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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.

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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!