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

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Yes, there’s an Indiana Jones movie I haven’t seen before. Clearly that must be rectified.

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz
Starring: Harrison Ford and some other people
Released in: 1984
Rated PG (because PG-13 wasn’t invented yet)

So just in case you don’t know the story, this movie starts with everyone’s favourite disaster-prone archaeologist delivering an artefact to some Chinese mobsters in Shanghai. Naturally, things go wrong, and he ends up escaping on a plane with a little kid named Short Round and a living migraine named Willie Scott. They crash-land in India, where they meet some villagers whose children have all been taken by a local ruler, along with a sacred stone rumoured to have magic powers. Then the plot really kicks in, as Indy  decides to go on a quest to find and return the stone.

I love the Indiana Jones movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of the first “grown-up” movies I was allowed to see as a kid, and both it and The Last Crusade have always been family favourites at my house. (I also saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in theatres, but…that one’s less of a favourite.) However, I was never allowed to see Temple of Doom as a kid, and it’s one of many movies I never quite got around to seeing as an adult. Until now, that is.

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Yeah…can’t imagine why my parents didn’t want me to see this as a kid.

To be honest, it struck me as a bit of an odd movie. Plot-wise, it’s much like all the other Indiana Jones movies: there’s a big opening scene with lots of punching, Indiana has to go search for a lost treasure, evil folks get in the way, there’s a bit of romance going on with the lead lady, they run into some freaky supernatural stuff, and it all leads up to a big climactic fight scene and a happy ending, although Indy still doesn’t get the treasure. But its tone is very different from any other entry in the franchise, and I think that’s what weirded me out so much. For about the first third, it almost feels like a slapstick comedy. All the Indiana Jones movies have a certain amount of humour, but this one starts out feeling downright goofy. There’s a fight scene where Indy shish-kebabs someone with an actual kebab, followed by a car chase with a little kid driving the car while making puns in bad English, followed by a plane crash where everyone survives by means of a physics-defying inflatable raft, and so on. And then somewhere around the half-hour mark, the tone completely changes into something very dark and disturbing, with a lot more gore than any of the other films had. Then, for the final third, it switches back to the exciting Indy action we know and love. All three tones work fine on their own, but together, they’re a bit of a weird combination.

Still, I’ve always heard this movie described as the low point of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, so I was pleasantly surprised by it in a lot of ways. The story itself is every bit as exciting as any of the others, it has several amazing action scenes, and you just can’t go wrong with young Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones. He’s the perfect action hero, and he’s also quite funny, as I often forget between viewings. Every good Indiana Jones movie has two or three moments that make me smile just because of how…Indiana Jones-y they are. This movie has them, too: the part where he dives under a collapsing door to grab his hat, the entire mine cart sequence, “Prepare to meet Kali…IN HELL!”, etc. Classic Indy.

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You can keep your Tom Hiddlestons. This is what a real Hollywood heartthrob looks like. 

Granted, this movie is, shall we say, less than PC. It’s made clear that the evil Thuggee cult Indy encounters has nothing to do with actual Hinduism (it also has nothing to do with the real-life Thuggee cult, but whatevs), but the movie still gets away with a much more offensive portrayal of another culture than you’d see in most blockbusters today. Then again, the other two movies showed us a pretty laughable caricature of Christian mythology, and I didn’t let that ruin them for me. It’s Indiana Jones–you can’t expect much in the way of historical and cultural accuracy.

In the end, I do have to agree with the majority opinion that this is the worst of the trilogy, but only for one reason: WILLIE. My word. She is easily one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. I had heard of her infamous screaming voice before, but I didn’t realise she uses that voice throughout the entire movie. She contributes almost nothing to the plot, half the time it doesn’t even make sense for her to be there (why did Indy decide to bring her on a dangerous mission, again?), and she’s either screaming or whining in every other line of dialogue. For most of the movie, Indy seems as annoyed by her as the audience, so their “romance,” if you can call it that, feels incredibly forced. It wouldn’t be so bad if she was a minor comic relief character, but no, she’s in almost every scene of the movie, distracting from Indy’s awesomeness by screeching about her nails. Within the first five minutes, I was thinking, “This chick needs to die in a fire.” And when she actually gets a chance to die in a fire later in the movie, spoiler alert, she gets rescued! I’ve never been more disappointed to see the plans of an evil death cult foiled. The only good thing I can say about Willie is that she made me appreciate Marion from the first movie all the more.

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She’s like Jar Jar Binks. Only blonde.

But there is one aspect of Temple of Doom that I think is actually an improvement on the other movies. For once, in this movie, Indiana Jones does something genuinely heroic–on purpose. Usually he’s chasing a treasure more or less for his own gain, and then the Nazis just happen to get in the way, so he has to fight them. But in this movie, he takes a huge risk in order to rescue a bunch of kids from slavery, without necessarily expecting a reward. It’s nice to see a nobler side to our normally selfish treasure hunter, and it makes it even easier to root for him in his more Willie-free adventures. And even though I thought it was a little weird at first for him to have a 12-year-old sidekick, I also found his relationship with Short Round to be pretty endearing by the end.

Overall, I enjoyed this movie. It’s not as much fun as the other two in the original trilogy, but it’s much better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull–or, indeed, several other modern action movies I could name. And now that I’ve seen all the movies in the series, I feel like I can finally call myself a proper Indiana Jones fan.

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Cue amazing John Williams music.

Grade: B

The Babadook

“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Well, NOW I can’t. Thanks, movie.

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Director and writer: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman
Released in: 2014 (in the U.S., anyway)
Not Rated

The Babadook is about Amelia, a single mother whose 6-year-old son, Samuel, is a bit of a problem child. He brings homemade weapons to school, freaks out other kids, and constantly has tantrums where he screams about monsters coming to get him. This does a number on his mother’s emotional state, which was already pretty bad because she’s still grieving for her husband, who was killed in a tragic accident several years ago. One night, Sam finds a new story on his shelf, called “Mister Babadook,” that his mum doesn’t remember buying for him. It turns out to be a creepy little pop-up book about a monster in a top hat that will do all sorts of vague and terrible things to you if you “let him in.” Naturally, it scares the crap out of Sam, and it eventually starts getting under Amelia’s skin, too, as she begins to imagine (or think she imagines) seeing and hearing the Babadook everywhere she goes.  And things get worse from there.

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Moral of the story: Don’t read mysteriously appearing books to your kids.

 

There’s a line in A Grief Observed, which is C.S. Lewis’s story of how he lost his wife, that says, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” And indeed, speaking as someone who’s felt relatively little of either, it seems that the two emotions do cause people to do very similar things. We avoid talking about things we’ve lost just as we avoid talking about things that scare us. Both grief and fear can lead to sleeplessness and poor decision making. And both can drive ordinarily decent people to do very indecent things.

That’s basically the premise behind this movie. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, I think I can say that the monster is strongly tied to our main characters’ feelings of grief and resentment. So it seems oddly fitting that it’s also bed-wettingly terrifying. Hagrid was clearly involved in naming this thing, because only the guy who named a giant three-headed dog “Fluffy” could possibly have come up with a cutesy name like “Mister Babadook” for the face of all my nightmares. And keep in mind that this thing is rarely shown outside of the drawings in the book that introduced it. It doesn’t jump out at you from the shadows. It doesn’t rip people’s heads off or burst out of anyone’s chest. In fact, there’s very little blood or violence at all in the movie. All the scares come from places that are easy to relate to–weird noises in the house, a family member acting strange, lack of sleep, and, of course, the prospect of losing someone you love. And because of that, this is easily the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.

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Nope. I’m out. Bye.

Not that I watch many scary movies. Most of the time, based on the trailers and posters I’ve seen, horror films just seem to be about uninteresting characters getting killed in interesting ways, and that has no appeal for me. Besides, even if the story’s good, there’s a limit to the amount of blood and tentacles I can take. But I heard this movie described as more of an allegorical character study than a monster movie, and that got me intrigued. Besides, I’ve been trying to watch more foreign films and more films directed by women, and this one checks both boxes. So I checked it out, and, even though it shaved an hour or two off my beauty sleep, I’m glad I did.

For one thing, it’s just a really, really well-made movie. The acting is top-notch. Amelia goes through quite a few emotional transformations throughout the story, and some of them could have come off pretty cheesy and terrible if Essie Davis hadn’t absolutely nailed them. But she did. The kid is also pretty great for a pint-sized actor, and although he can be annoying at times, it always feels intentional. The writing helps a lot, too. This is one movie where it pays to listen to the dialogue, because several seemingly innocent things are said early on that end up being tremendously important later. A lot is also said symbolically, or through subtext. This is not a movie that’s interested in spelling everything out for its audience. There were several times when I really had to use my brain to figure out what was going on–and there are a couple details I still don’t completely get. Then there’s the atmosphere. Even when nothing strange is happening onscreen, the way things are shot, the sounds we hear, and the music combine to give the movie a very surreal quality. It results in an incredibly suspenseful story that never stops building tension, from the first shot to the climax.

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No monsters under the bed…yet.

But none of that means anything if you don’t have a good story, and I think The Babadook does. It’s a very relatable and, dare I say, realistic take on something that many people have experienced, which is grief over the loss of a loved one. And although for the most part it’s as sad as it is scary, in the end it has something rather positive to say about that experience. It shows how destructive it can be to let one’s negative emotions take control, but it also shows that a little love and kindness can go a long way in healing the damage.

Things I had to look up:
This is an Australian movie, so I will admit that I did some googling to see if the Babadook was based on an actual Australian legend. Nope, the writer made it up. It is an anagram for “a bad book,” though, which…is fitting. Yeesh. Also, apparently shooting a fully functional crossbow on a playground doesn’t get you suspended from Australian school. It just gets the teachers to watch you more closely.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Babadook. It’s extremely scary, but it also made me think. I like movies that make me think. I also like movies that make me feel empathy for other people–in this case, particularly for those who have to deal with loss every day. A movie that can bring out those kinds of emotions is worth a few scares in my book.

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“I love you. And I always will.”

Grade: A-

My Faves: The Prestige

Most of the time, my M.O. on this blog is to review movies that are new to me. Not necessarily to anyone else, but new to me. Sometimes, though, I feel the need to rave about a movie that I’ve seen many times, or even grown up with, because it’s one of my faves. And since I currently find myself between televisions, and there’s not much playing at the theatres near me, I figure this is the perfect time to start.

Christopher Nolan is my favourite director. I love every movie I’ve seen by him, which is all of them except for Memento and Following. But if I had to pick my favourite Nolan movie of all time, I’d probably have to go with The Prestige.

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For those who haven’t seen it, this is a movie about two magicians in Victorian-era London who start out as friends, but become enemies when one of them sees his wife die and blames the other. They start a rivalry that becomes increasingly deadly as each magician goes to more and more desperate lengths to destroy the other’s career.

There are so many reasons why this movie is amazing. One is the acting. The main characters are played by Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine, and they’re all amazing as usual. Christian Bale, in particular, gives the most impressive performance I’ve ever seen from him. Granted, I haven’t seen all of his more acclaimed performances, but the role he has in this movie is so incredibly challenging, and he pulls it off so well, that it’s hard to imagine anything topping it. Also, this is one of the few movies where you get to hear his real accent, so that’s fun. Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine are also amazing, but then, when are they ever not?

This is probably the closest we’ll ever get to seeing Batman fight Wolverine. I’ll take it.

I really like movies that make me think, which is a big reason why I love Nolan so much. Like many of his other films, this one left me scratching my head, trying to piece together the clues the director left throughout the story, and really wanting to watch it again immediately. But whereas movies like Inception and Interstellar felt like puzzles to be solved, this movie feels more like a mystery. Everything hinges on the characters’ motivations, and how far they’re willing to go to get what they want, and it all builds up to a truly chilling reveal. The movie’s more than 10 years old, but I still won’t spoil it, because if there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the movie, I would hate to be the person who ruined their experience. It’s one of the best-executed twist endings I’ve ever seen.

I think one reason the ending works so well is the same reason the magicians’ tricks work. At the beginning, Michael Caine explains the three parts of a magic trick: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige (terms which I’m pretty sure were made up for this movie, by the way). They correspond perfectly to the three-act structure of the film. We’re shown an “ordinary” situation–two rivals who want revenge–and then the story does something to it, twisting it in an unexpected way. And then at the end, we get the prestige, in which everything is explained and resolved. Throughout the movie, the screenplay and cinematography use sleight of hand and misdirection just like the two magicians do, to make you think you’re seeing one thing when you’re actually seeing something else. And the resolution, just like in every magic trick, is a lot simpler than you might expect.

“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it, because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”

I tend to judge screenplays by how well I remember them after seeing a movie. And there are so many lines in this movie that stuck with me long after I watched it. It only took one viewing for me to be able to quote Michael Caine’s opening monologue almost verbatim. There are so many other memorable lines, too: “Exact science is not an exact science.” “No one cares about the man in the box.” “Are you watching closely?” Etc., etc. And hidden within that great dialogue is a ton of subtle foreshadowing and symbolism that you don’t always pick up until the third or fourth viewing.

I also like this movie because I’m a big fan of steampunk–the idea of incorporating sci-fi elements into a Victorian setting. There aren’t enough good movies set in a steampunk world, but The Prestige is one of them. While it doesn’t go too crazy with the gears and gyros, it definitely has some strong steampunk elements to it. Because, oh yeah, did I mention Nikola Tesla is in this movie? Played by David Bowie, of all people? Yep. Anytime you see Tesla in a story that is not based on historical fact, you know some weird, brilliant steampunk stuff is coming. If ever there was a mad scientist in real life, it was Tesla. I love that guy.

“Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive.”

But anyway, the heart of this movie is not in its magic tricks and decorations. Once you make it through all the various layers of mystery, it becomes a story about some guys who let an obsession get the better of them. There’s the obvious commentary on the dangers of seeking revenge, but personally, I think this is much more than a revenge movie. It really seems more like an exploration of the dark side of art, especially the performing arts–how the desire to make something beautiful can sometimes drive creators to do very ugly things.

This is a dark movie–probably Nolan’s darkest, that I’ve seen, aside from Insomnia. There’s not really a “hero” to root for, since all the main characters do a lot of awful things, and the ending isn’t exactly the “happily ever after” type. But for me at least, it touches emotional chords that very few other movies do. Usually, when you see movies about making art (which is essentially what this movie is), they portray it as this magical, transformative thing that brings all kinds of beauty to the world. Not that many movies have the guts to point out that art (not to mention the artists who make it) has an ugly side. It can be manipulative and deceptive and even deadly. And is it worth it, in the end? Do we love art and entertainment because it makes us better people and shows us more about the world, or do we just “want to be fooled?”

“The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.”

I don’t know, but every time I watch this movie, I find another piece of it to analyse. It’s a multi-layered story in which every layer is packed with great acting, great writing, great cinematography, and Nikola Tesla as portrayed by David Bowie. I can’t stress that last part enough, because honestly, where else are you ever going to see something as crazy awesome as that?

I’m not going to give grades in my Faves reviews, because it should just be assumed that they’re all A+ unless stated otherwise. This one is truly a masterpiece, and it deserves just as much love as any other Nolan movie, if not more so. If you haven’t seen The Prestige, I’d highly recommend doing so. If you have seen it, I’d highly recommend watching it again.

And again, and again, and again, and again…

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+

Monthly Movie Rant: Chicks in flicks

I can’t let Women’s History Month go by without a little rant about women in the movies.

The way I see it, Hollywood has a problem. The problem is that at least 80 percent of all its writers, directors, and producers are male, while 50 percent of the audience they’re trying to reach is female. And generally speaking, men tend to be not so great at telling stories for or about women. So there just aren’t as many female characters as male ones on the big screen, and when they do appear, they’re much more likely to be one-dimensional and bland. And movies marketed specifically to women are a lot more likely to suck.

Of course, this is changing. We no longer live in a world where it’s okay for the hero’s girlfriend to do nothing but scream, look pretty, and get rescued (with…certain exceptions). We even live in a world where it’s possible for a woman to be the main character in a hugely popular action franchise without ever putting on a bikini! And on television it’s even better. Some of the most popular, acclaimed series currently airing are centred around women, or at least have a lot of them doing awesome things.

So instead of complaining about how often movies have gotten women wrong (there are plenty of other places to find that on the Internet), I’m going to list my favourite times when movies and shows got women right.

But first, let me clue you in on what I’m looking for. I don’t personally think any “type” of female character is necessarily better than any other. Hardcore action girls can  still be sexist caricatures, and dress-twirling girly girls can be interesting and complex. What I want from female characters in movies is…well, character. I want them to have serious flaws that they overcome (or don’t) in relatable ways. I want them to have heroic qualities I can root for. I want them to be goofy, serious, smart, stupid, angry, kind, hopeful, depressed, and every other personality trait you can think of. I want them to have dreams and goals, and to fight to achieve them. I want them to be protagonists, villains, comic relief and supporting characters, and in every role I want them to come across as three-dimensional human beings. You know…all those things male characters have been allowed to do since the beginning of film.

So here are some ladies who achieve that for me.

Dana Scully

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Scully is my TV hero. Her no-nonsense attitude, her determination to find The Truth in the most scientific way possible, and her fierce loyalty to the people she holds dear are all inspiring to me. Thanks to great acting and (mostly) great writing, I can relate to her struggles–whether it’s trying to reconcile her faith in science or God with all the crazy stuff she sees, or just trying to fend off the monster and/or psycho of the week. And while The XFiles couldn’t exist without Mulder, the smartest, scariest and most heart-breaking episodes always seemed to centre around Scully. When you’ve got a woman who’s five feet tall in heels, has the face of a 15-year-old, and is still a believable threat to The Conspiracy, you know you’ve stumbled on a good female character.

Emma

Doesn’t really matter which adaptation we’re talking about–most of them are good for the same reasons. (I am partial to the 2009 BBC miniseries, though.) Emma Woodhouse is basically a terrible person. She’s an arrogant, spoiled, naive, self-righteous busybody, but she’s also quite charming and funny, which is one of the reasons she gets away with so much crap (the other being that she’s rich). And if you’ve never met anyone like her, you don’t get out much. Her flaws are so human and so familiar that they make it all the more satisfying when she starts to grow out of them at the end. That’s how you get me to enjoy a love story: make the ultimate triumph about becoming a better person, not just “finding that special person.”

Rey

The next trilogy of Star Wars movies could not be in better hands, protagonist-wise. Rey is, of course, a powerful Jedi in the making, but that’s not what makes her special. What I really like about her is the sheer joy and wonder she brings to the screen. Here’s a kid who grew up alone on a desert planet, but never let her depressing life dim her hopes for the future. And when she finally gets to see what the rest of the galaxy is like and discovers her powers, her excitement simply oozes off the screen. She keeps her optimism, her joy, and her determination to do right, no matter what the movie throws at her. And that’s a very likeable trait in a Star Wars hero, especially considering some of her whiny predecessors. Combine that with some awesome lightsaber action, and you get the best thing about the new Star Wars films so far. (And this is coming from someone who liked Rogue One better than The Force Awakens.)

Madame Gao

The Marvel/Netflix TV shows have given us a wide range of villains, of both genders. But Madame Gao has always been the most intimidating of them all.  She’s a little old lady with a pronounced limp, yet she always seems to be in control of whatever situation she’s in, and she’s clearly the smartest and most ruthless villain in the ‘verse. There are indications that she’s not quite human, she’s able to take down a trained fighter with a single blow, and her whole demeanour is just plain creepy. It’s rare to see a female villain whose primary weapon is something other than her sexuality, and Madame Gao gets things done without ever resorting to that.

Mrs. Incredible/Elastigirl

Wonder Woman has a chance to change my mind later this year, but as of right now, my favourite female superhero ever to hit the big screen is Mrs. Incredible. She’s funny. She has some of the movie’s best action scenes. Her powers are awesome. And her struggle is one that a lot of non-super-powered women can relate to: balancing her calling as a hero with her equally important calling to be a wife and mother. She embodies the kind of down-to-earth conflict you don’t see enough in superhero movies, and she does it in a uniquely feminine way.

The entire female cast of Mad Max: Fury Road

Now, obviously, my favourite character in Fury Road is Furiosa. But she’s not the first hardcore, no-frills action heroine I’d ever seen in a movie, so she wasn’t what set this film apart. What I had never seen before was an action movie of this caliber where the women with speaking roles outnumbered the men. In most action movies, Furiosa would be the only good female character, and she’d have to be awesome because otherwise feminists would complain about misrepresentation of women. But because there are so many women in Fury Road, no one of them has to stand in for the entire gender, so they’re all allowed to have different personalities. Some of them are wimps. Some of them are strong in a physical way, and some in a more emotional, brain-powered way. Some of them look like supermodels and some look like old ladies. But they’re almost all memorable in some way, and they’re all vital to the story. This movie is a perfect representation of how I would like women to be portrayed in all genre films. They’re not all amazing, but there are more of them, and they’re all characters, not sex objects or plot devices. In fact, the whole story is about them trying to escape from being sex objects and plot devices! I love this movie.

There are so many more I could list, but that should give you an idea of the kind of variety I like in my female characters. Fortunately, good characters like these are becoming more common, but there are still some genres where they’re hard to find–like superhero movies, for example. Wonder Woman, please be good.

I don’t think we’ll see truly equal portrayals of men and women at the movies until there are more women calling the shots behind the scenes. Although there are some sad exceptions (*cough* Twilight *cough*), women are generally better than men at telling things from a female perspective, and that’s a perspective we need to see more often in movies. So I’m hoping to get out and see some more movies with female directors and writers this year.

Who are some of your favourite chicks in flicks? And why?

Sing Street

I just finished celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day, which is my third favourite holiday of the year, so of course my foreign movie of the month has to be an Irish one.

Image result for sing street

Sing Street is about a boy named Conor who’s growing up in Dublin during the ’80s. Things in his life are not going very smoothly–his city’s going through a depression, his parents are splitting up, and he just got transferred to a new school full of bullies and abusive teachers. But one day he spots a pretty girl across the street from his school and tries to impress her by saying he’s in a band. When she calls his bluff, he ends up actually putting together a band from among the other talented misfits at school. As the group, calling themselves “Sing Street” after the location of their school, work to find their own unique musical sound, Conor uses music to figure out who he is as a person and what he wants in life. I guess you could call it a musical, but not the type with a lot of big dance numbers or people bursting into song out of nowhere. It’s really just a movie about making music.

This movie is directed John Carney, the same guy who made Once, a similar low-key musical set in Dublin, which I haven’t seen. But I did see the stage version, and LOVED it. I’ve always wondered if that had something to do with the fact that I saw it in Dublin, during the most amazing three weeks of my life. But now I don’t think it was just a fluke, because this movie made me feel like I was right back in Ireland–albeit in a different decade. The atmosphere is perfect, from the soundtrack to the lovely city scenery to all the over-the-top outfits the kids wear.

Just like any boy band today, really.

I tend to enjoy movies about people making art. Whether it’s based on a true story or not, it’s just so much fun to watch people put their all into creating something beautiful. This movie is no exception. The kids’ enthusiasm for their music is both believable and contagious. As Raphina (the pretty girl) says right after jumping into the ocean for a music video, “You can never do anything by half.”

And it really helps that all the music is so great. The kids’ original songs blend seamlessly with the classic ’80s pop that makes up the rest of the soundtrack, and some of them are so catchy I found myself singing along.

“This is your life/You can go anywhere/Just grab it by the wheel and own it/And drive it like you stole it!”

Really, the only downside to this movie is that some of the side characters aren’t developed very well. Conor’s relationship with his older brother gets a lot of focus (and rightly so), but his sister serves no purpose in the story, and by the end everyone seems to have forgotten she exists. Which is a shame, because she seemed to have an interesting personality at the beginning. The other band members don’t get much attention either, with Eamon being the only one to get any kind of character development. Seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

But overall, this is an enjoyable, well-made film about growing up and following your dreams. Sure, it succumbs to a few high-school-movie stereotypes (your typical bullies, your typical useless parents, your typical bad teachers–this time of the “evil Catholic” flavour, of course), but a lot of them actually work pretty well in this movie, thanks to actors who make their characters seem three-dimensional, even with limited screen time. While I can’t sympathise with many of the protagonists’ dream of leaving Ireland (do you know what I’d give to live in Ireland?), I can certainly sympathise with their desire to make something good out of difficult circumstances and stand up to the various bullies in their lives. And while I’ve always thought of art as the best way to fight back against oppression, I also appreciate how Conor dreams of making friends with his mean teachers and bullies, rather than punishing them. Not all his dreams can come true in the real world (just how many of them do come to fruition in the movie depends on how you interpret the ending), but he’s willing to fight hard for them, and that’s what counts.

“Let’s run away with no money or plans like stupid teenagers!” “Yaaaayyyy!”

Things I had to look up:

Nothing that would impact my understanding of the story, but I did have to do some research to find out that Conor’s school, Synge Street Christian Brothers School, is a real place where a lot of the movie was filmed. Apparently it’s gone through some rough patches in the past, but is not nearly as bad today as the way it’s portrayed in the film. Also, divorce was indeed illegal in Ireland until 1995, which explains some of what Conor’s parents go through.

I’d say this is the perfect movie to watch on St. Patrick’s Day, or any other day you feel like watching a heartwarming story told in Irish accents. It’s got plenty of funny moments, plenty of tear-jerky moments, and tons of great music.

Grade: A-