Tag: DC (page 1 of 2)

Batman v Superman v The Audience

Courtesy DC Comics

I’ll say this right up front: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice could be good.

I know there are people on both sides of the fence, be they touting Nolan’s films and Man of Steel as superior superhero stories to anything Marvel makes, or shaking their metaphorical heads in dismay at the overly verbose and shockingly dour tone DC has taken with its heroes of late. Unlike these extremists, though, I can see both sides of the argument, despite the fact I lean more one way than the other, personally.

The thing to keep in mind, at all times when discussing matters like this, is that people have individual and subjective opinions. A person has every right to think another person is mistaken in their outlook on a matter, or to stick to their position in spite of arguments or even evidence to the contrary. The key, as in most things, is simply to not be a dick about it. There’s no need to take another person’s opinion on comic book characters, or most things for that matter, as a personal attack, and it’s certainly never cool to respond in kind and add fuel to an already ill-advised fire. You would think that, in defending a world populated by larger-than-life characters espousing truth and justice, those invested in that world would adhere to the same moral standard, rather than seeking personal gratification in the way a villain would.

Anyway, this movie could be good. I can see it working. Deconstructing superheroes is a fascinating take on their vibrant and grandiose world, breaking icons down into people and sorting through their thoughts and feelings. Zack Snyder is perfectly comfortable directing this sort of thing and getting the right performances out of his actors – I mean, he gave us Watchmen, arguably his best film. There’s potential here, and I can see it clearly.

However, I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve been here before.

I mentioned Watchmen, which is perhaps the best example of taking superheroes, with all of their propensity for being viewed as gods among mortals, and breaking them down into flawed, petty, and even cruel human beings. Thanks to Alan Moore’s writing, an excellent adaptation, and Snyder’s direction, this was conveyed more through visual storytelling and the actions of the characters, instead of verbose monologues and pretentious philosophizing. In that way, DC’s recent film adaptations have been unable to measure up.

The Nolan and post-Nolan films have a nasty habit of telling instead of showing. Getting into deep philosophical and psychological waters is fine, even admirable in realms of fluff entertainment like superhero comics, but stuffing those themes and thoughts into the mouths of your characters as a standard procedure is detrimental to the pace, tone, and overall effectiveness of the story. The trend of these films of late makes me a bit nervous.

As do the obvious nods to Frank Miller. As time has passed, Frank’s work has seemed more and more heavy-handed and pretentious. Sure, Sin City is a fun romp when you’re in your late teens or early twenties and the blatant blood and boobs of Miller’s noir fantasyland definitely plays to that demographic, but having characters narrate every single thought that enters their heads can get truly grating the more it happens. As much as 300 was a captivating visual showcase for what it was, I don’t think most people would praise it for its engaging characters. There’s also the unsettling fact that 300 seems to really like the dictatorial, nearly fascist Spartans a bit too much. Anyway, my point is that Frank Miller can be a bit full of himself and weighs his work down with pomposity and dreary, dismal visuals, and it looks like Batman v Superman is taking more than a few notes from his works involving these characters.

Now, I know that there are some audience members who just adore The Dark Knight Returns. Cool. Like what you like. Personally, I don’t think everybody in DC’s audience is going to be willing to jump on that bandwagon. Man of Steel strongly divided audiences, and I feel like Batman v Superman might widen that chasm, rather than repairing it. DC needs not only a smash hit at the box office, but also a fanbase as unified and confident as Marvel’s. It’s the only way they’re going to truly pull off their plans for the Justice League in any way that really competes with the Avengers.

I’d like to see them do it. I just don’t know if they can.

Characters vs. Icons

Courtesy Marvel Studios

There’s another Marvel movie due out before the end of the summer. I’m cautiously optimistic about The Wolverine. Many (some might say all) of Logan’s most interesting stories come from his time in Japan, a time that has not happened in the films until now. I can understand why some might be trepidatious given the abyssmal misfire that was X-Men: Origins – Wolverine. But I keep coming back to Marvel’s track record, and the overall good quality of their recent films, and the more I see of the new film, the more I think they’re keeping with the mentality of better titles such as The Avengers and Iron Man 3. The key, I think, is the focus on characters, rather than events.

I’ve said in the past that Marvel’s heroes are characters, while DC’s heroes are icons. Other examples of the difference exist, but this one comes to mind most easily. Icons are mythological creatures, as much as gorgons and pegasi and kraken are, fulfilling their roles in epic tales and illustrating ideals to whatever audience happens to be handy. The tradition of using such constructs as a vehicle to move a story from beginning to middle to end is ancient and, for the most part, respectable, even if it is a bit simplistic at times.

It’s entirely possible to make your tale with icons. I’ve watched the Justice League animated series in both of its incarnations, and they were enjoyable, for the most part. But even as I watched Batman being generally awesome, Superman act upstanding and unstoppable, and applauded the valiant efforts to characterize and flesh out so-called second stringers like Hawkgirl and Green Arrow, I was bothered in that I was never really surprised by any character turns or plot points. It always felt like the characters were reacting to the plots involved and moving forward at the pace of the storyline rather than taking much time to be their own people. While a good story can still be told in this way, I find a lot more investment, enjoyment, and fulfillment comes from a tale that studies its characters rather than its outline.

Courtesy the WB. Or CW. I don't even know.

Take the television show Supernatural. The original plan was to create a “monster of the week” series involving all sorts of creatures born from folklore, myth, legend, and nightmares. But the creators quickly realized they had a much better resource for storytelling in the characters of Sam and Dean Winchester. Between the natural chemistry and charisma of the leads, the depth of the issues in the characters’ psyches and histories, and their connections to the world in which they operate, many more interesting developments have occurred over the course of eight seasons that might have been possible with the otherwise simplistic original intent of the series. Creatures like ghosts, vampires, and demons are, after all, iconic. Breaking them free of their iconic or stereotypical natures can be difficult. Even so, I doubt that the show would still be going if it focused on the iconic creatures and not the interesting, flawed, fascinating, hysterical, and very human characters at the center of it.

Do you prefer characters, or icons? Can a story function well with both? What examples do you reach for of either? Or both?

Movie Review: Man of Steel

I kidnapped my father to see Man of Steel in celebration of both Father’s Day and his birthday, which fall on the same date this year. I will admit I went into the movie theater carrying some fears. It was my hope that Zack Snyder’s visual panache, Hans Zimmer’s music, and the performances of these actors could put those fears into the Phantom Zone and I could truly fall in love with Superman on the big screen. It’s difficult to put yourself in front of a big summer blockbuster and eject all preconcieved notions from your had, but I did my best when the lights went down and this film began.

Courtesy Warner Brothers

Krypton was a world destroyed by its own hubris. Having exhausted its resources and bent its population to a strict genetic template, it was on the cusp of disaster when its most brilliant scientist, Jor-El, chooses to have a natural born child with his wife, Lara Lor-Van. At the same time, General Zod and his officers stage a violent coup. When Zod comes for the Codex, a Kryptonian device containing the aforementioned template, Jor-El fights him off while Lara launches the rocket containing their son, Kal. Kal-El lands safely on Earth while the last act of his doomed homeland is to banish Zod and his followers to the Phantom Zone. Thirty years later, Kal (known as Clark Kent thanks to his adoptive parents) is on the cusp of unlocking the secrets of his past, while a mysterious spacecraft makes contact with Earth.

That’s about as concise as I can make the synopsis of the plot of Man of Steel. It’s a little convoluted and some things are explained at great length, but then again, this is David S Goyer and Christopher Nolan we’re talking about. Now, I like these guys. They gave us three very good Batman movies in the Dark Knight trilogy. But something DC Comics writers discovered years ago is you can’t write a Superman story the way you write a Batman story. Batman is all about a lonely man waging a neverending and possibly self-destructive war on crime with his wits and funds. Superman is about a truly alien immigrant making a place for himself amongst puny creatures that, for all of their flaws and failings, he really admires and finds himself fond of. He’s supportive of us, as a whole. He wants to challenge us to aspire to greater things. He’s whimsical about us.

Courtesy Warner Brothers
And damn if he ain’t a fine-lookin’ specimen.

My big hangup with Man of Steel, the thing that keeps me from outright loving it as a whole, is that there’s no whimsy. There’s no levity. There’s barely even any humor at all. Much like the Dark Knight trilogy, the film is solidly grounded, quite cerebral, and intent on explaining everything to us in detail. I very nearly shouted “SHOW, DON’T TELL!” at the screen at least once. As much as I admire the time spent with the Kryptonian world-building (more on that in a bit), so much of it was laid out in plain English rather than relying on visual storytelling that it fails to engage on any emotional level whatsoever. A story like this needs pathos to overcome its more fantastical elements, not an in-depth schematic on how those elements work. Time spent outlining the particulars of those schematics is time that could have been spent making characters people instead of ciphers.

Thankfully, one of the things Man of Steel has is an extremely talented and very well directed cast. Zack Snyder, on top of his legendary visual chops, has a habit of getting good performances out of his actors even when the material involves superhumans rearranging atoms or half-naked warriors spouting fatalistic platitudes. And Henry Cavill, our new Kal-El, has an easy and natural charm about him, an aspect that’s clearly evident whenever the script lightens up enough to let him crack a smile (which isn’t often enough). Amy Adams is a clever and pro-active Lois Lane, but again, the script undercuts her and requires her to put forth more effort to connect both with her co-star and with us. I loved Russel Crowe’s Jor-El for a variety of reasons, even if the script seemed to be pushing some messianic overtones extremely hard. And while Zod may be bound by his genetic template to be a conqueror, Micheal Shannon not only makes this role his own but gives us depth and nuance to what would otherwise be an extremely one-dimensional villain.

Courtesy Warner Brothers
Zod could have been cartoonish; instead he has pathos, drive, and surprising humanity.

The more I think about it, the more the problems I have with Man of Steel seem to be squarely in the writing department. Zack Snyder has yet to direct a film that does not jump off the screen at you, even without the ridiculous 3D markup. While Sucker Punch is still on my to-watch list, his work with 300 and Watchmen remains firmly in my mind. This is a man who grasps iconic imagery, well-paced action with clear camera work, proper scene construction, even facial tics and body language to make an actor state something without saying a word. He brought his “A” game to Man of Steel, and a good thing too, as he hammers great moments, from the most destructive of fist-fights to the most touching of family scenes, out of a script that must have been terrible to read through multiple times in perparation for performance.

And here’s a review that’s becoming overly long and verbose in response! I’d hate to give the impression that I did not enjoy Man of Steel, because I did. The scope of the movie is grand and bombastic, worthy of the big screen. The action sequences are spectacular to behold (if a bit long towards the end). The world-building done for Krypton in the first 15 minutes is concise and fascinating, well worth the price of admission (even if it gets a re-tread 45 minutes later). Hans Zimmer’s score is absolutely gorgeous, the overall look and feel of the film is amazing, and everything I said about Snyder’s direction and the work of these actors makes me want to love Man of Steel without reservation.

I can’t. But I want to.

Stuff I Liked: They did one of my favorite in-flight/in-space camera moves: wide shot, zoom in, track the object while focusing. It worked in Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, and it works here. The action is clean and sharp; no shakey cam or overt trickery here. CGI looks great. The palate feels fresh and real and grounded even if it’s a bit washed-out in places; I liked the feeling of weight everything had.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The script feels drab, dour, and almost clinical in places. The action gets a bit long towards the end. They easily could have used either the opening sequence on Krypton or the history lesson Jor-El gives his son; they didn’t necessarily need both. They spent a lot of time explaining things in detail when they could have been fleshing out characters, or letting Superman rescue a cat from a tree or something. Come on, Chris, come on, David, lighten up, would ya??
Stuff I Loved: This cast, you guys. This. Cast. They are not just enjoying this opportunity to be these characters, they are working like crazy to give life to lifeless lines. Even the bit players amongst the military felt pretty fleshed out, and had actual presence alongside superhumans – great work by Christopher Meloni in particular. Zack Snyder’s direction brings out the best in the actors as well as driving home all of the action folks found lacking in Superman Returns; even the film’s most drawn out passages are quite watchable thanks to his touch. I’m still humming the score. I want a sequel, because I think this universe and these characters have so much potential to break out of the shackles of this dreary origin story. And I love the fact that I believe I will like it more if I see it again.

Bottom Line: Man of Steel is a great summer blockbuster and a decent Superman movie. Do not go in expecting the levity or whimsy of Richard Donner’s Superman films, or even the relfective humanity of Superman Returns, and you should be fine. Ignore what you can of the over-wrought, over-complicated script, and focus on the characters, the action, and the potential this has to become something even greater than it is. That, after all, is what Superman – and the human experience – is all about.

Fine Villainy, Like Fine Wine

Don’t let the previous weeks of writerly pontification on heroes fool you.

I love a good villain.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

I’ve discussed in the past how even the shittiest human beings we love to hate are still human beings. But the ones I love to hate are not my favorite villains. Like a hero’s growth, a villain’s gains (and their tantrums) have to be earned. And often, to earn these things, the villain has to earn at least some measure of our sympathy and understanding.

The most effective ones do so through charm and guile. You might even know they’re the villain at first. They may come across as a confidant, or even begin the tale as a trusted friend. If they begin in this way, and maintain what makes them sympathetic to both the hero and the reader, they grow much more effective. They draw us in, make us interested in what’s to come, and their betrayals and extreme measures cut even more deeply.

Expected or no, many great villains are best described as “masterminds”. They do not always take the direct approach to achieve their goals. They set their plans in motion carefully, sometimes before the story even begins. Their plans may not always have noble roots, but they often make logical sense, at least to them. They take steps carefully, following meticulous outlines, and trying to anticipate any moves a would-be hero would make. These things take time, and the best villanous plans only get better as they go on, like fine wine getting better with age.

Some masterminds let their henchmen do all of the dirty work, but others like to get into the thick of things themselves. Be it due to the belief that henchmen will never get it right, or simply wanting to ensure the plans come to fruition, they are there amongst both their lackeys and the innocent, overseeing the goings-on, sowing a little discord, perhaps trying to woo the heroes’ loved ones over to their side. This is where we can draw true distinctions between villainous archetypes, the true multi-faceted schemers from the more single-minded but occasionally far more frightening demagogues.

Courtesy Warner Bros

There are some who would accuse stories based on comic books of being simplistic, simple-minded, or even outright dumb. In same cases, I would be hard-pressed to argue. But lately, more than a few of these stories have given us villains in the mold I’ve discussed. While my initial impression of him was less than favorable, the Marvel movies’ take on Loki has really grown on me. Repeated viewings of Thor reveal one of the multi-faceted schemers I was talking about. Even when his true nature becomes apparent, he doesn’t necessarily fly off the handle as some megalomaniacs might. His move against Asgard in general and Odin in particular is calculated; he only truly loses his cool when he makes the dumb decision of sending the Destroyer after his brother. But that’s a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say, The Avengers definitely makes Loki a better villain and even improves his previous showing, and I can’t wait to see him in Thor: The Dark World.

As much as I still believe Bane is, as I’ve said, “Darth Vader without the pathos,” he is still an extremely effective villain in his own right. True, the scheme he’s executing in The Dark Knight Rises is not of his own making; yes, the reveal at the end undercuts a portion of his ideology. He was still presented and portrayed in a way that made him both memorable and fascinating. It’s been pointed out to me that Bane is a very deliberate and implacable sort of character. The gait of his steady walk, that little bit of swagger, the stare from behind his arcane mask – all of this adds up to someone you do NOT want to see walking towards you. What I like most about Bane is how effectively and systematically he tears down both our hero and the city that hero serves, bearing out the observations made by the Joker. In a way, Nolan’s Batman films are all about fear. Scarecrow exploited fear; the Joker created fear all his own; Bane is pretty much the personification of it. Take another look at the scene where Bane confronts Daggit, the corporate sleaze who thought to use Bane to take over Wayne Enterprises. Watch the expression on Daggit’s face when Bane lays his hand gently on the douchebag’s shoulder, and simply says, “Do you feel in charge?”

Villainy like this excites me. I love seeing the bad guys work with intelligence and guile, executing plans that, from their perspective, make sense. It makes the hero work harder, stumble, maybe even fall. This causes an even more rewarding apotheosis, because in most cases, a hero’s fall is followed by their rise from the ashes. And the best villains cause the greatest of falls. The hero and their struggles may be the meat and potatoes of your story, but if you want to get the most out of it, pair that hero with a fine villain the way you’d pair that meal with a fine wine.

Movie Review: Justice League: Doom

Even when I was younger, I knew there was something that set Batman: The Animated Series apart from other cartoons. At the time I chalked it up to visual style – the black cels really sold the noir asthetic of Gotham. However, looking back, the writing is incredibly solid and often goes to dark places for what is obstensibly a children’s program. I haven’t watched a great deal of the Justice League or Justice League Unlimited series, but after watching Justice League: Doom instead of shelling out for Injustice: Gods Among Us, I may have to correct that oversight.

Courtesy Warner Bros

Batman is, as a rule, paranoid. He’s a very rich man with a very odd nightlife and some very interesting friends, ranging from nigh-invincible aliens to smart-alec test pilots with magic jewelry. He knows for a fact that they’re good people, these friends of his, but he also knows that good people can be mislead, controlled, manipulated, or even turn bad. So he has plans for dealing with each and every one of these friends. Now what, do you suppose, happens when these plans get stolen, cranked up, and unleashed on Batman and his friends in the Justice League? This is the brainchild of immortal douchebag Vandal Savage and his newly forged Legion of Doom.

What Justice League: Doom does right is taking the focus away from major super-powered threats or earth-shattering kabooms. The scope of this film is a lot smaller, its tone more intimate, than most stories that deal with super-heroes, especially teams. With animated features, where special effects are less limited by things like budget, the temptation can exist for a creative team or vision to override more character-focused story points. Thankfully, Doom does not fall into that trap. For most of its running time, we see how Batman’s contingency plans wreck havoc in the lives of his teammates. And since the plans are meant to deal these super-powered individuals on both a physical and a psychological level, the plans can be rather insidious, and make for good watching.

Courtesy Warner Bros
The art style is crisp but may seem too childish or anime for some.

The nature of the conflict is matched by good pacing and excellent voice work all around. Both Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly reprise their long standing roles as Batman and Superman, respectively. I happen to like Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, and Nathan Fillion supplying the voice was a great bonus. With this core of talent, the characters really come to life. This helps drive home some of the moments that could define, or destroy, these heroes. There’s also the fact that many of those moments go to very dark territory. We have bombs bolted to people’s bodies, live burials, major psychological trauma, and even people getting shot point-blank in the chest. It’s clear from the outset that this story isn’t messing around.

Unfortunately, Justice League: Doom is not perfect. The nature of the Legion of Doom’s formation means that each member other than Savage has a personal beef with an individual hero on the Justice League, and pairings pretty much remain fixed throughout the final battle. For example, Mirror Master might have given Superman a run for his money, and how would Metallo fare against Green Lantern? Another problem is in said final battle; since the plans are resolved as a prelude to said battle, most of the interesting character points have already happened or are largely inconsequential. It feels a great deal like the final minutes of Justice League: Doom simply run out of steam, which is a shame considering it’s good opening and fantastic second act.

Courtesy Warner Bros
I really like Mirror Master’s design. The see-through look nails the character.

Stuff I Liked: The implementation of the plans to take out the Justice League. I liked seeing these versions of Bane, Star Sapphire, Metallo, and particularly Mirror Master. Batman revealing he’s always got kryptonite available made me grin like an idiot.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Vandal Savage is perhaps my least favorite kind of villain: he’s evil for evil’s sake. His plan is megalomaniacal in the extreme and he has only the most paper-thin of excuses for carrying it out. I’m still not a huge fan of Superman; it seems difficult for a given writer to decide just how much power kryptonite has over him or how long it takes for the glowing rocks to weaken him.
Stuff I Loved: The voice acting is very good. There’s a moment about halfway through involving Cheetah and Vandal Savage that really impressed me with its audacity. I’m not too ashamed to say I enjoyed Superman getting shot. Hal Jordan remains my favorite Green Lantern, and having him voiced by Nathan Fillion was a great moment of fanboy enjoyment for me.

Bottom Line: For all of the imperfections I saw emerging, Justice League: Doom still tells a decent story and inhabits some of the more fantastical characters of the DC universe with some humanity and vulnerability. As good as it could have been with some elements mixed a bit more and a couple more chances taken, what it does is done well.

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