Wallpaper of the Week: Batman

June 19, 2009

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FROM JASON’S WALLPAPER FOLDER — There used to be Hercules, Arthur, Marduk, Beowulf, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Odin, Samson, Huangdi, Odysseus, and all the other heroes of ancient legend.

When you think about it, Batman is cut from the same literary cloth. Comic book characters are just modern mythological warrior-heroes. It’s enough to make you wonder whether Zeus was just a very popular-selling title of the time.

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And why does the Dark Knight resonate so well with us? Probably because he embodies good intentions clothed in lawlessness. Batman is an ends-justifies-the-means personification. He’s the animated Jack Bauer, carrying out swift street justice using the tools of evil — fear and pain and malice. He’s a natural (and as a vigilante, wrong) reaction to our overburdened, over-bureaucratized system.

So, because his goals are so honorable, we find ourselves rooting for Batman’s antisocial behavior, ignoring how illicit are his activities, how every criminal he captures would be released due to lack of proper arrest and Mirandizing, and how he quite possibly has split personalities or other forms of schizophrenia. We even justify his actions as moral instead of reclusively egoistic and dangerous.

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But that’s television for you.

It was that medium that lured me to Batman in 1992, with Batman: The Animated Series‘ “dark deco” styling and gritty storytelling. Here was a cartoon with noir pacing, relying more on the Bat’s detective skills and character development than explosions (though those were to be found as well).

Warner Bros. let Bruce Timm make a mature, sophisticated take on what superficially could be described as another “underwear” superhero; part of that came from elaborate and often sympathetic retellings of classic villains’ backstories. There were the go-to baddies, sure: Catwoman, Penguin, Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, The Riddler. But some of the best episodes of TAS focused on obscure ones such as the Clock King, Killer Croc, the Ventriloquist, HARDAC, Hugo Strange, Red Claw, and the Sewer King.

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And some of the most interesting twists came when the right question was posed: Was Batman really that different from the criminals he fought? Motive counts for a lot, true, but means and method are also very important. There’s also the Frank Miller alternative to¬† consider: Could Batman actually be insane?

While we’re thinking about Batman and comparative ethics, have some fun with these wallpapers, conveniently sized to 1024×768.

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Justice League: The New Frontier — Kennedy-era problems, Art Deco packaging, grim trappings

December 28, 2008

FROM JASON’S 42-INCH PLASMA — My wife hates cartoons. Can’t stand them. Thinks they’re worthless, for kids. Immature.

Honey, I love you. But you’re an idiot.

(She really liked that line, looking over my shoulder in bed.)

What she just doesn’t understand is that cartoons are just a medium, like paintings, friezes, sculptures, sitcoms, musicals, or ink drawings. There are vapid hour-long dramas on television; there are comic book literary masterpieces; there are ingenious marionette plays; there are worthless 1,000-page epics.

Just like any other medium, there are trashy pulp cartoons and amazing works that can stand with Candide or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

This is the argument the wife and I waged Saturday night as I tuned into Justice League: The New Frontier (2008) on Cartoon Network. Her verdict: Stupid comic book animations with no scholarly value. But if she had bothered to look beyond the pretty colors and the usually-for-kids channel on which they appeared, she would have seen a surprisingly thoughtful story.

This is a tale that starts with a third-person suicide and a point-blank wartime killing in silhouette. It’s grim-edged throughout, exploring justifications for revenge slayings by rape victims, nationalist jingoism, government intrusion on individual rights, space-bound nuclear ethics, profound self-esteem issues, McCarthyism, and the tension between pacifistic and survivalist ideals.

None of these topics get a Boston Legal-level analysis. But they are used to exact a wide range of pressures that drive the protagonists to act as heroes, far more than any of the superpowers that have been thrust upon them. A web of origin stories show why J’onn J’onzz decides to help Earthlings, how Hal Jordan’s resolute pacifism allowed him to wield the unimaginable power of the ring, and how Barry Allen came to terms with his role as a “lesser” hero.

These are Kennedy-era heroes facing Cold War problems with a modern perspective. And they’re coated with an Art Deco face that is as much Mad Men retro cool as it is Andy Warhol-ish. The animation style is at once Golden Age in its optimism and Silver Age in its pesimism.

These are all very familiar hallmarks of the animated DC Universe, and for good reason. The man driving the action is Bruce Timm, creator of Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League. The New Frontier takes Timm’s progressive darkness to a new intensity, and a marked plateau in terms of talent. No sci-fi production is complete without the help of Keith David, and TNF also makes use of David “Angel” Boreanaz, geek hero Neil Patrick Harris, Lucy “Xena” Lawless, Kyra Sedgewick, Brook Shields, John Heard (you’d recognize him if you saw him), and Kyle MacLachlan (think Twin Peaks).

Luckily, this iteration of the Justice League of America lays off the attention to Superman and Batman, opting instead to probe the motivations of “second tier” characters. And it uses the threat posed by a malevolent, Cthulu-esque, psychic, flying island that spawns prehistoric monsters (The Centre) as a plot-driving device and characterization catalyst rather than the focus of the story.

It’s worth a watch, scoring a respectably modest 7.3 on IMDB.


YouTube Cinema: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

June 26, 2008

“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

IN JASON’S DEFENSE — There were times when Batman: The Animated Series almost made me pee my pants. The writers never had compunctions about making the Dark Knight… well… dark. And that’s what makes it the greatest super-hero cartoon of all time.

As a young teen, most fiction didn’t faze me. But Batman: TAS was downright grim. The Joker, as voiced by Mark Hamill, was coldly psychotic, making him rival only Jack Nicholson as the scariest incarnation of the character (which might change once I see the late Heath Ledger’s performance in the forthcoming The Dark Knight Returns). And Bruce Wayne was a shell of a man, almost a split-personality case unable to connect with other people.

In 1993, Mask of the Phantasm was supposed to wrap up the Warner Brothers cartoon’s storyline. Originally intended to go straight to VHS, it was instead released theatrically. Batman survived, though, his popularity carrying him to the Batman and Robin cartoon and then on to The New Batman-Superman Adventures and eventually to Justice League Unlimited.

This movie does what all good superhero cartoons and comics should do: It uses an external villain as an incidental plot device to explore the hero’s soul. This is no jolly Adam West Batman, prancing around in his Bat-boat with Bat-shark repellent. This is a confused, guilty Bruce Wayne, hiding under his cowl, hunted by the police, and self-defeated in the shadow of his parents’ gravestone.

Mask of the Phantasm adds a new angle to the Bat’s backstory. In addition to the death of his parents, the movie says that Bruce’s transformation into a caped crusader is as much a result of his rejection by Andrea Beaumont, his fiancee, who disappeared after her father was caught up with the mafia. In a flashback, Bruce retreats within himself and dons his mask for the first time, a sight that terrifies Alfred.

Years later, Andrea returns to town and immediately recognizes Batman as Bruce. At the same time, a ghostly figure starts hunting down and executing local gangland patriarchs. Police think the killer, who wears a cape and mask, is Batman, and they nearly manage to capture Bruce. Later, we learn that the Phantasm — who is never directly referred to be name except in the title — also wants to kill the Joker, who was a one-time mafioso.

MotP keeps the 1920s pulp feel of Batman: TAS, with Bruce as The Detective and with grainy, noir backdrops in high relief. There are noir cityscapes,harsh angles, and a low-tech aesthetic. The climax is a three-way showdown between Batman, the Phantasm, and the Joker, set in the later’s inky, dystopic World Fair hideout.

This is what Batman is all about: Heartbreak, unrelenting resolve, pain, a conflicted Bruce Wayne begging his parents’ ghosts to let him be happy, and his demon-haunted understanding that he can’t be.


Five films that don’t get enough love

June 10, 2008

Dark City — Hey, kids! Remember The Matrix? It came out in 1999 and completely blanketed critics’ praise of what might arguably have been a better movie in the same mind-blowing existential genre. Dark City starred Jack Bauer Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, and William Hurt. It also had Rufus Sewell, who — as opposed to Keanu Reeves — could actually act.

Instead of an attack by machines, Dark City features ghastly, skeletal masters of mind-over-matter, who experiment on humans by rewriting their memories. They toy with people like rats in a lab, and Jack Bauer Kiefer Sutherland is the Faust who sells his soul to help them. Just like The Matrix — and much less popcorn-y — the protagonist discovers he’s lived his life in an imposed reality and has to follow the rabbit to escape.

There is no kung fu.

Cube — Andrew tuned me in to this 1997 Canadian sci-fi-thriller last year, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it. Seven people awake in a labyrinth of stacked, cubic rooms, nearly all laced with deadly booby traps. There are filament wire traps, flame throwers, gas, spears, acid… and the prisoners have to reason their ways through to escape.

The first, blaringly obvious thing about Cube is the set design. It takes place all in cubic rooms (duh), but the walls are elaborately patterned with geometric shapes and backlighting. The secret is that it was all filmed on one set and the crew rotated the cube and changed out the lighting for each “new” room.

Some characters crack under the pressure — I lost my bet with Andrew about who would become the raving baddy — and most meet grisly ends. The endearing thing (which the sequels ruined) about Cube is that you never find out why the prisoners (all named after actual, real-life prisons, by the way) are there or who are their captors. There is no grand reveal.

Dracula 2000 — I never said all the films on this list were good. This one is great for its cheese, it’s slick action, its cavalcade of not-quite-stars, and its heart-pounding (see what I did there?) revelation that DRACULA IS JUDAS ISCARIOT.

Oh, yes. I’m not kidding. The reason ol’ Drac hates silver is because of the 30 pieces of silver he was given by the pharasees to betray Jesus. That’s also why he hates crosses. Judas tried to hang himself, but God cursed him to wander the night eternally as punishment. I’m serious. That’s the big twist.

Did I mention that Dracula is played by none other than Gerard “Leonidas” Butler from 300? Madness? THIS! IS! DRACULAAAAA! The film also stars Jeri Ryan, Jennifer Esposito and Vitamin C (the casting director must have been undead) as Dracula’s brides; Christopher Plummer as Van Helsing and Jonny Lee Miller as his protege; and Omar Epps and Danny Masters (Hyde from That 70s Show) as short-lived vamps.

I can also sum up the best (read “funniest”) part of the movie in six words: Vampire sex scene on the ceiling.

Lucky Number Slevin — My friends all turned their nose up at this slick revenge flick, and I have no idea why. Maybe it looked too hipster, too cool. Maybe it was their natural fear of all thing Josh Hartnett. Maybe it was Bruce Willis’ handlebar mustache. I don’t know. But Slevin, from 2006, is one of the smartest movies I’ve seen and is laced with lots of twists. Toward the middle of the movie, you’ll discover it’s not the movie you thought you were watching. The directors pulled a Kansas City Shuffle on you.

Slevin is a fast-talking smartass caught in the wrong place and the wrong time (or just maybe the perfect place and the perfect time) between two rival gangs. He’s kidnapped alternately by The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Sir Ben Kingsley), each who want to use him to kill the other. But Slevin’s got his own plan, and his own reasons for playing both sides against the middle.

There’s also Lucy Liu, playing adorable instead of cold and bitchy. The only weakness in the film, for me, is very the end, which is too Hollywood-happy to work. One of the characters should have stayed dead. The strength, though, is the fastest, sharpest dialog this side of Pulp Fiction.

Batman — Everybody lately has been sitting around circle-jerking about Batman Begins, but they just don’t get it. The best Batman will always be Tim Burton’s masterpiece from 1989. Everything else about the Dark Knight is just imitating.

Burton did everything right. He gave us Batman as a shadowy hero from the start, kicking ass without weighing us down with an hour-long origin story. We get one villain — that’s one, not three — and he’s a scary son of a bitch. Jack Nicholson is a deadly and psycho version of the Joker, not a Cesar Romero clown. The sets were straight out of the comics and had the same eerie nouveau feel as Batman: The Animated Series.

Look, I like Christian Bale, OK? He’s good. And I like Batman Begins. But Michael Keaton will always be the coolest Bat, in my opinion. He was quiet, hard, enigmatic. You could feel his pain without having painful exposition drilled into your brain. Burton’s Batman was just plain the best-executed, artful version of the Dark Knight’s story. But who knows — maybe this summer’s same-titled sequel will flap to the forefront of cannon.