Category: Comics

Capes and superpowers, grit and cultural shifts…

Batman: Rebooting Batmen – The Brave and the Bold

Brave and the batmen

It’s easy to dismiss as another in the constant roster of DC animated series, but Batman: The Brave and the Bold plays a pivotal role in picking up the past and sowing the seeds of the Dark Knight’s future.

SATURDAY MORNING CHILDREN CARTOONS CAN BE A BIT OF A SURPRISE.  Whether that’s nostalgia, something tolerable your kids have found or simply viewed through the fug of a hangover – or all three – some of them stick.

Batman: the Brave and the Bold (TBATB) wasn’t one of those.  On its UK run, I caught it maybe twice – the same episode both times of course – and dismissed it as the latest kid friendly iteration of the Dark Knight’s day time adventures.  Slight and packaged in easy Technicolor with the boisterous campery of its title sequence, I didn’t give it much credit having just watched a two series of the ambitious Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS).  TBATB was far removed from that, with The Batman and Batman Beyond in between, not counting other DC Universe off-shoots.  But then, a week ago I stumbled across TBATB and…  Soon kapowed through the first season.  I discovered it’s rather brilliantly done. As a throw-back to the Silver Age of comic books, If can’t think of better praise than saying that definitive animated Batman Kevin Conroy isn’t missed.  If you don’t expect the dark drama and profound storylines of other Batman series, TBATB holds many surprises.  More than just its consistency and sense of humour, I’m a bit in awe of the level of the show’s confidence and what that creative team managed to pull off.  …

Batsetting

BTAS is rightly regarded as classic television, animated or not.  It had dark, redemptive themes, wonderful art deco stylings and brilliant casting (and voice direction to bat-boot).  It took confident and driven creators to change the perception of the Dark Knight in cartoon – a format where Superfriends and Scooby-Doo still cast some camp shadows.  It was the early 1990s, and Batman was dominant at the cinema, but Tim Burton’s realisation couldn’t simply be transferred to the small screen.  It would only become apparent afterwards that the Burton Batman ended as BTAS started.   But by drawing on the success and the style little seen in big screen superheroics, BTAS could use the cinema as a springboard.  The gothic stylings and Danny Elfman’s superb score were identified as translatable elements and they worked brilliantly.  The title wasn’t only accurate, it was aspirational. While the film series ran on the big screen, these animated tales would be every bit their equal.  The pathos of the Two face tale, the tragedy of Clayface’s origin, the superbly dark Mark Hamill iteration of the Joker, confirmed that BTAS reached the same artistic level as the best of the Bat films.

In doing so, it laid down a large gauntlet – increasingly so as its quality fed into the New Batman Adventures and Superman: The Animated Series while the Batman films stuttered in the late 1990s.  BTAS wasn’t exactly a fresh direction for the Dark Knight, 60 years into his career, but its legacy would live on.   David Warner’s portrayal of Ra’s Al Ghul may be more comic book, but the construction of Two Face formed part of a renaissance in the character that would push Harvey Dent to being, pre- and post-transformation, the integral figure of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

When it came to the Lego: Batman videogame in 2008, it was the still heavy legacy of Burton’s Batman that led to the decision to use Danny Elfman’s score, but by that time BTAS itself surely played a matching part.  The highly successful Arkham videogame series hasn’t had to look further than Kevin Conroy as their Batman for the most part.  Though defined by change, shreds of each of the Batmen permeate the others.  As almost the ideal example of that, TBATB premiered in late 2008 – the same year as The Dark Knight reclaimed Batman’s crown at the cinema – and lasted three seasons.

Animators have long had to react against the film reiterations of Batman on screen.   The Batman, the tale of a young Bruce Wayne taking on the mantle of the Bat surfaced in 2004, a year before Batman Begins.  In its way, it took a similar tack to the BTAS. You couldn’t translate Christian Bale’s Batman directly into cartoon, but took the youthful approach as a launch point.  When it finished around the time of the The Dark Knight, that difficulty in translation was confirmed.  The film series was set onscreen for at least one more instalment, which left a nice void for TBATB – for the first time, a complete divergence.   The Batman wasn’t un-innovative – their feral Joker is proof of that, but TBATB didn’t have to react as much as do what it wanted.  If it was intended to be particularly kid friendly, it had the luck to have a serious set of personnel to develop it.

TBATB doesn’t paw the same ground as BTAS, but there are references to its illustrious forbear just as there are to many parts of the Caped Crusader’s history.  Batman, and his non-supernatural opponents, don satisfyingly physical knuckle dusters when the need arises – but any violence soon ends in a still frame as close to the ‘kapow’ of the 1960s Batman as it could be without using the word.  Even the death trap makes a glorious reappearance.

Batorigins

TBATB is a title used intermittently by DC Comics since 1955, in each iteration pairing superheroes who may not normally hang out together.  In the early ‘60s it had moved on from Robin Hood to incorporate the first sightings of The Suicide Squad and in 1960 itself, the first appearance of the Justice League (followed three years later by the Teen Titans).

Following the success of the ‘60s TV series, issues 74 to 200 of TBATB were exclusively Batman team-ups and that’s where, decades later, the animated show picks up.  One of the most fascinating parts of comic lore is how new creative teams and overseers interpret and reinterpret decades of acquisitions, team-ups and trademarks.  The TBATB brand name has staying power, despite its archaic title.  It was after all was envisaged for those early knights, gladiators and Hoods, not the capes and cowls it now encompasses.  While it may be prefaced with Batman, that silver age innocence remains. In the later episode Night of the Huntress, both Huntress and Blue Beetle transform in pure throwbacks to that time.

Batfamily

TBATB the cartoon takes Batman as the starting point, but this is an easier Dark Knight.  He may be a workaholic, but he takes the Silver Age in his stride – especially when he’s surrounded by foils.  The format is simple, two team-ups across the pre- and post-titles.  The first episode captures a neat dynamic with a younger and competitive Green Arrow – with Batman grudgingly naming him his preferred defender of justice.

Within episodes, the framework of superheroes around Batman had been set, with firm references to the past and future.  Accruing the most appearances, The Green Arrow and Blue Beetle are modernised versions – rebooted in the former, literally in the latter.  But by the end of the first season, the Green Arrow has landed his Black Canary and there’s event been time to explore the late Ted Kord, the original Charlton Comic Blue Beetle.

Alongside Red Tornado and Jack Kirby classics Kamandi the Last Boy on Earth and OMAC, TBATB promotes lesser heroes – including Metamorpho – a character who first appeared in the pages of TBATB but is now a young member of The Outsiders (DC’s X Men).  Green Arrow is as high profile as Batman’s allies get – with Black Canary, Black Lightning and Red Tornado near and rivals on the spectrum.  Arrow’s dominance in this league came at a time the young arrow was discovering green in Smallville and far before the success of the Arrow TV series.  Still, it’s a shame it clashed with Man of Steel and Dark Knight scripter, David Goyer’s late 2000s film pitch, Green Arrow: Escape from Super Max.  That was a film that would highlight the lesser known hero and villains much as TBATB did.  The outsider of the DC film universe.

That framework’s established so quickly that by mid-season , a two-parter could visit the alternative, reversed Earth-2, where the Red Hood fights in futility against Owlman and the Crime Syndicate of America he belongs to.  Without Superman and Wonder Woman, these characters had to be drawn well.  The Red Hood was immaculate.

Batvillains

Talking of that Red Hooded rogue, TBATB wasn’t just a showcase for Superheroes in their Silver Age (and later) splendour, but also the villains.  Major Disaster, the Weather Wizard, Calculator, the Clock King all had their moments, as did the Blackgate Penitentiary and inevitably, Arkham Asylum.  As it should, the show plays lightly with the well known and pushes the lesser known and new to the fore.  Catwoman is refreshingly a villain (cat burglar) once more.  Still, the love interest aspect remains and leads to and surely the subject of the open-ended finale in Inside the Outsiders (“Women are a tricky, tricky business”).

Then there’s the new ones.

New villains are difficult to introduce.  The Animated Series lucked out by introducing the rarest of foes – one who was adopted into the comics.  But then, for every Harlequin, there’s a Sewer King and Tygrus.  TBATB gives it a good stab.  The Babyface Gang may seem pretty generic, but with the addition of Mrs Man Face, take a twist for the bizarre (“The hammer of justice is unisex”).  The closest the first series gets to the gangs of Gotham, Babyface is a criminal taking the same leaf out of Dick Tracy’s book as the 60’s series sometimes did.  The main attempt however, is at the other end of the scale, the mystical realm of Dr Fate.  Equinox, a supernatural figure obsessed with balance ties Batman as skilfully into the magical realm of the DC universe as John DiMaggio’s ebullient Aquaman does to the gates of Atlantis and the surly Guy Gardener to space.

The DC Universe is vast, encompassing the real gods of Olympus with the biblical (from Lucifer to Zauriel) and the magic that extends from Pandora and the Phantom Stranger and even pre-time.   TBATB wears all of it on it cowl, allowing time travel access to Jason Blood and Etrigan the Demon in the time of Merlin as well as 19th century London where the world’s greatest detective must team-up with Sherlock Holmes.  That mixture of the real and fantastic has posed challenges to many writers, but TBATB allows him to prowl the rooftops of Gotham as easily as the outer reaches of space. From Gotham to Star City, to the Green Lantern home base of the Planet Oa or Adam Strange’s Rann, TBATB covers the lot.

Batlights

There are many highlights in the series, including singing, miting and Robins.

The murky Colour of Revenge features a team-up between Batman and Robin, for the most part in his older Nightwing, guardian of Blüdhaven guise – though for ease he remains Robin (multiple iterations of Robin would rather ruin TBATB format).  But while their relationship plays on different Robins over the years, the prologue flashback is pure 60s TV series.

Referencing the history of the Dark Knight reached a peak in the 19th episode, Legends of the Bat Mite.  Scripted by legendary BTAS alumni Paul Dini, it plays as fast and loose with the Knight’s history.  Far more than a punning title it fits in multiple DC Comic Elseworlds references and even Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, crossing barriers that you’d normally expect in a Warren Ellis  Planetary crossover.  During the episode, perpetual pain Batmite crosses the fourth wall to voice the show’s statement of intent:

“Batman’s rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it’s certainly no less valid and true to the character’s roots than the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.”

The imp from the 5th dimension, much like the creators, had a point.

Batman takes the mantle of the series, but as Batmite points out on behalf of those creators, he doesn’t necessarily carry the characteristics you might expect.  Anguish and gruffness has been replaced by a wry sense of humour and a fondness for a catchphrase – often including a reference to justice like the many variations on “Crime doesn’t take a holiday, and neither do I”.  As I’ve written before, the Dark Knight is a character defined by movement from and within his narrow, mythical confines.  Barely touching on Wayne’s past or Alfred, hardly revealing the Batcave and neatly, whenever sans mask, Bruce Wayne’s face is hidden (first series at least).  So long defined by the dual persona, this is pure Dark Knight.

At the end of the series, an episode introducing the Musical Maestro shows that the series could change its format.  Virtually entirely musical, its fits a tale of global crime into a repurposing of the Phantom of the Opera.  It’s evidently a storytelling format full of confidence that makes the earlier The Batman series fade in the gloom.

Batrole

TBATB is not only a neat showcase for Batman and lesser known DC superheroes and villains, but also neat launching point into the whole DC universe.  That’s Batman’s key worth.  TBATB earned its own part of the DC multiverse after the Infinite Crisis storyline: Earth 23.

It’s no surprise given Man of Steel’s success in its own right, that it’s Superman’s cowled compatriot who will come on board to open up the DC Universe for everybody else.  The literally mythic Wonder Woman is the last of DC’s trinity and the last easy to translate – but then that’s the same challenge as Marvel faced bringing in Thor to Iron Man’s world.  The Caped Crusader in Batman versus Superman will be darker, older and gnarlier than has appeared in film before, not the workaholic blue and grey quipster of TBATB, but his cohesive role will be the same.  Reach into the utility belt for the Unifying DC Universe Batspray.

Man of Steel II: “Dark and Heavy Skies Hung over the City…”

Man of Steel I - Arkham Asylum Jokertoon

MOS2a

(ED: Continued from part I)

Prologue

DARK AND HEAVY CLOUDS HUNG OVER THE CITY, DRIPPING STRINGS OF RUMOUR TO THE STREETS BELOW.  Something was coming and the sky looked like it might fall in its path.   Sat on the 98th floor of the Corp tower, surveying the largest metropolis in North America, I couldn’t help but think that this was a terrible day for an interview. 
            It was barely eight weeks since half the financial district had been levelled.  A mighty battle almost invisible to the eye had dropped craters through the streets and punched holes through buildings.  Most of the city’s infrastructure remained in ruins and the recovery was slow work despite the flurry of activity that surrounded it.  Various city patrons circled the devastation, prodding and testing the best anchor points for their web.  There was a new world order and they all wanted the best view.  And there, rising above them all, sat the man I was about to meet. 
            Now, while the devastation still filled every paper, there was new danger.  The sky was dark and the streets were afraid.  Whispers were caught in the gutter eddies.  On the ground, at tarmac corners, you heard that it was coming from the west, that it wasn’t slow… There was little else you could believe.  While the Goat’s town to the south was wary, the real panic lay 98 floors beneath me.  Whatever was coming, it was headed straight for us.   The press talked of a doomsday.
            Sheet rain had started.  It collided with the panel window on my left as if it was trying to peel the top of the giant ‘L’ from the building.  I smiled as I wished it luck.  This wouldn’t be the last time that something would try.  After the architectural virus, the 13-upgrades, the bottled city… Nothing had succeeded. I was sat at the peak of the city’s totem.  And then my smirk dropped, replaced by a slight cold sweat and nervous glances.  Between the window and my seat a pot plant shook slightly in sympathy.  Looking closer, I thought I saw small specks of green in the soil.  It was if they glowed and I blinked in the twisting light.  It was almost black outside. It was three in the afternoon. 
            “Sir, if you’ll follow me please”.
            I started at the young woman’s approach.  She stood in front of me, dressed in Corp uniform, her hand outstretched to escort me to the meeting I dreaded.  Her face looked ever so slightly strained under her turned, glossed lips and immaculate make-up.  I picked up my lucky pack of cards from the seat next to me, where the joker card lay on top, and followed her.

Chapter I

On the way, the looping corridors seemed to grow.  Gold and lacquered wood trim swept me through the middle of the floor, beneath my feet plush red carpet brought me to a giant double door lined with reception desks.  The occupants of those slabs of oak didn’t stir as I was ushered through the door.  Before I knew it, my guide had left me alone in a cavernous room alone.  I clutched the playing cards in my pocket as the first flashes of lightening played across the skyline.  The cards had shuffled on the walk, along with my stomach.
            I reasoned that the room was white on the whole, but the strange inner-twilight was amplified between its plush walls.   Before the external floor to ceiling windows was a mist of purples and mauves.  In a room of little shadow, the air swirled in a dot matrix; different tones showed through higher and lower concentrations of dots.  Like a thousand images, a thousand panels, conjuring the room from a flick book.   In the swirl of pulp print copy I stopped myself raising a hand to disturb the particles.  I blinked instead and in the flare noticed the huge wall of video screens to my left.   I wasn’t in a comic book; the wall of separate screens diffused a glow of static into the room.  Some words bubbled beneath the snow, New York… Tokyo… Kansas?  I squinted towards the large metal desk at the far end of the room.  Behind it, turned to the gigantic window, stood a figure. His broad shoulders were hunched, his hands clasped behind.  He was surveying the dark skyline, or seemed to be.  In a single poised and powerful movement he raised one arm, inviting me to the large chair in front of the desk. 
            Like an incredible force had lifted me, I suddenly found myself dropping to the plush leather of the chair. I didn’t even feel myself move.
            Suddenly I was reminded me of another meeting, a recent room where I had faced a reticent opponent.  Again I clenched the cards in my pocket for luck as I sat wondering which card was on top.  The question was similar, but this time it wasn’t a swaying ceiling lamp that separated us, just a palpable, thick wall of power.  The lightening spat across metal lines outside, each bolt glancing a reflection from the angular dome of a head before me – a head sat above gigantic shoulders.  In the electricity, I could just make out a sneer under the deep-set brow as a voice baritone enough to break the glass escaped a curled lip. 
            “Why Superman?”
            The words were cold and clipped.  He had a flying problem.  There was anger, resentment and perhaps worry in his voice.  Still, I frowned.

Chapter II

It seemed like the same question every time. 
            I knew I didn’t have long.  That question would be shaped and defined by a mind sharper than my own, delivered through pin-point assassinations fired at me like slivers of kryptonite.  I could feel the entry wounds already.  The eyes held me in cold reflection as I sat there. 
            In the glare, I stammered back before warming to the topic against the ice reflection… 
            Remember, the last son of Krypton is a multi-layered enigma that has been gradually built up over 80 years – the definitive hero with mythic qualities that other superheroes can only hope for.  Man of Steel got a lot of this right and it needed to.  In recent years, Superman’s greatest threat has been the 21st century itself.  It’s a difficult place for an American icon, decked out in primary colours, especially when an uncynical tolerance has faded in the Western world over the last forty years, now to be replaced with apps and touch screens.  Man of Steel tackled that issue first.  It had to.
            The same factors that make Superman the definitive superhero are the same as those that have consigned him to being an irrelevant, unfashionable and a sometime-box-office mope in the past decade.  Man of Steel washed away the cobwebs of apathy that had surrounded the figure for too long and with relatively few concessions, but no little controversy.
            “He’s an old fashioned boy scout.  All that power used for dull-do-goodery” The reflected scowl was now completely fixed on me.  The sky flashed.
            “What’s dull about do-goodery..?” I stopped myself.
            Of course, Superman is considered the pinnacle of do-goodery…
            That remained the general character direction in his latest cinematic outing, in spite of his city wrecking and effective genocide (empty cryo-chambers aside). But away from those extremes, the last son of Krypton’s ethos of non-murder is shared by many other heroes.  One of those is his comic book near-comparator Batman, a fellow superhero and an ally, but one who doesn’t really help the Kryptonian’s cause.  The Dark Knight is interesting because of the dark world he inhabits.  It’s the negated outline of the city that draws his cowled profile.  The product of a random act of violence, Batman’s first tenet is that he won’t kill, one that has seeded many interesting dilemmas and relationships in his legend.  But, as a non-meta mortal, it’s a necessity that his methods are somewhat murky.  Even with the clout of Wayne Enterprises (alive and well in Man of Steel), he needs to even the playing field.  While Batman can agonise over the morals of killing or not with his super-tech, Superman wields power enough to make life and death decisions on a universal scale every millisecond.  It’s a multi-universe of greys.
            “He devastated the greatest city in America, thousands are still unaccounted for”.  
            Was there…  Could the passion of his earlier snarl have softened slightly?
            It’s the disregard for life in this new, more violent Superman that has brought the most criticism against Man of Steel.  Most of the ire forms in the last third of the film, which I affectionately refer to as the ‘Kryptonian smack down’.  You wait thirty years to see Kryptonians go super-toe to super-toe and then it’s all too much.   There are unverified reports 40 year old men running from cinemas, tears streaming down their face screaming “The destruction! The destruction!”
            Well, yes, it could have been different – if the battles of Smallville and Metropolis documented in the film appeared in the comic, Superman would have been constantly dodging thought bubbles along the lines of: “must get this beast… away from the city, people… in danger.”
            But this was a new Superman, barely nicknamed.
            While the other Kryptonians were adjusting to the superpowers imbued by the yellow sun, Kal-El was experiencing his first fights and releasing years of repression, frustration and misunderstanding.  This was not a reasoning Superman comfortable in his powers and their ability to stop his foes.   He was a noble and a naive one who had to stop the megalomaniac Zod at all costs.  If Zod had won, that cost would have been total.  I think the film made that clear enough, though many disagree.  In a narrative scope that shifted from Dune onto Thor’s small town climax and then out-disassembled The Avengers end scrap, it bottled down to the needs of a few argument.  Of course, not the only blockbuster to do so this year.  After all the action, in Grand Central Station, a final grapple of muscle and, er, heat vision.  The resolution was abrupt.
            It’s all a far cry from the heady days of 1980s big screen Superman and Batman films.   In 1989, Tim Burton’s Dark Knight was hardly unhomicidal. The start of 1992’s Batman Returns – for many years the greatest translation of comic book to comic screen – makes you wonder how many job adverts for new circus performers had to be advertised following the Penguin’s demise.  Still the ideal of Batman’s morality endures, thanks to peoples ease at disregarding onscreen moral conflicts.  In Man of Steel, Superman’s definitive act was violent, brutal and definitive.  Many commentators have rejected this choice: Superman would always find another way.  However, his final choice – and it was a final choice – was not unfamiliar to readers of the build-up to DC’s Infinite Crisis comic series last decade.  Here it was repurposed (Superman took the murderous role from Wonder Woman) and cameras weren’t overtly present to bring a media furore to the mix.  However, similar plot strands of media suspicion and homicidal meta-humans will endure in this new world.  The vital difference in the film is that Superman stopped one of his own rather than a dangerous human, but it’s still murder.  It’s vigilante justice and there has to be a moral repercussion – the act is too dark to balance against Earth’s adopted son’s guilt for his lost people.  Still, the real purpose of that end fight was to show a Superman who had eventually chosen who to protect – the culmination of the film’s main message: free choice.
            Admittedly, Supe’s hand was slightly forced – he was put in that position by having the Kryptonian ark – the main antagonist to free will of which Zod is an extension – was ironically fused to him.  The atavistic skull codex was a supreme touch, full of depth and reference – who would be that definitive Kryptonian?  But despite that inherent biological drawback, although it is never suggested to be anything but dormant, it is universal luck that the Last Son of Krypton was raised in an alien society that could realise the House of El’s intention after centuries of entropy.
            I stopped, waiting for an onslaught.  There was a moment of calm, caught in the flash of the storm. 
            There was only one direction the questioning could take now  

Chapter III

            “The son of a radical, an agent of chaos.  With no planet of his own, Earth is now his play thing.  He is not thing short of a weapon”
            But not his weapon, i thought. He’s the most powerful creature on Earth, true.  The Man of Steel universe looks to pave the way for a world that rapidly has to adjust to this new power base.  It is the weapon after all, that has adopted the United States.  It’s a similar theme to the one posed by Dr Manhattan’s arrival in Snyder’s earlier adaptation of Watchmen, but not one unfamiliar in Superman’s past.
           “He’s the protector of humanity”
            “He’s an alien”
            Insecurity?  Was that it, burrowed deep in the thick brow.  Something no amount of botox and skin treatment in the Corp spa could cover up…
            Superman is far more than an icon of American dominance, emerging as he did a mere after the soon-to-be World superpower fully ended isolationism.  He was invention of two Jewish teenagers, one American, one Canadian, themselves seeking the American dream.  Following his conception by Siegel and Shuster in the early 1930ss, he quickly turned from a bald megalomaniac Superman (appearing in the far more literal Nietzschean Reign of Superman short), into a being just a few super powers short of the dual-identity hero we know today.  That element of the American Dream is one that Superman has both boldly represented and often struggling to encompass during his career.  During WWII he was a morale booster – DC leveraged the Spear of Destiny as a reason why superheroes couldn’t just stop the war – while in 2011 renounced his American citizenship as he was tired of being seen as a tool of US foreign policy (a storyline written by Man of Steel scripter David S Goyer no less).
            A definitive exploration of this side of Superman was presented by Mark Millar’s Red Son which posed the implications of Superman’s Kryptonian escape craft landed in Russia instead of America in the 1930s.  Wresting with ideology and the idea of Superman as a nuclear deterrent, it’s also a neat exploration of Superman’s villains. Like Batman, Superman is a superhero who can be judged by his enemies.   In Red Son, The jealousy brewing away at the heart of nemesis, the lengths such an arms race would go to, the treachery.  Most focus is on Luthor, a character recently ret-conned in the comics as a potential anti-hero who had been stripped of his American importance by Superman’s arrival.  Here he had achieved another miserable role – a genius President locked in an exacerbated but futile Cold War.
            “I’ve read it”
            Okay.  I’d made my point.. 
            Superman in the established universe was raised in America but adopted her far more than she adopted him.  The Man of Steel sequels, as well as DC Universe films, promise to explore that universe in the 21st century – this is a Superman after all, who has wandered the Earth.
            There are many international supervillains and superheroes in the DC universe, and to take Superman as another name for Americaman is misleading.
            Still residing in the DC Comics universe is old Will ‘the Spirit’ Eisner created character Uncle Sam, the national personification of the United States.  But aside a few notable storylines and one-off series, has never touched Superman’s profile.  Superman is not an inherent spirit of America, but it is that adoption itself that makes him such a powerful symbol.
            Superman’s city, Metropolis sits on the North East Coast of America, dwarfing nearby New York, while a few miles below Gotham provides the dark alter-ego to its shining towers.    While Clark Kent is the embodiment of the American dream from Smallville Kansas and Kal El is biologically Krypton, Superman is the light of that city nicknamed The Big Apricot.  He’s also a flying personification of nurture versus nature, not an American boy scout.
            On the last syllable, the trunk like legs in the dapper suit turned.  In profile, he was even more threatening.  The sky was virtually white with sheet lightening now, every colour blanched.

Chapter IV

            “He remains…” 
            My eyes widened, had I again won a point, a concession… No. 
            “He’s the son of alien world, not one cell comes from Earth”.  The contempt was a clear.
            “He’s American, he was raised American…” I noticed an angry furrow of red eyebrows as I said it.
            Despite a clear central message, not unfamiliar to the Superman myth, it wasn’t all plain sailing.  And after the Dark Knight trilogy it couldn’t be.
            Man of Steel presents an origin story, but one of the lightest I’ve seen – even in a  world of constant reboots.  Familiarity with the Superman myth is required to make full sense of the story, even beyond the cultural staples.  In that respect, it’s a new kind reboot – one that requires its predecessors for it to reject and react against.  Along the way, Man of Steel strips the myth apart, picking and choosing parts relevant to the story it wants to tell and adding some extra, just for you.
            Yes: “They fuck you up your mum and dad.”  Here it’s stronger than ever.
            While Superman’s Earth and Kryptonian families adhere to their traditional roles, both come with twists.  Jonathan Kent’s insistence that Clark keeps his secret borders on myth sabotage, all the while instilling his son’s motivation and morals.  His death is no longer a mindless act of nature seen in the Reeves films – it’s an elevated sacrifice to nature, at the same time human, Kryptonian and, particularly, tornado.  This is the sacrifice of the father.  Superman remains the biological son of Kryptonians, but her the son’s role is elevated.  He is the first natural birth in centuries, the first non-predetermined Kryptonian in centuries.  That addition makes Earth the far more sensible home for him.
            The rain had now stopped completely, the lip curl turned impassive but topped by a brow heavier than ever.  We were at the eye of thee storm, with constant high crashes threatening the windows and the constant strobe of white light.  In front of me, the figure was entirely silhouette.  Unmoving.
            Pre-determination is a significant addition to the Superman films.  In Man of Steel, not only did it allow Jor-El to become the first Kryptonian male to get laid for centuries, but it also imbued a new sheen into the staid Kryptonians.  Zod and Jor-El were products of their society, biologically, while Kal-El is neatly destined to be the first Kryptonian to experience free choice for centuries.  His father Jor-El is even more hands on than ever.  He’s not just a great mind but an action-minded, noble saviour.  That is the sacrifice of the other father.
            In all, the theme of destiny is a strong one – highlighted by the sacrifice of two fathers.  The son of the House of Hope was sent as a last resort with the hope of uniting the peoples of Krypton and Earth.  Ironically, the only son of Krypton without a predetermined purpose (given a religious sheen by Zod’s cry of “blasphemy”) ensured that his life would be more defined by destiny than ever.
            My eyes had wandered while I spoke and when, with a flash, the lightening suddenly stopped, they returned to the window and darkness.  But that was all, I glanced around but I was alone.  I had little else to do.  i slowly turned around and saw the door at the end of the room was open. Standing there was my guide from earlier and two Corp security guards in full uniform – visors on their eyes, stazers in hand.  I sighed and checked for the cards in my pocket.  Interview terminated.

 (to be continued…)

Batman Beyond: The Devil and Ben Affleck

Batman and Daredevil Jokertoon

Darebats

Ben Affleck is the Dark Knight. 

THE NEWS SPRUNG OUT OF THE SHADOWS LATE ON THURSDAY – AGAIN I WISH THAT WARNER WOULD GIVE SOME WARNING FOR THEIR SURPRISE ANNOUNCEMENTS. BEN AFFLECK IS THE DARK KNIGHT.

More than usual, the genre press led with ‘What do you think?’ headlines – and that’s saying something. There are few actors who’d create more of a stir. Recent weeks have been consumed with rumours that Warner Bros were casting around for an older Batman to match their 33 year old on screen Superman – even pursuing Christian Bale’s return to the tune of $50 million. Recently retired Caped Crusader Bale is just two years younger than Affleck, but it turns out that offer was either flatly rejected, a neat distraction or both. The sudden and definitive announcement surprised many, more than guaranteeing an argument.

Indifferent commentators have been increasingly quiet during a Summer where superhero films have dodged blockbuster box office meltdown. But this news stirred them. They stress that for them it’s not an Affleck issue. It’s more a lament – usually an ill-considered one – that it’s time to seal the comic book film genre away in UV protecting plastic sleeves. In an attic. For once, fans with vision the size of the bat cave entrance may be more clued up, but not necessarily for the right reason. The problem is that Ben Affleck has form.

Red Devil

2003’s Daredevil hangs over Affleck like Kingpin over Hell’s Kitchen. And that’s a little unfair. Far from being the victim of misfortune, it’s been mainly Affleck who’s distanced himself from it – with an emphasis on never playing a superhero again. 2003 was an odd time for the genre, falling in an odd hinterland half a decade before Marvel Studios kicked off their ambitions. At the time Fox’s X Men franchise was successfully burgeoning but remained quite low key. That Summer also saw Ang Lee’s tortured Hulk suffer (mind you, in a difficult season even Harry Potter underperformed).

Daredevil is an established and well regarded Marvel superhero, with one of the most eminent fathers in Stan Lee. But he’s always been one that fits a little awkwardly into the Marvel film roster. Now Fox have rejected Joe Carnahan’s intriguing 70s reboot and the rights have reverted to Marvel Studios it’s hard to see the Man without Fear slipping neatly into the Avengers universe anytime soon. While tragedy and classic monster horror runs through the Hulk’s veins and comedy and coming of age angst drip from Spiderman’s web, Daredevil marries one of the hokiest origin stories with themes of religion, law and city-grit. The horned one is perhaps the darkest fantasy creation to ever wear scarlet in comics and over time creators such as Frank Miller have honed him into a fascinating character – so much more than disability and toxic ooze. Those B-Movie roots that even the Turtles couldn’t totally steal remain, but his position as the real Batman of the Marvel Universe is clear. Pipe down Iron Man.

Director Mark Steven Johnson, a director who often finds it very difficult to please, got a lot right. Daredevil’s power was startlingly realised if a little too stylised. The curse of heightened senses and the Devil’s Catholic guilt were implemented well while the cast was well filled out. The late Michael Clarke Duncan was a superb Kingpin in particular. Fox certainly didn’t fear the worst before it opened, ordering an extra post-credit scene that showed rising star of the moment Colin Farrell’s or rather his character Bullseye had survived for a sequel. Still, despite those apparent strengths in a second string costumed hero film, it didn’t even touch $180million in receipts. It scored under half the amount that the sublime X Men 2 clawed in for the studio just two months later.

A lot of the supposed faults of the mini-Devil franchise were cemented by the unwise Electra spin-off film. Despite the presence of small screen directing legend Rob Bowman, things didn’t go well. Just a cursory look at one of Electra’s comics shows that it would have been hard to conceive the film more poorly. Affleck wasn’t slow to remove himself from the disappointment, but an even more uncomfortable year was to follow. Having already bounced back from Pearl Harbour in 2001, 2003/4 saw him endure the release of Gigli, Paycheck and Jersey Girl following Daredevil. Each proved a nail of various sizes, and it wasn’t long until the former Hollywood golden child found a better stable behind the camera. However, not before, interestingly, he found time to portray doomed Superman actor George Reeves in Hollywoodland.

And so 10 years later, after a chequered decade, Affleck returns to superheroes, this time as that other famous vigilante of the night, the one with the black cowl.

Dark Knight

2013 has cemented Affleck’s remarkable repositioning. Taking the directing reins and major roles in a series of serious, gritty and political films has quickly established him up as a talent to watch. His choices and oh so serious bearded persona could be seen as mildly cynical were it not for the critical acclaim and awards… He’s making money as well. Argo raked in $232 million and he’s well on the same path as Clint Eastwood took, but in a far shorter timeframe. His best film win at the Oscars this year may have surprised, but in hindsight it was the one film that allowed the Academy to acknowledge politics at arm’s length. George Clooney had Affleck’s back. Their beards were strong.

So really, it’s the timing of the casting that’s most surprising. Affleck’s name’s been linked to Bruce Wayne’s before, most recently in the flurry of activity surrounding the presumed Justice League movie. Affleck was linked with that directing gig before Snyder was locked in… But there must be some truth to ever rumour, especially in Gotham.

Warner ultimately decided on a cleverer route to realising their big screen ambitions than leaping into their own Avengers. While they can introduce a rebooted Batman in the next Superman film, building and boosting Man of Steel 2’s box office, it’ increasingly likely that they will be growing other characters from the small screen. Series two of DC Superhero series Arrow is set to feature the origin of Scarlet Speedster Flash (which bears some similarity to Daredevil’s hokum) starting a run that may well continue straight onto the big screen. It’s a far cry from previous years where television appearances were overruled in favour of screen development. That change in thinking, while brilliantly opposite to Marvel’s, uncoincidentally collides with the box set generation’s rapidly changing habits. On Wednesday one-time Lex Luthor Kevin Spacey, a praised the golden age of television that is outshining a lot of cinema’s offerings. Warner’s plan increasingly looks multi-format, benefitting from a cohesion that the empire has fecklessly mishandled in recent years.

However, there’s a more telling indication in Affleck’s casting. He’s not the man without fear, the arrogant Hollywood star unaffected by critics…

Affleck is director of the Best film at the 2013 Academy Awards, with a strong recent working relationship with Warner Bros. Further details have surfaced over the last day that Nolan’s serious stab at Gotham-lore was enough to pique Affleck’s interest and he may even have been in the frame for Man of Steel. Certainly it seems reasonable that Affleck’s also eyeing up the contribution he can make to the character behind the camera, either in a solo tale or as part of the larger DC universe.

Casting wise, the past week has seen speculation grow around Lex Luthor with many names connected to the role signalling a similarly serious intent. Among some heavy-hitting fan-baiting names, imagine Bryan Cranston’s Luthor flexing stocks and shares and Kryptonite opposite Affleck’s Bruce Wayne. It looks like, having settled on the serious direction inspired by the Dark Knight trilogy – one which at least limits the possibility of a critical failure – Warner and DC are building a family for the future. It’s a strong one if David Goyer, Nolan, Snyder and Affleck continue to orbit it.

If Affleck had sought the advice of his friend George Clooney, the response may have been as brutal as some of the internet’s reaction. Some have observed that Warner may just as well have put Clooney back in the cowl but that’s another unfair reminder how one misplaced appearance can disrupt a career. Clooney was an excellent Bruce Wayne and hardly responsible for 1997’s Batman and Robin debacle. Put him in the cowl now and it wouldn’t be a terrible choice by any means, but unfortunately it represents far more of a nadir than Daredevil. In many ways, their respective superheroes have made the modern Affleck and Clooney.

Affleck’s chin, sans beard, will return to fantasy once again, but this time to a fantasy one steeped in allegory and metaphor and not a slavish origin. DC has built a universe of consequence and repercussion – not terrible things to have in a blockbuster. While the Dark Knight is a closed and dusty shop, this Batman isn’t likely to be a total reinvention. While undoubtedly dark and vigilante, this Batman will be as crucial to the plot’s capitalist and political scrutiny as inevitable Snyder-size devastation. Affleck will join an ensemble. He won’t take on the mantle of a new and repurposed Batman that some fans are calling for, but he certainly won’t be a Daredevil.

Constantine: The Endless War of the Roses

Constant

Of Constantines new, old and immortal.

THIS WEEK MY OLD ALMA MATER, THE HALLOWED UNIVERSITY OF YORK, ANNOUNCED THE NAME OF ITS NEWEST COLLEGE: CONSTANTINE.   While it doesn’t have a ring to it like, picking a name out of the air, um, Derwent, it’s a fine name for a college steeped in the spirit of Ebor.  York’s a fine collegiate university, one of the few in the country, and one that manages to retain them on a campus or two at the same time.  Colleges lie close to each other on banks and slips of one of the largest man-made lakes in Europe.  That rather loose blurring of campus and college got me into some trouble writing about Sheffield University a decade ago, but I think that’s all been brushed off as a Yorkshire thing.  In the Northern County of Yorkshire, Constantine will become the third college on the Heslington East campus.

When news broke, in the hallowed pages of well regarded Student paper York Vision (wink, wink), the University was drew the direct inspiration from Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, describing him as no less than the “most significant historical figure associated with the city in its entire history”.

Oh, so it’s really that Constantine? Ita vero.

Crossed Swords

Constantine the Great, alternately presented as a virtuous and ideal ruler by the early Church or a rather greedy and indulgent emperor by his nephew, had the distinction of being proclaimed Augustus in what was then Eboracum in 306.  He was also, rather notably, the first Christian Emperor of Rome.  A rather striking bronze statue has sat in the grounds of York Minster for the last 12 years or so.  Sculptor Philip Jackson paid great care and attention to the widely regarded work.  Modelling on the Emperor a conciliatory look, Jackson mixed the imagery of cross and sword to good effect.  It’s proved popular and I think a large part of that is because he looks quite louche.

In size at least, it’s a far cry from the white marble Colossus of Constantine that was constructed in Rome during his reign.  That was one of the benefits of defeating Maxentius and finishing the Basilica his rival had already started. Ego. With a 2.5 metre tall head it’s not immediately evident that Constantine had a big head.   But then again, the Romans did ‘rechristen’ Byzantium Constantinople in his honour, so he may not have needed to.

Constantine the Great, or rather Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, took his fourth name and a few others from his father, the so called Constantine Chlorus – although all Emperors of the Constantine dynasty shared the name Flavius, it obviously wasn’t their favourite. Constantine derives from the Latin for Constant so it wasn’t a bad brand to stamp on a dynasty and remains good for a University college.  The name was in popular use at the time of Constantine’s rule, with direct comparators in Greece and Macedonia and it remains in healthy use in Eastern Europe today.  As a surname, Constantine has spread around the world, with notable bearers in many walks of life from racing drivers to computer science pioneers.  The legacy of Constantine is alive and well.

Hexed Spells

However, across the Pennines from Ebor, an explanation for the rather ominous sketch.  One of the greatest proponents of the name, John Constantine, died early this year.  He died in the most cynical and horrible of ways: the comic book reboot.

John Constantine, the Liverpudlian wizard, working class chain smoker and all round sarcastic bastard hailed from the DC Comic universe, alongside Superman and Batman.   Constantine spawned from the mind of Alan Moore when artist Steve Bissette requested a character who looked like Sting during their legendary 80s run on Swamp Thing.  On one occasion he even appeared in the swamp making use of a small craft named The Honourable Gordon Sumner.  Or that’s what we’re led to think.  Moore has since recounted the two times he has met his creation in real life, once earning a conspiratorial wink in a sandwich pub and then years later when the mage whispered the secret of magic in his ear…

Such tales not only add weight to a character who you may suspect sits smirking on top of the fourth wall, but also indicates how much he was an archetype lying in wait.  Increasingly I’ve thought Constantine lay for years in a stone block just waiting for Moore the sculptor to chisel him out – the new Colossus of Constantine.  John’s been lying in the pit of English literature for at least the duration of the 20th century.  More complicated than piecing together the strands left from Caliban to Crowley, but also channelling the baby boomers and working class Thatcher rage through punk and every facet of British culture.  Beyond the English tourism, Constantine has fitted brilliantly into the world of one of America’s largest comic conveyors, unlikely if he was a cypher.

The mage soon broke free from the Swamp and started his own run that lasted from 1988 to 2013 under DC comics ‘mature’ Vertigo line and various comic creators.  Moore isn’t the only father of Constantine to meet him.  Jamie Delano, who kick-started Constantine’s solo adventures, has also recounted meeting the character in real life outside the British Museum.

Constantine’s series was dark and twisting, majoritively taking place in the UK and helmed by writers from the British Isles but also taken to other parts of the world and scripted by some of the best American comic scribes.  As would be expected, the mages’ appeal fell far from his original medium.  Ian Rankin even scripted one graphic novel.

The late-1980s timing was a little off for Constantine’s solo outing. Released close to the cinematic (and later comic book) release of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser that perfect name for the demon baiting magician was scrapped for the familiar Hellblazer.   For 25 years Constantine practised under that moniker, but all things good, bad and sarcastic must come to an end.

Constantine had various unique aspects, innately woven into and from his core.   Alongside the trench coat and constant cigarettes, one is that the mage aged in real time – a rarity in comics.  Early on in the run he celebrated his 40th birthday.  By the end of his run he was in his late 60s, albeit not quite looking the part after some nefarious demon blood shenanigans.

When it came to the fall of the Hellblazer, the writing had been etched into the wall when DC introduced their New 52 reboot.  In doing so they reclaimed any character from Vertigo who had originated in the DC Universe.  As their play reigns were yanked, Constantine’s peers thinned and the man who literally burns through friends was left looking ever more isolated.  While Hellblazer strolled to its 25th anniversary, a younger version of the character debuted in the New 52’s Justice League Dark – oddly both titles under the same pen of Peter Milligan.  Justice League Dark suffered some changes, but soon established itself, thanks in no part to Constantine’s key role.  It looks like he will continue to diversify more.  In 2005 the attempt to bring Constantine to cinema wasn’t quite the indignity it could have been.  It retained a large amount of the comic’s even with an alarmingly altered character (Keanu Reeves-altered).  Though a tonal heir, it didn’t do the business to warrant a sequel and his stock’s risen in the intervening period that if and when  Guillermo del Toro‘s Justice League Dark film reaches big screens, he will no doubt have a blond Englishness reminiscent of Sting.

But.  Then. When it reached 25, Hellblazer died.

Constantine, already with his timeshare in the mainstream was sucked back through time and reborn in an eponymous DC title of his own in March.   The new comic burst on the scene with a cover you may expect, trench-coated younger Constantine sitting resiliently against his own tomb stone.

If anything one noticeable effect of DC’s New 52 has been the removal of artist Simon Bisley.  Bisley contributed many memorable covers to the Hellblazer series, including the finale where the famous camel trench coat strides away from a stubbed cigarette.   While Bisley got to lay the covers to rest, the recently unveiled new look of Lobo – a character Bisley did much to define – has unsurprisingly rubbed salt into the wound.  That was an edge to keep.

But while Lobo remodelled, somewhere there, something of Constantine, something of Britain and something of comics had died.  In the tangle of the comicverse and the mysticism of Constantine, even the events of Hellblazer may not come to pass.

Perhaps this was the only move for a man who uses up every trick he can, who burned through every chance – and again, through every friend.  Perhaps there was nothing left for it.

And maybe that’s the power of the character, a skilful self-reinvention in the first person – a character large enough to meet his creator twice and more complicated than all the pages that he’s been recorded on.

But still, there’s a Constantine out there.  Constantines change, Constantines come and go, across the millennia, the Pennines and the DC Multiverse.   A couple of thousand years on from the Constantine dynasty, it’s a name that remains constant but fresh for reappropriation.

And rather brilliantly, it’s still open to pronunciation.

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