Thursday, July 24, 2008


In late June of 1989, I wrote a full nine handwritten pages in my Movie Log about a film that I wanted to love so much I convinced myself it lived up to its phenomenal hype. I defended against its detractors, professed my admiration for its novelty and came up with excuses for its faults. That film, of course, was Tim Burton’s BATMAN, a movie that over the years, I have come to admit is pretty damn awful. But in 1989, maybe BATMAN was as much as we could hope for in terms of a dark comic book movie.

Cut to: Tuesday night. Ten friends and I line up inside the Union Square Regal Cinemas for a sold out showing of a movie that (to its credit) doesn’t have quite the ubiquitous cultural presence of BATMAN, but is unquestionably a phenomenon. Finally, five films and nineteen years after Burton’s Batman, comic book fans can revel in an unqualified masterpiece.

THE DARK KNIGHT succeeds on every level, as an action film, a superhero movie, a crime drama, and most of all, an intense psychological character study. And at the center of the film is a basic tenet of the character that’s been downplayed, if not outright ignored in many previous incarnations of Batman: The line he will not cross, his refusal to take a life, no matter how vile. In THE DARK KNIGHT, almost every character is forced to examine how far they would go to stand up for their beliefs, what they would sacrifice and what they would not. Everyone is tested: Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon, Rachel Dawes, Lucius Fox, even the citizens of Gotham City are put to the test. Some prevail. Some do not.

As for the Joker, yes, Heath Ledger’s performance is a tour de force. He manages to wipe away four decades worth of spurious depictions from Cesar Romero’s slight gag-man through Jack Nicholson’s likable Dadaist and craft a truly primal force of malevolent chaos. Even his most mannered choices, the tics and grunts and long fingernails all work; nothing feels forced. He is, as I had hoped, sans backstory or any logical motivation for his madness, the perfect adversary for the Batman. (Still, would Ledger be getting Oscar buzz had he not died in January? Probably not.)

Finally, it feels like “THE Batman” is the correct vernacular. Christian Bale’s performance is every bit as impressive as Ledger’s, perfectly straddling the line between obsessive dedication and psychosis. His bored playboy shtick is hugely entertaining and he deftly traverses the separate aspects of Bruce Wayne’s personality, creating the most sympathetic and believable superhero ever put to screen. But EVERYONE brings their A-game to the table in this movie. As the love-triangulated Rachel Dawes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is an improvement over Katie Holmes so vast it cannot be measured (in fact, I wonder if I’d have felt anything but joy at her ultimate fate had Holmes reprised the role). Gary Oldman again gives Jim Gordon an endearing sincerity so great that a bunch of us applauded along with the characters onscreen when he’s promoted to Commissioner. Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine all give performances as good as anything this side of MICHAEL CLAYTON or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Yes, seriously.

Of course, a lot of credit goes to the man behind the camera. The real star of THE DARK KNIGHT is Christopher Nolan. Working closely with his co-screenwriting brother and producing wife, Nolan kept this project close to the vest, and while it’s inappropriate to refer to Warner’s biggest franchise as an auteur project, this feels as singular and indie as a big budget blockbuster can. This is not a compromised movie made by committee. This is a work of art by a brilliant visionary (as opposed to the drama-challenged one-note Burton).

The action sequences are spectacular. Limiting the use of CGI as much as possible, Nolan is one of a handful of filmmakers who realizes that an audience can tell when something’s real and when it’s not, and in this gritty, realistic Gotham he’s created, the more in-camera FX the better. Batman’s battles are wince-worthy, his (real!!) perches atop skyscrapers vertiginous, the chases befitting of Steve McQueen and the destruction bone-rattling. The entire Hong Kong sequence is worthy of the best James Bond film. I only wish they’d have left the tractor trailer flip out of the advertising, as it lost some of its contextual impact after seeing it so many times.

Even the soundtrack is something at which to marvel (whoops, to DC). Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score eschews the typical confluence of character-based recurring themes in favor of a more subliminal, haunting escalation of staccato strings and booming brass. It’s as if Bernard Herrmann scored a Batman movie!

For fanboys, there are a few particularly nice bits. Bruce Wayne’s residence in the penthouse atop Wayne Industries harkens back to a period in the late 1960s and 70s when the comic book Batman, upon Dick Grayson’s departure for college, sealed up the Batcave and moved to the heart of Gotham, the better to keep tabs on the city. And for the first time EVER, we get to see a live action Batman with whited out eyes! You may think this a silly detail to get geeked over, but, well, we are geeks.

Still, the overall arch of Batman’s limitations, both innate and imposed is what endears this film most. Nothing made me angrier about BATMAN and its sequels than the filmmakers’ cavalier dismissal of the edict that Batman DOES NOT KILL (“These are darker times, they call for a darker hero,” sneered one screenwriter in an interview, basically taking a dump on the very essence of the character). At the climax of TDK, when, in direct contrast with the ending of BATMAN ’89, the Joker is saved by Batman as he plunges from the building, I let out a loud, enthusiastic “YES!” and punched the air.

If I have any complaints, they are mostly minor to the point of nit-picking. While esthetically, I’d prefer a simpler costume, I understand the medium’s need for the complicated armor, but still, I wish the chest bat-emblem were larger and more prominent (and the nose on the cowl a bit smaller). I’m still not crazy about the Tumbler, so I was happy to see its demise (I liked the Batpod, but worried about Batman’s cape getting caught…). It might’ve been nice if Anthony Michael Hall’s newscaster character were Jack Ryder (even if they’d never follow up on it). And this is another movie that continues the sad prevalence of no main titles at the beginning of the film.

But my primary (and only real) complaint is that we barely got to know Harvey Dent. Killing off Two-Face may have been necessary to fulfill the movie’s destiny and pull Gotham back from the brink by replacing its fallen White Knight with the Dark that it still needs (as well as set up some conflict for the third film), but Two-Face is such a great character that his short screen time seems a cheat. I really thought the movie was going to merely set up the villain to be the adversary in the next movie, but even with Two-Face dominating the final act, this feels nothing like the overcrowded bad guy menagerie of BATMAN FOREVER or SPIDER-MAN 3. And who knows, maybe that fall didn’t actually kill him…

Still, we have to wonder, where do we go from here? If Nolan continues as the franchise’s guide (please, please, please) it’s a given that none of Batman’s more fantastical enemies will make the cut. We’re not going to see Clayface, Man-Bat or Mr. Freeze. A far more human Killer Croc is unlikely, but not impossible (it is a skin condition, after all). Catwoman could work, but there’s almost too much of a been-there, done-that vibe to her (yes, even more than the Joker, whom had never been done right before). The Riddler is just too slight. Poison Ivy could feasibly fit if she used external chemicals rather than powers gained from a blood infection, but her motivation still seems off for the more urban crime of this series.

No, it feels like if Nolan’s going to raid the comics for the next adversary, it’s probably going to be another more grounded villain like the mob boss Black Mask, super assassin Deadshot (sans costume) or Hugo Strange, the twisted psychologist who longs for Batman’s identity. It’s a shame Ra’s al Ghul was altered to use in BATMAN BEGINS, as his comic book incarnation would be the perfect villain for a third, globe-spanning epic (with Talia in tow, of course). Then again, the character has risen from the dead (thanks to the good ol’ Lazarus Pit) many times in the comics, so who knows.

Fanboy speculation is fun (and unavoidable), but it’s hard to imagine Christopher Nolan topping THE DARK KNIGHT. But based on the movie’s record breaking performance, it’s a sure bet Warner Bros. is going to do whatever they can to keep him in the Batcave, and, along with millions of other thrilled Bat-Nerds, I really hope he rises to the challenge.

With the success of the smart IRON MAN earlier this year, THE DARK KNIGHT reaping almost universal critical praise and WATCHMEN building buzz for next year, maybe the inundation of comic book flicks over the past decade has finally inured the general public to the idea of a superhero movie not automatically being kid stuff. It’s worth noting the relative lack of DARK KNIGHT kiddie fare on the shelves… if you hit Party City looking for Bat-Decorations (as I did for a pre-TDK Bat-tacular last weekend), all you’ll find is plates, cups and napkins adorned with the comic book or animated Batman. Sure, there are DARK KNIGHT action figures and dress-up cowl / cape combos in the toy aisle at Target, but compared with the onslaught of Batcrap in 1989, the pickings for the kiddies are slim this time around. And, happily, that goes most of all for the movie itself.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bronze Beauties #27: The Joker


As with Batman, the story of the creation of his greatest nemesis is in dispute. The Joker’s fathers were, in one capacity or another, Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, with actor Conrad Veidt in the 1928 film, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS the undeniable visual inspiration. But exactly who contributed what is lost to history. Which is fitting, considering that the character himself remains an enigma after almost 70 years.

Introduced in BATMAN #1 in 1940, the Joker was as terrifying and deadly a villain as comics ever produced. Ironically, he was almost killed off in that first issue, but a wise editor realized the character was too good to not use again. The Joker would return to terrorize Batman and Robin many times over the next decade, always just eluding capture or death. In DETECTIVE COMICS #168 (1951), an explanation was finally given for the Joker’s peculiar visage. Turns out, he was a thief called the Red Hood (named for his, um, red hood) who robbed a playing card company and escaped capture by the Batman by swimming through a chemical disposal system, emerging with white skin, green hair and ruby red lips (the rictus is apparently natural). I had no idea that making playing cards required such nasty chemicals, but that’s why comics are such a great educational tool!

But that story fell short of giving the villain a name and a further backstory. Wisely, all it did was explain why the Joker LOOKS like he does, leaving his insane motivation a mystery.
Even Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s THE KILLING JOKE, 1988’s ostensible origin of the Joker contains an internal disclaimer, as the villain admits to remembering his past differently from day to day. Combined with a completely psychopathic personality and a lack of true identity (despite what Tim Burton would have you believe, his name is not Jack Napier and he did NOT kill Bruce Wayne’s parents), the Joker is the perfect evil id to contrast the Caped Crusader’s Superego.

When Batman comics got silly in the 1950s, so did the Joker, becoming a harmless prankster who simply tormented Batman with stupid gags and crimes. By 1964, when Julius Schwartz took over editing Batman’s comics, the Joker was practically gone. But in 1966, when Cesar Romero slapped white makeup over his mustache, the DC suits mandated the return of the Clown Prince of Crime. But it wasn’t until Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ 1970s Batman stories that the Joker was brought back to his full malevolent greatness (see Bat-Bronze Beauty #24).

And then, in 1975, the Joker earned the distinction of being the first major DC super villain to receive his own comic book. This oddball series, lasting a mere nine issues, pitted the villain against a number of different DC bad guys and heroes (one notable exception being the Batman). THE JOKER #2 (July 1975) finds the Grinning Gargoyle help a criminal genius named Willie the Weeper overcome his compulsive crying and discover the joy of villainy. The cover (supposedly by Ernie Chua, but really looks like Irv Novick to me) utilizes a classic Batman motif, that of the oversized character or prop.

Issue #4 (Dec. 1975) finds the Joker falling in love with flower shop owner Dinah Lance, aka the Black Canary, the super-girlfriend of Green Arrow. The tale (by Elliott S! Maggin) is just okay, and the beautiful pencils of José Luis Garcia Lopez are tempered by the anemic inks of Vince Colletta, but I love the Chua (nee Chan) cover, awkward perspective and all.

Following THE JOKER’s cancellation, the character remained one of the key players in the Batman universe, his place as Batman’s arch-enemy cemented even before he crippled Batgirl and killed the second Robin, Jason Todd (since resurrected). As much as Batman, the Joker inspires creators to put their own stamp on the character, both dramatically and visually.

As for the Joker’s media adaptations, up to now, they’ve never come close to capturing the depth of his homicidal madness. Cesar Romero, obviously, was just a joke. The various animated versions of the Joker could only be so dark, although no doubt Bruce Timm would’ve loved to be able to have his animated Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) live up to his comic book antecedent. As for Jack Nicholson… well, let’s just say the Joker’s not supposed to be likeable and leave it at that.

For that reason, I am very excited to see Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. While the purist in me branches just a wee bit at the white face and green hair being makeup, the idea of the chemical bath just doesn’t work in Chris Nolan’s realistic Gotham City (I doubt we’ll ever see Clayface or Killer Croc in this series). I’m far more interested in the character feeling right, and this may well be the first time the non-fanboy audience sees the Joker the way he was meant to be. That is, terrifying.

My breath is bat-bated. I can’t wait.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Bronze Beauties #26: Batman Family


In 1974, a Super-Consolidation took place at DC Comics, as the publisher combined a number of cancelled titles featuring Superman’s supporting cast (being LOIS LANE, JIMMY OLSEN and SUPERGIRL) into a new series called THE SUPERMAN FAMILY. The following year, Tarzan and Batman each got their own FAMILY titles (along with the awkwardly titled SUPER-TEAM FAMILY, implying that the Challengers of the Unknown did some breeding with the Teen Titans or something).

BATMAN FAMILY contained a mix of new stories and reprints starring Batgirl, Robin (often teaming up), Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Man-Bat, Batwoman and more of the Dark Knight’s supporting cast. In fact, Batman’s roster of friends and foes is widely regarded as the richest in comics (with Spider-Man being his only arguable competition).

Sadly, most of the stories in BATMAN FAMILY were kinda forgettable, as they were often done by some longtime DC workhorses who, shall we say, had a tendency to phone it in (the oft-vilified Vince Colletta’s inks graced these pages often). I used to own BATMAN FAMILY #11 (June 1977), but don’t remember it. Still, this cover (by Jim Aparo) is a hoot. I love the idea of superheroes fashioning formal wear in the style of their costumes, and it must have been a nice change of pace for Robin to wear long pants! Robin and Batgirl had some romance over the years, but you know what can happen when all a couple has in common is their work.

With #17, the comic book became one of DC’s 80-page Dollar Comics and the head of the family was added to the roster. Suddenly BATMAN FAMILY was worth picking up. #19 (Sept. 1978), a comic I DO still own, features “The Tomb of the White Bat” by Batman’s best Bronze scripter, Denny O’Neil, with the terrific (and rare) art team of Michael Golden and Craig Russell. The cover by Mike Kaluta is even better (and really makes me wish he would've drawn the character more).

When BATMAN FAMILY was cancelled with #20 (featuring a great Jim Starlin cover with Batman meeting Ragman, another character due for a BB treatment), the “Family” theme was temporarily transferred to DETECTIVE COMICS, which became a giant sized book from #481-495. In years since, the various versions of Robin and Batgirl as well as Huntress and Catwoman have gotten their own comics, both ongoing and limited series. In fact, of all the Batman Family, I think only Alfred never got his own book. Poor Alfred. Everyone takes the butler for granted.

NEXT WEEK: The final Bat-Bronze-Beauty: THE JOKER gets his due!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Smiley Face Button

THE COLBERT REPORT recently featured a hilarious story about a Sean Hannity Fox News Report on America’s awesomeness in which he proclaimed, repeatedly (I shit you not) that the USA is (and I quote verbatim, honest) “THE GREATEST, BEST COUNTRY GOD HAS EVER GIVEN MAN ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH!

Now, the fourth grade phrasing of the sentiment aside, upon exactly what is Hannity basing this conjecture? Our disastrously low world rankings in education, health care, environmental issues, literacy, GNP, healthy life expectancy, exports and world opinion? Oh, maybe he’s talking about how much we kick ass when it comes to gun ownership, national debt, obesity and energy consumption. Oh, and being able to transmute serious subjects into hollow rhetoric. At that, we stand unparalleled.

The new issue of ROLLING STONE features an interview with Barack Obama by Jann Wenner. The relatively short Q&A touches on Obama’s primary agenda, his relationship to pop culture and the kind of campaign that is no doubt just amping up. I’m sure we have just begun to hear about his secret Muslim leanings, his lack of patriotism, his drug use and of course, the hidden subtext of the terrorist fist jab!!

The “Lack of Patriotism” tag cracks me up in particular. Why is it I’ve never seen a member of the DNC refuting this ludicrous charge by pointing out the simple fact that THE GUY IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT. Seems as if being a patriot is kinda a prerequisite for even choosing to enter that particular arena. Oh, but he didn’t put his hand over his heart during the Pledge and he only recently started sporting that all-important gauge of national fidelity, the FLAG PIN!

I love the cover of the RS issue. It can certainly be interpreted a number of ways, but I like to look at it as Barack Obama chuckling over the absurdity of this meaningless piece of jewelry that he ultimately decided is not worth fighting over. Because it is meaningless. A flag is merely a symbol, and symbols are desecrated by the hypocritical actions of their followers ALL THE TIME. To my mind, trying to ban flag burning is every bit as antithetical to the meaning of that symbol as the act itself. That those nominal “patriots” who would alter the Constitution to LIMIT a freedom (the nation defining, and hard-to-reinterpret-to-counter-the-argument-that-increased-technology-renders-it-anachronistic 1st Amendment) can’t understand the true meaning and importance of freedom is truly sad to me. There are hundreds of American politicians who stick a flag pin on their clothing and then go to work and betray their oath of office every single day. Implying that Obama doesn’t love America because he didn’t wear a flag pin is as ridiculously superficial as attacking someone for their haircut or cleavage.

Now, I realize that imagining that Obama is laughing AT the flag pin only buys into that other accusation that drives me to distraction, that of his supposed ELITISM. If “elite” is construed to mean “the best in a particular group” then I Goddamn hope he’s an elitist! To paraphrase Bill Maher, look at what seven and a half years of our current mouth-breather have given us! Don’t we WANT a President who’s BETTER than we are? Smarter? Stronger? Faster? Oh, wait, that’s the Six Million Dollar Man. Still, you get the point.

As a rule, I don’t get excited about things before they happen just because I’m cynical enough to assume the worst. A life of low expectations yields fewer letdowns and makes the triumphs that much sweeter. I don’t consider Obama a lock for November by any stretch. I do feel that for a large group of Americans, all that matters is the traditional God, Guns and Guts (screw any substantive discourse, and don’t even talk about sacrifice!). As the election draws closer, the mudslinging aimed at Barack Obama will make John Kerry’s campaign look like a tiptoe through the tulips. And for those who dig no deeper than an ignorant shouting point, the mud could stick. After all, a lot of Americans “have had ENUF of HOO-Sane!

But unlike John Kerry (who ran a campaign so inept I couldn’t decide whether to be angry or embarrassed), thus far Obama has risen above the fray, chosen his battles carefully and stuck to message. He’s brave enough to admit when he’s changed his mind about something (such as public financing, and before you accuse him of flip flopping, ask yourself: When was the last time you checked the “donate” box on your income tax return?) and sincere enough that he won’t back down on some tough medicine that we all need to take (to steal from the right, “freedom ain’t free!”).

And heck, he even knows how to use modern technology! Ain’t that a hoot!

My fingers are crossed. Money has been donated. Opinions have been shouted, both sober and hooch-amplified. I remain a cynic, but never so much as to surrender. And I genuinely believe that Barack Obama is maybe our only chance of repairing the incalculable damage done by the current administration to the Greatest, Best Country God Has Ever Given Man on the Face of the Earth.

Here’s to Hope. Here’s to Change.