while also providing a deeply moving emotional foundation to rest its story upon. Mask of the Phantasm is one of the most tragic and affecting superhero movies ever made, and as a big superhero fan, and with the plethora of caped heroes running amok in movies and on TV these days, that is not a statement I make lightly.

Here’s the story. A masked, caped figure has been killing mobsters in Gotham, and since Batman had been seen at the scenes of some of these murders, the populace assumes he’s started whacking bad guys instead of bringing them in, and the police turn against him.

Long story short, Batman hasn’t become a murderer. There’s a new player in Gotham, and he’s the one knocking off mob bosses.

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While all of this is going on, the movie repeatedly flashes back to a time before Bruce Wayne became Batman, and tells of how he fell in love with a woman named Andrea Beaumont. Bruce’s relationship with Andrea complicates his efforts to figure out how to keep his promise to his dead parents. The film never states specifically what Bruce promised his parents, but it doesn’t need to. Anyone who knows anything about Batman knows that Bruce made a promise to his parents to rid the city of the evil that took their lives.

And he desperately wants to fulfill his promise, but he’s terribly conflicted because his romance with Andrea has led to something he didn’t expect to happen: his own happiness. In the movie’s most wrenching scene, he goes to his parents’ grave and pleads with them.

“It doesn’t mean I don’t care anymore,” Bruce tells them. “I don’t want to let you down, honest, but…but it just doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. You can understand that, can’t you? Look, I can give money to the city, they can hire more cops. Let someone else take the risk, but it’s different now!” At this point, lightning flashes across the sky and thunder rumbles.

“Please!” Bruce continues. “I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy. Please…tell me that it’s okay…”

“Maybe they already have,” Andrea says from behind him. “Maybe they sent me.” Bruce turns to her, and they embrace in the rain.

Now I don’t care who you are or what you think about Batman in particular or superheroes in general, that is heartbreaking. It’s not that Bruce doesn’t still care about the promise he made his parents, or that he doesn’t still miss them, but the passage of time has helped dull the pain, and the introduction of Andrea into his life has led to him being happy in his life, and this kills me, because he didn’t expect this to happen. He didn’t count on being happy.

In the wake of his parents’ deaths, Bruce was so distraught that he didn’t think he could be happy again, and it took a person, Andrea, to show him he was wrong. And now that he has that happiness, he desperately wants to hold on to it, but he feels that to do so would be to let down his parents, which leaves him at a crossroads.

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Man…just, man. This one scene in this one animated movie from 23 years ago is one of the best portrayals of grief I’ve ever seen. It’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the Batman myth, and shows heartbreakingly the sacrifice that Bruce makes to become Batman.

Bruce decides to change the plan and actually proposes to Andrea. She accepts, but their happiness is ruined when Andrea’s father gets in trouble with the mob, and the two of them go on the run. After she leaves, Bruce finally takes the plunge and becomes Batman, and doesn’t see Andrea again until she suddenly returns to Gotham years later, right around the time a mysterious masked figure starts bumping off mobsters.

Spoiler alert: it turns out that Andrea is the one killing mobsters, in revenge for their killing of her father earlier. In a further twist, it turns out the one who actually did the deed of killing her father was none other than the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker, before he became the twisted villain we all love to hate. After she bumps off the other mobsters, she sets her sights on Joker, but in trademark Joker fashion, he isn’t going to make it easy for her.

I’m simplifying the story a bit here, but to me the real heart of this movie is about the relationship between Bruce and Andrea. Despite the genre elements, the relationship between them is complex and compelling. They both figure out the other’s secret, and Batman comes to her rescue when she bites off more than she can chew with the Joker.

But Andrea doesn’t want to be rescued. In some ways, maybe it’s too late for her to be rescued at all. “They took everything, Bruce.” She entreats him. “My father, my friends, my life, you. I’m not saying it’s right, or even sane but it’s all I have left! So either help me, or get out of the way!”

“You know I can’t do that,” Batman responds.

“Look what they did to us!” Andrea bursts out. “What we could have had! They had to pay!”

“But Andy,” Batman begs her, “what will vengeance solve?”

“If anyone knows the answer to that, Bruce,” Andrea replies, “It’s you.”

Wow. That exchange just floored me. Most blockbuster movies these days don’t have dialogue anywhere near that good, or emotional thrust anywhere near that powerful. Mask of the Phantasm is able to do in 76 minutes what some three-hour movies have difficulty achieving.

It’s also a very well-animated movie. Some animation from the early 90’s can look a bit dated by today’s standards, but the animation in Mask of the Phantasm holds up very well. It’s also surprisingly violent. The fact that it was a theatrically-released film probably allowed the filmmakers to get away with more violence than they would have been able to pull off in the TV series. It’s not gratuitously violent, but it’s still pretty noticeable (for example, late in the movie Batman kicks Joker in the face, which spurts blood and sends one of the Joker’s teeth flying).

The voice acting is also top-notch. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill will always be THE definitive voices of Batman and the Joker for me, and both are as excellent as always. Conroy lets you feel Bruce’s pain, and Hamill’s Joker is as unhinged as ever. He also gets to let out what has to be one of the all-time greatest Joker laughs. He just completely loses it.

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Also strong is Dana Delany, who voices Andrea. Delany provided the voice of Lois Lane in Superman: The Animated Series, and she is great as Andrea. She has the kind of smooth, sexy voice that I could happily listen to read from the phone book, and she really nails the emotional ups and downs (mostly downs) of Andrea’s character.

Mask of the Phantasm is more than just a superhero movie. It’s a tragic romance. It delivers all of the things that made the animated series great: the story, the emotion, the (surprisingly brutal) action, it’s well-written, well-animated and the voice acting is superb.

I don’t think it’s been entirely forgotten, as I hope this post has demonstrated it still has its loyal fans. But it has been overshadowed somewhat by the bigger, flashier movies of recent years. It’s underappreciated these days, but still well worth checking out.

As a final note, the movie also provides one of the best explanations as to why I love Batman so much. After the final encounter, where Bruce fears he has lost Andrea forever, he sits despondent in the Batcave, and his loyal butler Alfred attempts to console him.

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“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce,” Alfred says. “I’ve always feared that you would become that which you’ve fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

That’s it right there. Batman walks the edge of the abyss, but he doesn’t fall in.

And I, too, thank heaven for that.

The Bat, the Cat, and the Penguin

I owe a lot to Batman Returns. If it had not been in theaters around the time I found myself in a toy store sometime in 1992 (it must have been 1992 because that’s the year the movie was released) I might not have bought my first-ever Batman action figure (but who am I kidding, I didn’t actually pay for it, I was like three, my uncle bought it for me). And if that hadn’t happened when it did, I may not have fallen in love with Batman when I did, and my life today would probably be a lot different.

But up until recently, I hadn’t actually seen Batman Returns. It occurred to me a few weeks ago that this amounted to a massive oversight on my part so I watched it. Twice. And boy oh boy, do I have some thoughts I’d like to share.

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With the release of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice next week, there was no better time to re-watch the original Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman films. I had seen the original one when I was a kid, but had never seen the sequel. I had mixed memories of the 1989 film but upon re-watching it I found it to be quite good, and was very pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up liking it.

Michael Keaton is a very appealing Bruce Wayne. There was quite the fan uproar when he was first announced as Batman, but nowadays his portrayal of Batman is well-regarded (this is worth mentioning when you consider the similar fan uproar that arose when Ben Affleck was cast as Batman).

Keaton’s performances as Bruce Wayne/Batman are emblematic of the films themselves: serious without being too serious, campy without being too campy. If the Christopher Nolan Batman films represent the dark and gritty Batman and the Joel Schumacher Batman movies represent the cheesy and over-the-top Batman, the two Tim Burton movies fit nicely in the middle.

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I really like the visual design of both movies. Gotham City looks great, as do the vehicles, costumes, and makeup effects, and for the most part the special effects hold up well, although there are a couple shots that look a little fake for viewers whose eyes are accustomed to slick modern special effects. Gotham looks dark and gothic and somewhat stylized, but it’s not so stylized that you stop believing it’s a place that could actually exist.

Remember that ridiculously awful chase scene in Batman & Robin where the Dynamic Duo chase Mr. Freeze down the arms of this stupid building-sized statue that’s just hanging out in the middle of the city? Yeah, there’s nothing that dumb in the Tim Burton movies. Both 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns do an admirable job of striking a balance between the more serious aspects of Batman as a character and some of the potentially sillier aspects. Tonally, they’re both pretty consistent, which is a tricky feat to accomplish with this kind of subject matter.

I will readily admit, however, that Batman Returns goes a bit overboard in this respect. What else can you say about a film whose climax involves the hero stopping the villain’s army of mind-controlled, rocket-launching penguins?

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So yes, Batman Returns is more than a little over-the-top. In many ways it is just damn weird, even ranking among the strangest movies I have ever seen. But for all of its weirdness, it’s still more faithful to the character of Batman than either of Joel Schumacher’s attempts.

The Burton films come close to the precipice of being too over-the-top, but somehow they are able to pull back from the edge. Just barely, but they do make it. And as we all know, Schumacher’s movies light themselves on fire and go flying off that precipice, screaming nonsense all the way.

But what is it, exactly, that makes Batman Returns such a weird movie, aside from the aforementioned rocket-launching penguins?

Well, let’s start with the villains. The problem with Catwoman and Penguin in Batman Returns is that I have a hard time taking either of them as serious threats to Batman. Catwoman is a woman suffering from a complete psychotic breakdown, and Penguin is a freakish fat man who lives in the sewers. Neither of them seem very threatening.

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It’s not that Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito give bad performances. Their acting is somewhat over-the-top, but still in keeping with the overall tone of the film. It’s just that neither of them is particularly scary or intimidating. Penguin is gross but not really scary, and certainly not in the way that Jack Nicholson’s Joker is scary in the previous film (seriously though, if you can’t make the Joker scary, then you have failed).

All right, so here’s the Penguin’s master plan (spoilers ahead for a 24-year old movie). He was abandoned by his rich parents shortly after he was born because he was so freakish, and I guess he was raised by penguins in the sewers. He eventually makes his debut in Gotham by pretending to save the Mayor’s son, so that the people of Gotham like him, and feel sorry for him when he reveals how his parents abandoned him.

He forms an alliance with a corrupt businessman named Max Schreck (played by Christopher Walken), who tries to get Penguin elected Mayor. How desperate must the citizens of Gotham be in order to think that the freaking Penguin would be a good choice for mayor? I mean geez, maybe they just figure that they couldn’t do any worse. Batman foils this plan by recording some of the Penguin’s rants and threats (like “I’ve played the people of this city like a harp from hell!”) and playing it back when Penguin tries to give a speech, turning the people of Gotham against him.

Penguin then sends out his henchmen to kidnap every firstborn son in Gotham and bring them back to his lair in the sewers so that he may kill them. Batman foils this plan as well. So after all that, Penguin is REALLY pissed, and he straps rocket launchers to the backs of his fleet of penguins and sends them out into the city to create havoc (he controls them with radio waves or something). Batman foils this plan by hijacking the radio signal that controls the penguins (I think).

Can you see what I mean when I say that the villains in this film aren’t very threatening? I mean, Batman foils Penguin’s schemes fairly easily every step of the way. And Catwoman doesn’t have much to do with the overall plot, she’s just kinda there. Penguin and Catwoman don’t accomplish anything in this movie. Think of the Joker or Bane in the Nolan films, who are able to bring the entire city of Gotham to its knees. Penguin and Catwoman in Batman Returns, by contrast, don’t achieve much of anything.

As I mentioned earlier though, both of Burton’s Batman films look great. I really like the Batsuit that Michael Keaton wears, it looks very good, although you can tell how uncomfortable in must have been to wear, and how much it must have restricted Keaton’s movements (instead of just looking up for example, Keaton has to throw his entire head back because the way the suit was constructed didn’t allow him to move his head independently. This issue would finally be fixed in The Dark Knight).

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I also quite like the Bat-vehicles. The Batmobile in these films is one of my favorite versions of Batman’s iconic ride. It looks fierce and the armor plating that covers it when Batman leaves it alone is extremely cool. The Batplane that Batman uses to drag away Joker’s poison-gas-spreading balloons in the first film is also pretty badass, and Batman gets to use a sweet Batboat during the climax of Batman Returns. All of these vehicles look and sound great, and the effects that created them have held up quite well.

I do have one significant beef with these movies, however. Namely, Batman kills people. No two ways about it, he just straight-up murders several people. In the first movie he chucks a henchman off a clock tower, and blows up an entire factory full of bad guys. In the second, he sets a dude on fire with the Batmobile, and later he attaches a bomb to a henchman, grins at him, then punches him and walks away as the bomb explodes. Yep, they’re dead all right. As a Batman purist, this does bother me, but I would still argue that the Burton films are better interpretations of the character than the Schumacher films are.

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Despite their quirks, I have come to quite like the Burton Batmans. They’re far from perfect, but they’re both utterly unique (especially Batman Returns). It amuses me that Batman Returns is rated PG-13 for “brooding, dark violence.” How many other movies have the MPAA described as “brooding?”

Fun fact: Batman Returns was so dark that either McDonald’s or Burger King (I forget which) cancelled a marketing tie-in with the film after parents complained. I don’t know why, but this kind of thing always amuses me. It’s kind of hard to blame them though, since Batman Returns includes scenes where the Penguin bites a dude’s nose off and Catwoman cuts a guy’s face open with her claws. No wonder parents complained.

There’s never a bad time to talk about Batman, but with the fast-approaching release of Batman vs. Superman, it seemed an appropriate time for a rewind of the earlier films. See you in a few weeks to talk about the new movie!