Batfleck

We stick up for Superman a fair bit around here but I’ve always loved Batman too. I’ve been on a Batman kick these past couple of weeks and what good timing!

Last Thursday, Warner Bros announced that they had found the next actor to portray the Dark Knight in 2015’s Batman and Superman movie. And that actor is…Ben Affleck!

On the surface, this seems awesome! A two-time Oscar-winning director and screenwriter who also happens to be a very accomplished actor playing the most popular and most psychologically complex superhero out there? This could be amazing.

But judging from things, it seems most don’t feel that way. A petition to remove him circulating on change.org–an organization, I remind you, that normally targets unfair laws and murderers who got off scot-free–had something like 17,000 signatures when I looked at it. Some zealous idiots even tried to start a petition on the website of the White House–which the administration thankfully removed.

A lot of the hate seems to come from the fact that people still can’t get over the fact that Affleck played the title role in the decade-old Daredevil movie–which I don’t remember being too bad but regardless–and that Affleck has made some terrible movies over the years.

Here’s the problems there: 1. Daredevil was a decade ago; get over it! 2. Every actor is capable of being in a terrible movie and most times, it’s the production teams fault, not theirs.

Another thing: Affleck is, if Kevin Smith’s comments of yesterday are to be believed, a huge Batman fan. And whatever you thought of him back then, you need to put it aside. Need I remind you that his movie Argo won Best Picture Oscar last year, even though he wasn’t nominated for Best Director, which almost always happens?

Face it: he’s proven himself and we can’t doubt him on this one. And hey, being an Oscar-winning screenwriter, he might be allowed to put his touch on the script. That and Christopher Nolan apparently stepping away from things means we might get at last a Batman in a costume and not a black bodysuit who can actually speak in a normal voice.

I liked the Dark Knight trilogy too but it’s time we moved on, guys. Time for Batman to be happy.

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Beware The Batman

Initially, I was ambivalent about Beware The Batman, the newest endeavor from Warner Bros. Animation for a couple of reasons. One was that I couldn’t bear with something replacing my beloved Young Justice. The other was that I just didn’t see the need for another Batman cartoon.

I mean, we’ve had four in my lifetime alone: the transcendent Batman The Animated Series, the stellar Batman Beyond, The Batman which I never watched and don’t know anyone who did but it won Emmys, and the better than anyone gives it credit for Batman: The Brave and The Bold. So why bring another along, especially when replacing one of the best superhero shows ever?

But ever curious and optimistic, I watched the first episode on demand and now having seen all six episodes out so far, I can tell you that Beware The Batman is a solid show, taking risks while sticking true to the mythos we all know and love.

There’s quite a few things to talk about here and, since this is the Internet, let’s do that in list form!

Number 1: The Hero

This is a young Batman, probably right around the start of his career, so no Robin, Batgirl, etc. Instead, he’s got Alfred, who here is recast as a bowler hat-clad older Jason Statham look-alike who used to be in MI6 (and has no mustache!) and Katana, a.k.a. Tatsu Yamashiro, who here is Alfred’s goddaughter, a highly trained martial artist and Bruce Wayne’s driver and bodyguard.

Katana is obviously someone most people don’t know, but she does have ties to Batman in comics as part of the superhero team the Outsiders, who are basically Batman’s black ops Justice League. As of this writing, Tatsu hasn’t even donned the costume of Katana yet, but it’s a gradual arc and I’m looking forward to how it plays out. The action-heavy Alfred is jarring at first, but you do get used to it, and it’s handled very well; Alfred is basically like Mr. Steed from The Avengers if he had become a mentor figure.

As for Batman himself? Well, his costume is rather bizarre at first glance, but it really does have appeal. The design of it is basically a visual blend of the Golden Age Batman, the long-eared Batman drawn by people like Doug Moench, and the Batman of the Nolan trilogy. It captures that blend rather successfully, I feel. The gadgets are really cool; I’m partial to a sequence where Batman leaps off his Batcycle as his cape turns into a hang glider. And for the most part, this is what a young Batman would be like: confident, but nervous and prone to the occasional slip-up and maybe being a little more eager to intimidate. So for our hero and his team, we’ve got a good start.

Number 2: The Villains

This is easily the most noticeable aspect of the show: at least up front (although the creators have said they’ll get to bigger villains), the villains are deliberately obscure. We have people like Professor Pyg, Mr. Toad, Magpie and Anarky as the Big Bad.

Obviously, some of these guys have to be changed; Professor Pyg, for example, had a penchant for cutting people’s faces off and replacing them with other faces in his comics appearances. But minor things happen too.  Anarky’s costume has been changed from his Hourman-ish color scheme to a pure white–meant to subvert the  whole White Knight/Dark Knight dichotomy.

So we have an interesting group here and honestly, I think they’re done really well. I’m interested to see how this all works and how this creative team deals with people like Scarecrow or Catwoman.

Number 3: The Animation

This is the first-ever all CGI Batman cartoon and the second CGI cartoon done by Warner Bros. Animation.  The first was Green Lantern: The Animated Series and while I saw less than half of it, it did a very good job of taking the cosmic vastness of the Green Lantern universe and rendering it to modern-day animation. Unlike this show, GL was produced by animation god Bruce Timm; while he’s not around here, many other WB veterans are on board, like Mitch Watson (who created the underrated Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated) and Glen Murakami (who created that Teen Titans cartoon everyone loved so much; everyone but me) to directors like Curt Geda and Sam Liu. So a solid, experienced group of creators that couldn’t be more suited to this task.

This ain’t without its problems, though.  The first episode has some very, very stiff animation, and my biggest problem with the series is that, for the most part, it seems like Gotham City is an abandoned place. That’s annoying as heck and creates no tension if there’s no civilians to be saved. The most recent episode sidestepped this by having pedestrians and honestly, I chalk this problem up to budget. But the atmosphere and lighting of the show is terrific, although it can be a bit dark at times, and I really look forward to seeing how this works going forward.

The stylized theme song is also terrific. Over a tight, rocking theme by New York band The Dum Dum Girls, we get an excellent cool intro that’s worthy of Golden Age James Bond. It’s a treasure.

Number 4: The Supporting Cast

Besides Alfred and Katana, our main supporting character is Lt. (not Commissioner) Gordon. Much like in other early visions, Gordon doesn’t trust Batman and is committed to the law above all else. Barbara Gordon has also made some appearances; she’s a teenager and hasn’t had much depth, but introducing her so early, you know something will pay off.

Number 5: The Stories

The stories are all stand-alone, but we also have pieces of an arc stretched out that will involve the League of Assassins (not the League of Shadows, as the Nolan films have you believe) and Katana becoming Batman’s sidekick. They’re all competently written and even in six episodes, we’re seeing things circle in on one another. Hopefully, this sort of pacing will continue.

Number 6: The Voice Cast

For me, this is the most important factor for any animated show. For the most part, we have a talented, tight cast. WIth Andrea Romano handling casting and voice direction, you know you’re gonna get great performances. Anthony Ruvivar is no Kevin Conroy, but no one can be. To try and claim to do so is ridiculous. Although he stumbles a bit in the pilot episode, he gets better at differentiating between the two roles and brings life to both in a confident, assured way.

Sumalee Montano is Katana and she is great. Taking the battle weariness and warrior’s edge from her role on Transformers: Prime, she blends it with a Japanese accent and gives us an action hero. As Katana’s journey continues, I’m excited to see what’s to come.

j.B. Blanc is Alfred and he sells this new version. He’s wizened, gruff but loyal and steady. He does nice work and it’s a good way to get this new version of the character behind you.

Kurtwood “Red Foreman” Smith is Gordon and, after him hanging around the edges of WB cartoons for so long, it’s nice to hear him in a lead role. His Gordon is a competent investigator who wants to uphold the law and despises anyone who rises above it.

The rest of the cast–which includes folks like Adam Baldwin and Matthew Lilliard–are good in their roles and help bring life to these character models. Again, we have a winning cast.

And that’s it really. If you like Batman but were tired of the Nolan films’ somberness and dourness but still want something serious, this is for you. This is also a great show for kids, so show it to them. There’s a tie-in comic coming from DC in October and I’ll let you know how that is too.

Now I’d go into this whole Ben Affleck thing, but that’ll have to wait for a little while.

Something You Should Pre-Order

I’ve never really pre-ordered things really. I’ve always been a “Wait till release” kinda guy. Don’t know why; it’s just easier, I guess. For example, I never reserved a copy of any of the Harry Potter books.

In the past year, though, that’s changed. I’ve preordered Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End of The Lane, Django Unchained, and most recently, Gene Luan Yang’s new book, Boxers and Saints. But now, something is coming out that I simply know I have to pre-order no matter what.

On October 15–as reported by Comics Alliance today–Disney’s wonderful, hilarious and occasionally scary animated series, Gravity Falls will be released on DVD. I’ve written about how much I love the show before, but really, it’s terrific and well-worth your time. Look it up.

This DVD won’t have much other than six episodes, a replica of one of the journals from the show, and a poster map of the titular town, but Im ordering it anyway.

Why? Because with home video companies, particularly with Disney, dollars determine output. The reason all of Darkwing Duck and DuckTales aren’t on DVD is because not enough people bought the initial sets. And with Disney’s notorious habit of taking years to release or re-release certain things on DVD, who knows when they’ll release it again?

People, if you love this show like I do, buy this. If you like Disney and like when they get offbeat, buy this. If you enjoy good, clever, and creative animation and want to see it succeed, buy it.

That’s it really. Go buy it.

Destiny

No Star Trek post today because I’m in downtown Chicago but please take a moment to read this post and, if you can, please donate to help this guy out. He deserves it and needs your support.

Cristian Mihai

Untitled-1I don’t know if you believe in destiny or not, if you believe in a predetermined order of things. If you believe we’re all puppets on strings, and some higher consciousness is controlling our actions. Maybe you think free will is an illusion, and, in a way, you’d be right to think that.

Why?

Because, whether or not you like it, society, as in everyone who has the power to influence our lives, is constantly trying to “guide” us. It’s how this world has functioned ever since we invented civilization. Everyone around you is trying to help you into becoming who they need you to be.

Not who you want to be, not who you’ve always dreamed of being, but who they need you to be in order for them to be who they want to be.

It’s not complicated or great or sad. It’s just how things work.

But…

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Jack Kirby remembered: Kirby4Heroes launches new fundraising campaign

I finally got around to reading Mark Evanier’s fantastic Kirby: King of Comics and it’s an excellent book about an underappreciated influence in my favorite medium. If you like Kirby or just want to support creators’ rights, you’ll give this a read:

Hero Complex - movies, comics, pop culture - Los Angeles Times

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Wednesday, Aug. 28, would have been the 96th birthday of Jack Kirby, the creator/co-creator of iconic Marvel characters — Captain America, the Fantastic Four, X-Men, the Avengers and Thor, among them. To commemorate the occasion and to celebrate both his creative legacy and his charitable nature, Kirby’s youngest granddaughter, Jillian, has undertaken a new fundraising campaign as part of Kirby4Heroes, the venture she launched last year to help generate donations for the Hero Initiative, the only non-profit organization to help comic book creators in need, offering assistance to artists and writers.

Last year, Hero Complex helped Jillian, 17, get the word out about her campaign, and we’re pleased to do so again this year. Read what Jillian — whose father, Neal Kirby, last year contributed an essay to Hero Complex about his experiences growing up as Jack’s son — had to say about the project in her own…

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Defending Bendis

6.21.10BrianMichaelBendisByLuigiNovi1.jpgSo I received a cool email offer from the online comic book superstore Things From Another World (also known as the place that sucks up my money) yesterday. In honor of Brian Michael Bendis‘ upcoming birthday, now through the 19th,  they’re offering  25% off on anything he’s written; as someone who receives emails from them, I also got an additional $5 off.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll buy (have to buy textbooks soon after all) but the thought came to me that a lot of comics-reading folks over the past decade have come to hate the guy and well…I don’t.

OK: let’s back up. For the unfamiliar, Brian Michael Bendis is a writer who, after making it big with his noir-style crime comics like Powers, was hired by Marvel in 2000 to write the then-new Ultimate Spider-Man, the flagship book of the publisher’s Ultimate line which reimagined the characters as just starting out in the modern day. The book–which Bendis continues to write to this day–was so successful and acclaimed that Marvel has gradually let Bendis become one of the primary architects of the regular Marvel Universe, letting him write big, universe-altering crossovers like House of M and Secret Invasion while also expanding the Avengers line of comics and now currently working on the X-Men.

But as Bendis’ star has risen, his shine has dimmed. Oh make no mistake, he continues to be a big seller. But the fans have by and large turned against him, citing things like how he blew up the established Avengers team, replacing them with favorite characters of his like Spider-Woman and how he indulges in a style of decompressed writing more suited to reading in trade paperback form rather than in single issue, as failings.

While I get a fair number of these criticisms (seriously, Spider-Woman is an ill-conceived character), I can’t really find fault in his writing style. Granted, some of this comes out of nostalgia–Ultimate Spider-Man was the first comic I ever subscribed to, and I’ve described before how the first issue changed my life–but honestly, decompression (which, just to clarify, is a type of comic storytelling characterized by emphasizing visuals or character interaction, thus stretching or “decompressing” the plot) would have become the norm in comics whether Bendis had come around or not. And yes, Bendis may have had a disporportionate affect on other writers and not everyone can copy his style.

But honestly, that style of writing really holds up well and can be very effective. For example, in Peter Parker’s origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15, Uncle Ben is only visible in 2 panels, barely a presence, and his death is affecting, but it is nothing more than a story beat. When Bendis started Ultimate Spider-Man, he took the original story–which is only 11 pages–and stretched it out for seven issues. This gave Uncle Ben a much bigger role and allowed us to get to know him better as a character; thus, when his death happened, it had some resonant impact because somebody we had grown to like suddenly taken away.

An even better example might be Bendis’ years-long run on Daredevil, which sees the superhero get involved in slow-burning plots that slowly become bigger, all-encompassing and threatening, as well as picking up strands previous writers left off, giving the feel of a well-crafted detective drama (the moody, stylish art of Alex Maleev helps sell this) and actually ends with Matt Murdock (Daredevil’s secret identity) put in prison alongside his worst enemy, the Kingpin. That’s a hell of a ride and the way Bendis paces his plotting, you get that same feeling of tension and suspense you do from reading, say, Raymond Chandler.

Don’t get me wrong; Bendis ain’t perfect. There’s some stuff in USM–at least what I’ve read–that doesn’t click, and his preference for certain characters is a real detriment sometimes (seriously, Spider-Woman?). But at the end of the day, this is a guy who is crafting some of the craftiest, slickest, most well-constructed superhero comics out there. And in a genre that gets beaten down by dang near everyone as stupid or naive in some way the moment puberty happens, that’s no small feat.

Also, quick fun fact: Jason Aaron, a current favorite at Marvel who’s written for Ghost Rider and Wolverine as well as the Native American murder drama book Scalped for Vertigo, has told the story here and elsewhere about how, in order to afford his first date with his now-wife, he sold his entire USM collection on Ebay.

So happy birthday, Mr. Bendis, whenever that may be. I look forward to reading stuff with your byline on it for years to come.

 

Dollhouse Season 1

Dollhouse (2009) Poster

 

Until last year, it probably kinda stank to be Joss Whedon. Seriously, imagine yourself in this guy’s career arc: after years puttering around as a screenwriter, you finally get your passion project movie made…and the director and producer completely ignore your story and make a campy comedy that nobody really cares about. But a few years later, a production company asks you to develop it into a TV show and have your say of things; you say yes, it gets made…and it winds up airing on a network that, until this point, hasn’t had a single hit show.

But you get everything made exactly your way, the show becomes a hit, and you’re even allowed to launch a spin-off show that delves more into the mythology of the world you’ve created. Unfortunately, the star actress of your first show decides not to come back after her contract expires, forcing you to wrap things up after seven seasons; also, your spinoff show gets cancelled after five seasons when you decide to straight up ask the network head whether or not he’s going to renew it rather than waiting for him to tell you. So that stinks.

But you pitch another show, and a really big-concept one at that, to one of the four major networks and they say yes. Everything looks like it’ll be OK. But then, that show gets aired out of order in a crappy timeslot, some episodes aren’t even aired, and you get cancelled after one season. That stinks. But a few years later, the fanbase for that show has become so rabid that you’re able to get a big-budget movie made to wrap up the rest of this universe.

And with that confidence, you conceive of a TV show as a starring vehicle for another actress you like to work with. The same big network says yes, but you have a low budget and, again, get stuck in the same crappy timeslot as your last show. Also this time, you have to make 13 episodes for your first season, but the network only airs 12. Despite that, you get renewed for another season, but it’s your last one.

But then, you get hired to make what turns out to be one of the biggest, most successful movies ever so it’s all good. (For more specificities, please visit Joss Whedon’s Wikipedia page.)

Dollhouse is that last show I mentioned and yes, it was conceived pretty much as a starring vehicle for actress Eliza Dushku. (Whedon had also proposed the idea of another Buffy spin-off series based on her character Faith, but she didn’t agree to it.) It aired on FOX on Fridays from 2009-2010–the traditional “death slot” for American television, and not coincidentally where most sci-fi shows wind up–and was cancelled after two seasons. And yes, only 12 episodes aired on TV, but 13 were made in order to help sell the show in foreign markets (as well as an exclusive for the DVD set).

I just finished watching the first season on Netflix and while it has its stumbles, overall it’s a smart, clever and intensely absorbing show.

So in an alternate present day, the Rossum Corporation has developed the technology to backup people’s personalities to computers. With this, they’ve developed a series of places known as “dollhouses,” where the very rich can pay money to have another person’s mind imprinted to help them do whatever they want. The other person is what’s called a “doll,” someone who has volunteered–either for money or for the chance to resolve personal problems–to have their original personality completely wiped from their mind and, for a certain amount of time, they’re left as a blank slate, able to function and speak but without any sort of personality, the easier with which to implant new identities for clients. After the job is done, they have the imprinted personality, as well as all their memories of having that personality, removed. To sum it up, they’re programmable people.

Dollhouse follows one of those “dolls,” Echo (Eliza Dushku), throughout her various assignments for the dollhouse located underground in Los Angeles. She does a variety of things ranging from being someone’s date to being a criminal, all of it monitored by her dollhouse-appointed handler, ex-cop Boyd (Harry Lennix), who’s uncomfortable with the ethical and moral implications of the services the dollhouse provides. Dollhouse director Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), chief of security Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond) and Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) who actually programs the doll’s minds for assignments, however, don’t feel the same way, with DeWitt and Dominic viewing it as just giving people what they need and completely amoral and scientific about the whole thing respectively. Meanwhile on the outside, FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Pickett), assigned to investigate the “urban legend” of the dollhouse, becomes more and more obsessed with proving its existence and destroying it, as well as finding a missing woman named Caroline, who is the true identity of Echo.

Beginning with a high concept that its pilot episode, despite being written and directed by Whedon, manages to muddle somewhat with a slightly convoluted story, over the course of its 13 episodes, Dollhouse manages to turn itself into an ongoing serial about the questions of identity and the abuse of technology. Much like Fringe, it offers self-contained stories centered around a mission involving Echo or one of the other dolls, but because of its shorter number of episodes, it has to ramp things up faster. (Incidentally, both this show and Fringe premiered the same year and both had 47-50 minute episode times rather than the traditional 44 as part of an initiative by FOX to make sure viewers wouldn’t change channels during commercial breaks.)

Despite the condensed story, Whedon’s gifts of unique characterization, a well-balanced yet conflicted ensemble and quirky dialogue still shine through. The cast obviously relishes it; Williams and Diamond turn out to be more than just a stuffed shirt and a hard-nosed jerk, Lennix gets to play John Luther if he was more stable, and while Pickett is stuck playing a completely uninteresting schmutz for most of the season, he at least commits to it.

Special mention must be made for Kranz, who absolutely steals every scene he’s in by being funny, quirky and ridiculously likable, and Dushku, who has to adopt a different persona each and every episode–sometimes more than one–and handles it all elegantly and gracefully.

So yeah, little bit different from the other stuff Whedon is known for, but still very much worth your time. Enjoy!