Category Archives: Superhero

Superman Week Day 1: Kirk Alyn in Superman (1948)

Superman 1948Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennett & Thomas Carr

Writers: George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, Royal K. Cole

Cast: Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, Carol Forman, George Meeker, Jack Ingram, Pierre Watkin, Terry Frost, Charles King, Charles Quigley, Herbert Rawlingson, Forrest Taylor, Stephen Carr, Rusty Wescoatt, Robert Barron, Virginia Carroll, Ed Cassidy, Mason Alan Dinehart, Nelson Leigh, Luana Walters

Plot: On the distant planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Nelson Leigh) has discovered his world is being drawn towards its sun. He and his wife, Lara (Luana Walters) prepare an experimental spacecraft that would allow his people to escape the world’s destruction, but only has time to complete a prototype before the cataclysm begins. Unable to rescue the people of Krypton, Jor-El places his infant son Kal-El into the ship and sends him away just before their world is destroyed.  Landing on the planet Earth, the infant is found by Eben and Martha Kent (Ed Cassidy and Virginia Carroll), who adopt the child and raise him as their own. As he grows up, young Clark Kent (played by Ralph Hodges as a teenager, then Kirk Alyn as an adult) discovers he has the power to fly, incredible strength, super-hearing, and a sort of “X-Ray vision.” When he reaches adulthood, Eben implores his son to use his power for good. Martha makes a special indestructible uniform from the blankets he was wrapped in on his way to Earth, and Clark goes out into the world.

Wearing his costume and using the name “Superman,” Clark saves a train, whose passengers include Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond), from derailing on a broken track. Clark later approaches Planet editor Perry White (Pierre Watkin) for a job, as working at a newspaper will allow him to stay up-to-date on potential danger that needs Superman’s intervention. Although reluctant to hire the neophyte, Perry gives Clark a chance when he claims to be able to get inside a collapsed mine to get the story. Naturally, Lois is after the same story, and gets trapped inside. As this is a movie serial, this begins a series of disasters roughly every 15 to 20 minutes, which require Superman’s intervention.

Clark gets the mine story and the job at the Planet, and both his career and Superman’s begin. The Man of Steel is soon considered a national hero, and is summoned to Washington D.C. to help guard an experimental “Reducer Ray” developed by the government. A mysterious villainess called the Spider Lady (Carol Forman) plans to turn the technology for evil. A meteor shower later brings chunks of the destroyed planet Krypton to Earth, and Clark discovers exposure to the radioactive rocks saps his power and, with prolonged exposure, could kill him, or at the very least, make it harder for him to wrap this plot up in about seven seconds.

Over the course of the serial’s 15 episodes, Spider Lady tries time and again to trap or kill Superman, often with Lois and/or Jimmy (and even Perry White, on rare occasions) getting caught up in the schemes, but he always manages to pull through. In the final segments, the Spider Lady gets on the radio to announce she’s perfected the Reducer Ray and will use it to destroy the Daily Planet building in nearly four hours. Rather than… y’know… evacuate the building, the police ask them to keep quiet and everyone carries on with business as usual. Lois and Jimmy get a tip that the ignition systems of cars are oddly breaking down, and reason that the Ray may be responsible, so they decide to fly a plane into the area. Suddenly, and with no warning (except for the fact that cars are oddly breaking down), their plane breaks down, crashes, and they’re captured again by the Spider-Lady. Superman fakes a Kryptonite reaction to trick one of the Spider Lady’s henchmen to bring him to her hideout. He finally faces the villain, who stumbles into her own device and is killed, proving once again that criminals really need  to build their hideouts according to OSHA requirements. Returning to the Planet office, Lois and Jimmy find Clark “asleep” at his desk, wake him, and they all have a good laugh over a woman’s brutal death.

Thoughts: It saddens me how Kirk Alyn has been forgotten by so many Superman fans. The first live-action Superman may not have made the mark on history that some of the others did, but by virtue of being first, he deserves at least some respect. It especially saddens me because Alyn is really good in the role. His Clark Kent has a sweet earnestness about him, and his Superman brings just the power the role demands. Alyn seems to take his inspiration from the Max Fleischer-directed animated features from the early 40s, almost perfectly replicating voice actor Bud Collyer’s change in tenor from Clark Kent’s high-pitched “This looks like a job…” then plunging into a powerful baritone with “…for Superman!”Alyn’s performance is almost Collyer’s brought to life. These days, Warner Bros seems intent on keeping every incarnation of the character as different from the others as possible. In 1948 the producers of this film drew on the Collyer’s well-known voice from the shorts and from the radio. The story is even credited as being “adapted from” the popular radio program. Synergy may not have been a corporate buzzword yet, but it was there.

Noel Neill was a prototypical Lois Lane, with a wardrobe and hairstyle lifted directly from the comics of the time, and a nice, biting sort of sarcasm that set her eternally apart from the wallflower females that surrounded the typical action hero of the era. Neill’s Lois is smart, confident, and fearless, perfectly willing to stumble into the most dangerous situations in pursuit of her story. At times, this can make her seem reckless or foolhardy, bumbling into the most obvious kind of trap, such as at the end of the series where she has Jimmy fly a plane into an area specifically because car engines are malfunctioning there, never stopping to think that a plane engine isn’t that different a device. There’s a delicate line that has to be walked here – Lois can seem single-minded and even unconcerned with danger, but the minute she looks foolish the character loses everything that makes her work and turns her into the caricature she often becomes in the hands of lesser writers or actresses. Neill usually walks that line very well, rarely straying too far into the territory that makes Lois look bad.

This movie serial wraps itself in the trappings of the comic book of the era, including using scenes from the comic to introduce each chapter. The opening chapter on Krypton also feels like a classic sci-fi film – the “distant planet” of “superior aliens” that’s clearly a bunch of guys in robes standing on a set that looks like it was drawn up by the artist of the Buck Rogers comic strip. It’s a little silly, a little cheesy, but all the more charming for that.

Even more charming are the special effects, most of which are animated sequences overlaid on the live-action. The first time we see Superman fly, Alyn literally transforms into a cartoon and zooms into a burning building. It was at that point I pretty much fell in love with this film. There’s really no attempt at anything resembling real physics, either. The “Reducer Ray” is powered by the natural reducing rays that bombard Earth all the time (look out your window, you’ll probably see them), and at one point Superman sees through somebody’s disguise by using his X-Ray Vision on a photograph of that person, which is somehow both ludicrous and awesome.

It’s interesting how much of a slow burn was permissible back then. The first two chapters of the serial are concerned entirely with Superman’s origins from outer space and establishing himself in Metropolis, both as a hero and as a reporter. There isn’t even a hint of the serial’s main plot – the battle with Spider Lady over the Reducer Ray – until chapter three. These days there’d be a compulsion to work such a thing in artificially, much earlier, possibly even trying to tie it in to the hero’s origin, all supposedly in the name of creating a more “sophisticated” story. If nothing else, this serial is evidence that sometimes a lack of sophistication can be a glorious thing.

As is often the case with these older movies, the modern part of the brain feels the need to invoke certain tropes and gimmicks that hadn’t quite been developed yet. In the Chapter 3 cliffhanger, for example, a scientist shows Clark Kent a meteor he has discovered, and Clark collapses, nearly dead. When Chapter 4 begins and Clark lies there, you want to shout at the screen: “It’s Kryptonite, you idiot! Close the box!” But this is 1948 – Superman as a character is only ten years old, and Kryptonite is an even newer invention (first created for the radio show before migrating to the comic books). Being so young, though, the film is also able to avoid certain bits that would become common shtick later on. In later adaptations, if Clark is threatened by Kryptonite when he’s not in his Superman suit he’d come up with some sort of lame excuse to explain why the meteor seemed to affect a mild-mannered reporter. In 1948? What the hell, he’s a scientist, right? Why not reveal your secret identity? If you can’t trust a professor, who can you trust?

For all the charm, this isn’t a movie that has a particularly high opinion of its audience. The voiceover narration can sometimes be rather intrusive… it’s hamfisted in the early chapters, giving us virtually every beat of the plot, especially on Krypton. Once we get to Earth and the story begins in earnest, a little recap at the beginning of each chapter is to be expected. But is it really necessary for the narrator to announce every time Superman uses his super-hearing or X-Ray vision, as if the fact that the wall of the safe just vanished before our eyes won’t be enough to clue us in as to what’s happening? Even the death of his foster parents is done away with quickly in a voiceover – Martha gives him his uniform and we cut to him leaving the house with a suitcase as the narrator helpfully tells us, “Okay, the Kents are dead now.”

Alyn would play Superman once more in the 1950 serial Atom Man Vs. Superman, but then was  replaced by George Reeves, who went on to play Superman in the Adventures of Superman TV show and wound up pretty much defining the character for over 20 years. We’re going to spend some time tomorrow with Reeves in his one cinematic appearance as the Man of Steel in Superman and the Mole-Men.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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2 in 1 Showcase At the Movies Episode #35: Man of Steel

Man-of-Steel-Flight-Poster-550x801Later this week, I’m going to give you guys a much more analytical discussion of the newest Superman movie, Man of Steel. But for this week’s podcast, my crew and I recorded our immediate gut reactions literally minutes after we left the movie theater. If you want to listen to some old-school fanboys get geeky over Superman, this is the podcast to listen to. We DO tell you when to stop listening before we get into spoilers, but spoilers ABOUND. Don’t listen if you haven’t seen the movie don’t want to know how it ends.

2 in 1 Showcase At the Movies #35: Man of Steel

Get ready for the Man of Steel…

Man-of-Steel-Flight-Poster-550x801It is absolutely no surprise or secret that the movie I’m the most excited for this year is finally hitting theaters this Friday. Lifelong comic book fan, and more importantly, Superman fan that I am, Man of Steel couldn’t possibly get here soon enough to suit me. I’m on a mini-vacation with my fiance, Erin, right now, but once I’m home with my DVD shelf I fully intend to immerse myself in the Superman films of the past. Chances are you’re aware of the four Christopher Reeve movies, the one Brandon Routh movie… you no doubt know about the Fleischer Studios shorts of the early 40s, the assorted TV shows starring George Reeves, Dean Cain, and Tom Welling. You may even know about the Helen Slater Supergirl movie, and you no doubt watched the 90s Superman: The Animated Series starring Tim Daly.

Today, I’m going to give you a quick rundown of a few Superman movies you may not know about. In 2007, Warner Brothers and DC Comics began a series of animated movies based on their superhero comics, beginning with a Superman film. Many of these are available via Netflix steaming, and all of them are being flooded back into stores this week, with the big Man of Steel push. Here are those DCU Animated Superman movies you may not have seen…

Superman-DoomsdaySuperman/Doomsday (2007). The first film in the series was based on the early 90s Death of Superman storyline from the comic books, although it is a very trimmed-down version. In this version, Metropolis is attacked by a rampaging beast that comes to be known as Doomsday, a mindless killing machine that threatens to destroy his city. Superman faces down the beast, seemingly at the cost of his own life, but both friend and foe alike are unwilling to accept that his death is that simple. The film wasn’t bad — Adam Baldwin made for a good Superman and James Marsters was a great Lex Luthor. Anne Heche’s Lois Lane was weak, though, and I think they trimmed a bit too much to allow the story to fit in the extremely abbreviated running time of the animated series. Still, this was the DC Animated Universe’s first shot, and the series got better very quickly.

Superman-Batman Public Enemies Blu-RaySuperman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009). This movie reunited the TV voices of Superman and Batman, Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy, for the first of two films based on a comic book series by Jeph Loeb. In Public Enemies Lex Luthor (also voiced by his TV actor, Clancy Brown), has been elected president of the United States, and uses that influence to draw together a group of heroes under the government payroll. Luthor uses the threat of an impending strike of a massive meteor of Kryptonite to turn the public against Superman and he and Batman go on the run, fighting their fellow heroes in an attempt to clear their names and reveal Luthor as the villain he is. This is a really great flick, one that plays not just with Superman, but with the larger DC Universe, with lots of heroes and villains that casual fans may be introduced to for the first time.

Superman-Batman-ApocalypseSuperman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010). The sequel to Public Enemies again reunites Daly and Conroy. The shower of Kryptonite meteors in the first movie brought with it a large chunk with some mysterious technology inside. Batman investigates the chunk to discover a girl in suspended animation — Kara Zor-El (Summer Glau), daughter of Superman’s uncle, and the first blood family he has seen since coming to Earth as an infant. The heroes take Kara to Wonder Woman (Susan Eisenberg) to teach her how to use her powers and help her adapt to life on Earth, but she soon becomes embroiled in a battle between the heroes and the powerful villain Darkseid (Andre Braugher). I rather like this movie even more than Public Enemies, adding Supergirl to the mix and bringing in the most dangerous foe Superman has ever faced.

All Star SupermanAll-Star Superman (2011). Based on a graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, in All-Star, Superman (James Denton) receives a fatal overdose of solar radiation while thwarting one of Lex Luthor’s (Anthony LaPaglia) schemes. The radiation is killing him slowly, and giving him additional powers in the process. With his time limited, Superman embarks on a quest to make permanent, lasting changes to the world, leaving it better before his death. This film is based on one of the greatest Superman comics of all time and, sadly, came out just days after the death of its screenwriter, Justice League Unlimited showrunner Dwayne McDuffie. If you can only watch one of the movies on this list, or if you don’t understand what makes Superman a brilliant and compelling character, this is the movie to watch.

Superman Vs the EliteSuperman Vs. the Elite (2012). George Newburn, who voiced Superman on the Justice League cartoons, returns to the character in this film based on a comic book by Joe Kelly. Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes) is a new superhero, one whose team the Elite initially appears like a welcome addition in the war on crime. Superman soon realizes, however, that Manchester and the Elite have much more violent and permanent solutions to villainy than he is comfortable with. As the people of Earth start to gravitate towards the Elite and question whether Superman is outdated, the man of steel is forced to confront questions of his own relevance. Like All-Star, this is a brilliant story made into a very good movie. This film is the answer to everyone who ever says that Superman is “too old fashioned,” “too good,” or just plain “boring.” This is a story that explains the importance of Superman, and why he has to be who he is… because the alternative is chilling.

Superman UnboundSuperman Unbound (2013). The most recent film on this list came out just last month. based on a graphic novel by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, Matt Bomer takes on the role of Superman in this film. Brainiac, a highly-intelligent alien that menaced Krypton in the past, has come to Earth, terrifying Supergirl (Molly Quinn), who remembers the villain from Krypton. Brainiac travels through the universe, miniaturizing and stealing cities from different planets before destroying them, and Metropolis is his next target. The graphic novel this movie is based on is great, the movie is just okay. Like some of the earlier films on the list, it suffers a little from having to strip away a bit too much from the original story to fit in the short animated running time. For the Superman fan, though, it’s still worth watching.

Get my short story ASSOCIATED PRESSURE for free tomorrow!

AssociatedPressure_LoHey, guys — if you’ll permit me a rare post that has nothing to do with movies whatsoever, I’ve got a new short story that’s going to be available for free in the Amazon Kindle store for five days starting tomorrow, May 4. Click on the link for more details and please, if you’ve got a Kindle or any device with a Kindle App, download the book and help me boost my numbers. (And if you don’t have a Kindle App, find something you can download it on — iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android, any Mac or PC computer, and the apps are all free too!)

Gut Reactions: Condorman (1981)

CondormanDirector: Charles Jarrott

Writer: Marc Stirdivant, based on the novel by The Game of X Robert Sheckley

Cast: Michael Crawford, Oliver Reed, Barbara Carrera, James Hampton, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Dana Elcar, Vernon Dobtcheff, Robert Arden

Plot: Comic book creator Woody Wilkins (Michael Crawford) is about to debut his new superhero: Condorman. Woody insists on authenticity in his character, though, and travels to Paris to test the gadgets he designed for the comic. His friend Harry (Oliver Reed), a CIA file clerk, asks him to carry out a special delivery for which a civilian has been requested. The over-enthusiastic Harry goes too far trying to impress his beautiful contact Natalia (Barbara Carrera), who is actually a KGB operative.  Natalia returns to Moscow where her superior and lover Krokov (Oliver Reed) treats her cruelly. She decides to defect, and requests the agent known as “Condorman” be sent to retrieve her. Woody agrees to the mission, provided the CIA fabricate the rest of his comic book designs so he can test them in the field. Woody, Natalia and Harry are soon pursued by Krokov in a race across Europe to bring the beautiful spy to safety.

Thoughts: There is always a danger, when you go back and watch a movie or TV show you loved as a kid, that it simply won’t hold up. We’ve all been disappointed as adults, looking back and realizing things like the old Masters of the Universe TV show really wasn’t very good, or wondering how in the hell we were ever able to sit through Mac and Me more than once. Still, my fiancé Erin managed to secure a copy of this movie after she heard me mention how much I loved it back in the 80s, and I recently managed to find the time to watch it again for the first time in at least 20 years.

Condorman comes from the Disney company during that long stretch in the 70s and 80s when the company simply didn’t know what it was supposed to be anymore. After Walt Disney’s death in 1966, the company coasted on projects he’d already put in the works for a few years, then started to flounder, trying to figure out a direction now that its founder was gone. This film is the perfect example of that. The studio tried to simultaneously capitalize on the popularity of superheroes (thanks to the Christopher Reeve Superman franchise) and James Bond-style spy thrillers, while at the same time creating the sort of family friendly comedy that Disney’s live action properties were expected to be. The result is a film that fails to live up to the standards of any of the three.

That’s not to say the film is terrible. I mean… it kind of is, but at the same time, there’s something about it that still entertains me. Michael Crawford is chewing the scenery so much you expect him to blow a bubble, and James Hampton plays the same sort of big-smiling best buddy he is in most of his work. In fact, if you told me his character in this film retired from the CIA and returned to the states so he could raise his son properly before the family’s werewolf curse made itself known, I wouldn’t think you were that crazy. Just in terms of performance, Barbara Carrera and Oliver Reed are the ones that actually do the most acting. Carrera in particular is fun to watch, putting out a sort of Disney-friendly sensuality that you didn’t get to see often. In essence, she’s a G-rated Bond Girl, which is exactly what the script required her to be. (She would get another chance to be an sort-of Bond girl two years later in the infamous non-canon Sean Connery Bond film Never Say Never Again.)

The concept here is actually perfectly sound – a goofy, good-hearted man leaps at the chance for a little adventure and to test out the toys he’s only, until now, created on paper. It’s the execution that falls flat. The flying scenes are pretty uniformly terrible, with weak bluescreen effects and sometimes even visible cables. The rest of the tech is a bit more acceptable; the “Condormobile” in particular has a cool design and neat gadgets, and I can forgive the 80s-era computer display on the inside. Truth be told, to this day I occasionally fantasize about having a switch in my car that would allow me to blow off the outer shell and reveal a super-sleek high-speed sports car underneath. (These fantasies are usually prompted by sitting in traffic.)

I don’t want you to misunderstand me, guys. This is not a good movie. In fact, if the guys from RiffTrax could somehow get Disney to allow them to do a Video on Demand riff of this, I think it could be one of their greatest productions ever. But despite its cheese, this is one of those rare films from my past that I can look back on and still kind of love, warts and all. I can’t explain it, and I don’t feel the need to defend it. It’s silly, it’s crazy, it’s goofy…. And that’s why I like it.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

It Means Hope

As you may know, I’m something of a Superman fan. This week, in my comic book column over at CXPulp.com, I talk a lot about the new trailer for Man of Steel that hit the internet this week. So watch the trailer, then click here to read my thoughts.

Batman Week Day 5: Christian Bale in The Dark Knight (2008)

??Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer

Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Chin Han, Cillian Murphy, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Anthony Michael Hall, Colin McFarlane, Michael Jai White, Joshua Harto

Plot: A group of men wearing clown masks break into and rob a bank in Gotham City, each of them killing another according to their mysterious plan. The last of them, a scarred man in makeup called the Joker (Heath Ledger) boards a school bus full of cash and rides away.

Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a Scarecrow-masked villain who escaped Batman before, plans an operation in a parking garage, only to be interrupted by several men wearing Batman masks and sporting guns. As a shootout begins, the real Batman (Christian Bale) arrives, taking out criminals and fake Batmen alike. He warns the pretenders to leave the crimefighting to him.

Wayne and his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine) meet in a secret bunker they’ve been using since the destruction of Wayne Manor. They discuss the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is prosecuting gangster Salvadore Maroni (Eric Roberts). Dent celebrates his progress with his girlfriend — and Bruce Wayne’s ex — Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), before meeting up with Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), asking him to arrange a meeting with the Batman. That evening, Bruce has dinner with Rachel and Dent. Impressed by the new DA, Bruce offers to hold a fundraiser for him with friends that will fill his coffers for life. Meanwhile, the Joker interrupts a teleconference between a Chinese businessman named Lau (Chin Han) and the rest of the Gotham underworld. The Joker says they need to eliminate Batman – a task he’s happy to perform for a mere half of their bounty.

Batman meets Dent and Gordon, and the three of them make a pact – if Batman can bring them Lau, they’ll use him to bring down the rest. Bruce makes a visit to Wayne executive Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who is secretly supplying him with impressive technology. He sneaks off to Hong Kong, where Lucius plants a sonar-like device that allows Batman to track Lau and bring him to Gotham. Dent, Gordon and Rachel interrogate Lau, making a deal that will allows Gordon and the GCPD make over 500 arrests in the next few days. The mayor (Nestor Carbonell) is upset at Dent for overloading the system until Dent points out that, although many of the top criminals will soon be out of jail, most of the lower-level hoods will be tied up for months, giving them the time needed to clean the streets. Their meeting is interrupted by the body of one of the false Batmen, lynched and painted to look like the Joker, dropped from the roof. The news shows a video of the victim being tortured by the Joker, who demands Batman unmask and turn himself in or the killings will continue.

That night is Dent’s fundraiser, where Bruce gives him a ringing endorsement. Rachel is angry at him, thinking he was mocking Dent, but Bruce swears he meant every word. He sees Dent as the man who can create a Gotham that will no longer need a Batman, at which point he and Rachel can be free to be together. Minutes later, she and Dent are alone, and he proposes to her, but she has no answer.  As the party continues, the Joker kills the police commissioner and the judge who indicted Dent’s 500 crooks, then comes after Dent. Bruce knocks Dent out and hides him, then faces the Joker as Batman, just barely saving Rachel. A newspaper at a subsequent crime scene indicates who the Joker’s next target will be: the mayor.

Lucius is approached by a Wayne employee named Reese (Joshua Harto) who is investigating the tech Lucius has funneled towards Bruce. Lucius laughs at the notion of blackmailing a man who spends his evenings beating criminals within an inch of their life. At a memorial service for the slain commissioner, the Joker attacks again. Gordon saves the mayor, but is shot himself. Dent takes away one of the hoods working for the Joker, finding a hint that Rachel is next. Batman brutalizes Maroni, but Maroni refuses to talk, being more afraid of the Joker than the Bat. Dent, meanwhile, has the gunman tied up and starts flipping a coin to determine if he’ll shoot the man or not. Batman arrives, telling Dent he has to remain pure, the symbol of hope Gotham needs. He tells Dent to hold a press conference in the morning, where he’ll give himself up. Before he can do so, though, Dent claims to be the Batman himself and is taken away.

Rachel gives Alfred a letter to pass on to Bruce “when the time is right,” then goes to see Dent in jail, where he’s being transferred to another facility. He gives her his coin, revealing it’s two-headed, and that he always “makes his own luck.” In transit, the Joker attacks. After a spectacular chase and battle sequence, the Joker has Batman on his back and is about to remove his mask, but is taken down from behind by a cop: Jim Gordon, very much alive. When they return to the police station with the Joker, triumphant, the Mayor announces Gordon’s promotion to police commissioner.

The joy is short-lived, however, when Dent goes missing. Batman interrogates the Joker, who tells him Dent is in a warehouse full of explosives, and Rachel is in a second one. Batman rushes to save Rachel, while Gordon goes after Dent. In the chaos, the Joker escapes. Rachel, who has an open phone line to Dent, tells him she will marry him. Batman discovers the Joker lied – he’s gone after Dent, not Rachel. The bombs go off and half of Dent’s face is terribly scarred. In the other warehouse, Rachel is killed. Batman finds Dent’s two-headed coin in the wreckage, one side blackened and charred. He returns it to Dent and goes home, where Alfred hides Rachel’s letter (revealing her intention to marry Dent), allowing him to believe Rachel was going to wait for him.

Reese goes on television with the intention of announcing the secret he’s found: the true identity of the Batman. The Joker calls the TV studio and says he’s changed his mind about Batman’s identity being revealed, so he issues an ultimatum: if Reese is still alive in 60 minutes, he’ll blow up a hospital. The Joker sneaks into Dent’s hospital room, preaching to him a gospel of chaos, and Dent decides to leave things to chance. He’ll flip his coin – clean side, the Joker lives, burned side, he dies. Moments later the Joker walks away, blowing up the hospital behind him. Dent is missing again.

The Joker announces that anyone left in Gotham will be playing by “his rules” by nightfall, and that people using the bridges and tunnels are in for a surprise. As people cram onto ferries to escape, Dent begins going after the criminals and corrupt cops tied in to Rachel’s death, flipping his coin to decide who’ll live and die each time. Lucius discovers Bruce has adapted his sonar device to allow him to use every cell phone in Gotham as a tracker. He’s disturbed at the invasion of privacy and agrees to help Batman find the Joker, but this will end their partnership. Batman tells him to type his name into the device when he’s finished.

The Joker incapacitates two ferries: one full of citizens, one full of criminals being transported by the police, each loaded with bombs. He’s also given each ferry a device he claims will detonate the bomb on the other ferry. If one of the boats hasn’t exploded by midnight, he’ll blow them both up. On the civilian ferry, the passengers vote to blow up the criminals, but nobody can bring themselves to do it. One of the convicts, meanwhile, takes the detonator from the guard and throws it overboard. Lucius tracks the Joker down and Batman chases after him, but another trick forces Batman to fight the police to get to him. Although defeated, the Joker is in high spirits, anticipating a long future of playing his game with the Batman.

Dent has kidnapped Gordon’s wife and children and brought them to the site where Rachel died. As Batman and Gordon confront him, Dent asks why – of the three of them – he was the only one who had to pay the price for their quest to save Gotham. He nearly kills James Jr., but Batman saves him, Dent dying in the process. He and Gordon agree to allow Gotham City to think Batman is responsible for Dent’s rampage, believing the myth of Harvey Dent to be more important to the city than the truth. When Lucius types his name into the sonar device, it self-destructs, proving to him that he had Bruce’s faith all along. Batman goes into hiding, allowing the city to make him the villain so it could have the hero it deserves, with only the Gordons knowing the truth about the Dark Knight.

Thoughts: The nature of this project being what it is, I could only allow myself to pick one of the three films from Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy.” Rather than the first or last, I decided to go with the best film of the three, perhaps one of the best superhero movies ever made. But again, as I discuss it, expect spoilers for the whole series, because this is really here as an excuse for me to discuss the franchise as a whole.

Batman BeginsThis being the Batman Icons project, let’s start with Christian Bale himself. When Bale and Nolan came onto the franchise in 2005’s Batman Begins, they had the unenviable task of making up for the mess the Burton franchise became after the dreaded Joel Schumaker took it over. (I spent the better part of a decade firmly believing that Batman and Robin was not merely the worst of the franchise, but perhaps the worst superhero movie ever made. To this day, I struggle internally to decide whether or not Halle Berry’s Catwoman actually took that top spot away.)

The world Nolan created and Bale inhabited is as close to perfect as a live-action Batman has ever been. They tried to make it as realistic as possible, dropping any element of fantasy the previous versions used and making the technology as plausible as they could. All three of the films in the trilogy have at least one piece of tech that seems to fit firmly in the realm of science fiction, but none of them are as out of the blue as so many of the toys the Burton films conjured up.  More importantly, the story and performances have a ring of truth, of authenticity to them that no previous version managed to capture. Although this is a superhero movie, structurally speaking it’s much more like a classic crime drama, a tale of steadfast police trying to take down the scum that have torn their city down. Nolan’s Batman universe has far more in common with The Untouchables than it does with the world of Adam West.

Bale is a pitch-perfect Bruce Wayne, able to put on the flaky playboy image in front of everybody but Alfred and Rachel, and becoming a determined warrior as soon as he’s in a safe place. He’s gotten some flak from people about the gruff voice he puts on as Batman, and yes, it’s somewhat exaggerated, but it’s never bothered me. The comics have often pointed out that Bruce alters his voice when he puts on the mask, and an abrasive tone is just fine. And honestly, if that’s the biggest complaint you can conjure up for Christian Bale’s performance, that still places him light-years ahead of, say, Val Kilmer. (I didn’t discuss Kilmer’s Batman Forever in this project, but in short, he gave us a Batman that’s short and flippant and a Bruce Wayne that was dark and brooding, exactly the opposite of every sane or logical comportment the character has ever had.)

Another reason I had to pick this film instead of the other two is because of the villains – the best two of the franchise and proof that it is, in fact, possible to make a superhero movie with multiple villains that doesn’t fall apart under its own weight. Heath Ledger’s Joker has become truly iconic, and probably would have done so even if he had not died before the film was released. This version of the character is nearly impossible to qualify, especially compared to earlier versions. He uses the veneer of madness that we expect from the Joker, but in his behavior he comes across more like a complete nihilist, a man dedicated to anarchy because of his philosophy rather than because he’s simply crazy. The Nolans and Goyer, crafting the story, picked up on the best parts of the character from the comics, particularly Alan Moore’s notion from Batman: The Killing Joke.  Here, they dismiss efforts to give the character a true “origin,” for the Joker says if he has to have a past, he wants it to be multiple choice. As a nod to that, each time the Joker talks about how he got his scars in this movie, he tells a different tale. That lingering question mark, leaving his past open instead of filling in every blank like Burton did, makes him all the more menacing. He’s the most terrifying vision of the character ever brought to screen, perhaps the most terrifying vision ever. Romero was goofy. Nicholson was dangerous, but still amusing. There’s nothing funny about this Joker, he’s a creature of terror.

As perfect as Heath Ledger’s Joker is, though, I think Aaron Eckhart is often overlooked as Harvey Dent. Everybody who went to this movie went in to see Batman and the Joker, but it’s Dent that’s the Shakespearian figure, the tragic hero that falls to the darkness. When we first meet Dent we see someone proud, idealistic, and determined to do good at any cost. Throughout the film his armor is chipped away – first by Rachel’s refusal of his proposal, next by the threat on her life, then a piece at a time until her death and his disfigurement. At that point his plunge over the abyss, his embracing of the Joker’s doctrine of chaos, seems utterly plausible. We weep in this movie for Harvey Dent, we bleed for the hero that Gotham needed, but that lived long enough to become the villain. Eckhart sells every minute of this transformation. Ledger got a posthumous Oscar for playing the Joker (a concession I still maintain was only given to him because he died – I simply can’t believe the turgid Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have awarded a “comic book movie” if the actor was still alive), but I think Aaron Eckhart was every bit as deserving of a nomination.

Next, let’s look at Gary Oldman as Commissioner James Gordon, and I apologize if the comic nerd in me becomes even more pronounced here than it usually is. Most of the Batman characters allow for different interpretations, but the version of Gordon dearest to me is that of the one good cop in a sea of corruption, struggling to right the ship. He’s one of the greatest supporting characters in comic books precisely because of this, and he’s the one character that none of the live-action versions ever got right. The 1966 Gordon was inept. The Burton Gordon started out okay, but never impressive, and spiraled down into a clown by the time Schumaker was done with him. Goldman, though, was magnificent throughout three movies. It’s Batman’s series, but Gordon here is a true hero in his own right, and I would have been just as happy watching him as the star. When he was shot in this movie, I didn’t really believe he was dead (although I knew I couldn’t discount it, as Nolan had proven himself willing to toy with the mythology of the franchise). Despite that, when he revealed himself, taking down the Joker, I jumped out of my seat and cheered right there in the movie theater. (My fiancé, Erin, still laughs about that.)

DarkKnightRisesPosterThe third film in this trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, has caused a bit of a division between fans. Although I don’t want to spent too much time talking about that movie right now there’s one point of contention I want to address, because I believe The Dark Knight sets it up very well. At the end of that film (and c’mon, spoiler warnings if I really need to say it), Bruce fakes his death and passes on the responsibility of protecting Gotham to a good cop, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). This upset a lot of comic readers I know who argue that Bruce Wayne would never quit, never retire, because it simply goes against his character. And if we’re talking about the character in the comic books, I agree. But as I’ve been saying all week, Batman is a character that allows for many interpretations, and to me, The Dark Knight justifies the retirement of this incarnation of Batman. Several times in this movie, Batman clearly expresses a desire to quit. He latches on to Harvey Dent because he sees in him a man who can create a Gotham that doesn’t need a Batman. He wants to give it up and be with Rachel, but he doesn’t feel like he’s earned it and refuses to leave Gotham without a hero. Although Rachel is dead in the third film, he manages to find happiness with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and a hero to take over for him. Even in the first movie, Batman Begins, the groundwork was laid when Bruce indicates to Rachel that they can’t be together as long as Gotham needs Batman, as well as in an early conversation with Alfred where he makes it clear that he needs to be a symbol rather than a human being. If your version of Batman doesn’t allow for that, I can respect that. That’s pretty much how I feel about the 1966 version, after all. But I think it’s perfectly consistent with the world that Nolan created.

But this discussion is supposed to be about The Dark Knight, and I think it is The Dark Knight that is the Batman masterpiece. Warner Bros is already talking about restarting the franchise with a new Batman, as Nolan’s story is done, and I guess I’m okay with that. He’s been rebooted before, after all. But I can’t help but wish they’d wait a little bit longer, let this trilogy completely digest and fade a little bit before moving on to something new, because anything they try to do next will inevitably be compared to Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, and Heath Ledger. And unless they pull off a feat of storytelling virtually unheard of in filmgoing circles, almost any movie that invites an immediate comparison to The Dark Knight will inevitably be left wanting.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Batman Week Day 4: Kevin Conroy in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman-Mask of the PhantasmDirectors: Eric Radomski & Bruce Timm

Writer: Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko & Michael Reaves

Cast: Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, Dick Miller, John P. Ryan, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bob Hastings, Robert Costanzo, Mark Hamill

Plot: As Batman (Kevin Conroy) chases after a gang of mobsters in Gotham City, one of them manages to escape, only to encounter a chilling robed figure with a bladed scythe for a hand. This masked shape, far more brutal than Batman himself, sends gangster Chuckie Sol’s (Dick Miller) car over the edge of a parking garage and into a nearby building. Batman arrives in time to see the traces of this “Phantasm”’s wrath, but is unable to capture him.

At a party at Wayne Manor Bruce encounters Councilman Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner), whose anti-Batman crusade has been making papers. Reeves reminds Bruce of Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), one of those classic girls who got away. Bruce remembers meeting Andrea at a cemetery years ago, before he adopted his Batman persona but after he made his pledge to his murdered parents to seek justice.  Andrea is visiting her mother’s grave and Bruce his parents. The two quickly feel a connection, and within days Bruce’s butler Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) is walking in on them in a deep kiss.

Back in the present, gangster Buzz Bronski (John P. Ryan) arrives to pay his “respects” to the late Chuckie Sol, but is attacked by the Phantasm, who implies a previous relationship with the criminal. The Phantasm forces Bronski into an open grave and topples an angel statue, killing him. Reeves blames the second gangland killing on Batman, but Commissioner James Gordon (Bob Hastings) defends the Dark Knight. As Batman investigates the murder scene at the cemetery, he sees Andrea Beaumont, who has returned to town. Batman watches as she meets Reeves for dinner, and again begins to reminisce.

Soon after he and Andrea begin dating, Bruce takes her on a visit to an exhibition of the future, full of amazing technology and a particularly impressive car. Andrea invites Bruce to meet her father Carl (Stacy Keach), and while Bruce agrees, he confesses to Alfred that he’s concerned about deviating from his plans to become a crimefighter. Alfred, however, is fully supportive of the relationship. When Bruce meets Carl, he also meets Reeves for the first time – at this point, just a “hot young turk” in Beaumont’s legal department. Carl is very welcoming to Bruce, who finds himself unnerved when their meeting is interrupted by a surprise visit from the intimidating Salvadore Valestra (Abe Vigoda). As they leave Beaumont, Bruce sees a group of motorcycle punks attacking a vendor and rushes in to fight them. Although formidable, one of the crooks gets in a hard blow to Bruce and escapes. Andrea is worried, but Bruce brushes her off. He finds himself torn between his promise to his dead parents and his relationship with Andrea, certain he can’t have both. He goes to his parents’ grave, begging their permission to abandon his quest for justice and allow himself to be happy, but is interrupted by Andrea, who suggests that maybe she was sent by his parents because he already has their blessing.

In the present, Valestra speaks to Reeves, who assures him that it’s Batman killing the crimelords. Valestra, now old and infirm, is beginning to fear for his life. Batman, meanwhile, finds Sol and Bronski were connected through a series of dummy corporations along with a third partner: Valestra. Alfred tries to persuade him to see Andrea again after he’s done with Valestra, but Batman refuses. He painfully recalls his awkward proposal to Andrea years ago. Even as she accepts, though, a swarm of bats escapes the caves beneath Wayne Manor and swallows the couple. Shaking it off, they go to Carl’s house to announce the good news, but the house is full of business associates. Andrea convinces Bruce to wait.  The next day, as he explores the bat-caves beneath his house, Bruce receives a message from Andrea saying she’s leaving town with her father, and that he should forget about her. Along with the note is her engagement ring. Broken-hearted, he continues with his pledge to his parents.

In the present, Valestra visits the now run-down and decrepit “future” exhibition where Bruce once romanced Andrea. It’s not abandoned, though – here Valestra encounters the Joker (Mark Hamill), who he begs for protection from Batman. Batman approaches Andrea with a photograph of the targeted gangsters and Carl Beaumont, asking where Carl is now. Andrea claims she doesn’t know, and angrily tells Batman, “the way I see it, the only one in this room controlled by his parents is you.” As Batman leaves, she weeps.

The Phantasm goes to Valestra’s home, but he’s already been murdered by the Joker, who has rigged the corpse up with a video camera and a bomb. Although he’s surprised it isn’t Batman, the Joker blows the bomb anyway, and the Phantasm just barely escapes, but is soon pursued by Batman. The police arrive, but don’t see the Phantasm at all, and believe Batman bombed the house. He barely escapes, losing his mask in the process, but Andrea races in and rescues him. She confesses what really happened the night of their engagement: she returned home to find her father with the criminals in the picture, who threatened her if her father didn’t give them money he’d been embezzling. They give him 24 hours to get the money, but he can’t free it in time. Carl forces Andrea to pack a bag and flee Gotham, breaking her engagement to save her life, and he angrily swears to free her from the criminals “whatever it takes.” Andrea tells Bruce she believes the Phantasm is her father, come back to Gotham to set them both free from his past. She tries to leave but he stops her, and Alfred – again – walks in on the two of them as they kiss. The next morning she leaves just before Bruce has an epiphany. There’s a fourth, unidentified criminal in the old photograph… a swipe with a red pencil makes him realize it’s the Joker, in those long-ago days before his skin was bleached and his mind shattered.

The Joker approaches Reeves, accusing him of using Beaumont’s ill-gotten money for his own gains. The Joker denies that Batman is the killer and doses Reeves with a chemical that sends him to the hospital, giggling uncontrollably. As he lies in his hospital bed, Reeves is visited by Batman. Reeves confesses helping Beaumont escape Gotham years ago, but hasn’t heard from him since he asked for money for his first campaign. When Beaumont denied him, Reeves sold his location to the mob. Batman goes to Andrea’s apartment for clues and he finds a locket he gave her years ago. The Joker attack him with a drone, and reveals his hideout in the abandoned exhibition.

At the exhibition, Andrea remembers the last time she saw her father – after the mob murdered him. Putting on the Phantasm’s costume, she attacks the Joker, who has already seen through her masquerade. He nearly kills her, but Batman saves her, at the same time refusing to let her murder anybody else. He asks her what vengeance will solve, a question whose irony she points out before disappearing in a puff of smoke. Batman pursues the Joker through the exhibits, which he has wired to explode. Eventually, Andrea captures him. Although Batman begs her to flee from the explosives, she and the Joker both disappear in the smoke as the exhibition begins to explode all around them. Batman falls into a storm drain and is swept away. Back in the cave, Alfred tells him his greatest fear is that Bruce will someday fall into the vengeance-craving Pit that consumed Andrea. As he mourns, he sees a glint in the darkness of the cave: Andrea’s locket. We glimpse her on a ship out of town, approached by a man. When he asks her if she wants to be alone, she simply answers, “I am.”

Thoughts: Like the 1966 Batman: The Movie, this 1993 offering is a theatrical spinoff of a television show. Batman: The Animated Series launched in 1992, and quickly proved that animation was a perfect medium for the Dark Knight. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm crafted a version of Batman that was sleek, powerful, and respectful to the comic books. It was much harsher and more violent than other cartoons of the time, and the designs were bold and striking, mixing in a 40s-era design aesthetic (particularly in the buildings, vehicles and fashion) with a modern storytelling style. This film takes everything that made the TV show great and amplified it, giving us what was (at the time) the greatest version of Batman ever put on the big screen. The climactic fight scene, where Batman and the Joker fight it out in the miniature city, has a sort of reverse King Kong feel to it. It’s the sort of thing you’d see in a goofy Silver Age comic – Batman swatting tiny planes out of the air while the Joker uses the tip of a skyscraper to bash his foe’s head – but it’s played perfectly straight and deadly seriously.

You’ll forgive me if I talk a bit about the TV show along with the movie, but everything that made the one great also applies to the other. Kevin Conroy’s Batman voice was so perfectly iconic that he remains the most popular performer for the character in animation or video games over 20 years later. He does with his voice what Christopher Reeve did with Superman – shifting flawlessly from a powerful, heroic presence to an entirely different character when he’s not uniform. Conroy’s Bruce Wayne isn’t the faux geek that Reeve’s Clark Kent was, of course, but he has a different tenor, a different attitude, and a different feel that you can accept transforming into Batman, but at the same time, could be forgiven for failing to make the connection if you didn’t know better.

The rest of the cast from the TV show is similarly magnificent. Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s Alfred is the perfect mixture of supportive and sarcastic, with a quiet wit that speaks to the character perfectly. Bob Hastings as Commissioner Jim Gordon is, likewise, a definitive version of the character. And Mark Hamill as the Joker… He’ll always be remembered for playing Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films, of course, but to so many Bat-fans, he’ll be one of the greatest Jokers ever. He’s more menacing than Nicholson, crazier than Romero, and if he wasn’t in a franchise that had to be sanitized for children, he could easily play a Joker that would give you nightmares. Like Conroy, he was the voice of the character for decades, and everyone was sad when he formally announced his retirement from the character a few years ago.

Seriously, who the hell thought this packaging was a good idea?

Seriously, who the hell thought this packaging was a good idea?

The one major addition to the cast who wasn’t in the show was Dana Delany as Andrea Beaumont. The voice she puts on here is sweet and kind, with less of an edge than she would use a few years later as Lois Lane in Superman: The Animated Series. Her character works perfectly for the story, though, despite the toy licensees’ attempts to sabotage it. The film works really hard to keep the Phantasm’s identity secret. The design of the character is male, and Stacy Keach provides the voice when he’s in his mask, making it seem as though Carl Beaumont is the one seeking revenge for anyone who can recognize the voice through the modulation. Therefore, when Andrea is revealed as the Phantasm it’s a legitimate shock, a great kick in the gut… unless you happened to go to Toys ‘R Us earlier that day and saw the Phantasm action figure with an unmasked Andrea Beaumont in plain view.

One thing you’ve got to give Superman over Batman – he’s had a much more stable love life. Oh sure, there have been dalliances with Lana Lang, Wonder Woman, that mermaid that one time, but pretty much every movie version has always come back to Lois Lane. This is the fourth Batman movie I’ve watched for this project, and there’s been a different woman in each one (and there’ll be still a fifth tomorrow). I suppose part of it is the attempt to make Batman seem like the perpetual loner, although that image is quickly dispelled by the plethora of Robins, Batgirls, Outsiders and Justice Leagues he typically surrounds himself with. On the other hand, that makes a story like this one work much better than it would with Superman or Spider-Man or any hero who has a more traditionally stable love life on screen. No one would really take Andrea seriously, start to picture her as the girl Bruce belongs with, if they were accustomed to seeing him with somebody else full-time. This way, we get to fall in love with her a little bit along with Bruce, making the ending of the film all the more tragic and powerful.

The TV show and movie both take certain elements from the Tim Burton version of Batman from 1989, including the designs for the Batmobile and Batwing and, most notably, music inspired by the Danny Elfman score. But while the popularity of the Burton films may have helped get this version produced in the first place, Dini and Timm quickly took the franchise in different directions, making it more serious most of the time. This is a far deeper, more psychologically intriguing and –frankly –more realistic portrayal of Batman than any of the previous ones. This is a Batman that can actually get hurt physically as well as emotionally. He gets tired, he gets cut, he bleeds. And while Michael Keaton’s Batman did have a degree of brooding about him, Kevin Conroy’s is a rich, multi-layered character that actually struggles with his choices in a way that no film version of Batman had ever done.

For the most part, our culture still marginalizes animation as a tool only suitable for children’s stories. Although there has been some improvement on that front, in 1993 it was even worse than it is today, so there was no small amount of surprise at this film’s heavy violence and implied sex. (It was still a PG-rated movie, but much harsher than even this same production team would have dared to put on television at the time.) But then, as now, I loved this movie completely. There is room, as I’ve said many times, for a lot of different versions of the Batman in popular culture, but that doesn’t mean that individual fans might not feel loyalty to certain interpretations of the hero. As good as the stuff that was coming (which we’ll discuss tomorrow) turned out to be, to me, this is still the truest version of Batman ever put to screen. And I don’t just mean by 1993, I mean in the two decades since then as well.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Batman Week Day 3: Michael Keaton in Batman (1989)

Batman 1989Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance, Jerry Hall, Tracey Walter, William Hootkins

Plot: As a pair of muggers in Gotham City go through their loot, a black-clad figure wearing a bat symbol attacks, incapacitating them both in seconds. When one of the criminals begs for his life, the man in black tells him he wants a favor… he wants him to tell all his friends. When the crook asks who he is, he hisses in reply, “I’m Batman.”

Commissioner James Gordon (Pat Hingle) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) make a public pledge to take down crimelord Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), an announcement watched on TV by Grissom’s chief lieutenant, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). Jack has been having a fling with Grissom’s girlfriend Alicia (Jerry Hall), but is confidant Grissom has no idea what’s going on under his nose. Reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) is approached by an award-winning photographer named Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). As two of the only people in town who believe the Batman exists, they form a partnership to try to dig out the story. They attend a casino night hosted by Gotham’s richest son, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), hoping to get the authorities on record about the Batman. Encountering Bruce, who comes across as somewhat absent-minded, leaving a bizarre impression before he is called away by his butler, Alfred (Michael Gough). While at the party, Gordon is given a tip that Napier is robbing a local chemical company. Bruce, now in a hidden cave beneath the mansion, listens to Gordon’s conversation as picked up by a hidden camera.

At Axis Chemicals, corrupt police Lieutenant Eckhardt (William Hootkins) prepares his men to take down Napier’s gang, giving orders to shoot to kill. Inside, Jack finds the safe empty and realizes they’re being set up. The cops and gangsters begin a shootout, but Gordon arrives and commands the police to take Napier alive. Batman rounds up the criminals and manages to grab Jack, but his chief goon Bob (Tracey Walter) threatens to kill Gordon if he doesn’t let him go. Although Batman tries to save him, Jack tumbles over a rail into a vat of chemicals, his face damaged in the battle.

The next evening, Vicki returns to Wayne Manor for a dinner with Bruce. It goes well, but she can’t help but notice that so much of the image of the playboy doesn’t fit as she begins to get to know him. Jack, meanwhile, has escaped the chemical bath, but not without damage. As he removes the bandages from his face, he smashes the mirror and stumbles away, giggling maniacally. He returns to Grissom’s home, confronting him over the double-cross. He reveals the extent of the damage – his skin bleached, his hair turned green, his mouth frozen in a permanent grin. Calling himself the Joker, Jack guns Grissom down.

Jack (wearing fleshtone makeup) meets with the rest of Gotham’s crimelords, announcing he’s taking over Grissom’s operation. One of them indicates an unwillingness to cooperate, so Jack offers a friendly handshake, roasting him with a supercharged joy buzzer. His power solidified, he instructs Bob to trail Knox and find out what he knows about the Batman.  Vicki leaves Wayne Manor the next morning, happy with Bruce and looking forward to seeing him again after he returns from a business trip. As she bids farewell to Alfred, though, he lets it slip that no such trip is forthcoming. She leaves, confused, and trails Bruce to a bad part of town, where she sees him lay a pair of roses on the ground in an alley.

That night, Gotham’s Action News reports on the deaths of two models who died after an extreme reaction to cosmetics leaving them with horrible grins on their faces. A bulletin announces three more similar deaths, when suddenly one of the anchors has an uncontrollable laughing fit and keels over. Suddenly, the Joker cuts into the feed, announcing his “Joker Brand” products – products that, chances are, everybody in town has already bought. Bruce studies Jack’s past, learning he has a background in chemistry, and he and Alfred go on a shopping trip. Gotham begins to struggle as everyone is terrified to use food, cosmetics, or anything that may contain the Joker’s “Smilex” chemical.

Vicki leaves a message for Bruce to tell him she’ll be late meeting him at the museum, but he has no date planned. It’s a trap by the Joker, who has become infatuated with her after seeing one of Bob’s surveillance photos of Knox. The Joker and his goons come in, smashing and defacing the exhibits. He approaches Vicki, proclaiming himself to be the “world’s first fully-functioning homicidal artist.” As proof, he has Bob bring in Alicia, whose face he has horribly scarred, and tells Vicki he wants her to record his “art” in photography. Batman rescues her, but the Joker’s thugs pursue him and nearly take him down. Just as Bob is about to remove his mask, Vicki snaps a picture, distracting them long enough for Batman to fight free. He brings Vicki back to the Batcave, where he tells her he’s cracked the “Joker Products” code – there’s no one single product that’s harmful, but certain combinations of products that are deadly. He gives her his research, instructs her to bring it to the press, and gasses her. When she wakes up, she’s safe at home, and realizes he took the film from her camera with the picture of his upturned mask.

As Gotham returns to normal, Alfred urges Bruce to tell Vicki the truth about his identity. He visits her apartment, intending to do just that, but they’re interrupted by the Joker, who tells her that Alicia tragically “threw herself out of the window.” Bruce reveals himself and threatens the Joker, who casually asks him if he’s ever “danced with the devil in the pale moonlight” before shooting him. He leaves Vicki alone, and she turns to find Bruce gone, a tray from her mantle lying on the floor with a bullet-sized dent.

Knox has researched the alley where Bruce left the roses and discovered his parents were murdered there before Bruce’s eyes when he was just a child. Bruce, meanwhile, is delving back into the case himself. The Joker’s “dance with the devil” taunt has dredged up memories, and he realizes Jack Napier is he nameless thug that murdered his parents. The battle is personal now, and becomes moreso when the Joker seizes Gotham’s airwaves again to announce he’s going to dump $20 million on the crowd for Gotham’s 200th anniversary celebration that night, challenging Batman to a confrontation.

Using the Batmobile via remote control, Batman destroys the Axis Chemical Plant, taking a number of the Joker’s goons with it, but the Joker remains at large, flying above in a helicopter. He retreats to the city, where he’s started a parade full of balloons and floats, hurling money into the crowd before gassing it with Smilex. In his Batwing jet, Batman cuts the gas-filled balloons loose. The Joker shoots the Batwing down with an improbably long-barreled gun, but Batman survives the crash. The Joker snares Vicki and leads her to the bell tower in Gotham City Cathedral where he awaits his helicopter. Batman and the Joker face off at the top of the Cathedral, where Batman vents his rage at Jack Napier for killing his parents. The three of them wind up dangling over the edge of the Cathedral, Joker dangling from a ladder to his helicopter. Batman snares him with a line, attaching him to a gargoyle broken from the cathedral. The added weight is too much, and the Joker plunges to his death. Soon afterwards, the police round up the Joker’s men and announce an alliance with the Batman, complete with a signal – an enormous spotlight that casts the emblem of the bat against the night sky. Vicki meets Alfred in a waiting limo… he apologizes for Bruce. He’s going to be a little late.

Thoughts: When Tim Burton’s Batman came out I was 12 years old, just at the perfect age to be heavily influenced by it. The prospect of Batman on the big screen was thrilling to me, and I was excited as I’d ever been to see a movie in my life. Looking back, my perspective has changed a little. While I never achieved the level of distaste I sometimes have for the Adam West incarnation, looking back on this film nearly 25 years later, I realize that it’s a good Tim Burton movie, but it isn’t really a great rendition of Batman.

You see, Tim Burton is a particularly distinctive filmmaker. He’s got lots of visual tricks, certain pacing techniques and other elements that all combine to make a movie distinctly his. This would be the first time he did a major adaptation of somebody else’s characters, but it sets the stage for his career in the future. Years later when he’d tackle Planet of the Apes, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the like, it would become clear he had his own sub-category of film… adaptations run through a Burton filter. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a disaster. This Burton-filtered Batman is a good movie, much darker and more serious than the movies we’ve discussed in this project so far, but still lacks certain elements that keep it from being great as a Batman film.

There is a lot of good here. This is the first film in the project to tackle Batman’s origin, for instance, and it does it in a very good way. Certain superhero origins are so well known that it’s become redundant to go over them yet again, and working it in as exposition rather than taking an hour to cover it works very much to this film’s advantage. It’s also the first time we’ve seen a Batman that isn’t a fully authorized officer of the law. The outlaw status works better for the character, even when he’s allied with the police.

I also really like Michael Keaton’s version of Bruce Wayne. There isn’t a lot of comedy in this movie, but Keaton (who previously worked with Burton in Beetlejuice) supplies most of it when he’s trying to maintain his absent-minded playboy image. There’s a sort of awkward sincerity to him, but he has a distinct competence right beneath the surface that makes it easy to accept him as Batman when the transformation begins. There was, I’m told, quite a controversy around casting Keaton (best known as a comedic actor) in the role, but he balances the humor with the depth of the character very well. The scene where he struggles to explain the truth of his double life to Vicki is just fantastic – very human, very charming, very honest.

Jack Nicholson also puts in a bravura performance as the Joker. He’s got some of the chaos of Cesar Romero, but unlike that earlier incarnation, he actually manages to apply some menace to it. Romero’s Joker was fun, but never scary. Nicholson’s Joker is both. There’s a great moment in the boardroom scene where it really starts to come through… not when he murders the unsuspecting Antoine, but a few seconds later when he orders Bob to trail Knox. Nicholson imitates a speech Palance gave to him just before sending him to his death, and although he’s not planning to have Bob killed, the result is downright disturbing. His cheerful chant that he’s glad Antoine is dead a few seconds later simply compounds it. While not the best Joker of all time (we’ll get to that), Nicholson is a great Joker.

The performances really are excellent. The elements that make it harder for me to accept this as a straight Batman movie and more of a Tim Burton movie come in plot, tone, and atmosphere. For example, the first moment where the “Burtonian” elements overtake the “Batmanian” is when the newly-christened Joker kills Carl Grissom. While not at all out of character for him, Burton uses a rousing carnival tune as the background music for the scene, something that stands in stark contrast to what we’re watching. It’s a very effective moment, something that encapsulates the madness of the character, but it’s also a very Burtonian trick, and the first point where we’re clearly seeing his fingerprints on the mythology.

From there, there are many other such moments that feel Burtonian. The more we see of Gotham City, the more it feels like the sort of world he’s conjured up for films like Edward Scissorhands – not exactly reality, but a strange sort of postcard that depicts a version of some stereotypical  world at Halloween. (In Scissorhands it was a Leave it to Beaver-style community, in this it’s a grungy cityscape.) Even the woods outside of Wayne Manor, where the Batmobile drives to reach the Batcave, are distinctive. Something about the bare, sparse trunks of the trees combined with the pounding Danny Elfman score (the #2 superhero theme of all time, after John Williams’s Superman) give an effect that reminds me more of Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas than any other film I can think of. The cathedral where the climactic battle takes place appears to be deserted, the wood rotting away and everything is ready to break for the sake of the fight scene. For sheer Burtonian symbolism, though, there’s no bigger moment than when the Batwing sweeps up in front of the full moon, forming a perfect Bat-Signal for absolutely no reason other than the rule of cool, before diving back down at the city.

Burton and the screenwriters introduce another element that happened in a lot of superhero films afterwards and, in fact, continues to this day: the idea that the hero’s origin has to be tied into the villain of the piece. From a purely thematic standpoint I understand it – it makes things much more personal for the characters and gives you a tighter narrative. From a larger perspective, though, I think it’s often a mistake. It requires either an uncomfortable level of coincidence or a ridiculous level of conspiracy that only a few movies have pulled off well.

Then there’s one thing that I’m never comfortable with in any incarnation of this character – a Batman who kills. His bombing of the Axis plant bothers the hell out of me… no matter how scummy the Joker’s goons were, they were still humans, and it’s hard to accept Batman killing them. The end of the film presents a similar problem, where Batman first opens fire upon the Joker with an array of bullets and missiles (all of which miss, but still), and then apparently drops the Joker to his death. Ironically, in the earliest comics Batman had no code against killing, and even used guns to cut down hoods on more than one occasion. The no-killing code has worked its way into most versions of the character, though, to the point where a Batman who kills feels wrong in any context.

I like this movie, I like it a lot actually. It’s just that being years removed from the childhood excitement of actually seeing Batman on the big screen, the various faults and flaws are a lot easier to pick out. None of them are enough to kill the movie for me, but shifting perspectives over the years have made me want something different out of Batman than what Burton gave us. Still, it was leaps and bounds ahead of the Adam West incarnation, and lightyears ahead of what was to come, when Burton stepped back from directing with the third film in the franchise and ushered in the disastrous Joel Schumacher years. Either way, though, the popularity of this movie helped to lead to the first screen version of Batman that I felt – and still feel – was truly, purely, and amazingly true to the character, and it’s that version we’re going to look at next.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Batman Week Day 2: Adam West in Batman: The Movie (1966)

Batman 1966Director: Leslie H. Martinson

Writer: Lorenzo Semple Jr.

Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith,  Frank Gorshin, Alan Napier, Neil Hamilton, Stafford Repp, Madge Blake, Reginald Denny

Plot: On a peaceful afternoon, Bruce Wayne (Adam West) and his young ward Dick Grayson (Burt Ward) are summoned to save a yacht carrying an important scientific innovation to Gotham City. In their other identities as Batman and Robin, the two board their Batcopter (conveniently held and prepared for them by the employees of the Gotham airport) and fly off to investigate the disturbance. After a tussle with a shark (yep), the yacht vanishes. Batman later denies the yacht’s disappearance in a press conference, during which a young Russian reporter named Kitka asks him to take off his mask for a picture. Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp) both rebuke the woman, but Batman is more understanding… while still refusing her request.

As the press leave, Batman and the police review known super-criminals at large who could be behind the current unrest. As it turns out there are four: the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). Through a thought process too ridiculous to even attempt to replicate, our heroes determine the four villains are working together and set off to look for clues.

Kitka goes to the Gotham docks, where we discover she’s really Catwoman in disguise. She joins the other villains in their “United Underworld” organization, where they reveal their plan is the disruption of the United World conference in Gotham using a secret invention developed by a man on the yacht, the daft Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny). Batman and Robin determine the yacht that vanished was, in fact, an illusion, and the real yacht was stolen some point prior. As they take to sea in the Batboat, they cruise the ocean above the Penguin’s highly-themed submarine. (How in the hell does he afford a penguin-themed submarine? He never successfully commits a crime, Batman always stops him on this show. Did he win a contest?) The Penguin traps the dynamic duo on a buoy and fires a series of torpedoes at them. When the third hits its target the villains celebrate, but we quickly cut to Batman and Robin in their boat, mourning an (unseen) heroic porpoise that swam in front of the torpedo, giving its life for theirs, and I seriously cannot believe I just typed the preceding sentence.

Back in her “Kitka” disguise, Catwoman makes a date with Bruce Wayne, planning to kidnap him as bait for a trap for Batman. Batman orders Robin and Alfred (Alan Napier) to tail him on the date in case the villains make a move. That night, after a dinner at the sort of restaurant that only exists in movies (with wandering violinists and no other customers), she takes Bruce to her apartment, and Robin turns off his monitor after seeing the two of them engage in the most awkward kiss in movie history. Unfortunately, this means he isn’t watching seconds later as the villains and their henchmen burst in and kidnap Bruce, who still thinks Kitka is their real target.

The next day the villains are confused as to why Batman hasn’t followed the clues they left and come stumbling into their trap, now baited with Bruce Wayne. A furious Bruce demands to see Kitka, so they blindfold him and toss him into a room with her after Catwoman switches identities. While trying to “comfort” her, asks Kitka to help him retrieve a hidden radio in his coat, but the villains remove him from the room and untie him to retrieve the radio. With his hands free, Bruce springs into action, battling all four villains and their henchmen at once, escaping into the bay.

Growing desperate, the Penguin hatches a new plan. Selecting five henchmen as guinea pigs, he activates Commodore Schmidlapp’s invention, a “total dehydrator” which reduces the henchmen to powder, extracting all moisture from their bodies. Batman and Robin return to the villains’ hideout which is now deserted, but sports a sparkling bomb. After a series of (frankly legendary) misadventures, Batman concludes that on some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb. They encounter the Penguin disguised as the Commodore and see through the ruse immediately (making you wonder why Batman can’t tell Kitka is Catwoman without her mask). Having been taken to the Batcave, the Penguin rehydrates the five thugs, but uses heavy water from Batman’s nuclear reactor. All five are reduced to anti-matter with the slightest impact. Because science.

Batman pretends to think the Commodore was brainwashed and takes him back to the city, allowing him to escape. The villains dehydrate the United World Security Council (who can’t even stop arguing with each other long enough to notice they’re being dehydrated) and place them in vials to hold them for ransom.  The heroes track them to their submarine and force it to surface, boarding and engaging in a battle royale during which nobody actually lands a punch but everybody pretends like they’ve been hit anyway. Catwoman stumbles and loses her mask, revealing to Batman and Robin that she is, in fact, Kitka, and simultaneously taking away any rights either of them would ever have to make fun of Lois Lane. Although the vials containing the security council members have miraculously escaped unscathed, Commodore Schmidlapp stumbles in and smashes them, mixing the powders. Batman and Robin use their super molecular dust separator (of course they have a super molecular dust separator) to extract the representatives from one another and rehydrate them, but the procedure is imperfect. The arguing representatives are now weird, mishmashed amalgams of each other, speaking the wrong languages and having each others’ personalities. Batman tells Robin this may be “the single greatest service ever performed for mankind,” then the heroes sneak the hell out of there.

Thoughts: I must confess to having something of a love/hate relationship with Adam West’s Batman. Although as a child I watched the reruns of this series and found it enjoyable, as I got older I started to grow disenchanted with it. You see, as I got more and more into examining comic books as an art form, I started to get angry about the way the mainstream media so often depicts comic book culture – childish, immature, lacking real artistic merit. The fact that for decades you couldn’t get a single news story about comics without including “Biff! Pow!” in the title eventually led me to realize how much the cultural perception of superheroes and comic books was formed by this goofy Batman TV show, and I grew to resent it. (This was during a period of my life in which I tended to take everything way the hell too seriously, a time many of us identify as “being a teenager”.) Eventually I learned to lighten up, learned to accept that some characters are big enough to allow for multiple interpretations, and learned that Adam West and company essentially saved Batman from extinction during a time when interest in the character was dying away. So I’ve made my peace with it. But it’s still not my favorite version of the Batman.

People who remember the Batman TV show may not always be aware of this movie, filmed and released in theaters between the first and second seasons of the series. As a result, it has the feel and tone of the series after it gained its footing, rather than the awkward feeling you get from early episodes of many classic TV shows after you go back and watch them years later. The performances of the actors and the film as a whole carry a sense of barely-contained insanity, starting right from the beginning where a spotlight features a dedication to “lovers of adventure… pure escapism… unadulterated entertainment… the ridiculous and the bizarre,” then rolls over a couple making out and apologizes for any other groups of lovers they may have missed.

“This,” I say to myself, “is Batman?”

My spine starts to crinkle a bit in the first few minutes, as they approach the yacht in the Batcopter, drop the Bat-ladder (the labeled Bat-Ladder) and I anticipate what’s coming next… the Bat-Shark Repellant. It’s things like this that really made me hate this incarnation of Batman for a few years, and even now, still bug me a little bit. Having seen the 1943 movie serial, it’s clear that a lot of the inspiration for this version came from taking the campier bits of that to the extreme. Then I think about the other extreme, when the dreaded Joel Schumaker 30 years later would take over the Batman film franchise and go to an extreme version of this Batman… the stilted puns, the bizarre non sequiturs, the thrice-damned “Bat Credit Card,” and I’ve got to take a breath or two to calm down.

The heroes here (all the characters, really, but let’s focus on the heroes) are caricatures. West’s Batman speaks in short, stilted passages, frequently lapsing into speeches that have bizarrely inappropriate and ill-timed morality lessons and making leaps of logic that are quite simply ludicrous. The only reason this Batman ever solves any crime is because his foes are as insane as he is, and their respective brands of madness overlap. The entire universe of this series, in fact, is quite crazy. This incarnation of Bruce Wayne pretends to be the straight man, attempts to appear as an oasis of sanity in the midst of it all, but it’s an act in and of itself. The only way to accept Ward and West’s Batman and Robin is by giving in to a world of lunacy.

As ridiculous as Batman and Robin themselves are, I find myself much more entertained by the antics of the villains. Romero, Gorshin, Meriwether and Meredith are at their scene-chewing best here, grinding up film with performances so incredibly over-the-top you can only admire their skill. The first scene with the four of them features snippets of dialogue as quick and rapid-fire as Joss Whedon or Alan Sorkin would turn out decades later. I could watch them go back and forth for hours, either having the time of their lives in their silliest roles or doing a great impression of it. By contrast, West and Ward have the unenviable task of trying to pretend they’re taking things seriously while surrounded by colors that would give Jackson Pollock eyestrain and keeping a straight face when they conclude that the crime took place at sea, which means Catwoman must be the culprit, because her name begins with the letter “C”. (That’s not even a joke, that’s an example of the actual logic used in this film.) The villains aren’t the same kind of crazy we would see in later years, with Heath Ledger’s Joker, but they’re a brand of crazy that can actually be a lot of fun to watch in small doses.

The movie deals heavily in parody, which is fair enough, but at times it gets so ridiculous it’s hard to swallow, such as when we meet a Naval Admiral stupid enough to sell a preatomic submarine (complete with missiles, apparently) to a fellow named “P.N. Guinn” who had no credentials other than a post office box. The film actually taps into the anti-establishment vibe of the 60s, making the military and police into buffoons, with only Batman there to save their hides. It’s easy to see how it became so popular at the time, but the leaps in logic required for it to make any sense go too far for me at times. At most times, actually.

In truth, while I certainly understand the people who are big fans of the Adam West-era Batman, I still can’t really count myself among them anymore. I prefer a Batman who is shrewd, villains who are actually threatening, a Commissioner Gordon who is a hero in his own right rather than the head of the clown college that is the GCPD. For people who appreciate this Batman, it’s here, and it’s a cult classic. For me, though, I really can only enjoy it when I’m sitting around with my friends, cracking jokes about how ridiculous it is.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!