The Wiz (1978)

While still feeling the high of seeing The Wizard of Oz projected on the big screen earlier that morning, I took the opportunity to catch up with one of its stranger cultural echoes. Return to Oz inspired many childhood nightmares and Wicked sparked plenty a backseat singalong, but the legacy of The Wiz is much more difficult to pinpoint. The most expensive movie musical ever made (at the time of its release), The Wiz was a massive critical & commercial flop. Star power as potent as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor all working in their 1970s prime did little to save it from pans & lackluster receipts in ’78, but did afford the film a cultural longevity. A Wizard of Oz-based musical with an all-black cast is a fascinating concept with instant cultural appeal, a memory many children of the ’70s remember fondly even if its reputation at the time was dogshit. Many cite The Wiz‘s financial failure as leading directly to white movie producers killing the era’s blacksploitation boom, believing black-led media to no longer be profitable. After all, if a musical spectacle starring former members of The Supremes & The Jackson 5 directed by one of the most well-respected filmmakers of his time can’t make money at the box office, what black-marketed film could? The problem, of course, was not a lack of interest in the market, but a legitimate deficiency in the product being sold. To put it lightly, The Wiz is a total fucking mess.

Besides the typical energy & passion deficiencies that haunt all cynical cashgrabs with ludicrously bloated budgets, the main problem The Wiz struggles with is authenticity. The film’s superstar cast and association with Motown Records (including a Quincy Jones soundtrack), suggest a black culture authenticity at first glance, but its white producers & filmmaking team undercut that perspective significantly. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) and written by Joel Schumacher (Batman & Robin, Flatliners, The Number 23), The Wiz often feels like an embarrassing, borderline offensive approximation of black culture. Sequences involving sweatshop workers & humanoid crows in particular feel dangerously close to a minstrel act (with the crows being no less embarrassing than the ones depicted in Disney’s Dumbo four decades earlier, sadly). Even the film’s Motown-flavored soundtrack feels watered down & whitewashed for a wider (read: whiter) audience. The Wiz also can’t help but feel like an oddly cheap knockoff of the 1939 Wizard of Oz film, because of its rights issues. Based off a musical stage play that shares the same source material with the Technicolor classic, The Wiz was legally allowed to reference the L. Frank Baum books, but not elements of the original film. Dorothy can click her slippers, but they have to be silver, not ruby red. She can journey across the yellow brick road, but she has to “easy on down,” not “follow” it. Everything about The Wiz just feels slightly off in that way. Its basic hook is fertile ground for an amazing Wizard of Oz adaptation (and a lot of people very much enjoyed the recent NBC broadcast staging of the same play), but every odd step in its production amounted to a massive miscalculation. The fact that it could be great with a different creative team and less of a Studio Notes ethos makes the experience of watching it all the more frustrating too. I really wanted to enjoy it.

Diana Ross stars as Dorothy Gale (duh), a twenty-something school teacher who spends nearly her entire life couped up inside her family’s Harlem apartment. Ross plays Dorothy as scared & fragile, with none of Judy Garland’s awe-filled excitability. Her stress dream about traveling to Oz is triggered more by her fear of leaving the safety of her home than anxiety over her dog & the weather, although Toto does venture outside just in time for the two to be swept up in a tornado (snownado? snowclone?) in the Harlem snow. Unlike in the 1939 picture, Oz is an enclosed environment. Dorothy smashes through the ceiling and lands in a giant bowl of grits (*eyeroll*). The story doesn’t deviate much from the source material from there, except in its production design & characterization details. Characters have a tendency to speak exclusively in slang (or Joel Schumacher’s estimation of slang) and the world they populate had a grey, concrete “urban” look instead of the 1939 film’s vibrant Technicolor atmosphere. Michael Jackson plays the scarecrow, protecting a sunflower patch outside NYC housing projects. Comedian Nipsey Russell plays the Tin Man as a theme park automaton attached to a Coney Island rollercoaster. The lion starts as a concrete statue; the Munchkins are animated graffiti; the poppy fields are a corner of street hookers, etc. etc. etc. Only Lena Horne’s presence as an astral version of The Good Witch & Richard Pryor’s befuddled version of The Wizard aren’t marinated in Urban Flavor to “modernize” the material, but the relative blandness and the movie’s interminable 130min runtime raise questions audiences should probably never had to ask, like “Will this ever end?” or “Is Richard Pryor funny?” Anyway, Dorothy & her pals ease on the road, get an eyeful in Emerald City, defeat an evil witch, and then magically will themselves back to Harlem after learning about the wisdom, compassion, and courage they had in themselves all along or whatever.

As The Wiz is an eternal limbo of white men misinterpreting black culture into an overproduced, bafflingly boring mess of a late 70s musical, the best modern audiences can hope to mine from it is novelty as a cultural relic. The music is just as soulless & forgettable as Diana Ross & Richard Pryor’s asleep-at-the-wheel performances; Nipsey Russell’s robotic one-liners about STDs & his ex-wife get lamer by the minute. That essentially just leaves Michael Jackson’s scarecrow to carry the weight of making this exhausting display of oddball decisions feel at all worthwhile. He does okay. The costume designers rob him of his youthful beauty by drowning him fleshy neck & chin prosthetics, but he’s still a consistently magnetic presence with a golden voice. My favorite image in the entire film is a subway-set scene where two sentient trash cans attempt to eat Michael Jackson alive. That pretty much sums up the entire enterprise. I was frequently impressed with the massive scale of The Wiz‘s production design; the disco number set at The Emerald City was especially gorgeous in that respect (before it had time to outlast your patience). Its look is much more drab than the Technicolor dreamscape of its 1939 predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The dour look of the film echoes its more decidedly tragic tone, at least in the way Ms. Ross chose to play it. The problem is that the story its visual achievements serve is both punishingly boring & embarrassingly miscalculated. I’d love to see what a modern black filmmaker could do with this same material (and it sounds like I should at least catch up with its recent The Wiz Live! revival), but Lumet’s film ultimately amounts to a fascinating misfire at best. As is, it likely shouldn’t even exist.

-Brandon Ledet

Batman & Robin (1997)

It’s been two decades since the release of Batman & Robin and its director, Joel Schumacher, is still doing an apology tour in the press, begging forgiveness for his sins against the Batman brand. I do not understand the need. Much like how Tim Burton’s Batman vision didn’t escape its Studio Notes prison until its second installment, Batman Returns (the greatest Batman film to date), and Christopher Nolan’s second Batman effort, The Dark Knight, similarly improved on its own predecessor, Schumacher’s personal imprint on the Batman series didn’t reach its purest form until the director’s second effort. With Batman Forever, you can feel Schumacher steering the ship away from Burton’s gloomy freakshow back to the live-action cartoon days of Adam West in Batman: The Movie (’66). There’s too much Burton hangover looming in that film for it to feel like its own work, however, leaving a compromised vision not at all helped by the energy imbalance of hyperactive child Jim Carrey and comatose bore Val Kilmer. With the follow-up, Schumacher was allowed to completely cut loose, reportedly directing action sequences with megaphone instructions to “Remember! This is a cartoon!” during shoots. Audiences expecting more weirdo Burton gloom violently rejected Batman & Robin when it first hit cinemas in 1997, but I believe time has been kind to its charming dedication to Adam West silliness and Saturday morning cartoon aesthetics, not to mention its more prurient interests. I have no doubt that a rowdy 2017 midnight movie crowd would have a great time with it as an over-the-top Batman-themed comedy, which is exactly how it was originally intended to play.

The #1 roadblock audiences seem to have with enjoying Batman & Robin is the casting of George Clooney as the Caped Crusader. My guess is that after the Reclusive Weirdo Who Disguises His Voice When In Costume interpretations of the character from Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and Kevin Conroy, the world wasn’t quite ready to see Batman as the swashbuckling goofball he had been portrayed as in earlier adaptations. Clooney only tackles Batman as the Movie Star Handsome billionaire cad Bruce Wayne and does little to differentiate that presence from his night-time, in-costume persona. That approach maybe less faithful to the character’s dual nature in the comic book source material (I don’t know or care), but it’s not all that different from the more openly-winking Adam West interpretation of the character or, perhaps more accurately, how Batman was brought to life in 1940s serials by Lewis Wilson & Robert Lowery. Besides, even Batman & Robin seems largely disinterested in what Clooney’s Dark Knight brings to the table. Has Batman ever been the most interesting character in his own movies? Why wish for more of a brooding Keaton staring into his fireplace in the dark or more Christian Bale trying to out-gruff Aidan Gillen in his disguised tough guy voice when you can enjoy the simple pleasures of a Handsome Movie Star hamming it up with an ensemble cast of campy weirdos? Schumacher borrows a page from Batman Returns and floods the screen with wacky side characters who fall both in the Good Guys camp (Chris O’Donnell as hot-to-trot boy toy Robin & Alicia Silverstone as a Cher Horowitz-flavored Batgirl) and the Bad Guys camp (Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze & Uma Thruman as Poison Ivy). Clooney mostly just looks pretty and stays out of the way, which is more than I could ever ask for in a Batman performance.

Batman & Robin makes no attempt to hide that Batman himself is not the main attraction. George Clooney’s name is billed second to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s at the top of the credits. When the Batman logo appears it immediately freezes over, visualizing Mr. Freeze’s command of the spotlight. Excepting the disposable scenes of family drama at Wayne Manor, Batman & Robin mostly details Freeze’s plan to literally put Gotham on ice, a plot he hopes to enact with the help of botanist-turned-terrorist Poison Ivy and a nonstop onslaught of sweet, delicious puns. Much like with Schwarzenegger’s career high roles in titles like Commando & Total Recall, his impact as the top villain here is hinged on lizard brain word play (courtesy of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman). He taunts Batman & his bat-crew with some of the world’s most chill, ice-themed one-liners: “Stay cool, bird boy,” “Let’s kick some ice!,” “Cool party!,” “Ice to see you!,” etc., etc., etc. If you do not understand the basic appeal of that kind of pun-heavy joke writing, which is very much rooted in comic book tradition, you cannot be helped. Mr. Freeze sports a cartoonish character design, being kept frozen with “a crypto suit powered by diamond-enhanced lasers.” The character also serves as a rare crossroads where Schwarzenegger’s talents as a chilling 80s villain & a yuck-em-up 90s comedian kids think is cool can co-exist in full self-contradictory glory. Uma Thurman’s anarcho crust punk botany activist turned dive bar drag act is much less interesting as a villain, but there’s more than enough Arnold screentime to make up for any deficiency there. If Schumacher’s main objective was to bring Batman back to its over the top cartoon, pre-Burton Gloom roots, he more than covered it between Clooney’s Handsome Hero and Schwarzenegger’s Goofball Goon. Everything else was just lagniappe.

Subverting its welcome return to a time when Kids’ Stuff was treated like Kids’ Stuff, Batman & Robin also stands as the most aggressively queer major studio superhero film to date (with Bryan Singer’s sexless X2 standing as its closest competition, I suppose). I’m not sure how many out, gay directors have had a crack at major studio superhero properties (I’m guessing the answer is Too Few), but Schumacher took the opportunity to play up Batman’s queer kink potential to its most PG-acceptable extreme (how the film instead got saddled with a PG-13 rating, I’ll never know). The opening sequence of quick cut closeups is a Russ Meyer-esque assault of Batman & Robin’s leatherclad bodies as they suit up: nips, butts, crotch, butt, nips. Later, when Silverstone first gears up in her Batgirl costume, her leather clad posterior is immediately covered with a heavy cape, the same leering attention completely drained from the moment. Poison Ivy gets a fair amount of kink play in herself, dragging her power bottom sub Bane around by the leather collar & iron clad chastity belt and setting up her headquarters in a day-glo bathhouse. Any man who dares to kiss Ivy, the only sexually available woman in the movie, immediately dies by the toxins in her poison lips and Robin’s line, “You’ve got some real issues with women, you know that?” begins to feel as if it applies to the movie at large. Schumacher seems conspicuously disinterested in his female characters, which might help explain why Thurman’s performance as Ivy feels a little flat and why Silverstone’s Batgirl has a perfect Tom of Finland beard stubble ring of car exhaust when she removes her bike helmet after her big motorcycle chase scene, essentially wearing masculine drag. While waiting for a cure for his frozen wife, Mr. Freeze spurns the advances of Poison Ivy & his closest female crony, dismissing the come-on “I’m feeling hot,” with the quip, “I find that unlikely.” Bruce Wayne has a supermodel beard he only interacts with at public events and is only attracted to Poison Ivy whenever drugged by her weaponized pheremone potion. He mostly just focuses on his masculine relationships with Robin, the Boy Wonder, & Alfred, The Butler. Ultimately, Schumacher’s explicit, deliberate repurposing of Batman as a queer kink icon is mostly relegated to those early leering shots of leatherclad bat-nipples & bat-butt, but since that perspective is an underrepresented minority in the genre, its potency as a novelty cannot be undervalued (and it does unintentionally spill over into other aspects of the work).

I get the sense from the Christopher Nolan & Zach Snyder takes on Batman that the two directors were almost apologizing for the goofier aspects of the material. Tim Burton’s definitive adaptation at least understood the camp value lurking under Batman’s gloomy sheen of vigilante orphans brooding in black leather. I’m by no means a Schumacher fanatic in a general sense, but I appreciate how weirdly personal he made the return to that barely-buried camp. Every frame of Batman & Robin is excessively stylized, like a superhero comic book version of Michael Bay’s Armageddon (which I mean as a compliment). Looney Tunes sound effects, gigantic diamonds so cartoonish they look like clip art, sky surfing, ice-skating goons, a dinosaur bones display that roars in pain when it’s knocked over, Mr. Freeze’s (oddly pun-free) meta-commentary about how he hates “when people talk during the movie”: every decision projects the feeling of a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. I suppose someone had to eventually make a movie specifically targeted at queer children who aren’t yet entirely sure why Batman makes blood rush to their crotches and if that’s the only worthwhile thing Schumacher ever achieves in his lifetime, at least he filled a niche. What’s beautiful about it is that he got a major studio to foot the bill. Whenever a Coolio cameo or an American Express ad placement (“Never leave the Bat Cave without it,”) or a moment of well-aged special effects spectacle interrupt Schumacher’s leering at Clooney’s bat-ass or Schwarzenegger’s steady stream of super cool ice puns, the film’s strange crossroads of Art & Commerce becomes amusingly absurd. Movies this blatantly commercial are rarely as bizarrely cartoonish or as deliriously horny as Batman & Robin. It’s time we ask Schumacher to stop apologizing for making Batman silly again and instead congratulate him for making him so subversively weird.

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantom (1996)

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Common wisdom seems to be that the film market is currently flooded with so many comic book properties that mainstream audiences will soon be experiencing a wicked case of “superhero fatigue” and the whole Marvel/DC empire will crumble. So far I seem to be experiencing the opposite effect. All of these rampant comic book adaptations have sent me on something of a superhero tangent and I’ve been finding myself looking back to comic book cinema of the past for smaller titles I might’ve missed over the years. Sometimes this urge is a blessing, like when it lead me to Sam Raimi’s goofily masterful Darkman. In the case of The Phantom, however, I’m not so sure I’m on the right path.

Based on a comic strip that’s been running continuously to this day since the 1930s, The Phantom is a starring vehicle for 90s pop culture artifact Billy Zane. While dressed as his superhero alter ego The Phantom, Zane is decked out here in skintight purple spandex, black leather mask & boots, and a handgun he rarely touches. He also rides an immaculately white horse & keeps a gigantic wolf for a pet. Raised by Mongolian pirates 400 years in the past or some such nonsense, The Phantom is rumored to be an immortal ghost who protects the sanctity of the jungle from white archehologists & businessmen looking to plunder its resources. In the comics he does this through practical real world means (including some martial arts shamelessly designed to show off Zane’s fanny in purple spandex). The movie adds a supernatural element to the mix in some black magic skulls that can be exploited to bring on world domination. This addition threatens to make The Phantom entertaining as a campy trifle with half-assed old-world mysticism backing up its comic strip charm. Nothing significant comes of it, though, and after the novelty of seeing Billy Zane dressed up as a handsome, but deeply odd superhero wears off the rest of the film is a total bore.

The main problem with The Phantom is that it lacks any strong creative voice or soulful eccentricity required to make a comic book movie really work. Just match up your very favorite scene from this film to an 15 seconds of Darkman & you’ll see what I mean. There was a time when the legendary Joe Dante almost helmed The Phantom as a tongue-in-cheek camp fest and another where the delightfully sleazy Joel Schumacher could’ve dragged it down to the same so-bad-it’s-great depths he brought Batman & Robin (the one with the bat nipples & ice puns). Sadly, neither of those versions of The Phantom were meant to be and the film wound up in the dull, uninspired hands of the director of Free Willy & Operation Dumbo Drop. It’s easy to see how The Phantom could’ve swung in a more interesting direction. If nothing else, the slightly off performances of the spandex-clad Zane, O.G. Buffy Kristy Swanson, and a deliciously evil Catharine Zeta-Jones all feel like they belong in a much better movie (or at least a less boring one).

As with everything in criticism, my boredom with The Phantasm might’ve had a lot to do with personal taste. Once the wackier introductions to the film’s central scenario were out of the way, the movie would up playing like a second-rate version of the Indiana Jones franchise, especially in the way it mimicked the “Tune In Next Time!” structure of old, serialized action programs on the radio. There are Indiana Jones junkies out there who might be aching for more similar content to tide them over until the next inevitable reboot and those might be the only folks I’d recommend The Phantom to. Anyone who’s looking for an eccentric comic book movie here is a lot more likely to feel let down. The aspects of The Phantom that wound up fascinating me the most were more or less all related to its comic strip source material. The Phantom is credited as being the first superhero shown wearing the skintight jumpsuit that has become pretty much the standard for the genre and is often seen as a direct precursor to superhero titans like Batman, Superman, and Captain America. The artwork & narrative of the strip also has a distinct echo of the work of madman outsider Fletcher Hanks to it, especially of his character Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle.

It’s never a good sign when an adaptation is outshined this much by its source material and it seems audiences at the time of The Phantom‘s release shared wholeheartedly in my boredom. The film bombed at the box office and, despite strong VHS & DVD sales, never earned the two sequels in its originally-planned trilogy. I wouldn’t call this effect “superhero fatigue”, however. It’s more of a boring movie fatigue, as the superhero source material was the only interesting thing going for this slog, an effect that fades fast once the novelty of the live action comic strip wears off.

-Brandon Ledet