Tag: Superman

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.

Man of Steel I: “Some time ago a friend asked me a question…”

MOS1

Prologue

SOME TIME AGO A FRIEND ASKED ME A QUESTION…
            I say a friend… It was what you might call an interview of sorts, held once a week, often in the same room.  The walls of that room were half wet brick, half new stone and where they met dark pools stole the corners.  In an ocean of dark, in the middle of an impossible room, a bright white light fell in a spiralling cone onto a circular table from a cord lamp.  The long electric twine sneaked up to the ceiling, presumably…  Lost as it was in the dark and wrapped in a barbed wire of crisp dead leaves.   Below I sat patiently and immobile as always, as in front of me long, thin, white hands laid playing cards on the table.  One by one the cards went down, the bony wrists snaking purposefully from loose orange cuffs.  Within three cards the question was asked.

Chapter I

It was a question that had long trod many a scattered page of Action Comics #1 into the dust ground.
            “Batman vs Superman? Everyone says Batman…  why?! For the sake of argument, let us assume that Superman is not playing nice anymore…  Maybe Batman killed Lois to piss him off …  So we have, bloodthirsty Superman vs Batman ….  who’d win?”
            My response wasn’t circumspect in the swirling light.  The comic traditions are quite clear and I said it:
            “It’s Batman! It’s Batman! It’s always Batman!”
            I paused.
            “Look at Dark Knight Returns…” I continued, quickly rejecting the idea that Batman would kill Lois Lane to, er, piss Superman off – “The stories are more likely to show a dystopian tilt (or exacerbation) of the American state, sufficient enough to bring the two opposing super-ideologies to blows.”  I pointed out that Batman is “the most dangerous man on Earth” as a Jack of Diamonds was laid flat.
            In return I laid out some proof.  I referred to the late twentieth century JLA, a series that began with Grant Morisson’s freshening up of the Justice League.  Not only did this hark back to the League’s original line up, but injected reverence and hard sci-fi back into the League itself with excellently plotted and seminal stories.  It was particularly impressive as that run started out with the Transformed ‘Lectric Superman of the ‘90s, a storyline that was red, external, pants.
            “Heh”.

Chapter II

Early in that JLA relaunch, one story was the oft told tale of benevolent aliens who hide a sinister plan: New World Order.  It was simple and derivative to a point, but sold on its climax.  The powerful aliens’ takedown of the JLA was a great, concise reintroduction to the core League members: Atlantean Prince Aquaman and Amazon Goddess Wonder Woman, imaginative power ring wielder Green Lantern (at the time the inexperienced Kyle Rayner) and Scarlet Speedster the Flash , Enigmatic telepath J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter and of course heavy hitters Superman and Batman.  In New World Order, Having subdued the metahumans of the League, the villainous aliens dismissed the escaped Caped Crusader as a mere mortal, failing to abide Superman’s stern warnings to the contrary.
            Inevitably, the puny flying rodent man takes them all down with extreme prejudice.  Grant Morrison’s gleeful storytelling was realised in Howard Porter’s sublime artwork, and it just got better – typically deeper, mythic, sprawling and metaphysical.  Later stories such as Mark Waid’s brilliant Tower of Babel continued the good work on the Dark Knight, channelling Batman’s personality (disorders) through the centre of the League’s stories – an un-galactic, City focussed philosophy is not easy to reconcile with a moon-headquartered global superteam.
            Tower of Babel was recently adapted as the animated film Doom, where Batman’s measured but paranoid, pre-prepared defensive strategies to take down each of his team mates if they turn ‘rogue’ were stolen and used with devastating consequences.  It split the League in the comics (Divided they Fall) – and it’s that moral approach to life, the tension between the Alien, the Goddess and the Man (the trinity) that powers the Justice League concept.  That’s where Batman vs Superman originally comes from, two ideologies.  Two ideologies that often end in a punch up.
            This time the lean white fingers lay down a King of Clubs.
            And Batman often wins.
            “So there’s the answer,” I said. 
There’s a long history of Batman trashing Superman in the comics – Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is a key example.  The recent videogame Injustice: Gods Among Us brought the same argument into living rooms – and the result of Batman victorious brought disbelief, surprise, umbrage and bewilderment – but the fact remains that Batman does often win.  And he often wins because he cheats. What else is Batman but a cheater?  A cheater with good reason he may be, but a cheater he is.  “Supes may be the most powerful being on the planet, but Bats is the most dangerous human.”
            The lamp had stopped swirling, the hands had stopped moving.

Chapter III

Across from me, each white hand lay palm down to the table, sequential Royal Clubs laid out in front.   The hands’ owner had a follow-up.
            “I was hoping you’d have some argument for Superman but I suppose… It is Batman then.”  I had won, was it as easy as that?  No, of course not.
            “How about this – who do you like more …  Batman or Superman?”
            The opening line was loaded like a joke gun.  In the calming light I saw the hint of a spreading grin.  This I knew: Batman may be the most dangerous mortal on Earth, but Superman is still the one to which all superheroes aspire.  And with good reason.
            Superman, last son of Krypton is a multi-layered enigma that has gradually built up over 80 years…  A myth mist that defines him as the greatest and definitive invention in superherodom, but has also consigned him to an irrelevant, and unfashionable sometime box-office mope in the past.
            The first returns of Man of Steel seem to have washed away the cobwebs of apathy that have surrounded the figure for too long.  With a Nietzschean nickname hanging precariously over an overgrown boy scout persona – with a generally mainstream repellent ‘alien’ origin to boot – the 21st century hasn’t been kind to Superman.
            I was broken from my reverie by a white blur.
            A King of Diamonds had joined its cousins on the table.
            It was time for a change of location.

(to be continued…)

Batman: The Lite Knight (The Dark Knight Rises part one)

Batman and Superman - Public Enemies

Batman (alone) cartoon

As the final part of the Dark Knight Trilogy rises into homes, the first of two posts on the most successful superhero trilogy of all time.  First, a look at how much of Batman was in the Dark Knight.

LIKE MOST OF A TIME-CONSTRAINED POPULATION who didn’t see The Dark Knight Rises nine times on the big screen, I’m still a little conflicted about whether Return of the Dark Knight is quite as good as The Joker Strikes Back.

In a year of many faint praise reviews, most critics tussled with rewarding The Dark Knight Rises (DKR) as a film in its own right or as the end of a rather impressive trilogy.  Most went with the latter.  The same happened with the final part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy of course, but I doubt DKR will challenge that on the Oscar front.  However, as with The Return of the King, if DKR does come up a little short in its own right, then it doesn’t by much.  Because an impressive trilogy it is.

The Dark Knight trilogy differed from other Batman films in one crucial respect

Seldom has such a fully formed universe been realised consistently on celluloid, regardless of genre – especially 15 short years since the franchise was creatively bankrupted.  In fact, what Chris Nolan has achieved is incredible.  Until The Avengers, his Dark Knight saga was the superhero franchise to emulate.  In the last few years, many new films have sought to describe where they sit on the Dark Knight scale as part of their publicity splurge.  Only Marvel’s Avengers were collectively strong enough to swim against those ‘darker’ waters.  But while The Dark Knight made billions, Batman had already been making millions in his other iterations in the preceding decades.  Upon it’s release, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman had a similar influence, albeit in a less superhero saturated market, on many films such as Russell Mulcahy’s Shadow five years later.

Now the Nolan trilogy has concluded, Batman will again be rebooted and repackaged by another creative team for further assaults on the box office.  In 20 years, a complete Batman box set may well include UV copies of the Dark Knight trilogy with four other films either side of it.  Even if the imminent reboot proves disappointing, it will still be unclear how significant the seven year reign of this Dark Knight will prove to be.  There is however, one real problem which was not so much acknowledged in the DKR, but integral to it.  As successful, deep and even epic as the films are, they differed from other Batman films in one crucial respect.  They weren’t really about Batman.

The Bat Begins

To be clear, the Dark Knight trilogy is a great achievement and a fitting chapter for a deservedly cultural icon.  Countless comparisons that can be made to other trilogies, both better and far worse, illustrate that.  However, while many may struggle to decide which their favourite part is, one thing is clear: I still remember how I felt when I walked out of Batman Begins (BB) in 2005.  That feeling marks me apart from many who’re tussling with the question of favourites: I didn’t think it was all that.

Seven years and one concluded trilogy later, that feeling has abated slightly.  A few of my apprehensions dwindled and actually a lot of them were blown completely out of the Bat cave.  But still, a few niggles remained.  Something wasn’t quite right.

I was partly to blame and some of my reasoning was clearly restrictive: I perhaps didn’t want to like BB because there were already good Batman films in existence, particularly the Burton duo, and there will undoubtedly be more good versions in the future.  This was reinforced by the fact that it didn’t really feel like a Chris Nolan film.  I was already quite a fan of Nolan’s work.  Memento and Following were wonderful and his Insomnia remake even better.  In BB Nolan’s touch seemed very light.  There was a typical Nolan totem true, here in the form of Wayne senior’s stethoscope, but nothing so personal as those that appeared in the director’s previous films or would be subsequently developed in the sublime Prestige and perhaps reach their ultimate form in the incredible Inception (both of which fed considerably into The Dark Knight (TDK) and DKR respectively).  But it wasn’t so much that Nolan’s hand was lessened as much as perhaps both his hands were tied.  It was a massive studio IP…  And it was an origin film to begin with.

No Batman fan should have any problem with another retelling of the Caped Crusader’s origin.  I probably read the Bob Kane original twice a year or so – it’s only two pages, so I can generally stretch to it – but in BB, as integral as it was, it fell a little flat.  BB was the third celluloid retelling of Batman’s origin in 16 years, and while repetition may contribute to a malaise, it rather its mishandling by multiple previous creative teams that cast a long shadow.

The otherwise sublime 1989 Batman was ruined by one thing: once the Burton/Keaton Batman had killed the man who killed his parents, the character’s motivation was gone.  There my still be crime in Gotham, but on a personal level the Waynes’ murder had been avenged: Bruce may well have just moved to the Med with Catwoman.  The Bat franchise, no matter how loosely connected, struggled on with this pretty significant problem for the best part of a decade.  It prompted a virtual remake in Batman Returns (1991), a laboured origin flashback in Batman Forever(1995) and then, well… Maybe it would have helped with Batman and Robin (1997).  It was hardly a problem that dogged the 1940s or 1960s films which concentrated on crime rather than the psychology of the character but of course, that treatment  was no longer acceptable in the 21st century (outside cartoons).  The Nolan-machine duly made sure that the same problem wouldn’t surface in BB and in fact this facet and its open ended-complications fed into the film and its sequels at every level.  Indeed, Nolan’s recent comments confirm that it was linked to the overall and concluding theme of the trilogy.

In the Dark Knight Trilogy Batman never stopped beginning

But for all the acceptance of the Batman origin being paramount, and requiring constant reinforcement, there are times where it has to develop.  The comics have battled with this for years and necessarily come up with all sort of answers.  Among them have been the introduction of Robin (several times), faceted villains (the al Ghul’s) and an extended Bat family (all the way to the Justice League).  In the Dark Knight Trilogy however, Batman never stopped beginning.

War of Attrition

The Tumbler was never going to streamline into the Tim-Burton-mobile…  Hits you like a grappling hook

BatpullThere were aggravating factors in BB’s version of Batman’s origin that were easier to dismiss.  If so inclined, you could buy into the Tumbler as the first of a long lineage of Batmobiles which would eventually become the Tim-Burton-Mobile when Batman grew up.  But that Batman never came.  The Tumbler was never going to streamline into the Tim-Burton-mobile.  A fact that can hit you like a grappling hook.

Personally, I always found far more interest in the mature Batman locked in his role as guardian of Gotham City, rather than the many accounts of his origins. The guardian Batman is one built into the fabric of his city, locked into an unending fight against crime not by just one tragedy, but many and constant tragedies which continue to curse him to endlessly paper over an abyss he could fall into at any time.  It’s a war of attrition and there is always the possibility that he might not win.  Melodramatic and gothic it may be, buy many of those ideas surface in every iteration of Batman.  While the Nolan films did tap into those elements, the attrition and the multiple tragedies, in the course of the trilogy they served to stop him beginning.

Time should be as inconsequential as plot holes when it comes to works of fiction, but in the Dark Knight Trilogy, it’s an integral part of the story.  BB covers the longest stretch of time, even disregarding the flashbacks to young Bruce, as the 20s Wayne develops his Kevlar persona.  Then, despite a great sequel hint, TDK certainly doesn’t take place immediately after BB.  The world’s greatest detective clearly thought a playing card call sign bank robber quite inconsequential.  Gotham Knight, the canonical animated film that led into TDK bridged the gap by showing a still fresh faced Batman tackling comic mainstay Killer Croc in the sewers.  It was a minor miracle to fit that villain into the Nolanverse, but it’s only real contribution to the ongoing story was to establish Arkham as an island.  It surely can’t have been too long following that before Batman faced the Joker, and Two-Face’s cameo (but really, what else can you do with that character on film)  and then immediately take an eight year hiatus, or as he saw it, retirement.  Instead of operating as a vigilante, DKR reveals that Batman just disappeared, the main cause being the second great tragedy of his life rather than the GCPD.  In DKR, we catch up with Wayne in his 30s, but after eight years out of the game, he isn’t the iconic and controlling force the comics show at that stage of his life.  The fact he’s still beginning is something DKR’s plot reinforces.  The cop chase resembles those against a young vigilante, he’s still meeting and greeting villains and crucially, one consequence of a Batman stuck as a rookie is inescapable.  He has a great need for father figures, something Nolan provides in plenty.

Each father figure in the Dark Knight trilogy carryies a virtue of Batman

Those father figures are hardly new in Batman, in fact they’ve been rather integral over the last 70 years.  But here they are extended to the maximum, with each father figure carrying a virtue of Batman: Alfred is Bruce’s wisdom and conscience.  Ra’s provides drive and revelation that lasts the trilogy.  Gordon is the inspiration, clarity and motivation.  Then of course there’s Lucius Fox.  The gadgets and toys that once invoked jealousy in the Joker take on a different role in the Nolanverse.  They are a visceral definition of Batman, Bruce Wayne and Wayne Enterprises.  In fact, they so define Batman that he can’t function without Fox, even when he’s lost Alfred and Gordon.  The Wayne legacy of money can be easily disposed of on the stock market, but Thomas Wayne bestrides the trilogy in forms far beyond that incident int hat alley.  It’s not an ineffective take on Batman by any means, and it certainly creates a nuanced and layered hero for Nolan to work with.  In fact, it’s also neat get out of the Robin issue.  You can’t have a Robin mentored by a Batman, when the Dark Knight himself is still Robin.

But of course, when you share Batman out among a load of different characters, there is little left of Bruce Wayne.  And perhaps that’s the point.  Nolan has recently stated that the intended conclusion was to develop the concept that anyone can be a Batman (also neatly quashing the rumours of Gordon-Levitt taking on the mantle in the future).  It’s effectively realised in the trilogy, but again ensures the Batman of prolonged attrition would never appear.  It could be argued that in film’s natural narrative shortening, Bane’s impressive isolation of Gotham condenses decades of that attritional war from the comics – it certainly references several story lines.  But it was crucially Nolan’s decision to remove Batman from the frame for eight years and allow Gotham to naturally thrive that ensured he could never become a guardian with longevity.

It was also a deliberate step to draw villains into Batman’s origin.  This is not unprecedented in the comics, and BB drew on some characters from the printed stories, but is certainly enhanced in the trilogy.  In fact, each of the villains really draw out the impact of the Bat’s extended origin.

A Serious Punch line

The Joker is the greatest villain ever created

While it may not be the deciding factor in itself, it was immediately evident that the villains of BB were untouched by the previous four Batman films.  Not so coincidentally, they were also villains who, though not household names, could neatly lay out the new realistic take of the Dark Knight trilogy.  They were in effect, untarnished but also disposable.  If BB had failed, then there would have been another relaunch a few years down the line which would have been even better placed to reboot the 1992 Penguin.  Conversely, if BB was a success, the path was laid down for villains to return by one simple playing card.  And that is a trump card that many sequels would die for.

The Joker, frankly, is the greatest villain ever created.  Not only conceptually brilliant, he draws on cultural references and fears from the dawn of civilisation, politics and phobia.  He’s as versatile, empty, complex, dark and comic as you want him to be – and many different writers have provided many different takes.  Surfacing from very little, six decades have sculpted him into a brilliantly realised yet constantly enigmatic foe.  Not only is he a character perfect for reinvention, but also a palette that can lift and elevate a story or deliver the savages twist.  In the comics he’s killed a Robin, paralysed a Batgirl, and had the greatest number of different origin stories and yet, none (as TDK referenced).  Some proof comes from Grant Morrison’s late 2000s piece The Clown at Midnight.  Not many comic book villains can sustain a completely prose newsstand comic book.  And then, as inevitably as that clown on your doorstep at midnight means the worst… And at the end of BB, Batman gets handed that playing card.  It was enough to dispel any other trifling concerns.  It was serious: How could any variant on the Joker fit into that realistic universe?

Of course, TDK dispelled those concerns.  Heath Ledger’s Joker was brilliantly realised.  True to the producers’ words, he sprung from the first comic stories and from then the script gleefully and haphazardly straddled every compelling character point.  He was a bank robber who was an anarchist who was a nothing… Without the Batman.  The eternal joke, the unstoppable force.  Further proof of the verity of this Harlequin of Hate was Azarrello and Bermejo’s Joker graphic novel.  That developed a very similar version of the character at the same time as the film, but had the misfortune to come out afterwards.

The Joker booted Bruce Wayne back out of the cowl

But while I was pleasantly, horrifically surprised by how pencil-blindingly great TDK was, it brought the concerns of BB to fruition.  Like a good Joker, he’d banished the silly problems and highlighted some large ones.  Nolan’s focus on origin in BB continued to overcome his hand.  In TDK, the Joker is introduced with an adaptation of his first appearance in the comic, but soon becomes the film’s anarchic metaphor made flesh.  He didn’t develop Bruce Wayne into Batman, his actions booted him back out of the cowl.

A film later, Nolan would again draw heavily from early villain origins, particularly the 1970s Batman wonder stories, where Denny O’Neill’s script and Neal Adam’s art rebooted, reframed and elevated Batman above the recent and mercifully short-lived 60s period.  It was O’Neill who created Ra’s al Ghul, aiming for a villain who posed a modern and intellectual challenge to a Knight in desperate need of darkening.  O’Neill also brought globetrotting to Batman, something Nolan has drawn heavily into each film.  In the Nolanverse, the al Ghul and Bane stories wrap around Bruce Wayne like (Poison) Ivy.

In Batman, Nolan not only drew on the 1930s origins, but the constant ongoing explorations of Batman’s early years: Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s wonderfully recent additions to the myth The Long Halloween and Dark Victory.  These comics were less reboots than gentle massagings of retconning; eking out character traits and sticking manure in the shoes of background characters.  That’s necessary in a medium where so many characters – Catwoman, Batman and the best rogue’s gallery int he business – exist in the cultural consciousness and so deserve and require constant re-exploration.  This is generally why you can’t begrudge a retelling of any comic origin.

But so strong were the trilogy’s leanings toward Batman’s beginning that when Catwoman was confirmed for DKR, speculation focussed on tales of Batman’s origin to find her role.  The irony of this entangled origin was the intangibility of each villain that appears in the trilogy (bar Dent, although ‘villain’ is probably a little strong.  Most of the villains in the Nolanverse have little approaching an origin in the classical sense.  DKR comes the closest, but arguably only for the sake of a twist.  The difference to the Caped Crusader’s extended origin, to which many of them relate, is stark.  Throughout the decades, the arrival of new villains constantly provided new challenges for the Dark knight, alongside the chance to explore different facets of his character: a quest for The Grail every time.  But it was crucial to the Dark Knight trilogy that these built on each other.  The attritional war was actually one of the villains versus Wayne psyche.  And this struggle was set against the real, constant, major player in the Batman myth as the franchise crept further towards reality: Gotham City.

Two Tales of One City

The last of the trilogy enabled the emperor’s cloak to fall

In the first decade of the 21st century, Nolan had created the superhero film of to which all others aspired.  And it’s a big field.  In the days following DKR I recklessly bought a ticket to see The Amazing Spiderman.  It was a nice solid film, well made and engagingly acted.  That said, in the end I wasn’t surprised at the lesser box office this iteration generated in comparison to Same Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy; after all it followed hot on the heels of that successful trilogy and for all its faults, Spiderman 3 was no Batman and Robin.  But following a couple of hours of light plot and re-origins, my overall impression was that it had terribly bad luck to be the worst New York-set superhero film in Summer 2012.

Gotham from the Anglo-Saxon for Goat’s Town

Long before DKR, Gotham was a rather blunt metaphor.  But after three films, Nolan had abandoned any pretence that Gotham wasn’t New York itself.  In the comics the dark industrial East Coast port town of Gotham has been constantly abandoned by America, its name piercing the ear alongside other DC Comics fictional cities such as Star and Central City.  However, removed from those other fictional metropolises, Gotham has always carried a grain of truth.  It’s not just an important character in the Batman universe in its own right, but a fine Dickensian caricature.  The name Gotham was in fact coined as a nickname for New York in ever disparaging terms by Washington Irving in 1807; from the Anglo-Saxon for Goat’s Town.

And when the last of the trilogy enabled the emperor’s cloak to fall, Nolan’s vision of Manhattan were stunning.  Few films have shown off the city better, and New York is filmed often.  That is also in acknowledgement that the film was directed by Chris Nolan, not the most visually pioneering of directors it’s fair to say.  His shots are often stunning in their clinical precision, functionality and mechanics and that’s not at all faint praise.  His love of IMAX is natural – tailored to the scope of the action and all its contributing elements rather that simply the 25 or so paintings that appear on screen per second.  Nolan’s films are never simply big fake robot smash big fake robot.  You get what few blockbuster director’s can deliver: all parts of the film working in unison.  In DKR this worked brilliantly from the outset; though more than reminiscent of the opening to License to Kill, the plane hijack combines menace, character introduction and stunt on the IMAX screen like few other films could.

The reality of the trilogy is a huge contributing factor to its overall success.  It doesn’t matter that Gotham has a bridge that is Manhattan Bridge or that Gotham’s financial district is in fact Wall Street.  The city metaphor had shortened since BB’s Gotham of monorails and Kowloon, just as the villain metaphor, interestingly, had stretched it.  Bane’s motivation may seem the most far-fetched, but it feeds directly into contemporary concerns of the western world in a way that Ra’s or the Joker couldn’t.  In comparison, The Amazing Spiderman’s main problem was that despite a confident reboot with excellent casting and superb chemistry, it focussed on a bland, completely CGI villain.  Quite a mistake considering Spiderman hardly had less time in development than DKR and, as with other Marvel properties, it has a far longer run of direct comics continuity to draw from (albeit dragged down by the unnecessary decision to include an origin).  While Spiderman had some narrative and plot faults which it carried right next to its web slingers, so did DKR (just a little less sticky).  The real difference is that The Amazing Spiderman is incredibly light froth compared to the shaded complexity and sheer scope of DKR.  Some may highlight this as a fundamental difference between Marvel and DC Comic, but I’d never be so downright incendiary…

The Wrong Cape

The themes and focus of the Dark Knight trilogy are one franchise out

To reveal Batman’s city to be bona fide New York but under it’s 19th century nickname was a necessary one.  While at various points it was patrolled by the Batmobile, Batpod and then The Bat it was always a novice behind the wheel.

Despite all the little things that have ebbed and flowed over the last seven years, adding and building on a familiar character, this Batman never lost his Begins.  And the true effect of this concentration on origin was really drawn out by DKR.  While not a fundamental problem to the films themselves, their themes or function, it is a fundamental problem for Batman.  It’s not that the Batman Begins title lasted the series, but that the last two films’ titles are mischievous.  In making the characters origins so crucial, yet showing the ‘rise’ of a legend that could fall to anyone meant the Dark Knight never appeared.  In fact, while it hits close, the themes and focus of the Dark Knight trilogy are one franchise out.  Nolan actually made a damn near perfect Superman film.

Next: The Dark Knight Rises: How Christopher Nolan made the perfect Superman film…

Public Enemies

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