Tag: Marvel

Batman at 75: Ra’s al Ghul…The Dark Knight Villain to Beat

Ra's al Ghul Winner Batman

Ra's al Ghul Winner Batman

At the forefront of the campaign to bolster Batman’ darkness in the early 1970s, Ra’s al Ghul has taken a journey to the core of the Dark Knight’s story befitting the Demon’s Head himself. In fact, as Batman turns 75, could he have possibly become the indispensible Batman villain?  Spoilers guaranteed for those not up-to-date with Ra’s on screen and page…

HE’S NOT QUITE THE HOUSEHOLD NAME, BUT TAKE A MOMENT TO CONSIDER THE TALENT WHO HAVE PORTRAYED THE ENIGMATIC VILLAIN ON SCREEN IN THE LAST TWO DECADES…

David Warner, Peter Woodward, Oded Fehr, Lance Reddick, Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe (well, yeah), Jason Isaacs, Giancarlo Esposito, Don Leslie, Dee Bradley Baker, Steven Blum…

A mixed bag, but one stashed on the shelf of extreme quality, and he only made it out of the comics in 1992… 22 years on and it’s difficult to envisage a new iteration of Batman that doesn’t feature Ra’s al Ghul – from Christopher Nolan’s box office stomping Dark Knight trilogy to cash cow Arkham videogames. So, who is he and why has his media career mirrored his fictional rise?

Paper

Origin of the Demon

A villain every bit the Caped Crusader’s equal…

Ra’s first appeared in 1971, the creation of legendary creative team writer Denny O’Neill and artist Neal Adams and a reaction to the campery of the Batman TV series that had finished just a few years earlier.

Master criminal Fu Manchu, who had also recently completed his peak run on screen and 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – arguably the highlight of Blofeld’s cinematic exploits – fed into the creation of a villain every bit the Caped Crusader’s equal. Ra’s was a globe-trotting tour-de-force, albeit one who could engage all the key levels of Gotham’s first son. Ra’s ongoing mission was one that could reawaken Batman’s deduction, increase his international exploits, gift him a physical match and necessarily darker those shades of grey.

That creative dynamic duo not only succeeded in creating an effective and distinctive character, but one who quickly headed to the top tier of threat in the DC Comic Universe. In the pantheon of super villains he was soon established as a global threat who could not only hit Batman on multiple levels but also the Justice League of America.

In many ways, despite the lack of innate supernatural powers, he provides similar opposition to the Justice League of America as immortal mutant Apocalypse does to the X-Men, soon to be seen as the X-Men ‘s greatest cinematic threat yet. The 1996 Amalgam project even fused them into Ra’s Al-Pocalypse.

And in 1971 it all started with a girl…

The Demon’s Daughter

..>When he’s not dead or stark raving mad or both.

Batman’s girl that is. Ra’s first appearance, Batman 232’s Daughter of the Demon was a complicated trap to test the Dark Knight as a suitable suitor for his daughter Talia. Well, it was more a test to see if the man Talia was infatuated with was worthy. He was, earning Ra’s ongoing respect on the way. It’s no coincidence that this original plot was seized on at the start of the arc that ended Batman’s pre-New 52 run (RIP). Through strenuous canon-or-not debate, Talia and Wayne’s relationship resulted in a son, Damian, who in a few short years has become a well regarded part of the DC universe. On the al Ghul side, Talia wasn’t the subject of a forced or false marriage; the attraction was mutual, and so any machinations on Ra’s part were replaced with the fact that he had a point and was essentially open to logical reason.

And he often is, when he’s not dead or stark raving mad or both.

Eternal Mystery

Ripped straight from the pages of Dorian Gray…

That would be the supernatural coming in to play. There is the inherent mystery of the ill defined Arabia he hails from of course, and the inbuilt Bond villain / Fu Manchu army that comes as the head of the League of Assassins. Christopher Nolan would take this as an additional, or main, motivation for the Mantle of the Bat in his Dark Knight trilogy. But then there’s the immortality. He may be over 600 years old, but it’s actually a cheat. Ra’s rejuvenation comes from Lazarus Pits, chemical wells laid out on the ley lines of the Earth that grant the Demon’s Head life extension, at the cost of temporary insanity. A short spell of enhanced strength encourages the idea that these Pits are rabidly crazy ways to extend one’s life. There is also the hint that over use could lead to the gradual mental instability. Ra’s long life is ripped straight from the pages of Dorian Gray.

That gifts Ra’s not only a supernatural stint by default, tied into his motivation, but also a reason for his sporadic appearances. The New 52 played soft boot with the DC universe, changing the use of Lazarus Pits but retaining story points such as Ra’s apparent death in the 2004 storyline Death and the Maidens.

Eco-Terrorist

Tied into the fabric of Gaea, rightly or wrongly…

Ra’s is therefore mortal, and possibly couldn’t be ‘more of Earth’. From the off, his motivation has been humanity’s cradle itself; the achievement of balance that often necessitates the eradication of the majority of humanity. Unlike fellow ‘immortal’ Vandal Savage he does not seek mastership particularly, simply that balance. Often Ra’s methods are biological. Plagues and viruses in particular. When the concisely named DC Universe Animated Original Movies Doom replaced Ra’s with Vandal Savage as villain of their adaptation of the monumental Tower of Babel storyline it just didn’t feel as wholesome.

Of course, Batman himself meant that genome and lineage was tied into the Ra’s story from the start, and that has an overall impact. He’s tied into the fabric of Gaea, rightly or wrongly, and that can only reflect well and to the credit of Batman, the man suitable to be his heir. Just as the League of Assassins can be seen as a splinter of The Demon movement, the lineage of al Ghul or his children is utterly unknown. Recent years have seen the introduction of Talia’s older sister Nyssa Raatko and their White Ghost brother. Ra’s adds inflation to every storyline he’s brought near. World danger elevates any story and what is Gotham but a microcosm for the world?

Mirroring

His is not the equalling yang of Joker…

Perhaps most compelling is how Ra’s reflects the key facets of the man he honourably calls ‘The Detective’. He’s no slavish copy or inverted Man-Bat. Ra’s had soon deduced the Dark Knight’s true identity, although the secret could hardly be in better hands. While Batman’s alter-ego is to a degree open for exploitation, Ra’s own is lost in mystery and his relationship with The Detective based on a level of respect.

He respects Batman’s skill through the eyes of centuries of accumulated knowledge, which is no bad reference. And of course, he wouldn’t lead the League he does without considerable fighting prowess. His is not the equalling yang of Joker, the jealousy of Riddler nor the benchmarking of Bane. He’s a father-in law-in waiting and both have a grudging respect for the other’s methods and abilities.

As a Batman villain however, he requires a level of gothic grotesque. There’s no mistake he verges across his Arabic roots and British Empire, often portrayed by European actors. He’s a shadowy variant of Dickens as much as Wilde.

Relevance

With every passing day since his conception he becomes more relevant

His motivation is one made for the modern age. No matter any other consideration, Ra’s could not have been conceived as a villain of the Dark Knight in the late 1930s, but with every passing day since his conception he becomes more familiar and more integrated to the Dark Knight’s agenda. And the veracity of that has been proved on film more than anywhere else.

Batpull

Celluloid

A Theme for the Dark Knight

A major preoccupation for the trilogy

Following Batman and Robin, Ra’s was an eminently sensible villain for the Bat-franchise to pick-up. Untouched by previous films, breaking the TV series expectations of camp and classic villains, but also bringing a strong back story with good fan following but ripe for reinvention. Christopher Nolan fused him with Ducard, the French fighter who had trained young Bruce Wayne a decoy that totally threw me just as Ken Watanabe decoy fooled Bruce Wayne. It all worked rather well in a film I thought an otherwise underwhelming start.

It was a further surprise when it became apparent that Ra’s provided the thematic link of the Dark Knight trilogy. The surprise was lessened however, given Bane’s links to the al Ghul family in the comics and Marion Cotillard’s casting – just too perfect not to be Talia. The Dark Knight Rises had the pit, but there was no venom for Bane, no resurrection for Ra’s – except in the mind, a major preoccupation for the trilogy.

Fight Training

Chief educator of Queensbury Rules

An interesting offshoot was the need to retcon and revise Batman’s training. Post-New 52 there’s a clear tendency to build up Alfred’s role as Bruce Wayne’s chief educator of Queensbury Rules. Perhaps a natural conclusion as original fighting role model Wildcat and other Justice Society Members become increasingly less plausible 70 years on from World War II. In comics, this recently became apparent in Geoff John’s Earth One where Alfred Pennyworth is appointed head of security by Thomas Wayne. On the small screen, it will be pursued by Sean Pertwee’s role as Batman’s batman in Gotham, this time a former SAS officer.

It would also come to bear in Batman’s latest animated exploits, along with a certain mystical super villain…

Ras wcu

Beware the Bat

Ra’s makes a significant contribution…

A sad legacy of Beware the Batman is that it appears to have been shelved in Batman’s anniversary year.

The first solely CGI animated series, Beware the Batman was designed as a more serious reaction to the marvellously joyful and successful Silver Age campery of Brave and the Bold. After many continuous years of Batman stories, a more serious soap storyline in Gotham necessitated a shift. Robin was out, but in was a Katana ready to reference her traditional Outsiders role alongside Metamorpho.

The CGI created crisp, dramatic, fight scenes but there’s always something a little flat to my taste as you can read here. Care was made to make villains as grotesque and over the top as possible, yet never quite hits the high it should despite the interesting run of lesser known villains. In Catwoman’s place is stolen by Magpie, filling in for the Joker’s anarchy is, well, Anarky. Recent additions are Grant Morrison’s Professor Pyg and Toad, bringing a demented Wind in the Willows to town.

Fittingly for a show that was itself a reaction, Ra’s also makes a significant contribution. Again, the supernatural is deflected. There is no talk of Lazarus Pits, but Ra’s is transported in cryogenic suspension. The MacGuffin of the Soultaker sword is the chief nod to the mysticism surrounding him and proves to be his, probably not ultimate, downfall. His chief underling is Lady Shiva, in the comics another trainer of young Bruce Wayne. Here it is an aging Alfred who trained Batman, a former Mi6 agent who interestingly had previous with Ra’s. It’s strange to hear The Demon’s Head refer to the butler as Agent Pennyworth as much as the flashbacks to Alfred in combat action.

Post Dark Knight, something different is expected and Beware the Batman doesn’t falter. Ra’s huge Gotham-centred plot picks up some comic exploits, especially Knightfall, and when foiled it leaves a vacuum that inadvertently leads to Harvey Dent’s arrival and decent to Two Face.

The battle concluded, it now looks unlikely that we’ll see the war continue on that show. But with the cinematic reboot underway, it’s unlikely we’ll have to wait long for the League and The Demon’s Head to reappear. Although it’s unclear how the cinematic and rapidly expanding televisual adaptations of DC will fit together, Nyssa al Ghul (Raatko) has recently made an appearance in The CW’s Arrow described as the ‘child of Ra’s al Ghul’.

It’s a considerable nod to Ra’s al Ghul that it’s difficult to envisage a new iteration of Batman that will be able to resist him.

Advertisements

Star Wars: From the Empire to an Ankle Far, Far Away

Chewbacca Star Wars

Chewbacca Star Wars

A few mishaps, from broken bones to awkward Chancellors, showcase how well the Star Wars resurgence is actually going…

UPDATE [21/06/2014]: Since publication, it’s been revealed by none other than Harrison Ford’s publicist that the Hollywood icon actually broke his leg colliding with a door.  The plot thickens, although the Milennium Falcon is likely to remain a key part of this speculation despite its culpability looking increasingly unlikely.  Please feel free to read/re-read replacing the word ‘ankle’ with ‘leg’ where appropriate.  Get well soon Harri!

IT WAS THURSDAY NIGHT THAT THE SHOCKING NEWS BROKE. HARRISON FORD RUSHED TO HOSPITAL AFTER BEING CRUSHED ON NEW STAR WARS SET. It was alarming at the time, and although further details emerged almost immediately, it was still enough to make front pages the next day. Before it did, colour was added, the threat level reduced. Various people were changing the bulb.

First it was a door that had crushed the septuagenarian, then a hydraulic door, then the door – the hydraulic door of the Millennium Falcon itself! Then it emerged that his ankle had been crushed, then broken. Maybe both. Maybe by the hydraulic door of the Millennium Falcon and not a garage door… And that was where it ended. All the best to Harrison Ford for his recovery.

Return of the Myth

The mystery of Han Solo being crushed by the Millennium Falcon is another part of the curious publicity myth growing around the new Star Wars film. Unlike the prequels, this is being very much considered a film rather than a trilogy. It helps that some fine directors are being tapped up to direct stand-alone films that will slot into JJ Abram and Lawrence Kasdan’s new Star Wars trilogy. The pressures off in some ways, but then again, this first film is the flagship kick starting the largest franchise assault Hollywood has ever seen.

Ford’s ankle incident happened just a couple of days after George Osborne showed his best C3P0 stance next to R2D2, announcing that the new standalone Star Wars film would be shot in the UK alongside the main film. Played as ever, it’s clearly far more of a coup for Disney to secure filming in the UK, a nostalgic association with the first trilogy heightened when the prequels ignored it. It also make great financial sense to film the rolling franchise in one place, with Disney happily setting up a London branch of Industrial Light & Magic for long-haul deployment.

Return of the Phantom

At the end of the 20th century, there was a lot of buzz around the prequel trilogy. With a lengthy gap between the US and UK release of the first film, that continued well beyond The Phantom Menace’s US unveiling. From there, a little unaware of the nadir we were in or perhaps hopeful that it would all make sense, the other two films met with considerable but not stellar anticipation.

This time round it’s running differently. When Disney surprisingly swooped for Lucasfilm, they did it not for Indiana Jones or LucasArts but Star Wars. The House of Mouse was quick to establish that the Star Wars brand was underexploited. As those who wandered through the morass of post trilogy cartoons, videogames, Woolworths and Vodafone adverts knew, it wasn’t so much that the brand was underexploited, just not exploited with enough quality.

Return of the Heaveyweight

Disney’s game plan is reassuringly sensible and follows their shrewd work with the Marvel franchise. With their comic arm, they’ve not changed the film programme too much, just adding weight to draw bigger names, and hopefully the mild unravelling of Ant Man isn’t a sign that this will change. Even better, it’s taken a few years for Marvel animated films to come out – Big Hero 6 is the first this year. By wisely taking their time with both, while simultaneously making a host of announcements, the result is a more anticipated Star Wars made by a wonderful mix of old and new talent. And alongside the heavyweight returns of Hamill, Fisher, Ford, Daniels, Baker, Mayhew – there’s this recent, literal ‘break a leg’. And of course the fact it was Solo on board the Falcon.

This renewed rise and rise of Star Wars is clearly having an impact. That The Empire Strikes Back ranked first in Empire’s recent film poll can only be helped by the mounting promise of this new trilogy against the disappointment of the last.

Return of the Empire

That said, Empire‘s renewed standing also signifies the enduring quality of the film itself. In endless cycles, people praise then lambast the darkness of Episode V. It’s not all dark and certainly some of those darker moments, though effective, are a little incomprehensible. But there are opportunities that come with its position. It was fuelled by the unexpected success of its rather slow prequel, but not too much that commercial concerns could damage the story as they did with Return of the Jedi.

It shows the real strength of the middle film, the lack of a beginning results in the best set-piece in the trilogy, the lack of an ending creates a mysterious cliff-hanger that nobody could even speculate on. Years later, The Two Towers would pick up hints where it could with similar standing.

Following the rulebook, Empire spreads its wings, nicely dividing characters while introducing new ones neatly. There’s misdirection of course, classic themes of betrayal and love but mostly, an unbelievable scope. It moves from snow tundra to cloud city to the swamps of Dagobah. Against this, primal plots are laid, culminating in ‘that’ exchange and Luke’s fall.

Perhaps the best part is the talent. Remarkably consistent onscreen, behind the scenes which director could George Lucas turn to than his film school mentor Irwin Kershner? One of the best anecdotes from the original trilogy production is Lucas not believing screenwriter Leigh Brackett was actually she. Scripter of noir classics and classic adventures, she had a mean background in science fiction and Empire gave her the chance to combine those. The result of her collaboration with Kasdan was sublime dialogue including the “I know” exchange that sums it up. Empire is a rare beast, and easily the best Star Wars film thanks to its confidence and scope. All the while it never loses momentum unlike every other Star Wars film, and manages to set up a domestic tragedy on a galactic stage. The end scene is the family together, nuclear but not complete. And they’re overlooking a galaxy to boot. Brilliant.

When comparing the Star Wars Prequel trilogy with The Hobbit, it became clear that Star Wars had become unnecessarily constricted by Darth Vader’s success. Now we’re back, at least seemingly, with a trilogy that can write itself one at a time. There is no giant of the franchise that can derail it, but there is a clear sense that the right talent is being added in the right areas.

Excitement is building and there’ll be stranger tales told yet than Hans Solo and the Hydraulic Door of the Falcon.

Batman at 75: Dark Knights, Lite Knights & the Time of the Bat

Batman (alone) cartoon

It’s the time of the bat, haven’t you heard?  Although Tim Burton’s 1989 masterpiece turns 25 next month, no patient of Arkham Asylum can forget that it’s the leading character’s 75th birthday this month.  As he reaches that milestone it’s clear that the character’s in greater shape than ever.  How things have changed for the awkward outsider of comic book adaptation…

NEXT MONTH IS THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE RELEASE OF TIM BURTON’S BATMAN.  That film stands in the same short field as Jaws and Star Wars, creating a new wave of blockbuster movie-making.  That was when summer movies came out in June, not May and men were bats.  It’s worth nothing that Batman came it came only 14 years after Jaws and just six years after The Return of the Jedi.  It’s been a long 25 years of blockbusters since Jack Nicholson’s Joker laughed his last.

Infinitely more important is this month’s anniversary:  75 years since Bob Kane unleashed Batman into popular culture.  Yes, I know:  it’s unbelievable that Warner Brothers scheduled one month out from the Golden anniversary in 1989, but back then the reign of the comic film was a long way off.

In context, Tim Burton’s Batman was released a mere 21 years after the Batman TV series was pulled from the schedules.  In part, that enjoyably hokum show resigned batman to a camp scrapheap for some time.  It was the earnest work undertaken by comic creators such as Neal Adams and editor-in-excelsis Denny O’Neil that confronted that overpowering softening of Batman and created the chameleon of comics that we know today.  The result of their and others’ exemplary 1970s work were characters such as Ra’s al Ghul – a villain who has and remains at the core of modern Batman films and animated series.

Batman was released a mere 21 years after the Batman TV series

While good work was being undertaken on the printed page. Warner’s caped screen antics fell onto the super powered box office potential of Superman, ably filling the gap between 1978 and 1987, although not quite avoiding a dive into his own camp dreariness at the end.

Enduring Bat

Since 1989 though, Batman has barely been away from the screens, even if Joel Schumacher’s laughably credible third sequel Batman and Robin kept the Knight away for eight years.  Still, he clung on by the Batarang to the small screen.  From the incredibly influential Batman: The Animated Series, through Batman Beyond, Justice League (a commendably continuous animated universe under the guidance of Bruce Timm) and onto the current CGI trinket Beware the Batman (alongside countless spin-off movies).  Special mention must go to Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a wonderfully referential and good natured show that showcased a host of DC characters in three seasons between 2008 and 2011.  I’ve written at length about the quality of intention behind that show, but it could escape falling slightly foul of those intervening years between Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Of course Nolan’s universe was a not an easy fit for a cartoon, even though earlier series The Batman gave a half stab at the young Batman theory and Gotham Knight, prequel to The Dark Knight added a Matrix-style universe expansion.  As a result The Brave and the Bold proved once again, that a light knight will always bring a reaction.  I fear that show will be wrongly dismissed as frippery in the canon, but Beware the Batman makes a brave stab at obliterating it.

Beware the CGI

The Brave and the Bold proved again that a light knight will always bring a reaction…

Beware the Batman is an intriguing concept.  While the CGI is as hard to warm to as ever, it’s an interesting expansion in the fast evolving Bat-universe.  The ex-spy, glabrous Alfred signals the direction of Sean Pertwee’s upcoming ex-spy guardian in television series Gotham.  It’s a far cry from the classic pencil moustached Alfred of legend, Michael Gough’s four film stint and (presumably/hopefully) Jeremy Iron’s next big screen iteration.  Michael Caine of course, falls peerlessly in the middle.

While a character – and Outsider – with her own comic legacy, Katana still takes the role of a Robin here.  It’s really with its foes that Beware the Batman stakes its claim.  A series-long arc of villainy steers well clear of the well established rogues’ gallery – well, mostly.  Catwoman is missing, replaced with Magpie.  Arkham Asylum has less of a presence, Blackgate Prison more.  Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Anarky makes a welcome (re)appearance while the main fodder is supplied by the rather better known League of Assassins.  That brings Lady Shiva, though here she’s not addressed as one of Batman’s early mentors, and inevitably, Ra’s himself.  Ever since I first came across the long-lived, beardily eerie eco-terrorist I’ve been hooked – I’m not surprised that he forms a major part of both this and the Nolan trilogy.

Perhaps most interesting in this new animated series is the appearance of Grant Morrison’s Professor Pyg and Mr Toad (the latterly brilliantly voiced by Udo Kier I was delighted to see).  Yes, those fiends are rather differently presented than in their 2008 comic debut, but once again, the inclusion of Wind in the Willows shows just how well Gotham takes to being the land of fiction…

The glut of Batman in the last 25 years signals and creates one thing: confidence.  Warners didn’t seem put off by the relatively minor haul of 2005’s Batman Begins and that, er, wildcard Joker and patience proved astute when the sequel, the stand-out example of Batman on film, crossed $1 billion.

With Nolan, things changed.  While the comic scene has increased yet further, only Marvel has remained strong enough among blockbuster producers not to mine at least some of the perceived ‘dark realism’ of the Dark Knight trilogy.

Party like it’s 1989

That is and ever will be the Batmobile

True, Tim Burton’s Batman started a mini craze in 1989, but that was for blockbusters as Indiana Jones took a false-retirement.  A prime example of its impact being felt five years later was Russell Mulcahy’s extraordinary homage, The Shadow in 1994.  That example showed how definitively brilliant some part of Batman were.  It’s the late Anton Furst’s delectable production design meeting Tim Burton’s singularly artistic vision and bold casting that made that legend.Batman - and Robin

With this week’s reveal of Zack Snyder’s new Batmobile, it’s no surprise that immediate thoughts turn to Anton Furst’s superior 1989 design,

just as the late 2000s had everyone wishing that the Tumbler would develop that same sleek aesthetic.  That is and ever will be the Batmobile.  And Batman versus Superman’s design seems to acknowledge that debt.

It’s undeniable that Burton’s Batman made that one crucial mistake: giving Batman ultimate revenge for the death of his parents, credit for which screenwriter Sam Hamm lays with Burton.  That redemption set the franchise up for a fall, not to provide Joel Schumacher any excuses.  It meant that in the three successive films, no matter who wore the cowl, Bruce Wayne had to retread and uncover further trauma in his earlier tragedy.  Last decade Nolan got it right. Well, apart from that ending, but let’s just call that an Inception moment.

 

The Comics are Coming

Comic book movies cannot and will not ever over-saturate

Since that film kicked off Batman on the big screen (really, it did), he hasn’t left us.  But his is a celluloid history often slightly removed from comic book trends.   It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t Sam Raimi’s very successful Spiderman trilogy that kicked off the comic film boom in 2002, nor Bryan Singer’s stable if under-powered X-Men two years before.  That honour belongs to Stephen Norrington’s Blade in 1998.  A well made but under-sold film of the titular Marvel character, it opened up the box office for the super-powered assault we see today.  And crucially, just to futilely banish those same suggestions made each year: comic book movies cannot and will not ever reach over-saturation.

And Wesley Snipes’ Blade sliced into cinemas just one year after Batman and Robin had supposedly stopped the comic trend cold. Mr Freeze cold.  But although Batman wasn’t there during those early years of Marvel taking a foothold through three different studios, Warners were still simmering in their bat cave.

At the turn of the century Miles Millar and Alfred Gough III pitched an idea for a young Bruce Wayne television series, but Warners dismissed it, eager to pursue the Dark Knight’s more lucrative career on the big screen.  That series morphed into the incredibly successful Smallville.  It wasn’t that Superman wasn’t box office property, but it seemed that Nic Cage’s pay-or-play contract for Tim Burton’s aborted Superman Returns had burnt them a little more than Batman ever could.  Either that or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was really far worse than Batman and Robin.  Well…

Traits of the Batmen

The Dark Knight’s one simple appeal keeps him relevant

Nonetheless, Smallville’s 10 seasons happened because Warners’ aspirations for Batman on film signalled a brand conflict.  14 years later, it couldn’t be more different.  We live in a universe of multiple batmen.  New animated series are lined up to reboot the last when their natural lives conclude.  Gotham will bring us classic villains before they’d even heard of Arkham and Jim Gordon before he grew a moustache.  And at the flicks, Ben Affleck’s Batman takes on the Man of Steel in what must be one of 2016’s big hitters.  And that’s not even including the wildly successful Arkham videogame series, it’s Lego counterpart and the Caped Crusader’s constant appearances in the well produced line of DC Universe Animated Original Movies.

So why the increasing multiplicty?  Well, you can read why Batman’s a fascinating character, if not quite with the potential of Superman, here.  But some clear indicators lie in his key traits.  There’s the inherent darkness, the Jekyll and Hyde, the fact he’s the world’s greatest detective and most dangerous human (modern adaptations suggest that the great detective’s morphing more into Batman than the other way around). There’s the fact that he’s mortal, he’s a playboy, he has the greatest rogues’ gallery in comics, many representing a psychological disorder or primal instinct.  He’s a bat, that atavistic and distinctive symbol conjuring up vampires, darkness, base fear… He’s the protector, the winged guardian angel who overcomes all odds…

But really it’s the Dark Knight’s one simple appeal that keeps him relevant – it’s that alluring 101 to psychological damage that stands him alone as a character who can carry this off.  Batman exists in multiple guises at the same time because that is what the character is.  When he doesn’t, he’s diminished.  Not even Warren Ellis did that in Planetary…  But his guardian’s increasingly realise it.  And in each and every guise, the Dark Knight stands watch over the ultimate fictional city.  That once and maybe never were New York, Gotham.

A great figure in the Batman story, Darwyn Cooke’s 75th anniversary animated tribute get’s it about right, with a fitting and good spoonful of other pop culture to go with it.  As that shows, Batman’s in very good health this 75th birthday and as more and more share the Mantle of the Bat, it’s certain that he’s going to be with us a good while yet.

Now, time for a Batrospective…

Marvel: Phase 2 – One of our Tanks is Missing

Oron Man The Winter Soldier
Tony Stark iron Man

The Winter Soldier is coming…

Spoilers aplenty in a look at cinematic Marvel mid-way through its second phase.

AS CAPTAIN AMERICA ENDS HIS SECOND TOUR OF DUTY ON THE BIG SCREEN, IT’S CLEAR THAT THE REIGN OF MARVEL WILL LAST A LONG TIME YET.  Having ridden high in charts and critical approval, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has secured over $680 million for the House of Mouse/Ideas at time of writing.  That’s far in excess of its rather cool pre-Disney predecessor, but it’s hardly a stealthy Hydra take-over.  The Winter Soldier comes in the middle of Marvel’s cinematic Phase 2: The second stage of the cinematic wonder of the modern age that’s constantly exceeded expectations as it’s risen from the gamma irradiated shell of The Avengers like a… well, never mind…

As the greatest motion picture phenomenon of recent times, it’s hard to recall the early years of this millennium when Marvel endured constant financial woe as Captain America ushers in August’s unknown quantities: The Guardians of the Galaxy.

If this new, fully Disney wave of Marvel films pushes any word it’s ‘sophistication’

How quaint and prosaic The Avengers looks now.  In Phase 2, only Thor failed to grasp the complicated cross-fire of ‘the laws of sequel’ – a fact its $644 million haul hides nicely.  On the whole Marvel has risen to the challenge with all the properties coming back louder, sharper, less in awe of their creative roots, brasher, higher budget and reasonably, far more economic with it.  If this new, fully Disney wave of Marvel films pushes any word it’s ‘sophistication’.  And that’s less reflective of shrewd business acumen on Disney’s part than their belief in consolidating brands.  With Phase 2 and 3 likely not only to bring out of contract franchise heavy weights like Downey Jr back into the fold but also introduce the likes of Robert Redford and Michael Douglas, there’s no doubt Disney’s presence has oiled some tricky wheels.  Downey Jr’s return for more than Avengers 2 and 3 is a must…

The Military PhaseTank meets Incredible hulk

A year ago, prior to Phase 1’s beginning, I watched all the Marvel films (in film-chronological order of course).  Here’s the proof!

The one thing that struck me about Phase 1 was how incredibly militarily-led it is.  The Hulk needs a tank to smash, Stark needs weapons to develop…  The armed forces are one heavy and consistent element.  The funny thing is that in spite of General Ross’ best efforts, the military had never ranked highly in my impression of Marvel before.  I signed off that long and four-colour day with the start of Phase 2.  And what a start.

Multiplicity

Marvel Studios looked as though they could recreate the unbelievably prolific zeitgeist of the 1960s

Iron Man 3 sits atop the franchise, an incredibly enjoyable and satisfying piece of film-making that has set the bar of incredibly high for Edgar Wright’s Phase opening Ant Man in 2015.  That second sequel took almost as much as its two prequels combined.  Even the mildly disappointing, drearily samey Thor: The Dark World took almost $200 million more than its predecessor.  But with the mid-way point that catches up with Captain America, there’s more than greys, mystery and cliff-hangers; there’s the undiscovered country of an untested and unfamiliar property in the realm of consistent half billion films.  But then the modern Marvel reign begun with, if not quite the unfamiliar, the little known.  Iron Man dwarfed the near-released Hulk (always a paler shade of green on the big screen) and set a trend for surprise that cinematic Marvel should never, ever forget.  As unlikely as it seemed, Marvel Studios looked as though they could recreate the unbelievably prolific zeitgeist of Lee, Kirby, Ditko and co in the 1960s…  Well, until they were shrewdly swallowed up by Disney.  As much as Marvel wears the amalgam of its cinematic universe as an iron suit, it’s that overarching connectivity that’s crucial.

Galactic Storm

Incredible Hulk meets TankIn 2014, Guardians has set down a confident space gauntlet with its brash teaser trailer.  The style’s not a massive surprise considering the overall Marvel approach, the original property and director James Gunn’s CV.  It’s aping of The Usual Suspects – especially considering its near release to Bryan Singer’s X Men: Days of Future Past shouts confidence and its musical recall to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs cuts an interesting ‘70s/’90s vibe. The casting is satisfyingly leftfield, with two box office heavyweights supplying larynxes alone.  Reilly and Serafinowicz add some left-field lightness, although he less said about that trailer sign-off the better.

Winter has come

It looks like Guardians will be a far cry from Captain America’s second dry rollercoaster.  Robbed of the Second World War setting its main nods came in Philadelphia Experiment style poignancy.  Just scraping through on the make-up, Peggy Carter’s role seemed more about the potential spin-off series than as balance to the return of Bucky Barnes or any potential (comic-inspired) romance between Cap and her niece, the fleeting Sharon Carter in The Winter Soldier.

Cap’s second outing left some dry in the cinema but nonetheless managed to wow the critics to a praise just sat between Iron Man 3 and Thor 2.  And that’s just about right.

Aside from Carter, so many elements seemed  far too bolted on for what prides itself as a cohesive universe.  Toby Jones’ return was canonically fair enough but lacked some necessary anchor without any significant World War II flash backs.  There were neat lines (yes, the internet’s “helpful”) but even some witty understatement came up short against Whedon’s one-liners and baseball cards in The Avengers.

Nods to other films were frequent.  The excellently executed hijack reconnaissance kicked the film off like an espionage thriller classic while reintroducing and showcasing the impressive skills of the superheroes, and master spies, in SHIELD’s ranks.  With cracks appearing early, the film doesn’t let up on references as it powers on.

The film ends in pure Independence Day territory

For the first half of the film, cloudless, large, blue skies dominate frames in the Triskelion, a stark blank canvas that all the players are exposed against.  Unveiling that kind of conspiracy in bright daylight is a tricky thing to pull off, but it works.  Unfortunately, early Mission: Impossible allusions grow when the old ‘hero turned rogue’ line is wheeled out.  It’s a hackneyed plot device no matter the plot requirement.  It takes many pages from the M:I text book, especially the latter two entries that strongly follow the clean-cut, cash-cow JJ Abrams method.  Add in the double-crossing elder statesman and you’re dredging up all manner of films from Judge Dredd to Minority Report.  By the end, after an epic vista hinted at by the Inception-like score, the film ends in pure Independence Day territory.  The ‘spaceship’ take down’, where the individual craft have to be boarded separately and sabotaged is videogame plotting, not film.  That’s no slight, it just hints at the demands of a mechanic beyond simple, strong storytelling.

The Winter Soldier, for all its confident staging and well-drilled, hard-hitting set-pieces, contained huge and unforgivable gaps in between its references.  The comparison to Iron Man is unflattering.

Admittedly The Winter Soldier brings us the third dose of a monumentally dull character.  The super-serum did not generate charisma and an automatic weakness against Stark.  Such a noble lack of magnetism is no bad thing, just ask Superman, but means the script and plot have to work harder.  While The Avengers utilised each member’s opposition well (in life outlook, politics and ability – drawing on long held comic tradition), Black Widow doesn’t quite get mean enough in The Winter Soldier.

There’s plenty to be mined from Cap’s new indoctrination into SHIELD, but the organisation is disbanded far too soon to dig into it.  Of course, the whole plot paves the way for a Civil War storyline in about two Avengers time but it doesn’t play to any of Cap’s strengths bar the ‘living embodiment of good’ facet.  Indeed, the most fun Cap has takes place in the opening scene as he laps the soon to soar again Falcon.  So, what can you do with the the ultimate goody two-shoes (see about the other one here)?

An out and out dinosaur fascist

Millar had a simple approach in The Ultimates, the comic series that has played inspiration for much of Marvel’s cinematic forays: make him an out and out dinosaur fascist.  “Surrender? Does this A stand for France” yells Cap at a Nazi Chitauri in a pivotal scene of the first volume.  Such playful, and doleful caricaturing couldn’t wash on the big screen of course – there’s no room for that political speculation in this post-HYDRA world.  All the while, Stark can still play rampant with the personal and double-professional.

A full-on satire on super-costumery

And onto Cap’s Rhodes, the new Bucky.  Falcon is well, if conveniently realised.  The unforgivable part is the wing suit.  Inexplicably left in his care, it works like a dream, as does his exit from post-combat trauma.  Compared to his fellow iron-comparator, the evolution of the Iron Man suit (and combat stress) was used beautifully in Iron Man 3.  By the end, director Shane Black not only had his preference of keeping Downey Jr out of the suit and in a  buddy-cop duo, not only introduced the Hulk-Buster armour, but provided a full-on satire on super-costumery at the same time.  The Winter Soldier showed huge gaps in logic and set-up, understandable if it’s taking on an impossibly large and far-reaching) conspiracy.  Instead, its strength came in unravelling. And it was mighty good at that.

Hulk smash puny Tank - Pantone 348 (Angry)

Disassemble

The Mandarin is the real masterstroke

Increasingly it’s clear how bereft Iron Man 2 is in the Marvel cinematic universe. Robbed of the originality and surprise its simple forbear had, IM2‘s obsession with sewing SHIELD into the franchise and assembling the Avengers was a mistake, no matter how much a guilty pleasure the glimpse of that “that shield” was .

A few films and one Phase on, The Winter Soldier manages to take SHIELD apart far more skilfully than Iron Man 2 put it together.  That’s underlined by Gary Shandling’s rather wasted cameo in both.

While The Winter Soldier looked to recent successes and 70s intrigue while Iron Man 3 was focussed on the 1980s. While both the films looked at soldier technology to provide an opposition (one more Goth than the other), both used the comfort of the sequel to turn to recent comic book runs.  It’s a welcome development, but overall, that Mandarin twist (real or not) is the real masterstroke.

Dropped SHIELD

So, SHIELD is no more and the middling television spin-off looks like a ruse of great craft.  We still have Fury of course, now rogue himself and a little more perforated.   However, considering their own demise, how much neater if the antagonists had not been HYDRA but simply an opposing faction of SHIELD.  Too heated, too institution-baiting?  Sometimes the films can’t touch the comic’s ambitions and that’s the power of the printed page.

Summer Steel

Iron Man 3 may be one of the greatest 80s action films of all time.

Away from SHIELD and the Avengers (perhaps its real strength), Phase 2-opening Iron Man 3 remains the film to dethrone.

That film was more than another Downey Jr show, as crucial he was to its success.  Shane Black seemed a risk but if he was, he was a necessary one.  That Black’s CV is replete with that first script sale of Lethal Weapon, the excellent Downey Jr-starring Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang and his infamous script notes is good enough – you need to inject a film franchise built on the left-field with an edgy risk  and the result was the fifth highest grossing film of all time.

It could well have been Axel Foley…

Yes, it turned out that Black was exactly the guy.  John Favreau did an excellent job with the first Iron Man, but the second instalment stalled badly.  After the franchise created its own HYDRA so early on, Joss Whedon and Shane Black brought us gloriously and insanely well cast films, with crafted plot twists and great slabs of nostalgia.  Iron Man 3 is so nostalgic it may well be one of the greatest 80s action films of all time.  It wasn’t just the Black and Downey Jr re-match, it was that strong blending of 80s sensibility with the greatest current trend.  Iron Man 3’s littered with it.  Of course it’s most blatant in the  Riggs and Murtaugh buddy ending as sans-suits Stark and Rhodes take on the villain with gun in hands.  But there’s also the gratuitously silly villains’ lair scene.  Before the Mandarin is un-, or perhaps, re-masked, it could well have been Axel Foley striding around the villa, knocking out the sunglass wearing/machine gun toting sentries one at a time.  Utterly superb.  I can only hope that Stark put a banana in a few car exhausts as well.

The finale, similar to 2010’s The A-Team’s port-side knock-out, received a bashing on release but it wasn’t a question of money.  New York, San Francisco and Washington can be pulverised again and again film, but Man of Steel showed how one building may as well be a cargo pod.  Here the real emphasis was on suite of suits itself.  The Iron man films have captured the evolving suits well, each a facet of Stark’s life.  From the fleeting Hulk-Buster to the current version, triangle or circular arc, the empty suit is a motif every bit as powerful as the Batman/Bruce Wayne/ Mask/real dynamic that Batman films have been playing with for many years.

Turning Points

Bringing the loose association and gravity of the actors’ past roles

All the Phase 2 films have showed the well of resource and imagination that Marvel has to draw on for its movies; over five decades worth.  But it was Iron Man 3 and Cap 2 that really ran with it, both picking up direct, if highly modified, storylines.  Considering the links, it’s surprising how loosely some Marvel themes are set up – or perhaps it’s a neat homage to the 60s mentality that signalled the House of Idea’s most fertile time.  There’s also a real sense that Marvel want to strongly establish their films in the history of celluloid.  Casting the likes of Redford and Douglas helps, bringing the loose association and gravity of their past roles.  Like Watchmen, Douglas’ announcement as Hank Pym suggests that he’s very much passing the mantle of the atom on to Ant Mna – unless he’s a previous Giant Man, or Yellow Jacket…  The real question is: who gets the Wasp?

Divergent Futures

Accelerated or expected ‘twists’ of potential

Before the franchise goes intergalactic once again, The Winter Soldier’s biggest contribution may not be the dissolution of SHIELD but its clear design on the 21st century.  Here was its own Iron Man 2 moment – after all, which Marvel film can risk standing still?  In a scene a little too tell not show, the real pattern for future  films was laid down. It’s a hook with a nicely sinister overtone, whether HYDRA succeeded or not (they couldn’t have wiped out all the potential…). Von Strucker’s closing cameo shows that the next century had been unlocked by their prophecy of potential.  It was almost distracting to hear Stephen Strange get a mention, not that Cap blinked at it.  If Strange already exists, he may well not be ‘active’ (met the Ancient One) and yet destined to become the Sorcerer Supreme.  Similarly the twins look to dodge the mutant bullet.  There are potentially no mutants in the marvel universes, simply accelerated or expected ‘twists’ of potential.

I can’t see Marvel be happy running without mutants.

For external reasons, it was important to get the Scarlet Witch and her speedy brother in before Fox’s Marvel X-Films latched onto Quicksilver.  Whether mutant or brought to ‘potential’, the final shot makes it clear that little in the Marvel universe will change.  That closing, chilling sight of a deranged Scarlet Witch left no doubt that the story is heading every bit the way the comics did prior to House of M, mutants or no.  And I can’t see Marvel be happy running without mutants.

Matrix-style thread of choice and destiny now runs through Marvel like a candle wick and it’s welcome. Iron Man showed you don’t always need to call on The Avengers, Thor opened up space while Captain America left all bets either very wide open or unbelievably constrained.  The Marvel cinematic universe is built on risk and long may that continue.

%d bloggers like this: