My Faves: Young Justice

I know I’ve mentioned this show briefly before, but it got taken off Netflix yesterday, and I’m feeling sentimental.

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Young Justice
Creators: Mostly Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti
Starring: Danica McKellar, Jesse McCartney, Nolan North, Khary Payton and so, so many others…
Aired: 2010-2013-2018?
Rated TV-PG

As the name might imply, this is a show about a team of young superheroes–or teenage sidekicks, to be more precise–who work alongside the Justice League. It starts when fellow sidekicks Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad go on an unauthorised mission together and end up saving Superboy, a Superman clone, from the evil lab that created him. Their mentors still don’t think they’re ready for the Justice League, but after seeing what the four kids are capable of, they agree to let them form a super-team of their own. Miss Martian, Martian Manhunter’s niece, and Artemis, a Green Arrow protege, are quickly added to the group (presumably to balance out the testosterone), and eventually it expands to include more than a dozen former sidekicks. But after a few covert crime-fighting missions together, the Team (no, they never get a proper name) begin to realise most of their enemies are connected through a shadowy organisation called the Light. And they’ve barely scratched the surface of the Light’s nefarious plans.

This was one of the first DC shows I ever watched in full, and it was a great gateway into the rest of the DC universe. It has a gigantic cast, plucked from every corner of comic continuity, and almost every character is at his/her best. I went into this show knowing a little bit about Batman, Superman, and the Flash, and that was it. I came out of it as a huge fan of the rest of the Bat-family (particularly Nightwing), the rest of the Flash family, Blue Beetle, Miss Martian, and quite a few other heroes I’d never heard of before. And as I’ve become a more informed fan, I’ve just come to appreciate this show’s unique take on many of its characters even more.

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For example: Best. Lex Luthor. Ever.

But the main reason I love this show has nothing to do with my love for DC. It has to do with my love for smart stories about smart characters. The cast of Young Justice is almost entirely made up of master strategists, cunning manipulators, and double agents, all trying to outwit each other at once. This naturally leads to a convoluted plot full of unexpected twists, in which nothing is quite as it seems in the beginning. It’s great fun. And the fact that many of these smart characters are teenagers, who do occasionally act like normal teens when they’re not saving the world, does surprisingly little to hinder the fun.

In fact, the characters are a big part of what makes this show work. Like Justice League Unlimited and other great super-team shows before it, Young Justice manages to give every one of its many, many main characters a chance to shine. (At least for the first season. More on that later.) But on this show, it’s usually more than just a moment in the spotlight. Each member of the original Team has a layered personality and a complex character arc that lets them grow and change naturally over the course of the show, which is pretty impressive, considering each episode is only a half hour long and a lot of that time has to be spent advancing the plot. While some of the protagonists’ actions can seem dumb or annoying at first, there’s almost always an understandable reason behind them. The show also doesn’t shy away from showing the kind of impact a crime-fighting lifestyle could have on a teenager. Everyone on the Team struggles with issues related to their job, from Robin’s fear of becoming as ruthless as Batman to Miss Martian’s insecurity and anti-heroic tendencies. Not to mention the drama that naturally results from a bunch of hormonal teens working together. But they all manage to rise above those issues whenever the day needs saving, which is fun to see.

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They’ve even got a sweet day-saving ship!

Unlike some of my other “faves,” however, I will admit this show has flaws. Its soundtrack and voice acting aren’t nearly as good as anything in the DCAU, for example, and it tends to rely a little too heavily on exposition. Also (and this is a minor spoiler, so…sorry) Season 2, dubbed “Young Justice: Invasion,” starts five years after the first season’s cliffhanger ending. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it means a lot of important character development happens offscreen, which is usually a bad thing for any story. It also introduces a ton of new characters, some of whom never get enough development for us to really care about them, and it stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit, since some of the major plot points from Season 1 really shouldn’t have taken five years to resolve. On the other hand, some of the new characters do get plenty of development, and they’re fantastic. Blue Beetle and Impulse are the stand-out examples, but there are others. Also, skipping ahead five years means Robin ages into Nightwing, which is always a good thing.

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For…multiple reasons.

Story-wise, the second season is as good or better than the first, and after the first few episodes, the time skip problems get much less irritating. So overall, I’d say the good outweighs the bad. Which is also true for Young Justice as a whole. It has some of the best animation I’ve ever seen in a TV show, tons of cool action, and unforgettable characters. It’s also incredibly tightly plotted. Not a single episode could be considered “filler.” Not a single character is expendable (except maybe Lagoon Boy from Season 2, because he sucks). Not a line of dialogue is ever wasted.

And yet, this show only has two seasons at the moment. It seems to have endured Firefly levels of sabotage from Cartoon Network, where it first aired, with long hiatuses being imposed with no warning, episodes airing at the wrong times, etc. It was cancelled after the second season, and the reason I’ve heard cited most often is that it wasn’t selling enough toys. But thanks to ongoing fan support and tons of views on Netflix, it’s been renewed for a third season, to be called “Young Justice: Outsiders”! I’m pretty excited. Even though it won’t be on Netflix, apparently. And I have to wait until 2018, apparently.

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I need a time machine.

In the meantime, there are always DVDs…and if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this show, I highly recommend  you make every effort to do so.

Grade: A for Aster

The Flash

It’s high time for me to talk about my other favourite DC superhero.

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The Flash
Creators: Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns, Andrew Kreisberg
Starring: Grant Gustin, Candice Patton, Danielle Panabaker, Carlos Valdes, Tom Cavanagh, etc.
Aired: 2014-Present
Rated TV-PG

The Flash is the second of (currently) four shows that make up the CW’s DC universe, usually dubbed the “Arrowverse.” And it is by far the best. The third season just hit Netflix, but things got started back in Season 1 with 11-year-old Barry Allen witnessing his mother’s death at the hands of a mysterious figure who appears in a bolt of lightning. No one believes his version of the story, so his father is blamed for the murder. Fast forward a decade or so, and Barry’s working as a (ridiculously young) CSI tech in his hometown of Central City. Ever since the incident with his mother, he’s been obsessed with finding proof of the “impossible,” and he gets his wish one night when a particle accelerator at nearby S.T.A.R. Labs explodes, causing him to get struck by SCIENCE!-infused lightning. When he finally wakes up after a nine-month coma, Barry discovers he has super speed. With the help of the team of scientists who were working on the particle accelerator (Harrison Wells, Cisco Ramon, and Caitlin Snow), he learns how to use his powers to become a superhero. Good thing, too, since he’s not the only person who got superpowers in the explosion, and most of the other new “metahumans” in Central City put them to less than altruistic purposes. When he’s not chasing them down, The Flash works to find out what happened to his mother, woo his longtime crush Iris West, and, of course, fight the Big Bad of the season, who usually has similar powers to his own.

So why is this the best of the Arrowverse–and, in my opinion, the best CW show ever? Well, for one thing, out of all the live-action superhero stories I’ve seen, this is the one that best captures the comic book spirit. It makes absolutely no attempt to make its stories more “grounded” or “mature” than their source material, but instead does its best to embrace the wackiness at every opportunity. It’s got colourful costumes, goofy dialogue, giant psychic gorillas, convoluted time travel, parallel universes, and enough technobabble to make Spock’s head spin. There are big crossover events with the other shows in the Arrowverse (which tend to be hit or miss, thanks to those shows’ inferior nature). Every season ends with an epic finale, but along the way there are plenty of light-hearted episodes dealing with the metahuman of the week. There’s even a freaking musical episode!

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And it’s amazing.

That’s the first reason I got hooked on this show: it’s just so darn fun. The action is cool, there’s a good amount of humour sprinkled throughout, and most of the stories are campy and cheesy in the best possible way. What has kept me watching, though, even through some of the show’s less fun episodes, are the characters. Every member of the main cast is extremely likable in their own way. Barry himself is the kind of hero who will stop a bank robbery, give the would-be robber a heartfelt talk about how to change his life, and then re-paint someone’s garage on the way home. All while making awful speed puns. He’s a caring, optimistic hero who tends to inspire people both in- and out-of-universe. Of course, he struggles with his own set of flaws, mainly not thinking things through before doing them (a logical flaw for a speedster), but he usually manages to work through those things and emerge as a better person.

Then there’s the supporting cast: Detective Joe West, Barry’s loving, supportive father figure/Commissioner Gordon figure; Caitlin, the frosty-tempered but warm-hearted S.T.A.R. Labs team medic; Iris, who starts out pretty one-dimensional but eventually grows into a strong woman worthy of the Flash’s affection; and Harrison Wells, who is technically a different character every season because he keeps getting replaced by alternate-universe versions of himself. But whether he’s a wise mentor, a grumpy anti-hero, or the designated comic relief, he’s always entertaining thanks to Tom Cavanagh’s flexible acting skills. My personal favourite character, though, is Cisco. Not just because he’s the biggest nerd in an already nerdy cast (always an endearing trait), but because he is, if possible, even more principled and pure-hearted than Barry. He’s always quick with the jokes and one-liners, but he’s also perfectly capable of saving the day when he needs to. All these characters share a very heartwarming bond of friendship, proving over and over again that they’d do anything to help each other.

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And no wonder. How could you look at Cisco’s adorable face and NOT love him?

With occasional exceptions, the show also tends to have excellent villains. The Big Bads have, so far, always been evil speedsters with personal grudges against Barry, which did feel a tad repetitive by the third season, but each one still manages to be menacing in his own unique way. My least favourite is Season 2’s Zoom, because he got the least amount of characterisation, but even he wasn’t bad. The other two evil speedsters, the Reverse-Flash and Savitar, are equally great in my book. But there are plenty of memorable meta-of-the-week villains, too. The Trickster is the closest thing we’ll ever get to a live-action Mark Hamill Joker, and he even manages to make an epic Star Wars reference. Grodd is the aforementioned psychic gorilla, and while his CGI appearance sometimes leaves a bit to be desired, he’s still plenty intimidating. Then there’s the cool, sarcastic, morally conflicted Captain Cold, whom I love with all my heart, whether he’s fighting for or against Team Flash.

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He’s just a really chill guy.

Of course, while it is a glorious DC comics show, The Flash is also a CW show, and it comes with many of the problems that that implies. There are far too many romantic subplots, and they take up far too much screen time. Lots of conflicts arise because the characters don’t communicate well enough, or make stupid decisions, or just happened to be written by someone who decided they should be arguing that day. The special effects are not exactly cinematic in quality, and neither are all of the supporting actors. But as someone who has watched more CW junk than she’d like to admit, I have to say that those flaws are much less noticeable in this show than in most of its fellows. The romance is annoying, but it never overtakes the main plot. The special effects aren’t perfect, but they’re far from terrible for TV. And some of the conflicts may be unnecessary, but at least they’re usually resolved within an episode or two rather than being dragged out through a whole season, as I’ve seen happen elsewhere.

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I guess you get over your problems quicker when you can run faster than the speed of light.

I’ve heard some people say The Flash has gone downhill with each season. While I can understand why some might think that way–the repetitive story arcs, the more serious tone of Season 2, etc.–I’m not sure I agree. Yes, the first season is probably still my favourite, but that’s mostly because it was my first introduction to The Flash and his universe. Later seasons may have had similar Big Bads, but they also brought in more great characters, more development for existing characters, and, of course, more comic book wackiness. Season 3 also brought a significant change to the show, one that seems like an exceptionally bold move for the CW (though it has plenty of precedent in the comics). Of course, it could all be undone within the first few episodes of Season 4. For now, though, I maintain that The Flash, with all its flaws, is a thoroughly enjoyable show that brings several wonderful superheroes (and supervillains) to life.

If it keeps up this way, I’ll be running back to this show for years to come.

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“Run, Barry, run!”

Grade: A-

P.S. In case anyone was wondering about my opinions on the other shows in the Arrowverse, the short version is: Arrow’s pretty good for the first two seasons, then gradually becomes unwatchable by Season 4; I couldn’t finish the first season of Supergirl because it was preachy, overly political trash; Legends of Tomorrow is good whenever it focuses on characters who were introduced on The Flash.  Also it has Rory Williams playing the Doctor, so there’s that.

Batman Beyond

I am on a mission to experience every amazing TV show and movie that the DC Animated Universe has to offer. And the next stop on that journey is Batman Beyond.

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Batman Beyond
Writers and Directors: Loads, but mainly Butch Lukic, Dan Riba, Alan Burnett and Paul Dini
Starring: Will Friedle and Kevin Conroy
Aired: 1999-2001

Batman Beyond is the sequel series to Batman: The Animated Series, taking place in the same continuity. It starts off many years after Batman’s last chronological appearance in Justice League Unlimited, with a prologue that shows his decision to hang up the cowl after his failing health forces him to pick up a gun to defend himself. Twenty years later, Gotham is as crime-ridden as ever, and Bruce Wayne is a recluse with only his guard dog for company–until he runs into a teenager named Terry McGinnis, who stumbles upon the Batcave. At first Terry agrees to keep the secret to himself. But when his father is murdered for knowing too much about the dealings of a corrupt CEO, he decides to steal the Bat-suit (which has received a few upgrades over the years) and bring the killers to justice. Bruce isn’t happy about this at first, but once he sees Terry in action and understands his intentions, he agrees to teach him the ways of crimefighting. The rest of the show follows Terry’s adventures as the new Batman, battling foes that range from a gang of teenage Joker wannabes to the radioactive supervillain Blight, all while trying to keep his grades up. He occasionally clashes with Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon, picks up a part-time sidekick named Max, and is constantly guided by Bruce’s expert, if grumpy, advice.

This is actually the last major show in the DCAU that I watched, and not just because it’s a little harder to find than any of the others. I was honestly pretty reluctant to try out a show about a Batman who wasn’t Bruce Wayne or even any other member of the established Bat-family. How could some random kid from the future ever hope to be worthy of the name?

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And one with an emo haircut at that!

Well, as it turns out…he kind of is. Terry’s a compelling character in his own right, with a sarcastic sense of humour, a bit of a rebellious streak, and the same upright morals and compassion that helped make the original Batman great. And since the we never really got an origin story for the Dark Knight in this universe (except for the flashbacks in Mask of the Phantasm), it’s nice to be able to watch someone becoming Batman. Terry starts out as a hotheaded kid with a super suit and some natural athletic ability, but over the course of the show, he gradually becomes a better detective and fighter until he’s almost at the level of his mentor. Note that I said almost. Thankfully, said mentor is still a major character who appears in almost every episode. Even though he’s no longer the protagonist, Bruce has lost none of his awesomeness with age, and he delivers some of the show’s best lines and coolest scenes.

One of my favourite things about B:TAS was its dark, noir-style atmosphere. Atmosphere is also one of Beyond‘s biggest strengths, but this show ditches the noir in favour of cyberpunk. We’ve got flying cars (including the Batmobile!), super-advanced robots, futuristic slang, gene splicing as a fashion trend, and a city-scape that could have been ripped straight from Blade Runner. I love it. Not only does it provide a cool backdrop for the action, this setting also allows the writers to explore neat sci-fi concepts like artificial intelligence, instant gratification technology, the morals of messing with DNA, and dangers like nuclear waste and pollution.

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Gotham’s a lot…shinier, these days.

The funny thing about this show is that, from what I can find on the Internet, it seems to have been conceived as a way to get younger kids into Batman–thus the idea of making him a high school kid. But in addition to having just as much nuanced, mature writing as its predecessor, it’s actually far less child-friendly. It features lots of gruesome deaths that occur just off-screen, more brutal violence in general, and lots and lots of drug metaphors. Unlike in B:TAS, drugs are never mentioned by name (isn’t it weird how censorship changes over time?) but several episodes show the consequences of addiction in rather graphic detail by inventing sci-fi substitutes for real illicit substances. Many of the villains are still tragic, but this show really drives home the fact that “tragic” isn’t always the same thing as “sympathetic.” Beyond villains have a tendency to act like they could be redeemed, up until the last second when you realise that they were either faking those good impulses or they’re just much too far gone.

When you come down to it, this show is good for the same reason that B:TAS and every other show in the DCAU is good. It’s smartly written, constantly going beyond (heh) the basic superhero premise of “good guy fights bad guys” to explore deeper questions about what makes a hero and a villain. The voice acting is top-notch as always, as is the animation. And the theme song…well, like the one for B:TAS, it does a great job of establishing the story and the universe where it takes place in just a few seconds. And in the words of Terry, it’s “unbearably cool.” Take a look-see:

My problems with this series can basically be boiled down to three. 1) It establishes that Bruce and Barbara Gordon were in a relationship at one point. If I were to list all the reasons I think that pairing is sick and wrong, it would take up the rest of this review. I will never understand why cartoon writers are so obsessed with making it a thing. So in my mind, it never happened, and Barbara is just losing her memory in her old age. 2) Speaking of relationships, this show focuses on Terry’s just a wee bit more than I would like. One of the many things I love about the original Batman is that he never had a steady girlfriend who knew him as Bruce Wayne, so he never had to do what I call the “secret identity dance,” where the hero constantly has to make excuses to a love interest about why they’re sneaking out every night. Terry does a lot of that, and it’s rather dull as conflicts go. His girlfriend, Dana, is also rather dull. 3) I wish the show could have done more with Blight. He’s something of an archnemesis to Terry in the first season, and an effective one, but he just kind of disappears after that. Seems like a bit of a waste to me.

But those are minor issues, in the grand scheme of things. For the most part, this is an excellent show that lives up to its predecessor in almost every way.

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“Very good then, Mr. McGinnis. Welcome to my world.”

A note on formatting: In the version of the show that I watched (which I streamed from Amazon), several of the episodes are listed out of order. They’re self-contained enough that it’s not usually a big deal, but once in a while a character will mention something from a previous episode that you won’t get if you’re watching in the Amazon order. Also, like B:TAS, this show never got a proper finale during its own run, but it does have a movie (Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker) and its storyline gets wrapped up for good in an episode of Justice League Unlimited called “Epilogue.”

Whatever order you watch it in, I highly recommend this show, especially for fans of the original Batman series.

Grade: A

Iron Fist

Everyone’s favourite superhero team-up is back. That’s right: Marvel and Netflix made another show!

Iron Fist begins with Danny Rand returning to New York City after being presumed dead, along with his billionaire parents, in a plane crash that happened 15 years ago. But he’s really spent the last 15 years learning kung fu in the mystical land of K’un-Lun, which exists in another dimension, and now that he’s skilled enough to channel the Iron Fist, a magical punching power, he’s come back to try and make his home city a better place. So he’s basically Bruce Wayne if he were a hippie. Or Oliver Queen if he sucked less, or Stephen Strange if he were more into punching…you get the idea. This isn’t the most original show ever.

But the Meacham family, who have taken over Danny’s company, have other plans for the Iron Fist, as does the Hand, that ninja army that invaded New York in Daredevil season 2. With the help of a few fellow martial arts practitioners, Danny spends his first season trying to take down the Hand, avoid the Meachams’ schemes, and figure out what he’s meant to do with his powers.

You know, besides punch drug dealers. That’s a given.

This is the first Marvel/Netflix show to get panned by critics, and it’s not too hard to see why. First of all, a lot of people were biased against it before it even came out because, as mentioned above, it’s yet another story about a rich white guy who goes to a vaguely Asian place, learns kung fu, and ends up being better at it than any of the Asian people who taught him. It’s an old, old story with a ton of racial baggage, and it’s taken directly from the comics. So I’m not sure there was a way to avoid it in an Iron Fist adaptation. But it certainly won’t make anyone happy who was hoping for a more socially progressive Netflix show.

Even if you can overlook the problematic premise, this show has some pretty glaring flaws. For the most part, they’re flaws that the other Defenders shows have also struggled with. For example, just like Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones to some extent, this series is very badly paced. Hardly anything happens for the first three or four episodes, although things do pick up quite a bit once Claire Temple (my queen!) shows up and the Hand formally challenges Danny.

Colleen Wing’s awesomeness doesn’t hurt, either.

In my review of Luke Cage, I said I would have liked the show better if it were  a few episodes shorter, but I think Iron Fist has a different problem. I don’t wish it were shorter. I just wish the first few episodes had taken place, not in the white-collar offices of New York City, but in K’un-Lun, to show Danny training, develop his worldview and relationships with his fellow warriors, and, I dunno, maybe show the part where he got his powers from punching a freaking dragon! How do you give your character a backstory like that and not show it onscreen?  I can guarantee you, my opinion of this show would have gone way up if it had opened with our hero fighting a dragon.

What is the point of wearing your dragon-punching clothes if you’re not going to punch a dragon? Answer me that!

Speaking of our hero, I’m not a huge fan of Danny as a character. Finn Jones does a decent job playing him, and he comes across as a likeable guy with an appealing sort of innocence to him, but I just don’t buy him as a legendary kung fu warrior. Maybe it’s because he looks so much like a 20-something guy you’d see hanging around a pot shop in a Rocky Mountain tourist town, or the straight-faced bits of fortune cookie wisdom he’s always spewing, but I just have a hard time believing that anyone would be intimidated by this guy. It doesn’t help that most of his fight scenes leave a lot to be desired, especially compared to the ones in Daredevil. Overall, I found the Iron Fist to be the least interesting character in his own show. The side characters are a different story, which I’ll get to in a minute.

But all that being said, I think some people are being a little too hard on this show. It has its weaknesses, for sure, but it also has some notable strengths. Besides the pacing, one thing that disappointed me about Luke Cage was its lack of good villains. Iron Fist, thankfully, does not have that problem. The Big Bad of the season is Madame Gao, who has always been the most intimidating Defenders villain, and she hasn’t lost any of her old menace. The delightfully dysfunctional Meacham family brings a stronger inter-villain dynamic than I’ve seen since the first season of Daredevil, and the father, Harold Meacham, is a special kind of creepy. (Although that might just be because it’s so surreal to watch Faramir being a horrible father.) Even the minor Hand members Danny fights tend to be pretty memorable, especially the guy who nearly beats him while drunk and uses his liquor bottles as weapons. I kind of want a show about that guy now.

Apparently this delightful actor auditioned to play Iron Fist, before Finn Jones was cast. Hmm. Awkward.

The other “good” characters are just as interesting. Of course we have Claire Temple in all of her usual awesomeness, and she even gets to do a little fighting this time around, which is great. But I was also surprised by how much I liked Danny’s love interest, Colleen Wing. She’s a kind-hearted lady with a passion for teaching, who lives by a code of honour but still has some dark secrets up her sleeve. Plus she fights with a katana, and I have a major soft spot for katanas. Jessica Henwick does a great job playing her, and honestly I felt a lot more invested in her story arc than Danny’s.

All in all, I think this is a decent show that could have been a lot better. It’s got some great characters, some decent story ideas, and a few cool fight scenes. But this is the last stand-alone series before the Defenders team up, and it just doesn’t feel like it had as much effort put into it as its predecessors. The lead character is kinda bland, the action isn’t nearly as cool as it should be, and a lot of time that should have been spent on the awesome, over-the-top wuxia scenes you’d expect from a show like this is instead spent on corporate politics and pointless subplots. While it never sinks to the level of, say, Arrow, it never really rises above the unfortunate premise it shares with that show, either.

“My name is Danny Rand. After 15 years in heaven, I have come home with only one goal: to save my city.”

I just hope the actual Defenders show is better than this. Or that Daredevil season 3 and the Punisher series come out soon. Now that I’m thinking about it, one mediocre show out of a potential six isn’t really that bad. I’m not writing off the Marvel/Netflix team-up just yet.

Grade: C+

Batman: The Animated Series

Holy awesomeness, Batman!

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any time at all,  you know I love all things related to the Dark Knight. So it may come as a surprise that, until recently, I had never watched Batman: The Animated Series, which is considered by many to be the definitive portrayal of the character (outside the comics, at least). It was just a matter of being born too late, I guess. I wasn’t even old enough for Sesame Street when this show first aired, and by the time I started caring about superheroes, I thought I had outgrown cartoons in general. (Yeah…there was a time in my life when I actually thought I was mature and dignified. Fortunately, it was just a phase.)

So it wasn’t until recently that I finally decided to track down this 25-year-old cartoon series and see what all the fuss was about. I was not disappointed.

For those who haven’t seen it (I know you exist!), the show’s premise is pretty self-explanatory. It’s four seasons of self-contained episodes about Batman fighting the villain of the week and occasionally teaming up with Robin, Batgirl or another sidekick. No complicated story arcs, just a simple, kid-friendly show. And it’s the most consistently intelligent, fun and all-around awesome superhero show I’ve ever seen. Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways:

A silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.

The intro. From the minute the WB symbol turned into a pair of headlamps from a police zeppelin (I love that Gotham has police zeppelins, by the way), I knew I was in for something special. The grand, sweeping music and the dark, noir-style animation establish the show’s atmosphere perfectly. And the image of Batman standing on a skyscraper with lightning flashing behind him is just so iconic. It’s everything you need to know about him packed into a few seconds.

The music. Did I mention that yet? This is one of the few cartoons ever to get a fully-orchestrated soundtrack, and it makes me wonder how modern cartoons can stand to settle for less. Here, the music makes everything seem so much bigger than you expect on your average kids’ show. It always hits the right emotions, making the villains creepier, the action more urgent, and Batman more triumphantly awesome. Apologies to Hans Zimmer, but there’s just no music that captures the essence of Batman better than that soaring brass anthem. And there’s one more thing that makes this soundtrack special: unlike 99 percent of all mainstream movie and TV scores, it was primarily composed by a woman. I’m adding Shirley Walker to my list of inspiring female artists.

His laugh is a trifle more…contagious than other versions.

The voice acting. Obviously, I’m mainly talking about Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill here. But really, all the acting is top-notch in this show. The only recurring voice that I didn’t love was the first Robin–he seemed a little too whiny to me. But even he got better by the end of the series (because NIGHTWING!) and everyone else, even minor one-off characters, seemed perfect. But Conroy and Hamill stand out because they manage to take two characters (Batman and the Joker, respectively) that have been interpreted and re-interpreted hundreds of times, and own them so thoroughly that even someone who was raised on the Nolan movies like me can still look at a comic and automatically read it in their voices. I like all the live-action Batmen I’ve seen, but I didn’t understand how truly, terrifyingly awesome the character could be until I watched the episode “Nothing to Fear” and heard the immortal line, “I am vengeance. I am the night! I am Batman!” for the first time. I don’t think anyone else could make that line send chills down my spine the way Conroy did. And as for Mark Hamill’s Joker…well, let’s just say not many actors can be genuinely hilarious and genuinely scary at the exact same time. Mark Hamill can.

“Puddin’, you really put the ‘fun’ in funeral.”

The tragedy. Here’s what really sets this show apart from other superhero works, and even other DC cartoons (which are all excellent, by the way). A lot of writers seem to focus almost exclusively on Batman’s hunger for justice and desire to punish wrongdoers. That’s certainly an important part of his character, but B:TAS focuses on what I think is an even more important part: his desire to save people. And when I say “people,” I mean everyone who’s in danger in his city, including the villains. That’s where the tragedy comes in. Keep in mind that this is a show where no one ever dies–at least not on screen. The bad guys’ evil plans always fail, good always prevails, and everything stays PG along the way. But it still manages to create some of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve ever see on TV, and it’s largely thanks to the villains. With the exception of the Joker, almost every recurring villain on this show will make you feel sorry for them at some point. Most of them start out relatively normal and are driven to do terrible things by a combination of mental illness and traumatic circumstances. And Batman often goes out of his way, not only to avoid killing them, but to try and help them heal from whatever it was that turned them into monsters. After all, he’s pretty messed up in the head too, so he understands where a lot of Gotham’s costumed criminals are coming from. But while he may be able to save the innocent citizens of Gotham from the villains, he’s never able to save the villains from themselves. And it’s very clear that he finds it difficult to forgive himself for that. If you’ve ever had a loved one who struggled with mental illness, or just went down a wrong path in life, there are some episodes in this show that will feel like a punch to the gut.

I DARE you to watch this scene with dry eyes.

Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of funny, light-hearted episodes, along with some truly heartwarming moments. But for some reason, I admire a kids’ show more for making me teary than for making me laugh. Maybe just because it’s rarer. And the intelligent, understated way this show approaches such heavy subject matter as grief, mental illness and domestic abuse is a step beyond anything I’ve ever seen in a kids’ show. Or most adult shows, for that matter. It keeps things child-friendly, but never becomes childish. Like all great kids’ entertainment, it can be enjoyed by people of all ages, at the same time, for different reasons.

And no matter what age you are, this car is awesome.

Of course, it has the occasional dud episode. And I’m not a huge fan of the different animation style in the fourth season. But for the most part, B:TAS is everything I’ve ever wanted from a Batman story and more. And it even has a movie! Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which is just as well-made as the show (actually more so, since it had a bigger budget), but is a little more consciously aimed at adults. Then there’s the spinoff shows, the crossovers, etc…Point is, everything about this series is fantastic and wonderful, and I just wish I had watched it sooner.

Grade: A+

P.S. Here are my very favourite episodes, for the curious:

Nothing to Fear (only because of that one Batman line)
Heart of Ice
Joker’s Favor
Appointment in Crime Alley
Perchance to Dream
Almost Got ‘Im
The Man Who Killed Batman
Baby-Doll (this is my number one favourite, but we’re going in chronological order here)
Harley’s Holiday
Never Fear
Legends of the Dark Knight
Mad Love

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Look away! Look away! This review is filled with nothing but dismay!

Image result for a series of unfortunate events netflix

A Series of Unfortunate Events is a brand new Netflix show based on the not-so-new series of children’s books by Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket. It’s about the three Baudelaire children–Violet, Klaus, and Sunny–who lose their parents in a fire that destroys their home. Things only get worse for them after that, as they’re placed in the questionable care of Count Olaf, a no-good scoundrel and talentless actor who will stop at nothing to get his hands on their family fortune. Fortunately they’re able to use their talents–Violet’s knack for inventing, Klaus’s bookishness, and Sunny’s razor-sharp teeth–to stay one step ahead of him. But while the story may seem like a simple cat-and-mouse game between orphans and Olaf, there’s much more going on than meets the eye.

Before I get into what I thought of the show’s first season, I need to explain what the original books mean to me. As I may have mentioned before, I was a sheltered homeschooler, and like most sheltered homeschoolers of the ’90s, I wasn’t allowed to read Harry Potter. So A Series of Unfortunate Events was my Harry Potter. From the age of about 12 to 14, I was obsessed with these books. I read all of them, including the companion books The Unauthorized Autobiography and The Beatrice Letters. There was a Snicket website back in the day, where you could solve puzzles and decipher codes based on the books, so I spent time on that when I was first discovering the internet. My best friend and little brother were both into the books at the same time I was, so we bonded by swapping theories about who Beatrice was, what was in the sugar bowl, what was up with that question mark thingy, and other “conundrums of esoterica” from the series. It wasn’t just fun, either–I learned a ton from these books. They taught me words like “misnomer,” “inordinate,” and “denouement.” They introduced me to T.S. Eliot. I think they contributed greatly to the development of my dark, morbid sense of humour. And last but not least, they taught me how vitally important it is to have a library card.

“All the secrets of the world are contained in books. Read at your own risk.” – Lemony Snicket

I liked the Jim Carrey movie that adapted the first three books, but its humour was just a bit over the top at times (because, you know, Jim Carrey). It also had trouble committing to the books’ brand of black comedy and moral ambiguity. The ending was way too uplifting for a Snicket creation, just as one example.

For the most part, the show does better justice to the books. Well, the first four anyway–the first season only covers The Bad Beginning through The Miserable Mill. I think all long book series should be made into TV shows rather than movies. A show allows you to fit in so much more detail and character development, especially when the original author is on the writing team, as is the case here. And when your original book series is a huge puzzle, filled with subtle clues for the readers to piece together, it’s especially helpful to take some extra time to include them for the viewing audience. In this series we get to see a little more of what’s going on behind the scenes in the Baudelaires’ sad tale, which makes the puzzle a bit easier, but also fleshes out the zany, anachronistic world in which the series takes place that much more.

I think this show contains every type of telephone that has ever existed. And every fashion sense that ever could exist.

Neil Patrick Harris is perfect in the role of Count Olaf, and he even finds excuses to break out his singing voice–which sometimes sounds a little too close to “Dr. Horrible” for my taste, but the theme song is catchy. The rest of the cast is equally stellar (personally I thought Meryl Streep was funnier as Aunt Josephine, but Alfre Woodard isn’t bad). I’m especially impressed at how good Sunny’s “acting” is, considering she’s, you know, a baby. Not sure whether to give more credit to the editing, CGI, or baby training for that. But the best person in the cast is Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket. As expected, he narrates all the Baudelaires’ adventures, but I was a bit taken aback at first to see that he does so by looking straight into the camera. The books always made a big deal out of never showing Snicket’s face in pictures, so I wasn’t sure I’d like this approach. But he quickly won me over with his dry, deadpan, Rod Serling-esque performance. He’s the one who really makes this show as great as it is.

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off watching something else.”

Of course, it really helps that almost all the narration, as well as the dialogue, is lifted straight from the books. So we get to hear such gems of narration as, “If you are allergic to a thing, it is always best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats.” And we get to hear, completely intact, all the little vocabulary lessons and literary references Snicket slips in between adventures, which I love, since I’m even more of a book nerd than a movie nerd. Likewise, the sets, costumes, and occasional fourth wall breaking all perfectly match the atmosphere of the books.

This series is not for everyone. The doom and gloom is mostly played for laughs, but there are a few rather gruesome deaths, and Count Olaf can be genuinely creepy on occasion. If you’re not a fan of black comedy, you may find the story more disturbing than funny, and some kids might find it too scary. On the other hand, it also gets extremely silly at times, which may put off a whole other portion of the audience. But if you grew up with the books, or even if you just like your entertainment on the literary-faux-Gothic-neonoir-dark-humour side, you’ll probably enjoy it.

The world of A Series of Unfortunate Events is a dark and unpleasant one, to be sure. Most adults are either evil or criminally stupid, no one pays attention to children, and the answers to the mysteries of life are always just out of reach. But it’s also a world in which knowledge, hard work, and loyalty can help one survive, and even find moments of happiness. The answers to the Baudelaires’ questions, and the key to outwitting Count Olaf’s latest scheme, can always be found in a library. Their motivation to keep going, no matter how difficult their lives get, can always be found in their love for each other and the memory of their parents. As cartoonish as the orphans’ circumstances get, most people can relate to the feeling that the whole world is out to get you, so it’s rather uplifting to see our heroes struggle to stick up for each other and do the right thing, even against overwhelming odds. It’s clear that even the children’s best efforts won’t earn them a happy ending, so it’s still not the most uplifting message ever, but I’ll take it. Sometimes happy endings aren’t everything. Sometimes you need a story that teaches the value of staying true to your moral code and moving forward, even when there might not be a light at the end of the tunnel.

The forecast is “rainy, with a chance of arson.”

It’s also very important to teach people the proper use of the word “literally.” This show is doing the Lord’s work (not literally, of course).

Grade: A

Sherlock

Spoiler alert: There are a few TV reviews coming. It’s that time of year.

Image result for sherlock

It has been seven years (!!!) since Sherlock, the BBC’s modern interpretation of Sherlock Holmes and his classic adventures, hit the small screen. Since then, both its leads and its creators have become megastars, and it’s gained such a massive fanbase on both sides of the Atlantic that Sherlock memes, fanfiction and crossovers have gained an infamy all their own. And if you’re still on the outside wondering what all the fuss is about, let me add to your confusion by saying this show has 13 episodes. Total. And I’m afraid it looks like there won’t be any more.

The finale of the fourth season of Sherlock aired on Sunday, and it definitely had an air of…well, finality to it. With the two main actors heading off to do bigger and more Marvel-y things, it seems unlikely they’ll be back for another season. Even if they are, we’ll have to wait at least two years for it. But if it is over, now seems like a good time to step back and take a look at the show as a whole. It’s getting a lot of internet hate right now, thanks to the divisive last season, which I don’t think is entirely deserved. I think Sherlock just started out on such an amazing, ambitious note, and we had to wait so long between episodes, that it was impossible for later seasons to live up to the standards set by the earlier ones. Especially with a professional disappointer like Steven Moffat on the writing team. (Yeah, I don’t easily forgive people who ruin Doctor Who. Grr.)

I’ve been calling it a TV show, but Sherlock is really more like a series of short movies. So instead of reviewing the whole thing at once, I’m going to give my definitive ranking of every episode, from worst to best:

13. The Abominable Bride (Season 3.5)

Dapper is the new sexy.

This Christmas special is, indeed, abominable. It starts out looking like it’s going to be a fun little “alternate universe” spin on the world of Sherlock, and an excuse to put all the characters back in their proper Victorian time period, but we quickly find out that it’s all happening in modern Sherlock’s head. Because he somehow managed to get ridiculously high in the five minutes between the cliffhanger ending of the last episode and the beginning of this one. So it’s still happening in the mainstream universe, but has no impact on the plot whatsoever. Awesome. Even within the mental fantasy, the once-intriguing mystery ends up turning into an incredibly disturbing commentary on feminism. I still can’t decide whether the writers were trying to say it’s okay for women to murder their husbands for not respecting them, or if they were just trying to paint feminists as dangerous murderers, but either way, I don’t like it.

12. The Sign of Three (Season 3, episode 2)

“So I’m your best…friend?” “Yes, can’t you tell by how I pay more attention to you than my wife?”

The problem with this episode is that it’s mainly about Watson’s wedding. TV weddings are almost always a huge bore, and even the attempted murder in this one couldn’t save it. It’s also got a lot of mushy sentiment between Sherlock and Watson, which is going a bit far even for a Sherlock who’s starting to discover his humanity. It also provides endless opportunities for gay jokes, which are one of this show’s biggest problems in general. And the mystery was very weak. But at least it’s funny, and it’s got Sherlock playing the violin, which is always a treat.

11. The Final Problem (Season 4, episode 3)

“There’s an east wind coming…very slowly and obviously.”

I will say this for the series finale: No matter how bad the writing on Sherlock gets, the acting always elevates it. This episode is a jumbled mess, full of plot holes, weird genre shifts, and overblown drama. But Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Mark Gatiss, and–well, everyone really–give such sincere performances throughout that they often trick me into caring about the ridiculous story. There’s a reason why Benny and Martin are getting so much work these days But even from a writing standpoint, the last five minutes are not at all a bad way to end the show. If only the rest of the episode was as good.

10. The Empty Hearse (Season 3, episode 1)

“Surprise, I’m back!” *gets punched repeatedly* 

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first brought Sherlock Holmes back from the dead (reluctantly–he had intended to kill him off for good), some contemporary critics said the stories never quite regained their old quality. The same thing happened with Sherlock. After the great detective miraculously survived his death at the end of Season 2, the show rapidly began to go downhill, starting with this episode. It’s still entertaining, what with the violent reunion between John and Sherlock and the introduction of Mary Watson, but it lacks the sense of urgency that previous episodes had (if you’ve just brought your main character back from the dead, no one’s going to believe he’s in real danger again), and its fourth-wall-breaking seems self-conscious in all the wrong ways.

9. The Six Thatchers (Season 4, episode 1)

Aww, what a happy family. Obviously this can’t last.

The fun part of this episode is that it gives us some answers about Mary’s past while tying it into an actual mystery in the present. Also, John and Mary have a cute baby, and Sherlock is of course the godfather, so that’s fun as well. Unfortunately, it’s not a super engaging mystery, and it ends with the completely unnecessary death of a major female character, which, for many people, just added to the mounting pile of evidence that Moffat reeeaaallly has issues writing about women.

8. His Last Vow (Season 3, episode 3)

“Behold, my glorious collection of plot holes!”

This was the best episode of Season 3, because it was the only one in which something exciting actually happened. The villain was a bit idiotic and repulsive, to be sure, but the trip through Sherlock’s mind palace (back before the show beat that idea to death) was fun, and so was his “undercover” identity as a junkie–in a black comedy sort of way. Oh, and the show’s biggest punching bag, Molly Hooper, gives Sherlock a richly deserved slap more than once, which is very cathartic. This is also the only episode that really develops John and Mary’s relationship, and it’s quite sweet about it, even if their struggles as a couple still carry some uncomfortable traces of sexism.

7. The Lying Detective (Season 4, episode 2)

Yeah, that facial expression alone should get you arrested.

I liked Season 4 better than Season 3 just because of this episode alone. Again, the villain is so over-the-top that it really shouldn’t have taken a genius like Sherlock Holmes to catch him. But apart from the mystery, it’s a genuinely moving story about two broken men learning to heal their friendship, and each other, after a tragedy. It also shows just how far Sherlock has come from being the amoral jerk he was in the first season, by having him show real kindness to a stranger and go to extreme lengths to help his best friend. Good feels all around.

6. A Scandal in Belgravia (Season 2, episode 1)

She is Sherlocked. To be fair, so are we all.

Did I mention that Steven Moffat has issues with writing about women? This is possibly the most blatant example. The Irene Adler in this episode is almost unrecognisable to fans of the original story. She doesn’t ultimately outwit Sherlock, she’s unable to save herself from the trouble she gets into, and she’s also a frequently-nude dominatrix (with a terrible stage name) instead of a classy opera singer. Doyle’s version was much more interesting and empowered, and he was writing in the 1800s! Still, this episode manages to be so clever, funny, and suspenseful that I’m willing to forgive its problematic semi-villain. It’s also the first episode where we see Sherlock doubting himself and showing a little more compassion for others.

5. The Blind Banker (Season 1, episode 2)

“Perhaps the pots did it.”

This is the weakest episode of Season 1, and it’s still fantastic. There’s lots of clever detective work, secret codes, dangerous escapades, and even a couple of ninjas, just to keep things interesting. The only reason it’s not more memorable is because the other two episodes of the season were so mind-blowing they make it look bad by comparison. And, admittedly, it does contain yet another unnecessary female death.

4. The Hounds of Baskerville (Season 2, episode 2)

“Behold, my epic coat!”

Out of all the Sherlock episodes based on ACD stories, this one is the best at evoking the atmosphere of the original. We’re removed from the bustle of modern London and placed on a creepy, misty moor, where mysterious sightings of a monstrous hound have been reported, and it’s all delightful. Again, I have to mention the acting in this one. Everyone chews even more scenery than normal–perhaps because there’s just more beautiful scenery available. It is so much fun to watch Sherlock lose his cool after seeing the hound, and John’s reaction to a particularly cruel prank by Sherlock at the end must be seen to be believed.

3. The Great Game (Season 1, episode 3)

“Jim Moriarty. Hi.”

All I really need to say about this episode is that it introduces Moriarty. And he’s perfect. He’s the evil, hammy version of Sherlock, and he steals every scene he’s in–which is saying something for an actor going up against the likes of Cumberbatch and Freeman. Even before he gets introduced, though, this episode is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, giving us not one, but five mysteries, with a life hanging in the balance as Sherlock solves each one. And it manages to fit in tons of character development along the way.

2. A Study in Pink (Season 1, episode 1)

“Just between you and me, sitting here, why can’t people think? Don’t it make you mad? Why can’t people just think?”

I decided about ten minutes into this episode that Sherlock was going to be my new favourite show. It’s witty, it’s suspenseful, all the characters are instantly and endlessly fascinating, and it’s got just the right amount of dry British humour. And honestly, I think the villain in this first episode is the only one who can give Moriarty a run for his money. It’s a fantastic introduction to what would become a fantastic show–for two seasons, at least.

1. The Reichenbach Fall (Season 2, episode 3)

“I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t believe for one second that I am one of them.”

But this is where the show reached its peak. This episode is the gold standard by which I judge all season finales–which doesn’t even seem fair, because it’s so far out of every other show’s league. This is where all the themes and character development the show spent six episodes building up finally come together and pay off. It pulls no punches in showing the consequences for Sherlock’s jerk-ish actions in previous episodes, but it also allows him to redeem himself in truly epic fashion. Moriarty’s at his most terrifying, Sherlock’s at his most clever, John’s at his most heroic, and Molly’s at her most…noticed. Seriously, this is the only episode that treats Molly with the respect she deserves. And I love Molly so much that I’d give it top-of-the-list credit for that alone. But it also deserves major credit for the ending. Even though everyone who was even slightly familiar with Sherlock Holmes knew how this episode was going to end, it still managed to surprise me a bit, and make me very emotional–largely thanks to Martin Freeman’s fantastic cemetery monologue. If I get too frustrated with the direction the show took after this episode, I can always go back and pretend this is where it ended.

All things considered, I think Sherlock‘s good points outweigh its flaws. Even though I wish the show could have ended on a higher note, at least we had plenty of great moments along the way. And I look forward to seeing these actors in more great roles in the future.