Sunday, November 22, 2015

Holy Sexism, Batman!

Lately--usually when I should have been doing something else--I've been going through a bunch of old Batman comics and this morning I came up with a doozy, Detective Comics #371 (Jan., 1968). Its lead feature, "Batgirl's Costume Cut-Ups," is built around what were, even in 1967 and even in a DC comic, utterly dinosaurish sexual politics--unintentionally hilarious, if only because they're so abjectly appalling. The cover tells the story:



And check out the splash:



The plot here follows the bat-family's pursuit of the Sports Spoilers, a gang of criminals who carry out sports-themed capers, but these images tell the real story in play: can a Batgirl overcome her gender's natural obsessive vanity, stupidity and weakness and become an effective crimefighter?

Aren't you just dying to know?

As the story opens, the Sports Spoilers are in the midst of robbing an armored truck. Barbara Gordon just happens to be on the scene. She makes a quick-change into the Batgirl and tackles them on her own. Though significantly outnumbered, she fares pretty well at first but then the pedal on a bike ridden by one of the gang moves her headpiece slightly off center and more concerned with her appearance than the matter at hand, she finds she simply must stop to adjust it. She gets knocked on her ass and most of the gang gets away, though the timely arrival of Batman and Robin results in the capture of one of the hoods.


Batgirl is depressed. "My vanity betrayed me!" This isn't just some one-time random screw-up, you see; the problem is identified as her natural "feminine instincts," which could--and do--flare up at any moment and cause the same sort of trouble. Batgirl becomes obsessed with trying to overcome this, as though merely not acting like a moron  requires the strength of will of a Jedi Knight. She rides around town trying to find a crime in progress so she can test herself but it apparently takes a more brainy--and manly--superhero to manage even that; while she comes up with nothing, she reads in the paper the next day that "Batman and Robin didn't have any trouble finding crooks last night! They bagged two robbers, three holdup men--and half a dozen jewelry thieves! And I came home empty-handed!" The next night, her big idea for finding a crime is simply to tail the batmobile. Let the boys find the trouble.

Batman and Robin trace the Sports Spoilers to a sawmill, where the gang is in the process of robbing an adjacent metal workshop of gold and silver used to manufacture sports trophies. The Spoilers attempts to escape by dumping a bunch of logs in the river--they jump in on top of them and start rolling them away, confident the caped crusaders "never learned" to roll logs. But it's never wise to underestimate the Dynamic Duo! They charge right out on to the logs in pursuit. "They didn't expect us to be expert log-rollers too," taunts the Batman. Who knew?

Batgirl, coming upon this scene, lets out a scream!



The scream distracts the heroes and the Spoilers are able to put them down long enough to escape their clutches. Batgirl has an idea though, to "raise the underwater chain-net that used to restrain logs from piling up in a log-jam," thus cutting off the gang's intended getaway. Unfortunately, one of the Spoilers sees what she's up to and throws a log in the mud in front of her. It doesn't hit her. It isn't intended to do so. The Spoilers know a woman's Kryptonite; the chucked log splatters mud in her face and she's compelled by her "feminine instincts" to wipe it off. "Oh no--not again!" But it's true; this latest pause brought on by her terminal womanliness allows the gang to roll to the nearby forest and escape for a second time.

Though Batgirl is a grown woman, even Robin, who is just a kid, scolds her. "Even such determined fighters are we are... get distracted by a lady's scream!" So there, you girl!

The final act of this dreadful play occurs at a charity ball being held in Gotham Park by a certain millionaire playboy. The Sports Spoilers opt to turn up with the intent of robbing the guests but Batman and Robin have already deduced this would be their next target and are waiting for them. They charge into the midst of the crooks and a devastating donnybrook ensues. Barbara Gordon--Batgirl--is in attendance at the ball. She's a girl, so the only way she can find a crime in this story is to have one coincidentally happen in front of her. She ducks away in the confusion and reappears in her crime-busting duds but as she's about to charge into the fight, she discovers she has, as she puts it, "a bigger problem" than a gang of no-goodniks to fight. "A run in my tights!"

This time, though, her girly problem works to our heroes' advantage--the entire Sports Spoilers gang pause in the midst of their ferocious combat to wolf-whistle and gape at her flash of leg like a bunch of drooling horndogs who haven't been laid in a decade.



This, um, loss of concentration allows our heroes, who are, yes, Dr. Wertham, apparently immune to such charms, to finally put the gang down for the count. "Batgirl's femininity gave us a break this time," raves Robin.

The Batman moves in to impart the moral of this story. "You see, Batgirl? That was one time you turned a feminine trait to your advantage--and the disadvantage of the criminals!"

"It sure was lucky for Batman and me that you tore your tights when you did," adds Robin, "or we might have wound up on the short end of the score!"

Just when one thinks this story must have exhausted the cringing it can induce in the reader, we get this parting panel:



This was a comic that appeared in the midst of the "Batmania" craze spawned by the '60s BATMAN tv series and the bat-books were trying to ape that show. If one wishes to illustrate the extent to which that show is an abominable blight on both the Batman's history and on comics in general, this tale is an excellent example. The appalling sexism on display here didn't start on tv though. It was quite common in DC books. Times move on and earlier this year, a variant Batgirl cover showing the character menaced by the Joker ignited such a furor against sexism that the cover's artist asked that it be cancelled, which was done. That cover commemorated Alan Moore's great graphic novel "The Killing Joke." There are perhaps worse things in heaven and earth--and in comics--than are dreampt of in the philosophy of many of the Keyboard Crusaders who took up arms against that cover and demanded it be withdrawn. And maybe what I've just done here is a better way to address them.

--j.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SUPERGIRL: The Pilot

I've long been a mouthy advocate for getting--finally getting--comic book heroines on the screen and Supergirl has always seemed to me a character with a lot of potential for adaptation. Her one feature appearance, 1984's SUPERGIRL, became a bit of a fiasco and, in turn, became something of a camp classic. She was later introduced into SMALLVILLE, which did hint at all that potential but she was still just a supporting character. I was pleased when Greg Berlanti, a creator of CW's ARROW and THE FLASH, announced he was working on a Supergirl series. Eventually, CBS picked it up and last night, it made its big debut. The pilot is slapdash at times, dramatically confused at others but it left me at least willing to see more.

The series eschews the original--and convoluted and bad--origin of the character in favor of a sort of mucked-up version of one introduced in the comics about a decade ago. In the tv telling, after baby Kal El--Superman--was launched to Earth from a dying Krypton, his cousin Kara Zor El, then 13 years old, was dispatched to look after him. The blast-wave from the explosion of Krypton knocked her ship off course and into the Phantom Zone. When it finally made its way out and to Earth, twenty-four years had passed, though she, preserved in suspended animation, hadn't aged.

Given Superman's own story, the nature of the Phantom Zone, etc., very little of this makes much sense but as quick and dirty as it seems to a comic vet, it effectively sets up everything.

When Kara arrives on Earth, Superman finds her and places her with an adoptive family. It's a long tradition in Superman adaptations to recruit for cameos actors and actresses from previous screen incarnations and here, Kara's adoptive mother is played by Helen Slater, the original screen Supergirl, and her adoptive father by Dean Cain, Superman from LOIS & CLARK. Kara grows up and goes to work as the assistant for media mogul Cat Grant but all the while, she keeps her powers and her real identity secret. When the plane in which her adoptive sister is flying nearly crashes, she's forced into action. She saves the plane but she's photographed, becomes a media sensation and gets hero fever--decides she'll just burst if she doesn't take up the cape and the family business. Supergirl is born.

Melissa Benoist plays Kara in an overly-bright-eyed and maybe way-too-enthusiastic manner that is, at first, rather endearing--the vibe is straight "it's cool that a girl can do this stuff"--but carried too far and too long, it could make her look flighty and stupid. Benoist is basically doing a 15-year-old Supergirl. That would be great if the show featured a teen Supergirl. The character in this series is supposed to be 24 years old.[1] How this will play out is something only time will.

A significant plot point--because it will provide the series' villains--is a Kryptonian prison ship that apparently followed Kara's ship out of the Phantom Zone and to Earth. It seems pretty unlikely a whole prison full of inmates--hardened criminals with the Earth-shattering powers of Kryptonians--have been hiding out on Earth for over a decade without drawing the attention of, say, Superman. There may be a larger plot at work here. Something else to watch. In the pilot's biggest error, the identity of "the General," the central villain revealed at the end, was quite confusing. It's Kara's Kryptonian mother, who, up to that point, hadn't be shown to have a villainous bone in her body, to say nothing of the fact that she's supposed to have been dead for years. In the brief preview for next week's ep, Kara calls her "aunt," so I'm assuming Kara's mother had a twin sister but there's no mention in the pilot of any twin sister.

When it was announced earlier this year, the casting of Mehcad Brooks as Superman's longtime pal Jimmy Olsen caused a bit of an internet stir. Jimmy Olsen is, of course, a very young, short, wimpy, freckle-faced redheaded white guy, whereas Brooks is a 35-year-old, 6'5', 230-or-so-pound muclebound bald black guy with a deep voice--a guy who could, himself, be playing a superhero. And, indeed, he is, in practice, as bizarre a Jimmy Olsen as he looked on paper, a guy who commands nearly every room he's in. While the comic vet in me just can't seem to accept him as a Jimmy Olsen, his Olsen is a very good character--my favorite, in fact, of the supporting roles so far. As it turns out, he knows all about Kara; her cousin filled him in.

Nearly everyone knows about Kara. Olsen knows. Her adoptive sister knows. Her adoptive sister's employer--a secret agency charged with monitoring and countering potential extraterrestrial threats--knows. She even tells a friend at work. The only regular among the  so-far-introduced supporting cast who doesn't know is Kara's boss Cat Grant. This exposure could come back to bite our heroine in the future.

The pilot's biggest shortcoming is that nearly all of the performances are carried out in an over-the-top, anti-naturalistic manner that perpetually borders on camp yet they're so contrary to one another they never cohere as a unified dramatic universe. One sees all of these sorts of performances pretty regularly with genre properties (though, mercifully, not as often as was once the case). With Kara, this sort of characterization can seem charming. With Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant, it's full-blown caricature. And at the other end, Kara's mother/the "General" is insanely over the top, spouting ridiculous, stilted, ever-so-serious dialogue as melodramatically as possible. One could break down each of these by their relative merits but whatever conclusion such an evaluation may yield, few of them seem as if they belong in the same show.

Still, while this wasn't a great pilot--it certainly wasn't up to that of either ARROW or THE FLASH--it was, rough edges aside, a pretty good one. I'm pleased to have Supergirl back on the screen and interested to see where this incarnation goes.

--j.

---

[1] When Kara's boss Cat Grant dubs the mysterious new hero "Supergirl," Kara objects, arguing for "Super Woman," but not only is it a ridiculous objection given how Benoist is playing the character, Benoist is also playing the very scene in which she's making this objection as if she was 15.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Bob Haney & the Bat-Spank

Here's an image much circulated on the internet:


It comes from the Brave & the Bold #64 (March, 1966), drawn by Win Mortimer and written by longtime B&B scribe Bob Haney. "Batman versus Eclipso" is a free-flowing and frenetic tale, as Haney's could often be, a 12-cent epic of adventure, romance, sin and silliness with more twists than a neurotic pretzel on a bad-hair day.

I'm a big fan of Haney. As the image suggests, his Batman is like no other. In context, bratty rich-chick Marcia Monroe is out one night making a very public spectacle of herself, apparently inebriated and tottering across a catwalk on a suspension bridge high above a river while police risk their lives to try to save her. The Batman appears, disapproves and her antics and administers a much-needed corrective to the wealthy and wayward playgirl. She, of course, falls madly in love and after a whirlwind romance, the two are soon engaged. Marcia and the Batman, that is; while he's prepared to make a wife of her, he never reveals his dual identity. She eventually breaks his heart--sends a him a "Dear John" and skips town for Euro-Parts-Unknown. "I guess the 'cure' didn't take," he laments, and with a forlorn look and perhaps a mental note about the need for a more severe disciplinary regimen with future potential mates, he returns to his life of crimefighting.

Years go by and the Batman, patrolling the docks one night, finds a dishy dame about to be dusted by a well-dressed gangster using a bow! As surreal as that seems, the Caped Crusader then manages to lasso the arrow in mid-flight! And the assassin's target turns out to be none other than Marcia herself.

"But," asks the Batman, "why was that bow buzzard trying to ventilate your beautiful torso?" Marcia's story is that Cyclops, a powerful crime syndicate, is out to get her because her latest fiancee filched the priceless Cat Emerald. The no-goodniks have already blown the boyfriend to oblivion but his dying wish is that Marcia return the emerald to the museum from which he stole it to make up for what he'd done. She tasks the Batman with the job and he goes along.

...which, of course, results in his being framed for having stolen it in the first place.

An indication of how much plot Haney could stuff into a book: everything I've just described only gets us to page 8.

Heartbroken at the apparent betrayal, the Batman is arrested and from his jail cell, he gets on the trail of the Queen Bee, girl boss of the Hive, a crime syndicate moving into town. He learns she's arranged his capture in order to get him out of the way for some big operation.

Allying herself with Eclipso, the Queen Bee launches a crimewave. The Batman escapes and pursues the beautiful bug but ends up waylaid by knock-out gas and, dumped in the river for dead, fired upon by some of Gotham's finest, who think they've killed him.

At the Hive, a hooded fellow turns up and announces he's a representative of Cyclops and is taking over their operation. Eclipso is unimpressed and sets out to kill the fellow, who, it's quickly revealed, is the Batman in disguise. The Queen Bee rescues him and confesses the obvious, that she's really Marcia. But now, her story is that her father had gotten mixed up with Cyclops and she's only doing her Queen Bee schtick for the org to save the old boy from their assassins. She aids the Batman in his escape, a complicated piece of business down the side of a building while pursued by flying bee drones with jet-packs and Eclipso on a window-washing rig.

In the end, the Batman is cleared and both Eclipso and "Queen Bee' Marcia disappear. "Some day, she'll have to pay for her crimes," says the Batman. "And when that day comes, she'll need all my help! Until then -- farewell, honey." And yeah, I laughed at the line.

All of it began with that spanking...

Earlier this year, I started a Facebook group to celebrate Bob Haney's work. If, dear reader, it interests you, "Haneyverse: The Brave & Bold Worlds of Bob Haney" is here--come by and join in.

--j.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

MAN OF STEEL (2013) & Dumb Darkness

[Cross-posted to my movie blog]

Perusing Facebook tonight, my eye plucked from the plentiful geeky puffery that perpetually passes through my feed a brief op-ed piece from Uproxx that purports to explain "Why the DC Universe is Dark and Gritty." Released alongside the first substantial trailer for BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and authored by a Dan Seitz, it makes a show of tackling criticism that has been leveled at the tone of DC's cinematic offerings but mostly manages to rather spectacularly miss the point of that criticism. It seems a good hook on which to hang my long-delayed review of MAN OF STEEL.

Seitz begins by beating up a straw man, "the implied idea that nobody wants to see dark and gritty superhero movies." If anyone had ever seriously pursued that line the box-office figures Seitz cites are sufficient to refute it but of course that hasn't been the argument. That a movie featuring some species of dark tone can make lots of money says nothing about whether it should have that tone. Obviously, the Batman should be dark but what critics in the fan community have noted--and what Seitz entirely sidesteps while in defense of darkness--was that the version of "dark" adopted by MAN OF STEEL, the film that launched DC's new cinematic universe, was entirely inappropriate to the character and material. And those critics are correct. MOS's "Superman" is born of contempt for the basic nature of the character. The key to Superman is the "man" part, not the "super." Though an alien, he was raised as one of us. He's a good man, the Midwestern farmboy whose parents instilled in in him strong values that guide him through life and who just happens to be able to juggle mountains, powers he uses to help others in need. Some writers over the years have taken this to an extreme, presenting him as a "big blue boyscout" and even something akin to a saint but such treatments are an exaggeration of the existing character, not any sort of revision of it. Superman is truth and justice, sometimes "the American way," offered with a wink from a friend who is here to help. He's a character of hope and of light, whose powers are literally derived from the sun itself. That sort of thing may be frowned upon in some quarters today but that's Supeman. Superman is not a brooding, alienated anti-hero/god and if you lose what I've just described and turn him into one, you may be trendy and real kewl and all but you aren't doing Superman anymore.[1] The superbeing from MOS who wallows in angst, who chooses to let his adoptive father die for nothing when it would be child's play to save the man[2] and who zips around amidst falling skyscrapers utterly indifferent to--and, in fact, helping cause--hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of deaths is no more Superman than he is Bob Newhart.[3] He's the anti-Superman, a fundamental negation of the character. No one involved in the production of MAN OF STEEL had the slightest interest in making a Superman movie and they didn't.

Superman isn't even the protagonist in MOS. The film is about a civil conflict on a long-dead world being continued on Earth, a fight between an exiled criminal and the ghost of his dead enemy. While Superman is the title character in what's supposed to be the beginning of a franchise built around him, he's virtually irrelevant to the story. He merely shows up to act as the proxy of a dead father he never even knew in the final act of a battle that happened before he was born.

Seitz argues that "the entire point of these movies" is that "the good guy wins against all odds. All we’re really talking about here is how brightly lit his path happens to be as he gets to his inevitable destination." Even setting aside the question of this truncated notion of what the films should be, one can't escape (even though Seitz doesn't address) the fact that the hero's triumphant "win" at the end of MOS occurs over an almost indescribable excess of carnage and death, horrors which, in the movie, are, for all intents and purposes, entirely without consequence. Put on the screen before one's eyes then not even touched upon.[4] Elsewhere, in reply to critics who had slammed the film for its humorlessness and, more broadly, joylessness, Seitz asserts that the film "just wants you to take the idea of a man who can fly and bend steel with his bare hands seriously." Is it really necessary to point out that this consequence-free destruction hardly bespeaks a serious, mature engagement with the material?[5]

The rest of the film doesn't fare any better on that score.

For decades, comic Superman's extraordinary powers have been said to come from the reaction of his Kryptonian physiology to Earth's yellow sun. MOS alters this equation--they're now the result of a combination of Earth's sun and atmosphere. Appropriately, given this, when Superman goes on the villains' ship and breathes its Kryptonian atmosphere, he loses his powers. But throughout the film, the Kryptonian villains walk around on Earth in spacesuits that pump Kryptonian air for them to breathe yet have all the godlike powers of Superman anyway. Zod, their leader, wants to terraform Earth, giving it a Kryptonian atmosphere, which would presumably take away their powers. Why in hell would anyone who could live as a demi-god want to do that? It gets better too, because he also asserts that merely living on Earth as it is, sans terraforming, would require years of pain to adjust to its atmosphere then when his suit is damaged, he adjusts to the Earth atmosphere almost immediately. Zod has a world engine that can make over the Earth into a clone of Krypton but the process will destroy its inhabitants. This same world engine could presumably make over any planet in exactly the same way but he wants to use it on Earth because, well, because he's the designated villain and that's just the sort of evil stuff villains do. To defeat the villains at the end, Superman opens a black hole within the Earth's atmosphere!

These are just some examples of how "seriously" MOS takes its premise. For Seitz, though, humorlessness and "darkness" equal "seriously." It's a view one encountered with depressing regularity in the early '90s, when the mad proliferation of the sort of rubbish "dark" comics being aped by this film helped to very nearly run the entire industry into the ground. Seitz doesn't stop short of implying the inverse either, that because THE AVENGERS has humor, it doesn't take itself at all seriously, another unfortunate manifestation of that same constipated early-'90s attitude.

In reality, the "serious" MOS is nothing more than a big, stupid, noisy, explosion-filled special effects show aimed straight at the lowest common denominator, a perfect example of the absolute worst breed of Hollywood tentpole spectacle[6] that is utterly off-putting to anyone with any respect for the character.[7] Awash in muted colors, mindless video-game violence,[8] trendy brooding and consequence-free disaster porn, it's a 2+-hour insult, a $225 million rape of a venerable American classic and a black mark on its 77-year history, one Warner Brothers now aims to use as the foundation of its big DC cinematic universe. Pity these iconic characters that they find themselves in the hands of such creatures.[9]

--j.

---

[1] The inappropriately bleak tone is accompanied by inappropriately bleak, shitty, washed-out, near-black-and-white cinematography--lifted, without alteration, straight from the Nolan bat-flicks. But, hey, at least Jon Peters got his Superman-in-black battling a giant robot spider at the end, eh?

[2] A pay-off for an earlier scene wherein, as a boy, Clark saves an entire bus full of his schoolmates from drowning but nearly has his powers exposed and his adoptive father Jonathan, the man who, in the mythos, plays such a central role in imparting to Clark his sense of moral purpose, tells the boy it may have been better to simply let them drown. John Schneider, who essayed Jonathan Kent for years on SMALLVILLE, recently registered the outrage every fan of the Superman mythos owes that moment.

[3] Bob Newhart would actually be a welcome presence because he would at least bring some humor to a picture so entirely lacking it.

[4] Thursday, Joss Whedon revealed he had designed his upcoming AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON as a refutation of this sort of thing.

[5] Or, for that matter, that nothing about humor or joy bespeaks a lack of same?

[6] That such movies have been a dime-a-dozen for a few decades gives some wider context to Seitz's effort to argue in favor of such films on the grounds that "it's nice to have a little variety."

[7] Superman's killing Zod at the end of the film created some controversy in the fan community, where many hold that Superman should never kill at all. I don't share this view; in his line of work, that sort of thing may sometimes be necessary. My own objection to that moment was his immediate and over-acted, depth-of-his-soul grief at having taken out a monster who had just committed mass murder against helpless innocents on the scale of a war, was promising more and was in the process of carrying out that promise. To kill someone is a terrible thing but this kind of totally unbalanced reaction suggests a rather profound moral deformity. Salve your conscience later, hero--there are people still dying in the rubble who need your help.

[8] Also mind-numbing. The movie turns into a CGI cartoon for what feels like about 40 minutes in which big sections of the world are being completely destroyed by battling superbeings yet the computer-generated images are so divorced from any semblance of humanity that it becomes boring, like watching a video game demo you can't skip.

[9] Though to be fair, Warner Brothers' tv-based DC products have fared much better. DC doesn't have a cohesive universe sewn between its tv and feature productions like Marvel and this has made a mess of the various projects, which feature or will soon feature two Flashes, two Supermen, two Deadshots, two Deathstrokes, two Bruce Waynes (both set in the present but one being a 40-something adult hero and the other being a young, pre-Batman teen), and on and on.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Big, Fat Disappointment: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

Took me a while but I finally saw A DAME TO KILL FOR. Loved SIN CITY (2005). Really wanted to see this one. Bad word of mouth made me shelve it for a bit--didn't want my heart broken--but some mechanical troubles last night left me with some time on my hand--my computer has a condition--so I popped it in and gave it a once-over.

SIN CITY cost forty-million bucks and made a nice pile of green for an R-rated pic. Creators Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller managed to spend $25 million more on this one and couldn't even make back their budget.  A DAME TO KILL FOR is mostly empty and uninspired--not worth killing for at all and trying to thrill on autopilot on her last call after a long night. The pieces are all there--tough guys, beautiful dames, grifters, grafters, mugs, pugs, thugs, gore, cynicism and darkness--but it's all just style without much of the fun. Few sparks. Nothing holding it all together. The extra dough (for a lot shorter show) seems to have bought a lot more computer graphics than the original had but little else. The near-decade of technological advances between them sure as hell isn't apparent--everything looks way cheaper than it did before. Mickey Rourke's Franken-Marv makeup is slapped-on and crude this time around and not in any good way. Jessica Alba is still playing what's supposed to be the hottest number in town as a stripper who makes it a point to never strip. There are no less than three assaults on the heavily armed compounds of rich assholes, two featuring Marv and two as the climactic setpieces of two of the film's three longer stories. The graphics are on overload, to the point of becoming quite overbearing. Badly CGI'd cars go up CGI'd winding roads over and over again. Bodies and parts of them fly through the ether. While the violence in the original was gleefully profuse and over-the-top, it always had a point; here, it's even more over the top but the glee is most definitely gone, and a lot of it--maybe even most--is just gratuitous. There for its own sake. And even with all its blood and thunder, A DAME TO KILL FOR manages to be pretty damn dull. Not boring, just mostly uninteresting. Quite a trick.

Eva Green one-sheet
banned by the MPAA.
It ain't all bad though. A lot of what I've just been bitching about gets in the way of what are, at heart, some pretty good stories. "Just Another Saturday Night" is a throwaway piece that doesn't really go anywhere, and "Nancy's Last Dance" is pretty forgettable--more like a highlight reel of a bunch of stuff we've already seen--but "The Long, Bad Night," about a gambler who earns immortality by showing up the most powerful man in Basin City, is a keeper, and the title story "A Dame To Kill For" is definitely the highlight. Its pacing often sucks--the style fucking up the substance--and all the other shit weighs it down but it has a killer cast--as does the entire picture--and most importantly, it has Eva Green. Manute, her maniacal, superhuman manservant, describes her character (Ava) as a goddess who enslaves men to her will. Robert Rodriguez reportedly wanted Angelina Jolie to play the part and she was the obvious model for the comic original but for whatever reason that didn't work out, which is just as well. When it comes to goddesses who could enslave men to her will, Eva Green will do just fine. Gotta' fess up, I'm a big fan, and of all the Sin City comic tales, "A Dame To Kill For" is probably my favorite. The screen version doesn't live up to it and yeah, that's disappointing after how well the first film's adaptations were handled, but it's far from terrible.

For that matter, the movie isn't really terrible. A lot of critics burned it all to hell like it was something personal with them. Maybe with some of them it was--they didn't like the first one and it was great and made a pile of dough anyway, so they doubled down on this one. Can't say it doesn't earn some abuse. It should have been a lot better. As it is, it's, Eva excepted, depressingly middling. An overpriced monument to the declining powers of its creators. Not a complete failure but no getting around it, it was the Big Fat Disappointment.

--j.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Many Devils of DAREDEVIL (2003)

Earlier today, Netflix released the first substantial trailer--a glorified teaser, really--for their upcoming series based on the Marvel comic Daredevil. The initial reaction from online fandom seems to be one of excitement and even glee of a most giddy character. I've been a DD fan myself since I was but a wee lad, but in general, I tend to be more cautious in my optimism for such projects. Still, I'll readily concede that I'm quite pleased with what I saw. If the tone of the trailer reflects that of the series, we may have a winner on our hands.

This will be DD's second screen adaptation, and that he's getting a second chance is something akin to a  miracle after the first. The release of the new trailer seems as good an opportunity as any to conduct an autopsy on the corpse that is that previous outing, and "corpse" is the right word for it. DAREDEVIL (2003) was a spectacular failure, a near-complete creative abortion. The comic on which it was based is packed with literally years of great--and wonderfully cinematic--plot material that could have been adapted to the screen. Where did a film with so much potential go so terribly wrong?

One place it didn't fail was at the box office. The studio, which had tried to shape the film into a summer blockbuster tentpole, eventually assigned it a Febrary release, a traditional dead-zone for moviegoing where big films are exiled when the moneymen have no confidence in them.[1] The idea is to allow a movie the chance to become the king of a substnatially smaller hill rather than quickly wash out and disappear in the torrent of a more competitive season. Sometimes it works. DAREDEVIL was one of those times. On a budget of $78 million, it managed to draw nearly $180 million. A victory due less to its merits than to the fact there was little else showing.[2]

It would be the film's only success.

When DAREDEVIL was in development, Mark Steven Johnson reportedly lobbied hard to get the directing assignment. That he eventually landed it is still baffling. His only previous directing experience was an insipid children's movie he'd ground out 5 years earlier (SIMON BIRCH). He is, by his own description, a comic fanboy and perhaps it was felt a fanboy could understand the material. Johnson succeeded only in proving that being a fanboy doesn't translate into talent as a cinematic storyteller.[3] It did, however, contribute to the royal mess he made of this film. I could unlimber my rhetorical arsenal and be quite extensively unkind in my assessment of Johnson, but his film speaks to that louder than any tirade I could unleash. His shortcomings are painfully obvious in every frame. DAREDEVIL was doomed from the moment he landed the director's chair.

Johnson also wrote the screenplay for the film, which went over about as well as his direction. Instead of trying to tell a single story well, Johnson the fanboy tried to cram in years worth of material from the comics featuring the rather complicated central character, whose origin and later m.o. had to be established, Elektra, DD's college love who becomes his adversary, the Kingpin, the ultimate crime-boss of New York who becomes DD's greatest enemy, Ben Urich, a reporter who learns DD's real identity and becomes an ally, Bullseye, DD's mutant arch-nemesis, and so on. The result is an unfocused mess, a virtually plotless, completely illogical spectacle of would-be colorful characters crashing into one another.

The direction of the actors shows the same lack of focus. Ben Affleck, essaying the title character, has, in the years since the film's release, gotten a lot of abuse for his performance but I'm inclined to be a lot less critical. Actors can only do so much; beyond a certain point, they're at the mercy of the script and of those behind the camera. The performances of Affleck and the other cast members are all over the board, veering wildly from entirely naturalistic to absurdist camp melodrama, with no effort at a consistent tone. Joe Pantoliano as Urich and Colin Farrell as Bullseye offer the only two performances that are internally consistent from beginning to end, but they're at opposite poles that represent the film's extremes. Pantoliano is a down-to-earth guy who plays his relatively small part straight and to the point. Colin Farrell mugs, spouts ridiculous dialogue in a way-over-the-top-of-the-top manner, bounces around on wires--his character seems as if he's come in from an entirely different movie and every second he spends on screen is a painful embarrassment.

The studio suits made all of this much worse. In the wake of SPIDER-MAN's phenomenal success in 2002, they wanted to ape that film by piling on the CGI and filling the movie with lots of ludicrous wirebound action scenes--things Spider-Man could probably do but that DD most certainly could not. So instead of a Jet Li in a red suit--the only thing you really need to do Daredevil--we get DD the super-grasshopper who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and drop 40 stories off the side of a building, land on his feet and just keep going.

DAREDEVIL is another one of those productions about which I'm loath to say anything particularly positive, merely because doing so risks leaving the false impression that there's any significant merit in it. In its favor, I will allow that the film's visualization of DD's "radar" is well done; there is an undercurrent of violence and nihilism in portions of the film that is appropriate to the material, and some awareness of the romanticism of the Daredevil character; some of the music, particularly the two Evanescence turnes ("Bring Me To Life" and "My Immortal"), suit Daredevil--at least considered generically--remarkably well.

After the film's release, Johnson prepared a significantly longer director's cut. This second release is undeniably a better film, but its merits have been absurdly overstated in some quarters. It's not the vast improvement some will assert. Comparing it to the theatrical cut is like making the argument that this pile stinks a bit less than that pile over there--it may be true, but you don't really want to step in either. After Johnson's film (and the even-worse follow-up ELEKTRA), Daredevil is extremely lucky to be getting another chance. It took 12 years and Marvel finally reacquring the screen rights to see it through, but if today's teaser is any indication, the new series seems to be on the right track. Hopefully, it will be as good as it feels right now and will leave this film, at the moment the title character's greatest exposure to the larger public, a fading memory.

--j.

Gratuitous Plug Dept. - I have, if you can believe it, launched a third Facebook group in recent weeks. A celebration of the darker side of comics. We talk Daredevil there. Also the Batman, horror comics, street-level heroes, crime stories. In short, "4-Color Noir." If that interests you, come by and join in--the more the merrier.

---

[1] The current-in-the-works Batman/Superman film was recently moved back to this same period--read into that what you will.

[2] And even at that, it was only the 2nd biggest February release that year.

[3] He hasn't developed any of that in the years since DAREDEVIL either.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Supergals & Bob Haney

Self-Promotion Dept. - I was a fan of the great American art of the comic book before I could even read the books myself (and I could read before most kids my age could even identify all of their letters). Frustrated by a string of setbacks with my movie projects--the story of my life--I've launched a pair of comic-related Facebook groups in the last few days.

Prolific and pulpy, unapologetically eccentric, wildly imaginative and, frequently, gloriously mad is the work of Bob Haney, writer of comic books. In a career that spanned over 50 years, Haney wrote an astonishing array of tales in nearly every genre, their quality ranging from madcap masterpieces to hacked-out-for-pay mush. He put in a very long run on "The Brave & The Bold," including the bulk of its particularly fine incarnation as a team-up-with-the-Batman book, when it was a key work in returning the Caped Crusader to his darker crime-fighter roots. He's a co-creator of the Teen Titans, Metamorpho the Element Man and many others. His work touched nearly every major DC Comics character. And he is spectacularly underappreciated for all of this. So I've set up "Haneyverse: The Brave & Bold Worlds of Bob Haney," something of an effort to give the Haney his due.

Last week, Marvel launched AGENT CARTER, their first female-led screen adaptation. In the midst of the current boom in comic book movies, I've frequently griped about the sparcity of superheroines who have made the leap from page to screen (including here), and parallel with the new show, I launched "Supergals: Heroines & Villainesses of Page & Screen." Not just those who go from page to screen, by any means. Besides just being a great, rich subject and a place people can use to rave about it, I have some more personal reasons for starting it--nieces, cousins, girls and women in general and others in particular.

If either interest you, come by and join in. The more the merrier.

--j.