SHAZAM! (2019)

Look, up in the sky! It’s Zachary Levi, and he’s buff as hell! And we’re all calling him “Shazam” instead of “Captain Marvel,” for reasons that were complicated for a long time and are even more complex now. Great!

SHAZAM! is a whole hell of a lot of fun, a modern day kid’s wish fulfillment film that harkens back to a time when it was still possible for such a thing to be dark, vulgar, and tongue-in-cheek. This is a movie in which 14-year-olds are bullied for being different, catastrophic car accidents are presented in brutal detail and have life-altering consequences, kids are interested in strip clubs despite the preponderance of internet porn, giant demon monsters bite adult heads off and capture children, and one of the first things that two underage teenage boys elect to do upon realizing that one of them appears to be an adult is buy beer. Which is not to say that there’s not a lot of sentiment here as well, though it manages to avoid being cloying for the most part, and even I was surprised at how much it was able to manipulate my emotions – I mean “move me” – in its emotional moments. It has a lot of heart, is what I’m saying, but manages to avoid getting treacly by balancing its emotionality with good jokes and the occasional supernatural murder.

In 1974, Thad Sivana is en route with his cruel and demanding father (John Glover, who looks amazing for 74) and bullying older brother to his grandfather’s house for Christmas when his Magic 8-Ball toy flashes a series of glyphs and he is transported to the Rock of Eternity, a realm from which all magic flows. He meets the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who tells of the council of wizards who safeguard magic, of which he is the last living remnant, and of the Seven Deadly Sins, trapped on the Rock in statue form. He offers the boy a chance to accept his power and take his place as the champion of magic, but Thad is more drawn to a magical object, which whispers to him. Shazam tells him that he has failed the test and transports him back to his father’s car, whereupon he freaks out and attempts to get “back” by jumping out of the moving car, causing an accident.

In the present, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a fourteen year old foster kid who has run from dozens of homes in the eleven years since his mother lost him at a carnival. After the foster system catches up with him after his most recent escape, he is placed with Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans), former foster kids themselves who run their own home now. Their eldest is Mary (Grace Fulton), who is soon to finish high school and about to start college, followed by Freddie (IT’s Jack Dylan Grazer), the same age as Billy, a disabled nerd obsessed with superheroes, which, lest we forget, exist in this world. There’s also the overweight Pedro (Jovan Armand), whose “goal is to get swole,” preteen Eugene (Ian Chen), whose schtick is being obsessed with video games, and the youngest, Darla (Faithe Herman), a sweet elementary-aged girl whose greatest desire is to show Billy the affection that he so desperately needs and get that same love in return (she also steals every scene that she’s in). Meanwhile and elsewhere, the now adult Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has an entire facility of psychologists and scientists working on the phenomenon of “mass hallucinations” by tracking down and interviewing others who were brought to the Rock of Eternity and failed to pass the test. Finding his way in, he unleashes the Sins from their captivity and becomes their magical champion.

Billy is prepared to take off again pretty much immediately, but as he’s attempting to disappear after his first day of school, he helps Freddie fight off two bullies (Carson MacCormac and Evan Marsh) who first assault him and then mock him for being motherless. Escaping, he too finds himself at the Rock of Eternity, where the now-dying Shazam chooses Billy as his champion, allowing him to turn into a magically-powered adult superhero (Zachary Levi) when he speaks the word “Shazam!” But as long as those powers exist, the Sins won’t rest … .

After all the origin stories that we’re all so sick of, one comes along that absolutely works. The obvious (and at this point  this observation is well-worn) influence is from Tom Hanks’s 1988 wish-fulfillment fantasy flick Big, which we’ll just assume that everyone has seen. The comparison almost makes itself, especially since that film, like this one, has some narrative elements that normally wouldn’t fly today in this world of sanitized children’s films – can you imagine a wide release like Return to Oz, Secret of NIMH, The Goonies, or even The NeverEnding Story coming out in theaters next week without there being a significant parental backlash? I mean, when was the last time you saw a movie that had both a teenage protagonist and a man’s head getting bitten off? But there’s also some Journey of Natty Gann thrown in there to pluck at the heartstrings, plus some imagery that could basically have been taken from The Gate thrown in for good measure. Also, Jackass.

I won’t get into what the Shazam power is or what mythological archetypes his powers are drawn from (that’s what Wikipedia is for), and this took a nice and unexpected (though in retrospect properly foreshadowed) turn toward the end that I don’t want to spoil since it genuinely took me by surprise, so I’ll be brief. This movie is genuine. It’s true to itself and has a genuine warmth that helps glaze over some of the iffier narrative choices, taking a film that verges on melodrama at points and pulls it back from that edge with a firm hand. There’s become such a delineation between “media for kids” and “media for adults” that we’re so unaccustomed to a film that is squarely in the realm of entertainment for the whole family that we’re not sure how to access it and interact with it, but this is one of those films. Kids will love it. Adults will also love it, even if they are as cynical as I am and started cringing as soon as Freddie claimed to know Shazam and immediately foresaw exactly where that plot line was headed. But all of that was balanced out by the joy of watching two kids, one of them in the body of a superpowered adult, performing Johnny Knoxville style stunts to test his limits. When almost every scene is a real gem, even something as rote for a superhero movie as stopping a mugging in a park, it encourages forgiveness of some of the more obvious story choices. This one is going to stick around.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Aquaman (2018)

There are two distinct, directly opposed routes to take in adapting Aquaman to the big screen. My preferred angle would be to lean into the inherent absurdity of the character’s underwater superheroics, having deliriously over-the-top fun with the various sea creatures & Lisa Frank waterscapes that environment invites. The lesser, cowardly route would be to poke fun at that absurdity, to make Aquaman a gruff macho bro who wouldn’t be caught dead swimming with dolphins in bright superhero tights (at least not with a smartass quip about the indignity). The confusing thing about the DCEU’s Aquaman film is that it chooses both of these routes, embracing & rejecting the inherent silliness of Aquaman lore in what has to be the most perplexing mixed bag experience offered by a blockbuster since . . . the last film in the DCEU. Aquaman is a film that deals only in extremes. Its soundtrack must feature the ethereal beauty of Sigúr Ros and the obnoxious corporate party anthems of Pitbull, nothing in-between. It has to take the regal lineage & mythology of its underwater sea kingdom dead seriously and feature a cutaway gag of an octopus playing the drums. It has no qualms exploiting the cartoon energy of its setting as if it were an underwater Ferngully or an extended version of the “Under the Sea” number in Disney’s Little Mermaid, but it also feels compelled to cast Jason Momoa in the titular role as the broiest bro who ever bro’d, lest Aquaman come off as an uncool seafaring pansy. In the hands of an over-the-top Asian action spectacle craftsman like a Steven Chow or a Tsui Hark this all-over-the-place quality might have felt controlled & intentional, but coming from an American studio (with negligible influence from Furious 7 & Dead Silence schlockteur James Wan) it mostly plays like a confused jumble of self-conflicting ideas.

Jason Momoa puts in the exact same Aquabro performance here that he delivered in Justice League, except now there’s more of it. So very much more. Instead of popping in for an occasional, cute bro-liner like his much-memed “My man!” in the previous film, he’s asked to anchor a sprawling mythology about the regal lineage of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, which is on the verge of civil war. Legitimate actors Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson admirably play the material straight as if there were actual stakes to this middling franchise entry and it wasn’t just a lavishly expensive, underwater episode of Wishbone. Momoa’s jockular, beer-pounding frat boy has a much more difficult time of it, especially in scenes where he’s asked to generate genuine chemistry or pathos with the sleepwalking Amber Heard (in one of history’s all time worst big screen wigs). It’s a shame that the mythology is so inert & self-serious, both because Momoa’s sex-idiot boytoy persona struggles to carry the weight and because the various underwater creatures that define the world are so pitch-perfect in their absurdity. Aquaman is packed to the gills with mighty sea horse steeds riding into battle, mounted laser sharks roaring in ferocious defiance, stingray-shaped submarines zipping around like underwater UFOs, a pissed-off Nicole Kidman hurling tridents in Burning Man drag, etc. I was often bored with the villain’s quest to become “Oceanmaster” (whatever the fuck that is), the hero’s search for the almighty trident McGuffin that would stop him, and the overall conflict of “uniting the two world’s” of Land & Sea, but every time I was about to give up on the movie entirely some mutated Lisa Frank monstrosity would emerge to reel me back in. For every shot of Momoa mugging to pure-cheese guitar riffs in embarrassing attempts to transform Aquaman into a badass, there’s equally weighted flashes of pure nerd-ass shit that accepts the character for the uncool goof that he is. I have no idea what to make of the result except to say that it’s exhausting.

There were moments of divine absurdity that had me thinking Aquaman might be the best film in the DCEU (a low bar to clear, but still). They were usually followed by 20 minutes or so of excruciating boredom before that pleasure resurfaced, choking on the flood of narrative glut. My disinterest in Momoa’s bro-flavored charms might have been what sunk my appreciation of the film to an extent (although I wouldn’t fault anyone for prurient interest in watching him get wet for three hours). Mostly, though, I think my inability to fully embrace the film’s live action cartoon energy resulted from its own half-commitment to its over-the-top, nerd-ass tone. When the evil sea creatures of Aquaman off-handedly cite land-dwellers’ pollution of the ocean as a reason to declare war, I couldn’t help but think of the more fearlessly committed overfishing politics of The Mermaid or the birds’ rights activism of 2.0, Asian blockbusters that are unembarrassed of their ludicrous premises. Aquaman, by contrast, constantly apologies for the frivolity off its underwater Ferngully by having a mugging macho class clown reassure the audience that everything onscreen is a joke and the hero is actually super cool, not nerdy at all. You can feel James Wan pushing for weird surreal touches in the background but the cultural monolith of the modern superhero blockbuster has a way of smoothing everything out into a routine monotony. The result is a picture at war with itself, like so many power-hungry Atlantians. A few years ago I might have rated this film a half-star higher for the moments of unbridled goofiness that do shine through the studio system muck, but I’m just finding the weight of this genre too exhausting to afford much more of my energy. A version of Aquaman that was an hour shorter and entirely relegated to the underwater sea creature civil war might have been something truly remarkable, but franchise filmmaking requirements constantly pull it out of the water so that another macho man can mug for the camera in all his heroic buffness and the repetition of the schtick is getting punishingly dull.

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantasm’s Looming Shadow Over All Animated Batmen

We’ve been singing the praises of the 2010 animated Batman feature Under The Red Hood this month for giving viewers something they’re not used to from most Caped Crusader cinema. Forgoing the obligatory origin story opening that weighs down every other Batman reboot and skipping far enough ahead into the lore that it can support two! Robins the Boys Wonder, Under the Red Hood feels remarkably unique in the modern comic book adaptation zeitgeist for its confidence in viewers’ familiarity with its central characters, allowing it a larger freedom in storytelling. The film feels much less unique, however, when you consider the obvious debt it owes to Batman: The Animated Series, particularly the show’s feature film debut Mask of the Phantasm. I’ve written previously about how Kevin Conroy’s voice work as the Caped Crusader on The Animated Series has been the defining standard for all animated Batmen, leaving Under the Red Hood/Gotham By Gaslight voice actor Bruce Greenwood very little room to leave a distinct mark. (The same could probably be said for Mark Hamill’s deranged voice work for The Joker as well). That’s not where The Animated Series’ looming influence stops, though. For all of Under the Red Hood’s narrative details that feel unique to cinematic Batman storytelling, the broader picture of what it accomplishes more than vaguely resembles Mask of the Phantasm. In fact, it follows Phantasm’s template so closely that you wouldn’t have to change many character details around for it to function as a remake.

To be fair, Under the Red Hood’s story about superhero vigilantism gone too far is a fairly common one within comic book lore. In our initial conversation on Under the Red Hood, I wrote, “Now that there are roughly a dozen major superhero releases annually, the stories are more varied, but for a while it felt as if the majority of them were hinged on the moral conflict of what, exactly, separates the masked vigilantes from the masked criminals.” However, the details of how that story is told onscreen in these two films are similar enough to push Under the Red Hood’s parallels to Mask of the Phantasm beyond general adherence to storytelling cliché. Both the titular Red Hood & Phantasm vigilantes challenge Batman’s moral code by pushing their dedication to crimefighting too far, specifically by assassinating mob bosses that control Gotham’s crime rings. The identities of the mysterious people from Batman’s past who mask as these vigilante personae in both films are also presented as impossibilities, as they are both dead. In Under the Red Hood, we see (the second, younger) Robin murdered brutally at the hands of the Joker in the first scene, but presume that The Red Hood could only be him in disguise, somehow resurrected. Similarly, recognizable voice actor Stacy Keach is obviously voicing The Phantasm in the earlier film, but the character he plays is shown to be dead long before The Phantasm arrives, making it an impossibility. The strange circumstances that make these transformations possible are doled out in staggered flashbacks in both films, one to a story of an early romance and one to Robin’s pre-crimefighting youth. The stories also reach their respective climaxes by deploying The Joker as an outside element of chaos in a last-ditch effort to save mobsters’ lives, creating total chaos that reveals the mysteries of the two vigilantes’ secret identities. Some of the individual characters have been swapped out and the animation style of these productions has changed drastically from the 90s to the 2010s, but in narrative terms The Mask of the Phantasm & Under the Red Hood are practically the same movie.

What’s left to distinguish them, then, is a question of aesthetic, for which I’ll always be biased to affording Mask of the Phantasm the upper hand. The action sequences of Under the Red Hood are an impressively complex mix of traditional and computer animation, but they have nothing on the tactile mat painting backdrops and Art Deco designs of The Animated Series, which is about as gorgeous as crime detective noir ever got. Mask of the Phantasm also drives to a much more distinctive climax than Under the Red Hood, staging the final showdown between Batman and The Joker in a sprawling miniature of Gotham at an abandoned, Atomic Age World’s Fair exhibit. The play with scale in that climactic battle makes the two forever-foes appear to be kaiju-size, which is an absurd effect unmatched by anything mustered in Under the Red Hood (or most live-action Batman flicks for that matter). Mask of the Phantasm is the definitive animated Batman move, its influence looming over every one of its successors. Story-wise, the only notable improvement Under the Red Hood holds over it is in skipping the origin story plotlines for Batman & The Joker, which are told uniquely in Mask of the Phantasm, but likely don’t need to be told at all. Otherwise, it follows a very faithful pattern established by that Animated Series offshoot, which becomes blatantly apparent if you ever watch the two films back to back. I don’t intend to point out these similarities to diminish Under the Red Hood’s significance; I was impressed by the film in a way that’s exceedingly rare for DC animated features. I just continually marvel at how influential The Animated Series and, by extension, Mask of the Phantasm were on the entirety of the animated Batman canon. Even one of the most uniquely independent entries into the franchise is still very closely tied to that series, both structurally and tonally, speaking to its staying power as a foundational work.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this profile of its Caped Crusader voice actor, Bruce Greenwood, and last week’s look at how it uses the voice talents of Neil Patrick Harris.

-Brandon Ledet

Neil Patrick Harris, Superhero Sidekick

Neil Patrick Harris wears a daunting number of hats in the show business racket: Broadway entertainer, game show host, sitcom star, children’s book author, etc. He’s one of these well-rounded, over-employed entertainers where you’re never sure how they fit all their various projects in a tenable schedule. One of his regular gigs is voiceover work for various animated projects wildly varying in target demographic, but often hitting that one common denominator in all age-specific marketing: superhero media. NPH has had regular voice acting gigs in the superhero pantheon over the years, even voicing the title role in a long-running animated Spiderman series. He’s only voiced characters in two animated superhero movies, though, both of which fall under the DC Comics brand. That’s maybe not that surprising to most people, as the DC Universe Animated Original Movies brand has dozens of feature-length cartoons under its belt to date. What is surprising, though is that someone as talented & recognizable as Neil Patrick Harris has only played supporting characters in both instances of his movie-length collaborations with DC. Likely a reflection of his busy, no time to dally schedule, NPH’s animated superhero movie specialty seems to be punching up a side character’s dialogue with wry, cocky wit, making them appear more fully developed than they’re written to be. As with many of the projects NPH applies his time to, he’s good at his job.

In our current Movie of the Month, 2010’s Batman: Under the Red Hood, NPH’s sidekick role plays as entirely intentional. He’s cast as just one of two ex-Robins, raised under the Caped Crusader’s tutelage in a movie that’s all about Batman’s struggle with the other. NPH appears in the film as Nightwing, an early adopter of the Robin persona who has since branched out to fighting crime on his own, but still desperately needs fatherly approval from a standoffish Batman. Nightwing is an outsider to the central plot involving a second, younger Robin, but he’s also an essential parallel of it. This requires him to be present, but without enough time to develop his persona. It’s a paradox that’s easily fixed by having NPH on hand to instantly sell the character’s sarcastic, performatively confident personality. It’s the same role he fills as The Flash in the earlier DC animated feature The Justice League: The New Frontier, through for entirely different reasons. The Flash is a sidekick to no one and his storyline is one of the driving plot threads in New Frontier, yet NPH is afforded just about the same amount of screen time & character development there as he is in Under the Red Hood. This is because the film is overstuffed with the backstories & character introductions of a long line of superheroes in the film’s cast, who all divvy up the runtime until there’s barely any left to go around. It’s a frequent problem for anyone who’s familiar with the trajectory of modern live-action superhero franchises, especially the DCEU. It’s also a telling contrast to the intimate story told in Red Hood.

As busy & overcrowded as The New Frontier can feel, it does have an excellent central gimmick. Set in the Atomic Age 1950s, the film feels like a better world where Brad Bird made his animated superhero media in traditional 2D instead of with Pixar. Telling the story of an ancient disembodied force that vows to destroy humanity because of its dangerous nuclear proliferation, The New Frontier is decorated wall to wall with the visual kitsch of a 1950s diner with a sci-fi theme. By setting the clock back to that setting, though, it also requires the Justice League to be a uniformed group of disparate superheroes who spend the entire runtime coming together as a team (and joining efforts of an untrustworthy military) for the first time. Characters like The Flash, Superman, and Wonder Woman already have detailed backstories in place, while more character development is afforded the origin stories of lesser characters like The Green Lantern & Martian Manhunter. It’s likely no accident that more seasoned, well-established voice actors are afforded to the three more static characters (NPH, Kyle McLachlan, and Lucy Lawless, respectively), since their personalities need to be more immediately recognizable than the ones who’re developed through origin stories. The Flash is key to the film’s plot, especially in establishing superheroes as McCarthy Era Others (“What’s with that red costume? Red’s for Commies,”) but he’s afforded almost the same amount of screen time as Nightwing in Under the Red Hood: very little. He’s a well-established superhero reduced here to Superman & Wonder Woman’s de facto sidekick.

From a technical standpoint, the more intimate, self-contained story of Under the Red Hood is more effective as a piece of writing, while the overly busy, origins-obsessed plotting of The New Frontier is indicative of the worst impulses of superhero media storytelling. I enjoyed both films very much, though, believing New Frontier’s narrative shortcomings to be far outweighed by the beauty & charm of its Atomic Age aesthetic. Neil Patrick Harris is employed in self-contradictory roles in both pictures. He is both central to the themes & plots and reduced to glorified cameo roles as sidekick & afterthought. NPH does a great job of making both roles memorable, informing both characters with a punchy, wry sense of humor without fully tipping them into wiseass Deadpool territory. Like The New Frontier, the man’s career is spread into an impossible number of directions and it’s impressive the amount of quality work he produces despite that myriad of obligations.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s profile of its Caped Crusader voice actor, Bruce Greenwood.

-Brandon Ledet

Bruce Greenwood is (One of Many) Batman(s)

There has only been a handful of actors who’ve played Batman on the big screen over the decades (unless you want to be a stickler and include the 1940s serials), a role that seems like it’s been passed around more from actor to actor than it has. Within that elite club of cinematic Caped Crusaders, there’s a lot of wiggle room in how to interpret the character. Ben Affleck & Christian Bale play him as a gloomy Gus; Adam West & George Clooney lean into his Saturday morning cartoon camp potential; Michael Keaton turned the Bat into a Horned-up weirdo; Val Kilmer played him comatose. It’s a range of variation that’s befitting of Batman’s journey in the comic books, which has taken many different tonal directions over a near-century of different writers & illustrators tasked to continue his legacy as The World’s Greatest Detective. Oddly, that freedom of interpretation is largely missing from the animated versions of Batman, despite their proximity in medium to his comic book form. Kevin Conroy, who voiced the titular vigilante through 85 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, has become the defining standard of what Batman sounds like as an animated cartoon character. He’s a universally beloved fan-favorite, a status any one of the more divisive live-action performers have yet to achieve. As a result, almost all subsequent interpretations of animated Batmen, no matter who’s writing the text, have felt like faithful imitations of Conroy’s voice work for the character, leaving little room for creative variation. Bruce Greenwood, who voiced Batman in our current Movie of the Month, is just one of these many dutiful imitators, even if a competent one.

Less than halfway into 2018, there have already been three entirely new animated Batman films released, each with a wildly different tone and a different actor voicing the Caped Crusader. As there are now dozens of animated DC movies exploring the usual dynamics of the comic book brand’s more well-known characters, this year’s offerings each rely heavily on a high-concept gimmick to keep their interpretations of Batman relatively fresh. One film explores the possibilities of Batman’s ninja training by translating the character through the anime medium. Another teams up the fearless goth detective with Scooby-Doo in the classic Hanna-Berbera crossover tradition. The gimmick in Bruce Greenwood’s latest Batman project isn’t nearly as interesting as either of those movies sound; it sticks much closer to the Kevin Conroy template than the deviations in either premise. Greenwood reprises his role as Batman for the first time since he played the character in 2010’s Under the Red Hood, our current Movie of the Month, in an animated feature titled Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Like Batman Ninja and Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Gotham by Gaslight attempts to keep Batman fresh by viewing him though a gimmicky contextual lens, this time a Gothic murder mystery. The problem is that the gimmick isn’t exactly a deviation at all, but rather a reinforcement of what was already in the forefront in the Kevin Conroy era. Much of the appeal of Batman: The Animated Series was its Gothic literature overtones, which created nice tension with the show’s modern urban crime thriller narratives (borrowing a page from Tim Burton’s book). DC’s animated movies have been chasing that creative high ever since, but Gotham by Gaslight takes the faithful diligence even further than most projects by transporting its narrative to an actual Gothic literature setting, robbing it of all its aesthetic tension.

19th Century Batman is the same philanthropist sleuth as he is in any other timeline, this time dedicated to solving the case of Jack the Ripper. Familiar faces like Harvey Dent, “Constable” Gordon, Selina Kyle, and Poison Ivy (an erotic dancer stage name in this context) populate a From Hell -style story about a mysterious serial killer who targets female sex workers in dank London alleyways. In a way, Batman’s crimefighting presence makes more sense in this world than it does in a modern one. It’s almost expected that a local wealthy eccentric would have the bizarre nighttime hobby of dressing up like a humanoid bat to beat up the local peasants for petty crimes. Many people even suspect him of being Jack the Ripper, recalling the same parallels between masked criminal & masked vigilante that drove Under the Red Hood. Even Batman’s cape & utility belt make more sense in this context, though he is outfitted with a more traditional trench coat collar for flair. The problem is that Batman makes too much sense in this context, especially after the Gothic literature foundation laid about by The Animated Series. Outside a few strong details like a zeppelin-set knife fight and a steampunk motorcycle, Gotham by Gaslight does little to exploit the possibilities of its gimmick and instead plays its material straight. The film occasionally pretends it has larger gender equality issues on its mind (mostly through the crossdressing, sex work-championing exploits of Selina Kyle), but it’s mostly a straightforward murder mystery styled after the literary trappings that define its setting. Batman: The Animated Series made that aesthetic interesting by clashing it against a modern(ish) urban setting. Gotham by Gaslight isn’t sure what to do without their central juxtaposition. Once the enticing gimmick of its Batman vs Jack the Ripper premise settles into a comfortable narrative groove, the film leaves very little room for novelty or surprise.

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is billed as the 30th film of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies brand, which I don’t think even covers films like the recent animated Adam West campy reboots. That’s a whole lotta Batman content, with only two titles under Bruce Greenwood’s belt as the vigilante weirdo. Much like how Gotham by Gaslight does not do much to separate itself from the previous achievements of The Animated Series, Greenwood mostly serves as an echo of the excellent work Kevin Conroy has achieved in the vocal booth. Being that kind of placeholder in the brand can fulfill a lofty purpose, though, particularly when it anchors a well-written story. The dozens of animated DC movies have filtered through writing teams as frequently as any comic book writing stable would, so a consistency in different actors’ vocal performances as the same character is beneficial to maintaining a calm surface that covers up the movement underneath. Bruce Greenwood has voiced Batman in two animated movies, one great (Under the Red Hood) and one dull (Gotham by Gaslight). The quality disparity between these two pictures is entirely on the writers’ shoulders, as Greenwood’s performance changed very little, if at all, between them. Under the Red Hood is a self-contained narrative that brings a comic book storyline to the screen that Batman fans rarely to get to see in motion. Gotham by Gaslight, by contrast, turned the subtext of an animated show with nearly a hundred episodes into up-front text, making its aesthetic less interesting in the process. Bruce Greenwood was present for both, but had very little effect on their outcomes even as the voice of their shared central character. Live-action Batmen have found plenty of room to leave their marks on their respective franchises over the years, but the animated ones mostly come across as a copy of a copy of a copy of a . . . Bruce Greenwood is just one of many.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Batman – Under the Red Hood (2010)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon , Alli, and Britnee watch Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010).

Boomer: Cards on the table: Under the Red Hood is my favorite Batman movie. Obviously I prefer it over Zack Snyder’s take on the character, but I also find it superior to both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s respective series, although there are elements of both that work well and that I quite enjoy. This may not be my favorite version of Batman (that honor always has been and presumably forever shall be the Bats of Batman: The Animated Series), but it’s the best self-contained feature that both feels like a true standalone while also addressing the character’s long history. There’s no origin story, no belabored backstory showing how and why Bruce Wayne came to be the Batman, no attempts to make the character feel like he fits in a modern context or make the gadgets and gizmos seem “realistic,” and no damned pearls in an alley (note, even Batman v Superman did this, two years after the linked video pointed out that it was a cliche). I said it two years ago and I’ll say it again: Batman has the second most famous origin story in the world, surpassed only by the birth of Christ; we don’t need to see it on screen ever again. Instead, this film jumps in at a point in time pretty far into the detective’s career.

Under the Red Hood opens in Sarajevo, where The Joker (John DiMaggio playing against type) has savagely beaten Jason Todd (Jensen Ackles), the second of Batman’s sidekicks/apprentices to bear the codename “Robin,” nearly to death with a crowbar. Batman (Bruce Greenwood) races to the scene, but arrives too late, as a bomb destroys the warehouse in which Jason was left behind. Years later, The Joker is safely locked away and the majority of Gotham City’s criminal element reports to the Black Mask (Wade Wilson), but the leaders of various crime families are confronted by a new player: The Red Hood. The Hood has knocked off several of the families’ top players to demonstrate his prowess, and his hijacking of a major weapon brings him to the attention of Batman and Dick Grayson/Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris), the first Robin. Batman realizes early on that The Red Hood knows his true identity and is haunted by his past mistakes and failures, the worst of which was his inability to save Jason. The crime war between Red Hood and Black Mask escalates to the point that the Mask is so desperate he breaks The Joker out to take down his rival, leading to a confrontation that forces Batman to confront his mistakes, morality, and the nature of his war on crime.

This is a grim story, with a bleak ending that gives me chills every time. I’ll not bother with the spoiler alert as this movie is over ten years old and the comic on which it was based was published five years before that, and the film itself does little to disguise the reveal that The Red Hood is, in fact, Jason. This is a departure from the comic, which preserved this mystery for as long as possible, which makes for a richer story as it allows for a deeper rumination on the ways that devotion to an absolute moral code can have unforeseen consequences, and how a bad seed can take root in the soul despite the best attempts to provide a moral compass. As Bruce says in one of his introspective moments, the responsibility for the life and death of Jason Todd falls on his shoulders: “My partner. My soldier. My fault.” How Jason came to be The Red Hood and his motivations are instead the crux of the film’s mystery, and it’s all the more poignant for it. I find myself thinking about the emotional gut punch of the final scene fairly frequently: after the apparent death of Jason (again), violently and pointlessly, we return to the cave and a memory of Jason’s first day as Robin, as he excitedly dashes around with the kind of effortless exuberance that only a child can have, before declaring that it’s the “best day of [his] life.” And we fade out on that image of the hopeful, blindingly optimistic beginning of a journey that we as the audience have just seen come to a brutal, bitterly violent end; it’s a closed, nihilistic loop that gets me every single time.

Comparisons to Winter Soldier were common thirteen years ago when Judd Winick was writing the comic on which the film was based, titled simply Under the Hood. It was a common joke for decades that “no one in comics [stayed] dead except for Bucky (killed in action in 1945, as revealed in Avengers #4 in 1964), Jason Todd (killed in 1988’s Death in the Family storyline by Jim Starlin), and Uncle Ben (killed in the first appearance of Spider-Man, Amazing Fantasy #15 in August 1962).” Winick started building his mystery in late 2004; in early 2005, Ed Brubaker was helming the fifth volume of Captain America, and he, like Winick, introduced a new enemy who proved to be a long-dead supporting character brought back to life. Both have since been adapted, although 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier obviously has the higher profile, being a part of the MCU. In that film, however, directors Anthony and Joe Russo preserved the revelation that The Winter Soldier was Bucky until the end of the second act, although given the fact that Sebastian Stan has a memorable face and comic book fans already knew the identity of The Winter Soldier, your mileage may vary based as to how successful that reveal is. Brandon, given that you’ve seen both films and aren’t really a devotee of superhero comics, which approach do you think works better? My money is on Under the Red Hood, but I can’t quite imagine what it would be like to be a first time viewer of either film without the knowledge that comes from the source material. Is it better to not attempt to preserve the mystery? Do you think that one approach or the other is geared towards a different kind of fan?

Brandon: One of my very favorite aspects of Under the Red Hood was, indeed, that the reveal of Jason’s vigilante resurrection as The Red Hood was not saved for a last-minute shock. In my mind, there wasn’t anyone the Red Hood could have been but Jason that would have been satisfying, considering that the movie opens with a lengthy depiction of his murder at the hands of The Joker. Ebert even coined a name for that scenario in his Glossary of Movie Terms. He describes it as “The Law of Economy of Characters”, writing, “Movie budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters. Therefore, all characters in a movie are necessary to the story— even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this Law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie’s plot. This ‘mystery’ person is always the only character in the move who seems to be otherwise extraneous.” As a direct-to-video, animated feature, Under the Red Hood may have had more freedom to play around with extraneous characters than a megacorporate, every-minute-wasted-is-money-lost production like The Winter Soldier, but it would still be odd to waste so much screentime on Jason’s demise at the top of the film if it weren’t going to become significant to The Red Hood’s identity later.

I’d be lying if I said I could exactly remember how that relates to my reaction to the very similar Bucky reveal in The Winter Soldier, since we reviewed that film over two years and nine MCU entries ago. In our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. piece, I only mentioned Bucky once, saying that I had spoiled the mystery of his identity for myself by watching the MCU films late & out of order before we had started the project. I can say, though, that on principle I believe revealing the twist early was the smarter move, to Under the Red Hood’s credit. Ebert’s being a little snobbish when he says “sophisticated” viewers will be the ones to see through this kind of mystery before the reveal; I’d be more likely to use the word “seasoned.” I can’t speak for how shocking the Bucky or Red Hood reveals were in the comics, since those characters had ostensibly been dead for decades in the canon. However, anyone who’s seen more than a few movies, which require a much stricter storytelling economy, should see through the “mystery” almost right away. In a cinematic context, I’d say the Winter Soldier approach of withholding the character’s true identity until as late as possible will likely work best for younger fans who haven’t already puzzled their way through similar mystery plots in other works. By contrast, Under the Red Hood benefits seasoned vets who’ve been there too many times before and are eager to move onto the next story beat.

Part of what’s so wonderful about the early reveal of The Red Hood’s past life as Robin the Boy Wonder 2.0 is that it raises questions instead of answering one. Jason’s death at the start of the film is brutal, with a distinct finality to it. The Joker mercilessly beats the poor boy with a crowbar, splattering PG-13 blood & gore around the room. Jason is then subjected to a close-range bomb explosion, with Batman personally carrying his charred body from the rubble. The movie does a decent job of justifying his choice to reemerge as the Red Hood persona, which is explained to be a communal, anonymous part played by many villains in the past, including The Joker himself. It also uses The Red Hood’s predilection for gun violence (he’s essentially a less “Ain’t I a stinker?” version of Deadpool in tactics & design) to establish the classic vigilante conundrum that plagues most superheroes: How far is too far to keep citizens safe? What really separates these masked fighters from their violent opposition.? The questions that remain, then, are not why Robin 2.0 reemerged as The Red Hood, but how. He was established to be very, very dead— a mystery that confounded Batman himself, one of fiction’s great detectives, to the point that he excavates the unfortunate child’s grave for clues. Answering that question is much more complicated & dramatically fruitful than merely waiting for his hood to be pulled off in a climactic confrontation to reveal a character that other movies have trained us to expect.

In general, I agree with Boomer that more live-action adaptations of the Batman comics could learn from Under the Red Hood’s avoidance of an origin-story narrative in favor of a just-another-episode approach. Still, dropping into this particular scenario in medias res was especially jarring to me. There are not only a near-century of Batman comics I’m unfamiliar with, but now also decades of animated DC movies this entry could have been a part of in series that I would have been completely blind to. The Joker beating Robin to death at the top of the film felt like a “Previously on. . .” catch-up reel. Learning later that the dead Robin was actually the second Boy Wonder in a continued lineage was also news to me, since it has yet to come up in the live-action adaptations despite being what I assume is common knowledge to well-read comic book folks. In one way, constantly resetting the rotary dial back to Batman’s origin story is preventing the character’s live-action movies form moving onto fresh, lesser known storylines like Under the Red Hood’s. At the same time, though, the endless soap opera quality of comic book storytelling risks leaving the uninitiated behind by requiring too much knowledge of decades of backstory to get all viewers on the same page. Britnee, how do you feel about the balance Under the Red Hood strikes in giving comic book fans an opportunity to see something other than Batman’s origin story for a change and catching outsiders up on the info they need to understand its basic plot? Were you more baffled or delighted by being dropped midway into a Batman storyline you were wholly unfamiliar with?

Britnee: I don’t really watch many superhero movies or read many superhero comics (I stay within the Elf Quest realm for the most part), so I’m generally unfamiliar with the storylines of Batman, Superman, Captain America, etc. Straight-to-video animated superhero films like Under the Red Hood have always intimidated me a little, as it seems like they are made strictly for the super-fans. There are no big name actors or any substantial marketing behind them like with the live-action superhero films, so there’s really nothing to drive the non-superhero fans to grab a copy.

Under the Red Hood has disproved my assumptions of animated straight-to-video superhero films. It was fantastic! Initially, I felt like I was a little late to the party as the beginning of the film was so fast paced, but it turns out that I wasn’t. I got caught up in trying to figure everything out within the first 5 minutes because I assumed that this was specifically made for those with intense Batman knowledge, but it turns out that the beginning of the film would eventually be thoroughly explained later on. All I needed was a little patience. The film didn’t feel like a dumbed-down version of a Batman story either, as it wasn’t really focused on Batman all that much. This movie was about the origin of Red Hood, so it does offer something exciting to even the biggest Batman fans. It mustn’t have been easy to “get the balance right” *wink to Depeche Mode fans*, so I truly appreciate the thought and work that went into this story.

I love that Red Hood is an antivillain, so his story is much more complex than one of a hero or villain. It’s never obvious which side he’s on or if his next move will be good or bad. The mystery of it all is just so thrilling. Alli, I’m not sure if you’re a Batman fan or not, but do you consider Red Hood to be an antivillain, antihero, villain, or hero? And why?

Alli: I know just enough about Batman to know that I’m not a fan of his persona. I’ll get to that later.

I think of The Red Hood as a hero. I was rooting for him from the very beginning when he commanded that The Black Mask not sell drugs to children. He knew how to better the city of Gotham. He knew how to turn the true criminals against each other and how to control them in general. His plan to save the city was sophisticated, strategic, and effective. In a single crime spree, he totally changed the power structure of Gotham’s criminal element, got major drug lords off the street, and nearly killed The Joker. That’s more than Batman has ever done is his long, long life of “fighting crime.” Jason was a street kid with street-smarts saving his own streets, and he was doing a damn good job of it. The only thing that got in the way was his sentimental, burgeoning on codependent need for his father figure Bruce Wayne to accept his philosophy. Had The Red Hood kept going, crime would be down and there’d be an actual sense of community in this city plagued by extreme class disparity and fear.

On that note, let’s get right down to my dislike of Bruce Wayne. This is a rich, rich guy, rich enough to afford endless gadgets, cars, helicopters, and a literal man cave. Instead of using his money (inherited and presumably acquired through exploitation of underpaid workers) to help end poverty on a mass scale, he just finds an orphaned little boy here and there that just happens to remind him of his younger self, puts the kid in a costume, and trains him to fight crime too. Batman is the neoliberal of superheroes. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of these crooks who have chosen a life of crime are working class folks underpaid by one of Wayne Enterprise’s many ventures. He’s a rich guy who takes to streets he’s not even that familiar with to throw people into a prison system that seems even less effective and ethical than the real life American one. He approaches crime fighting like a man drunk with power playing god, which is probably exactly how the heads of his family before him conducted business. He may refuse to kill people or wield a gun, but that doesn’t mean he’s not also just constantly feeding into the cycle of crime. It’s no shocker to me that this capitalistic, neoliberal masked crusader is squared up against a foe of his own making under the moniker “The Red Hood,” a name that brings to mind “The Red Scare.”

Boomer, I’m going to admit upfront that I only have peripheral knowledge of Batman coming from a childhood of weekend cartoons and an adulthood being friends with comic book nerds. Is my characterization of Batman unfair? Do you think The Red Hood’s plan would have worked?

Boomer: I love this question! Your description pretty perfectly encapsulates my mixed feelings both about Batman as a character and as a cultural icon. It’s interesting to me, however, that you mention weekend cartoons; in my opinion at least, Batman: The Animated Series is the default Batman that I think of and is the best version of the character, even more than in the original comic texts. This is a Batman who was born of a perfect confluence of events: the popularity of a darker, more metatextually introspective Batman of the 1980s embodied by (for better or worse) Frank Miller’s 1986 opus The Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman theatrical release; the rise of merchandise-driven children’s television programming in the 1980s (think TransformersG.I. Joe, and Rainbow Brite) after Reagan and his raging hard-on for so-called free-market capitalism abolished the regulations from the 1960s that were intended to decrease commercial interest and increase educational content in children’s programming; and the backlash against this deregulation. In 1990, Congress approved legislation to give TV industry officials an antitrust exemption to permit joint meetings to delineate guidelines on TV violence, confirmed in 1992 (the year that Batman TAS premiered). Violence must be “relevant to the development of character, or the advancement of theme or plot”, while it must not be glamorized, excessive, easily imitated by children, or used merely for shock value. As a result, we ended up with a perfect Batman adaptation, one in which the villains were psychologically complex and they were rarely defeated through violence. Instead, more often than not, Bats dealt with his nemeses through the revolutionary idea of talking to them, understanding their reasons for doing what they do (think of the Mad Hatter or Baby Doll) and talking them down from their activities before ensuring that they got the help they needed, not just breaking mentally ill people’s bones and then sticking them into the prison system.

Contrast this to my least favorite Batman adaptation: The Dark Knight Rises. I despise this movie, although not for the reasons that most people do. I think Batman Begins is good, and The Dark Knight is pretty great, but Rises feels like a personal affront. It came out at the height of the Occupy movement, and the first trailer made it seem like the film was poised to directly address the problem of Bruce’s millions, with Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle giving a pretty great little speech: “You think this [abundance] can last… there’s a storm coming, and you and your friends better batten down the hatches because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” I was pumped for this kind of deconstruction, because this was following a few years after my own realization that, as a character, Batman was kind of the worst. You are absolutely correct that there is something not-quite-right about idolizing a man who is the “World’s Greatest Detective” but also has a child’s understanding of crime and criminality. The question of why so much low-level crime exists (that is to say, economic inequality and the often insurmountable barriers to any kind of upward mobility) is rarely addressed in any kind of media, but Batman became a particularly problematic fave as I got older and became more socially aware. His adventures are, after all, those of a wealthy-beyond-measure man who takes to the streets and beats up poor people instead of, as Alli notes, investing in infrastructure or addressing the ways that intense stratification of wealth and the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the elite are the primary factors in creating the inequality that breeds crime in the first place. And I really thought that Rises was going to tackle that conversation head on! How fucking naive of me.

Instead, Rises is a movie that not only treats the people associated with Occupy as simpletons who would willingly (and in fact gleefully) submit to the will of a terrorist because he gave them what they want, or rather what screenwriter David S. Goyer thought they wanted. Selina’s little friend is perfectly happy nearly starving in what is essentially post-apocalyptic Gotham in that film, content with having nothing, because no one has anything. No doubt Goyer is completely blind to the irony of the fact that, like Batman and his immature understanding of criminality, he outed himself as someone who not only had no clue what Occupy’s purpose and desire was and is while making himself come off as a smug jerk (his net worth is $12M, by the way). He’s not just an asshole, he’s a stupid asshole whose ego is so bloated he has no desire to entertain the possibility that those who disagree with him politically may have valid points; he’d rather just paint them as terrorist collaborators. This not only makes Rises a bad movie, but also morally reprehensible and socially dangerous.

So we have our great Batmen and our terrible Batmen, with decades of storytelling lying in between, with various men (and too few women) articulating a variety of worldviews using the dark knight as their mouthpiece. Sometimes there is a self-awareness of the problematic nature of the character and we end up with something like Batman TAS or even The Brave and the Bold (which is a delight), and sometimes you have an actual monster at the helm and end up with a blindingly ironic situation. Most of the stories fall somewhere in between, and some writers have actually addressed this directly (on more than one occasion, Bats deprived an enemy of his henchmen by referring all of them to Wayne Industries and promising them jobs), but Alli’s point of view is completely valid. I think that part of the appeal of Under the Red Hood for me, and I’m only just realizing this as I write it, is that Jason Todd represents my own personal journey as a Batfan. As I grew up I bucked more and more against his worldview, until part of me wanted nothing more to do with him, but he was still one of my first heroes and thus too important for me to let go of completely. And when I look back at the youngest version of myself, watching Batman TAS every day after school starting from kindergarten and going forward, I see that optimistic little Robin, ready for his first mission, with so, so far to fall ahead of him.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Red Hood’s plan would have done much to make Gotham a better place; by wiping out entire crime families and eliminating drug cartels, all that would be left would be a bunch of desperate people and a massive power vacuum. The first few days, when addicts wouldn’t be able to get their fix, would be madness as violence erupted across the city. On The Wire, there’s mention that one corner could pull in $5000 a day, and those slingers are selling heroin at $10 a pop, so that’s 100 people a neighborhood; conservatively, if there’s 500 junkies in just a few of Gotham’s neighborhoods all going through withdrawal at the same time, that’s going to be a disaster. Someone is going to swoop in and take advantage of that to build their own criminal empire. It might seem like a good plan in the short term, but the only real long-term solution is what you previously mentioned: infrastructure improvement. I cou moral quandry he presents feels so at hould be wrong, though.

Brandon, how do you feel that this film’s thesis holds up, especially in comparison to other Batman films, which are much less self-aware and critical of the hero? I’m pretty critical of The Dark Knight Rises, but are there other Batflicks that you’ve seen that you would argue have worse moral or ethical problems?

Brandon: I honestly didn’t dwell for too long on the political ethics at the heart of Under the Red Hood, because they didn’t stick out to me as especially unique within the superhero genre. Now that there are roughly a dozen major superhero releases annually, the stories are more varied, but for a while it felt as if the majority of them were hinged on the moral conflict of what, exactly, separates the masked vigilantes from the masked criminals. The Red Hood is an interesting foil because his Bad Guy status is a grey area, but the “What if Batman, but too much?” moral quandary he presents feels so at home in a superhero storytelling context it would be safe to call it a cliche. As for Batman’s own ethics, it was initially jarring to hear Alli describe him as a neoliberal fantasy figure, since I’m so used to his politics being criticized for their undertones of right-wing fascism. That subtext is likely a stain left on the Batman brand by the Christopher Nolan trilogy (which, as Boomer points out, really went out on a wet fart with The Dark Knight Rises). As perversely fun as Heath Leger’s performance as The Joker can be and as welcome as it was to see Anne Hathaway challenge her usual typecasting as Catwoman, that trilogy has left a sour taste in its wake, especially in the way its been adopted as gospel by the more Conservative, Reddit-flavored corners of the internet. I don’t think the political stance Batman takes in Under the Red Hood is nearly that well-defined and the movie’s moral dilemma is more about the opposing virtues between extremism & moderation than it is about arguing any specific ideology.

I personally don’t need a specific, clearly defined political ideology to enjoy my Batman media, though. My favorite interpretations of the character are when he’s defined mostly as the ringmaster werido at the center of a fetishistic freakshow. Tim Burton & Michael Keaton’s collaborations are the pinnacle of that horned-up werido-pervert version of Batman (which is why Batman Returns has long been my favorite episode in Caped Crusader cinema), but it’s something you can see echoed in plenty kinky Batman interpretations (and real life kink play) elsewhere. I suspect it’s partly why I enjoy the over-the-top Joel Schumacher monstrosity Batman & Robin so much, since it shifts that kinkiness closer to a queer spectrum (while also subversively doubling down on the Saturday morning cartoon kids’ fluff aspects of the material). I didn’t think much about the political quandary at the center of Under the Red Hood, since my own experience with Batman is more as a kinky psychosexual id. As such, I found myself instead fixating on the two former Robins’ relationships with Batman and how they resembled spurned romantic exes. It’s probably best to ignore the usual insinuations about Batman & Robin’s power dynamics as master & ward (though I will say that scenes of a teen Robin running around in little green panties did make me very uncomfortable), but the way the two Robins shed their former identities to don wholly new personas, Nightwing & The Red Hood respectively, felt like watching someone experiment with a drastic haircut or a cross-country move to shake themselves out of the emotional fallout of a nasty breakup. They both still desperately need Batman’s attention & approval, too, despite trying to appear aloof in his presence. There’s always an undercurrent of romantic & sexual power dynamics lurking under Batman’s interactions with other masked weridos, whether friend or foe, and I found his relationships with his ex-Robins here to be a more complex expression of that than most. The movie intends for their relationships to play as entirely paternal, but my growing up with Batman as a horned-up kinkster makes it impossible not to see it through that lens.

Britnee, feel free to ignore my fixation on Batman’s function as a romantic kink icon, but I am curious what you thought of the character’s relationships with his ex-Robins here. Is there anything especially unique about the Batman & Robin dynamic in Under the Red Hood, besides there being more Robins than usual? What do you make of Nightwing & Red Hood’s compulsion to continue to be around a crime-fighting loner weirdo who doesn’t seem to share that enthusiasm?

Britnee: I love that we were introduced to two Robins in this movie. Bringing in Nightwing added so much more to this short, action-packed animated flick. Even though Nightwing has a bigger personality than Batman, their crime fighting guidelines are quite similar. Catch the bad guy without killing him, and let the incompetent justice system take over at that point. Red Hood is the rebel in this unusual family. Sick and tired of the endless cycle of catching a bad guy only to have him escape his confinements, Red Hood kicks it up a notch when it comes to crime fighting. Nightwing and Red Hood have a relationship similar to siblings that are close in age. One always seems to be the goody two-shoes while the other is angsty and misunderstood.

Batman is meant to be seen as their paternal figure, but he comes off more as a “daddy” than an actual father. What I found interesting about Under the Red Hood‘s unconventional family dynamic was Nightwing’s and Red Hood’s need for Batman’s approval. Both were just waiting for a pat on the back or an “I’m proud of you” to come from Batman, but of course, that never happened. I’m not sure if this is a result of great mentorship or abuse. Speaking of abuse, I have to admit that I too was very disturbed by pre-teen/teen Robin running around in green panties in front of Batman, who does have a bit of a leather daddy vibe. Thankfully, Robin eventually earns a pair of tights to cover up his bare legs, but I’m not sure exactly what he had to do to earn them. This may all be innocent, but if we flip Robin’s gender for a minute, a young girl running around in the bat cave with green panties would 100% make Batman look like a pedophile. I know that this is just a cartoon, but I really disliked those young Robin scenes. This also makes me wonder why he gets a new Robin when one leaves the nest (or the cave). What’s preventing him from keeping a Robin around to assist him with fighting crime? It could be that Batman wants to work alone once his Robins are ready to fight crime on their own, which is ridiculous because two crime fighters working together is always better than one, or it could be that Batman wants to have a younger partner at his side.

Alli, why is it that Batman just can’t hold on to his Robins? Would you prefer a duo with Batman and one Robin until the end of time? Or do you enjoy the process of Robins becoming their own superheros and new Robins filling in their place?

Alli: Gosh, here we get into more of my dislike of Batman, but this time it’s his personality. (And I know the personal is political, but I’ll try to stay on-topic.)

Batman has got to be hard to live with. He broods all day in his batcave. He holds onto a decades-old trauma to the point of exacting revenge on criminals who weren’t responsible for it. He’s incapable of forming any personal bonds out of emotion or affection. And as you said, nothing is ever good enough to warrant praise from him. Of course, as a young sidekick gets older they’re going to figure out how messed up all of this is and, while it’s permanently changed their life, leave to be on their own.

I think this is a lot like the standard idea of parenthood in general. Batman may be a freak in a leather suit with a broody man cave, but by God, he’ll be portrayed as going through at least one of the normal processes of parenthood by having the kids move out. It seems to be a lesson to the audience, of children, that one day they too will have to move out, even if their parents have a massive mansion with more than enough room to accommodate their need for privacy.

Seeking out new Robbins seems like an another aspect of Batman dealing with his trauma. It’s what psychologists call “trauma compulsion,” which is when you repeat the traumatic circumstances over and over again. He relives secondhand the act of losing his parents through these kids over and over again, which explains his actions pushing them away once they become adults as well. He’s stuck in this stage, permanently stunted. Instead of growing and fixing himself, he just gets new boy toy after new boy toy, replaying his fears over and over again. That’s pretty messed up.

So yeah, I like the idea of all the various Robins going out on their own. I think they need to find a new path and learn to appreciate themselves & their own strengths unlike their surrogate father figure. Until Batman grows up, I don’t think he can properly work with anyone who is an independent adult. Two heroes are better than one, but no Batman is also better than one.

Lagniappe

Alli: I was super impressed with the quality of animation and how well this film was made! Usually your expectations of a cartoon Batman movie don’t include well-animated smoke plumes and amazing sound design. I was really blown away by that. This was a technically amazing piece of animation, and it bears being said since we didn’t get to it.

Britnee: Under the Red Hood has sparked my interest in animated superhero films and television series. In an episode of Superman: The Animated Series, Batman and The Joker are present for whatever reason, and there’s a scene where the Joker is hitchhiking and shows a little leg. That image is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Batman, and it’s one of my favorite things in the world. If that was just one scene from one episode, imagine all the other funky stuff that is just waiting for my discovery.

Boomer: I’m always curious how other people interpret the Batman/Robin relationship, especially with regards to the appropriateness (or not) of the Robin costume in general. In general, the Robins are young, generally getting started at the cusp of adolescence. For me, though, my first and still-primary image of Robin is of the character as played by Burt Ward in the classic, campy 1960s Adam West era. That costume was the classic, hot pants version, although Ward was given a pair of nude hose to wear, and it was an awakening for young Boomer. (It’s worth noting that Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl outfit was far slinkier and more intentionally titillating despite covering the entirety of her body.) The next Robin to come along was in Batman Forever, when I was eight years old, and that one also leaned hard into the “sexy Robin” template, and that was only more of an eye-opener. Robin was rarely present in the animated series when I watched it as a kid, and even his first appearance, in the episode “Fear of Victory” (aired 09/29/92), firmly established him as being a college student. Given that Ward was 21 in 1966 when he donned that cape and those ridiculous elf boots and that Chris O’Donnell was 25 in Forever, I never conceived of Robin as being all that young until I got older and started reading comics, at which point Dick Grayson was already active as Nightwing, Jason Todd was dead, and even Tim Drake was presented as being in his late teens; it wasn’t until Damian Wayne was retconned in that there was ever a child Robin in anything that I read. As such, I never read his costume (or relationship with Batman) as being exploitative until later in life, when thinkpieces about the inappropriateness of Robin went through a period of fad intensity. As someone trapped within the horizon of his experiences with the text, I have to admit that I can see how others would read the mentor/ward hero/sidekick relationship as inappropriate or exploitative, I prefer to reject that interpretation, although I admit that part of that is just to keep my Robin crush, developed in childhood toward older actors, intact— without it getting creepy or weird. On the other hand, if finding the subversiveness in everything is your cup of tea, the Venture Brothers episode “Handsome Ransom” inspects that issue with the creators’ trademark acerbic iconcolasm, with Batman TAS voice actor Kevin Conroy (my Batman) in the role of Captain Sunshine, a Superman expy with… questionable predilections.

Brandon: Alli’s criticism of Batman as “a rich guy who takes to streets he’s not even that familiar with to throw people into a prison system that seems even less effective and ethical than the real life American one.” immediately reminded me of a recent SNL sketch about Bruce Wayne being confronted by the community he supposedly protects. The sketch, titled “Wayne Thanksgiving,” is a quick, hilarious watch that feeds directly into the questions of Batman’s political ethics discussed in the conversation above. I highly recommend giving it a look:

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Alli presents Gates of Heaven (1978)
July: Brandon presents Born in Flames (1983)
August: Britnee presents Blood and Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

Justice League (2017)

Look! Up on the screen! It’s big! It’s dumb! It’s loud! It’s Justice League!

And it mostly works. Mostly.

The very first scene of Justice League does some good work walking back the problems—and they are problems, not merely criticisms—of the first few non-Wonder Woman films in this universe. We see Superman as children see him, which is also the way that this franchise keeps trying to retroactively force its audience into reconceptualizing him: as a true-blue (literally, given the lightening of his costume) hero and symbol of hope. He’s kind, sympathetic, and, you know, Superman, as he’s supposed to be. And then, just as his life was, the video is cut short. This leads into a beautiful opening credits montage, a strength of Zack Snyder’s as a director (even those who hate his Watchmen adaptation, which I surprisingly don’t, are all but universally pleased with its Dylan-composed credits sequence).

This sequence is not without contentious issues, of course. First, there’s a headline seen in a newspaper box mourning the loss of David Bowie, Prince, and Superman, but not Leonard Cohen, which is pretty disrespectful given that the whole thing is set to a really, really terrible cover of “Everybody Knows.” There’s also the issue that we’re supposed to be seeing a world in mourning for the space god who showed them some truths about themselves, but if you’re going to enjoy anything about this movie, you’re just going to have to accept this retcon.

Consider the speech from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El in the first Richard Donner Superman film (and later repurposed for the trailer for Superman Returns): “They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.” This same speech was actually echoed by Russell Crowe in his turn as Papa El in Man of Steel: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” Unfortunately, this franchise has made zero effort to actually follow through on these lofty ideals of the Superman-is-Messiah beyond paying lip service and a couple of “subtle” images in Man of Steel. The problem is that this was never present in the actual text of the film, which presented us with a broody, angry, super-powered alien whose only affection for the beings of his adopted world were his love for his mother and an office romance. He was more Tyler Hoechlin’s Derek Hale in Teen Wolf than Tyler Hoechlin’s Clark Kent in Supergirl (he’s killing it, by the way), and that absence has been sorely lacking in this film series so far.

But. But. Justice League, for all the baggage that its carrying from three bad movies and one spectacular one, actually works if you ignore all that needless, pointless, and out-of-place GRIMDARK nonsense that preceded it in the earlier installments. And it’s not just with Superman either; the scene that immediately follows the opening montage shows Batman out and about being Batman, and even uses some passages from Danny Elfman’s previous work on Tim Burton’s 1989 film adaptation (but which will always be a keystone for me as the theme music for the Batman animated series).

This first Batman scene is both good and bad. Your standard Gotham City burglar is exiting onto a roof at night, sees Batman, attacks the Bat, gets his ass handed to him, and is dangled over the side of a building to attract a Parademon (the foot soldiers of the film’s villain), which can apparently smell fear. Bats traps the Parademon in a net, tests out a series of sonic disruptions on it, and it dies, leaving behind a clue about the three Mother Boxes. It’s so, so dumb, but the combination of the old Elfman theme and the absurdity of the whole thing makes it feel like the cold open of an episode of the animated Justice League, where Kevin Conroy’s Batman would do something just like this: lure, trap, find weird clue that matches something he’s already investigating, detective it up. It shouldn’t (and for most people won’t) work in a feature film with live actors that is supposedly trying to take itself seriously, but that narrative works for me on a certain level. On the other hand, there are other elements of this scene that are inarguably bad story choices, like Batman just kind of grappling away from the scene to do detective stuff, completely disregarding the theft he just interrupted and leaving the burglar to his own devices.

The overarching plot of the film concerns the arrival of Steppenwolf, one of the members of Jack Kirby’s cosmic DC creations The New Gods, on earth. Millennia ago, he attempted to invade the planet and turn it into a “primordial hellscape,” but he was repelled by an alliance of Amazons, Atlanteans, the tribes of Man, and a couple of others that we’ll explore in a minute. Steppenwolf carrier with him three Mother Boxes, pieces of advanced technology that, when combined, create the terraforming effect that will make the earth his new home (yes, this was the exact same desire of the villains of Man of Steel). Now, after several millennia, he has returned in the wake of Superman’s death because mankind’s mourning of that great symbol of hope has made it ripe pickings for the invader’s crusade, and Batman has to recruit five superheroes with attitude to repel his forces (yes, this is essentially the same plot as the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, and yes, I would love to see the trailer for JL recut with the opening narration of MMPR).

I’m not going to lie to you: this movie is clearly half-baked and it makes a lot of mistakes. Beyond the fact that Bats uses a street level criminal as bait and then ditching him without even notifying the police, there are other mistakes both big and small. For instance: the janitor working at Star Labs is seen bidding Dr. Stone good night, and it’s obvious (at least on the big screen) that the ID he’s wearing is for a different person, as he has dark hair and is clean-shaven, while the picture on the ID is of a man with a big bushy head of white hair and a glorious Mark Twain mustache. You can imagine sitting in the movie theater and thinking, like me: “Oh, he must be a spy who stole this ID, that’s a neat clue.” But no, it’s just a mistake; later, after said innocent janitor has been kidnapped by the villain, we see his belongings left behind in a pile, including an ID with an accurate photo. That’s this movie in a microcosm: when you think that it’s being clever, it’s actually just a goof.

When I was a kid, the DC comics characters were much dearer to me than Marvel’s. Although becoming an adult and becoming more socially aware has meant that I’m less inclined to love Batman uncritically (i.e., he’s kind of a fascist who spends most of his time attacking poor people out of his own sense of morality, rarely actually inspecting the causes of poverty and crime and trying to correct the problem at the root, although some of the best Batman writers have taken note of this and written him accordingly), he’s still the first character I think of when I think of superhero comics. The aforementioned Batman animated series was a defining piece of media for young Boomer, as were reruns of Superfriends, and I loved visiting the one aunt whose cable package included FX, as that meant I would get to see an episode of the Adam West Batman and, if I was very lucky, Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman. It’s for this reason, and not because I am a “Marvel fanboy,” that I’ve been pained to see this franchise handled so, so poorly in the past few years. Wonder Woman was not just a step in the right direction, but a wholehearted plunge into how to to this whole thing right (Alli may have given it a mere 3.5 stars, but that was a 5 star movie for me personally).

Justice League is having a harder time straddling that fence, seeing as it has to undo the immense damage done to the franchise as a whole by Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. Sure, Suicide Squad was a terrible movie on the whole, but at its core it was a C-grade movie dressed up as a blockbuster, which is an aesthetic that I’m always a little bit on board for in spite of myself, especially when the actors really commit to the nonsense; additionally, the backstory and arc of Jay Hernandez’s Diablo contain far and away the most effective emotional beats of the first three films. It certainly didn’t fracture the fans in the same way as BvS, which some people are still defending for reasons that are unclear to me. Still, JL is trying hard to course correct, and the job that it’s doing is admirable, even if it stumbles every ten minutes or so. It works as a cartoon about the Justice League that just happens to be live action and have a tonally dissonant visual aesthetic from the text of the actions on screen.

The most important thing I can tell you if I’m trying to give you an idea as to whether or not you should see this film is this: Justice League works, if you accept it not as part of this franchise, but as an entry into the larger cultural understanding of Superman specifically and DC in general. What I mean by this is that the story it’s trying to tell, about a world without a Superman, does not work as a piece of the DCEU divorced from the context of the DC animated universes, or comic books, or even the earlier Donner and Burton films. But within that larger conversation, in which we do have a Superman who is a beacon of hope, truth, and justice, it does.

Additional notes:

  • I, too, saw all of the photos of Henry Cavill’s uncanny valley face online before I went to the theater, but I never noticed it when actually watching the movie. Maybe it says something about how my brain works that I completely overlooked it, but I’d wager it has more to do with the fact that if this were real life, Superman would have had to keep telling me “My weird face thing is up here.” You know what I’m talking about.
  • This has been addressed in other reviews that I’ve read and heard, but it is super weird that no one is at all concerned about maintaining their own or other’s secret identities in this movie. Aquaman calls Bruce Wayne “Batman” in front of a whole bunch of villagers, and Lois calls the newly awakened Superman “Clark” in front of several Metropolis police officers, which is only going to make it more obvious when he shows back up at work after having disappeared and reappeared at the exact same time as Supes did.
  • Ezra Miller’s Flash is charming, and I liked him a lot. A lot of his jokes fell flat, but I liked that they were overlooked in universe as well. I think that he’s probably the best addition to this universe since Wonder Woman.
  • Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is given almost nothing to do other than to be the machina that the deus exes.
  • All the stuff that you heard about Wonder Woman being more sexualized in this film is true, as I noticed the lingering shot of her rear, but she’s still Wonder Woman and still the best thing about this movie. I can’t wait for WW2.
  • The design for Steppenwolf is terrible. A stop-motion Starro would have been better, and would have made for a better villain overall anyway. Can you imagine a film where Starro the Conqueror appeared and tried to terraform the world into something more suitable to himself (i.e. covering the whole earth with the ocean)? There would be no need for the cliche sky beams, and instead there could have been the opportunity to discuss the rising oceans that are the result of climate change and Starro’s need to barely push humans into doing his will. The insistence on doing the New Gods stuff right out of the gate, especially after the imagery and ideas of Jack Kirby were so much better utilized in Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok earlier this year, was a bad decision.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Wonder Woman (2017)

I’m going to admit up front that this movie was not made for me. I have not seen any other entries in the DC Universe other than the first two Christopher Nolan reboots of Batman. I’m not at all part of the superhero movie loving crowd, but in a world where the Dark Knight has at least twelve cinematic appearances, Superman has at least ten, and the Marvel Universe is dominated by male superheroes and small female roles in ensemble casts, it was about damn time we had a movie wholly dedicated to a female superhero. Also, in a world dominated by male directors, it was long overdue for a woman to helm a superhero film. It’s 2017 and Patty Jenkins is the first woman to direct a superhero film. Ever! It’s only fitting for that title to be Wonder Woman: an icon for women and young girls; a tough, no nonsense Amazon princess warrior; and arguably one of the best superheroes of all time. All this alone makes it a movie worth seeing and supporting; and it’s also fun, even for a superhero curmudgeon such as myself.

Wonder Woman starts with Diana’s childhood on the secret Island of the Amazons, Themyscira. Here we get a view of the culture of these women, why they exist, and how their island is eternally preserved and hidden by a veil of storm and fog. The training montages here are pretty cool, but a lot of what happens on the island (repetitive speeches about the gods and reiterations of what Diana is and is not allowed to do) just seems to drag. It’s cool to get a peak into the Amazon lifestyle, but only after so much of that do we finally get the inciting incident. A WWI era British Intelligence spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) manages to crash through the protective field around the island, followed by German troups. After a huge fight on the beach where we get some commentary about the destructive killing power of guns, Diana decides to leave with Trevor and save the world from war. After lots of fish out of water humor and wacky, “Oh my god, you can’t just carry a sword through turn of the century London!” hijinks, they assemble a team of misfits and go straight to the front lines.

For a tale that takes place with WWI as a backdrop, this film’s not that gritty. Thanks goodness for that, because it could have easily been another gray, dull action movie about the horrors of war. That’s not to say that the horrors of war aren’t present here, especially since World War I was a particularly savage example of carnage and loss of life. The main villains are still an evil general and his mad scientist lover/sidekick, who are developing a particularly lethal form of mustard gas. Despite this, there’s a tone of hope. We believe in our seriously scarred and flawed heroes. Diana is a source of justice and light in the darkness. War is still hell, but in the end we know Diana is going to succeed. There’s no way she can’t. She’s Wonder Woman. The movie really sells us on the idea that she can do anything, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

There’s been a lot of talk about the gender politics of Wonder Woman and what it means to finally have a female director on board for a blockbuster this big. The idea of Diana not being a piece of meat and eye candy has been floated around (oh, how our standards are so low). Other ideas I’ve seen have mentioned the design of the Amazonian armor and how it’s not run of the mill female boob armor. Both of those I have to sadly disagree with. Sure the armor isn’t Linda Carter bustier stuff, but there’s still the defined breast shapes, which has been discussed time and time again to be realistically useless except for the purpose of showing off boobs. You would think that an ancient race of warrior women would have figured that out. Also, there were many examples of Diana being presented to the audience as eye candy. In one particular scene she shows up to a gala in a stunning blue dress as Steve Trevor looks on with his jaw dropped. The real triumph as far as gender goes is that she’s allowed to be more than just eye candy. Not only is she presented as a desirable woman, she’s also given a story line with actual character development. The other refreshing thing about the way the film is written is that there’s no competition between women. She’s never given any lines implying how she’s not like the other girls or how the women outside her world are very weak, which was refreshing. Even on Themyscira, there’s a sense of camaraderie rather than oneupmanship. The other interesting catering-to-the-women-in-the-audience bit (though it’s debatable whether or not this is a win at all) is the reversal of the male gaze. Chris Pine is just there to be a handsome face and love interest, and there’s even a nude scene, albeit mostly implied, with a lot of double entendre. His character is not completely a cardboard cut-out, but compared to Diana it’s pretty darn close.

Wonder Woman is still guilty of the same sins as other superhero movies: cliché speeches about justice with nonsensical taglines (“It’s not about ‘deserve’; it’s about what you believe”), excessive slow motion (especially in the form of hair flips), and a cheesy fight sequence soundtrack. For true fans of the genre those aren’t necessarily problems, but more like charming quirks.  It manages to blend the darkness of war with the fun, superhero tone. A woman’s touch isn’t as immediately obvious to me as a lot of people believe, but where I see it I think it’s great. I’m glad the world finally has a female superhero movie, and that it’s living up to the hype and expectations.

-Alli Hobbs

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 25: Batman (1989)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Batman (1989) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 155 of the first edition hardback, Ebert describes a notorious, boisterous publicist who worked for Warner Bros. named Frank Casey. In one anecdote about the larger-than-life character, he recounts, “It was of my opinion Casey had never seen a movie all the way through. Unlike other publicists, who mostly used screening rooms, Casey liked to take over a theater like the World Playhouse for the Chicago preview of a big movie like Batman and invite all his friends from the worlds of business and politics. Only at a Warner Bros. movie were you ever likely to see Mayor Daley, several alderman, and various Pritzkers.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The Gotham City created in Batman is one of the most distinctive and atmospheric places I’ve seen in the movies. It’s a shame  something more memorable doesn’t happen there. Batman is a triumph of design over story, style over substance – a great-looking movie with a plot you can’t care much about. All of the big moments in the movie are pounded home with ear-shattering sound effects and a jackhammer cutting style, but that just serves to underline the movie’s problem, which is a curious lack of suspense and intrinsic interest. Batman discards the recent cultural history of the Batman character – the camp 1960s TV series, the in-joke comic books – and returns to the mood of the 1940s, the decade of film noir and fascism.” -from his 1989 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

There have been four major live action Batman franchises to hit theaters since the cartoonishly campy days of Adam West in the 1960s. All of them have Tim Burton’s greasy fingerprints all over their basic DNA. Burton’s 1989 Batman adaptation was such a highly stylized smash hit that Gotham has never looked the same onscreen since. His highly specific production style of gothy art deco gloom mixed with subtly campy sadism has shaped everything Schumacher, Nolan, and Snyder have done visually with the Batman property in the decades since, and even launched an entire, highly-acclaimed animated TV series. Every Batman adaptation since Burton’s seems to like have inadvertently mirrored more than just that seminal work’s high-end Hot Topic gloom, however. They’ve also adopted his pattern of when to intensify personal vision instead of bending to corporate-minded marketability with each respective franchise.

Tim Burton’s Batman has a striking visual palette & overall tone to it that’s directly tied to the director’s personal wheelhouse as an auteur. Still, there’s something about the relatively vanilla romance at the film’s center, the shoehorned-in Prince soundtrack, and the blatantly brand-conscious imagery of the bat signal that reeks of movie-by-committee studio interference. Batman ’89 feels like Burton delivering exactly what studios want (with a strong personal spin, of course) so that he can prove himself worthy to fully take the reins in a second, wilder, more personalized feature. 1992’s Batman Returns is pure Tim Burton, an untethered, perverted goth kid rampage that broke free from studio exec influence, a much more striking & idiosyncratic work than its predecessor. Every live action Batman adaptation since has seemed to follow this pattern. Joel Schumacher’s jokey-but-tame Batman Forever isn’t nearly half as memorable as the oversexed camp fest of its far superior Batman and Robin follow-up. (It’s time we all admit that’s a great movie; don’t @ me.) Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is widely recognized as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the last decade, while its predecessor is a much more muted drama about Batman’s salad days at ninja school. Even recently (and I’m expecting even more flack for this than the Schumacher praise), the Zach Snyder-helmed Batman films got a lot more lively & delightfully weird in Suicide Squad than they started off as in the punishingly dull Dawn of Justice. Burton has laid out a clear blueprint for any & all would-be Batman auteurs arriving in his wake: try to keep it somewhat calm & familiar in the first film, then swing for the fences with the follow-up.

I don’t mean to imply here that Batman ’89 is in any way a bland, forgettable film. It does feel homogenized around the edges to meet major studio blockbuster expectations, but the weird little heart at the center of the film is still unmistakably Burton. The stop motion retractable shields on the Batmobile are pure Burton aesthetic, a visual calling card also matched in the film’s matte paintings & miniatures. He also frames a lot of the film with an excess of Dutch angles, which is not only a natural aspect of adapting a comic book property for the screen, but also consistent with the childlike tone of his then-contemporary works like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Besides the visual calling cards that let us know as an audience that this is A Tim Burton Joint, you can also feel the director’s personality strongly reflected in the casting. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a reclusive billionaire weirdo is a smart deviation from the square-jawed, American Hero caricature Adam West (expertly) brought to the screen before him, bringing a calmer version of his demonic Beetlejuice performance to the role. Where Burton really finds his footing in leaving a personal stamp on Batman as a product wouldn’t be with the titular hero at all, however. The director’s talents were much better suited for bringing to life the cartoon cruelty of the Caped Crusader’s sworn enemy, one of superhero comics’ most infamous villains.

Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker is the key to understanding Batman ’89 both as a Burton film and as a monolithic influence on the adaptations that would follow. Burton is obviously more interested in the villains of the Batverse than he is in Bruce Wayne himself, except maybe when the billionaire weirdo is exposed to be just another oddly kinky monster terrorizing the city he supposedly protects. A large part of what makes Batman Returns feel more like a pure Burton vision than its predecessor is that the director just fully gives himself into this impulse, wilfully allowing Batman to become a background character while total freaks like Danny DeVito’s Penguin & Michelle Pheiffer’s Catwoman run amok. Nicholson’s The Joker is a great preview of that future Utopia of gothy camp. He is as genuinely terrifying here as he is in his career-making role in The Shining, especially in scenes where he covers his clown-white face with flesh-toned make-up. He turns the character into a sadistic form of clowning, filling the squirting flower of his lapel with a corrosive acid & staging a sinisterly warped version of the Macy’s Day Parade with poison-filled balloons. To do Batman exactly right, you have to mix a little camp theatricality in to lighten the gloomy glowering of an otherwise depressive property. This is exactly why Heath Ledger’s own unhinged Joker performance exalted The Dark Knight and also why the utterly joyless Dawn of Justice put many theater-goers to sleep. Nicholson’s performance as The Joker is the first sign that Burton understood the need for that balance. You can hear it in his half-goofy, half-chilling catchphrase “You ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?” You can feel it in a sequence where he defaces fine art with bathroom-quality graffiti to a funky Prince track and somehow makes the tone fit the film, despite all odds. In a lot of ways Batman ’89 feels like a dry run for better things to come in Returns, but everything Nicholson does onscreen in the mean time is just as timelessly entertaining as the best of what was to follow.

Roger Ebert wasn’t a fan of either of Tim Burton’s Batman productions. He praised the director’s work as “a triumph of design” & atmosphere, but ultimately dismisses it as a style over substance affair. Personally, I always value style over substance. I agree with Ebert on some level that the Bruce Wayne narrative arc never matches the eccentricity of Burton’s vision in Batman, likely due to the homogenizing effect of studio influence, but I can’t dismiss the value of that vision in & of itself. Burton’s mixed media visual accomplishments in Batman are stunning to this day, a distinct personal artistry that doesn’t require a strong narrative to justify its for-its-own-sake pleasures. Although he wouldn’t make his most fully personal Batman film until Returns, you can still feel his own idiosyncrasies creeping in through the influence of Nicholson’s goofy-scary Joker and an overall production design unmistakably of his own. I’ll always hold Returns in higher regard than Batman ’89, but I still greatly respect this landmark work for the ways it fights to be memorably bizarre despite studio influence, the way it envisions an entirely new & instantly definitive look for its hero’s playground, and the way it serves as a basic blueprint for all Batman cinema that followed.

Roger’s Rating: (2/4, 50%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: Galia (1966)

-Brandon Ledet

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)

EPSON MFP image

three star

campstamp

I’ve been gushing a lot lately about superhero media that dials the clock back to before the adult-marketed era The Dark Knight has unwittingly spawned. Titles like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows & Roger Corman’s infamously discarded Fantastic Four adaptation have been a comforting return to the Saturday morning cartoon era of superhero media for me, a time where kids’ stuff was actually made, you know, for kids. The recent animated feature Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders brilliantly, deliberately calls back to the superhero movie’s goofy past that I miss so much. Especially in the face of Zach Snyder’s glowering realm of DC Comics adaptations, this kind of campy kids’ media is the exact breath of fresh air the world needs before it suffocates on its own doom & gloom. There were four feature films in the Batman universe released in 2016. Two of those films (Dawn of Justice & The Killing Joke) were tonal nightmares of ultra macho self-seriousness. The other two got by on the entertainment value of so-bad-it’s-good camp. Of that enjoyable half, only Return of the Caped Crusaders can claim to have been bad on purpose (with Suicide Squad‘s mild guilty pleasures seeming much more unintentional). I think it’s fair to say, then, that this silly, animated trifle was the best Batman movie of the year, which is an unlikely distinction, considering the crowded field and its dedication to camp & frivolity.

As with most bankable successes in recent years, Batman or otherwise, Return of the Caped Crusaders is a property that survives entirely on nostalgia. Its voice acting crew is a reunited cast from the original 1960s Batman series, featuring Adam West as the titular Caped Crusader and an ancient Burt Ward as his young . . . boy ward. Much like in the original series, the film’s overloaded with Batman & Robin saturating each line with unnecessary puns & alliteration. When they find a sheet of aluminum foil at a crime scene, they exclaim “We’ve been foiled!” They don’t operate regular civilian weaponry, but cleverly named artillery like “the batzooka.” They refer to Gotham’s A-list villains as “felonious fiends” and to Catwoman in particular as “that dominatrix of deviltry.” When Catwoman fights back by poisoning Batman with a substance she calls “batnip,” she gleefully brags, “His mass muscles will be mine to manipulate.” The whole movie is overwhelmed by these over-written punchlines and by the time Batman admonishes Robin for jaywalking with the line, “No one’s above the law, even when you’re trying to enforce it . . . To the crosswalk!”, it’s easy to wonder if the film is maybe a little too silly & self-aware. Think back to the Adam West performance in The Batman Movie (1966) in those moments. Is anything in Return of the Caped Crusaders really at all sillier than the physical comedy gag where Batman’s attempting to ditch a bomb; but ducks, nuns, and children keep getting in his way? The over-the-top goofball sense of humor in this profoundly silly cartoon match the energy of its source material exactly, right down to the “BOFF!”, “OOMPF!”, and “SPORK!” interjections that color its fight scenes. We’ve just gotten so used to a glowering, no-fun-allowed Batman in the last decade that this feels like a bit much; in truth, it’s exactly what we need.

If I could bother to complain about any one aspect of Return of the Caped Crusaders, it’d be easy to fault the film for having too loose & inconsequential of a plot. The episodic story beats of this animated production feel like a several installments’ arc of a new television series instead of a proper feature film. Batman’s unholy trinity of treacherous traitors are all present here: Catwoman, The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler (Julie Newmar, Jeff Bergman, William Saylers, and Wally Wingert, respectively). They each get in a scheme to stop Batman and each fails in due time, usually because Catwoman is in love with the billionaire brute. This parade of failed crimes leads to some interesting novelty locations (a circus, a blimp, an American Bandstand knockoff, a TV dinner factory, outer space), but the story mostly just serves as an exercise for more puns & more alliteration. The only decidedly modern aspect to the film is that characters openly & frequently imply that Bruce Wayne & his young ward are a romantic couple, mistakenly believing that to be their reason for secretly sneaking off at night. Everything else feels like a low-ambition return to 60s Batman camp, a silly indulgence in returning to a time where Batman was fun and delighted both young children & stoned college students alike. Some of that 60s vibe doesn’t translate well into a modern context (especially in the multiple scenes of characters being drugged & “seduced”), but for the most part it’s a welcome return to the over-the-top absurdity I wish we’d see more of in our modern superhero movies. Return of the Caped Crusaders doesn’t amount to much more than a nostalgia callback, but it’s a callback to a gloriously silly time in comic book aesthetic we should have never left behind.

-Brandon Ledet