Justice League

“That man won’t quit as long as he can still draw a breath. None of my teammates will. Me? I’ve got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can’t you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose and show you just how powerful I really am!”

Just thought I’d preface the review with a quote from one of the greatest Justice League stories ever made for a screen. Sadly, it’s not from this movie.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. You know, in case you care.

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Justice League
Director: Zack Snyder (and a bit of Joss Whedon)
Writers: Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon
Starring: Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, etc.
Music by: Danny Elfman
Rated PG-13

Superman is dead. A cave troll and some very stupid writing have left planet Earth without its greatest hero. This has not only given most of the world’s population a major case of the blues, it’s also left us without a sure-fire defense against alien invaders. So naturally, an alien invades: a fellow by the name of Steppenwolf, who brings an army of Parademons (basically giant bugs that feed on fear) to help him find three ancient artefacts hidden on Earth, which, if united, would turn the world into a copy of his apocalyptic home planet. In order to stop this threat, a newly non-homicidal Batman teams up with Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg to form what will become the Justice League.

My expectations for this movie were on the low end, to put it mildly. I hated Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, and since Justice League was mostly being made by the same people, I mostly expected it to be another dumpster fire–especially when I read rumours about a lot of chaotic re-shoots and re-workings going on behind the scenes. The only reason I paid money to see it before the DVD release was because of Wonder Woman–and trust me, it’s a sad day when the promise of Batman isn’t enough to get me into a theatre.

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I mean, normally I’d pay money for this shot alone.

So I was pleasantly surprised when this turned out to be…not a complete dumpster fire. Justice League is not a great movie. It’s not even really a good movie, by most standards. But I enjoyed it more than I didn’t, and it’s leagues (heh) ahead of all the other non-Wonder Woman DC movies so far.

I think it’s mainly because this movie, unlike some of its predecessors, focuses all its energy on the most important part of storytelling: the characters. I felt like I knew where all the major characters were coming from, and I found them all quite likable. Batman is much more human than he was in his previous movie, and far less stupid, coming up with many new methods of dealing with his problems that don’t involve shooting them. Wonder Woman is her usual gorgeous, awesome self. The Flash is endearing and hilarious. Aquaman is a little too “surfer dude” for my taste, but he has his cool moments, and it’s pretty awesome to see his water-controlling powers come to life in live-action. The only character who didn’t really do much for me was Cyborg. I’ve always found him boring in other incarnations, and this movie didn’t do anything to change that. But that might just be me.

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Also, his CGI body weirds me out.

Not only do most of these characters work on their own, they’re great together. The best scenes in the movie involve the whole team hanging out and talking. Batman and Wonder Woman have a great relationship (Possibly a romantic one? Will I get my cartoon ship yet?) and, surprisingly, he’s a really great mentor figure to The Flash. Flash and Cyborg also have some nice camaraderie, even though I don’t care for the latter all that much.

Unfortunately, while good central characters are the most important part of storytelling, having a good plot is also kind of important. And this movie doesn’t have that. Steppenwolf is one of the most pathetic villains I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie, which is saying something. He has no personality, he doesn’t look intimidating at all, and his goals couldn’t be more generic if they tried. This movie’s story is such a copy-paste job from other, better movies that I could predict every single plot point at least five minutes before it happened. There’s no suspense. There are no stakes. At no point did I believe that the world or the Justice League were in any real danger. And no, constantly showing one single family in danger (in a place where at least a few hundred people should have been living, no less) did not help with that.

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There’s a reason this guy isn’t one of Darkseid’s more famous minions.

The movie also feels extremely rushed at times. It’s less than two hours long, and it felt like large chunks of footage must have been cut out at the last minute. In fact, everything I’ve heard about the behind-the-scenes drama seems to support that conclusion. There are a lot of jokes, doubtless to make up for everyone complaining about the first two movies’ self-seriousness, and most of them work, but some feel rather forced and out of place. But at least there aren’t as many unintentionally hilarious moments as in some other Marthas–I mean, movies.

Now, I’m going to get into some spoilers here, because it’s impossible to fully discuss my feelings on this movie without them. But I should clarify that this is only a spoiler for people who A) know nothing about the Justice League, B) don’t watch many superhero movies, and C) have never been to any of the nerdier corners of the internet. If that describes you (and you still somehow want to see this movie), don’t read on.

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Just enjoy this picture of Barry Allen smiling.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Yeah, Superman comes back to life in this movie. It is indeed shocking that the DCEU wouldn’t permanently kill off its most recognisable character after two movies, but there you have it.

The funny thing is, his entire existence here feels like one massive apology for those other two movies. First, Batman spends the first half of the movie talking about how Superman was “a beacon of hope for the world,” which is laughable if you remember what he was like before, and how the public viewed him in BvS. I mean, I’m all for forgetting those movies ever existed, but if Justice League was going to do that, Supes shouldn’t have been dead in the first place.

Then, when he does show up, it turns out he’s undergone a complete personality change, so that he actually acts like that “beacon of hope” we know and love from just about every other incarnation of the character. The movie goes out of its way to show him rescuing civilians, joking around with his teammates, using under-utilised powers like his ice breath, and even smiling. And you know what? I really enjoyed that. Henry Cavill is still not my favourite actor, and his digitally-removed moustache did him no favours in some scenes, but at least he finally felt like a Superman I could root for.

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“I really like being alive.”

Overall, I think Justice League would be great if it was a DC Animated Original Movie. In terms of pacing, story quality, and action, it’s about on par with Justice League: War or one of the other middling cartoon features. But as the very first big-screen appearance of arguably the most iconic super-team of all time, it leaves much to be desired. I’m hoping this was the first step towards a truly great DC team-up movie, and not the death knell of the franchise (which I’m worried it could be).

But for now, I’m afraid that if you want a really fun, intelligent, well-written Justice League story, with great characters and great action, your best bet is still a kids’ cartoon.

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For one thing, it’s got a Green Lantern.

Grade: B-

 

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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

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

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

The LEGO Batman Movie

It’s been three years since The LEGO Movie surprised me by turning what should have just been a two-hour toy commercial into one of the funniest, most creative, and most heartwarming animated movies in recent memory. And it’s been four years since the DC Extended Universe, which should by rights be the best superhero movie franchise ever, began the slow, agonising process of breaking my heart. Now, in this year’s  crossover, can the magic of LEGO save the Dark Knight from dullness?

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This movie centres on Batman as he appeared in The LEGO Movie, in all his self-absorbed, dim-witted glory. He has no trouble saving Gotham from the Joker’s latest evil schemes (not even when latter teams up with such fearsome villains as Calendar Man and Condiment King), but he is having a lot of trouble forming relationships. Even admitting the Joker is his arch-nemesis proves to be too great a commitment for Batman–which the clown doesn’t take very well. When the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon, unexpectedly helps to capture all of Gotham’s supervillains at once, Batman is left with no one to fight–except Alfred, who wants him to become more mature and responsible, and Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted, who just wants a dad. To get out of his funk (and, of course, foil a new scheme by the Joker) Batman must confront his greatest fear: being part of a family again.

If you saw The LEGO Movie, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this semi-sequel: gorgeously detailed animation, a diabolically catchy soundtrack, tons of pop culture references, and Batman being a giant ham. It’s every bit as funny and frenetic as its predecessor, even if the concept feels less fresh and original than it did the first time around. The plot twists and surprises of the first movie are hard to beat, and for the most part, this one doesn’t even try.

But that’s okay, because this doesn’t feel as much like a LEGO movie as it feels like a Batman movie where everything happens to be made of LEGO. And when you look at it that way, it becomes what DC fans have been vainly hoping for ever since Man of Steel came out: a DC-based film that makes sense, respects its source material, and is willing to have fun. It’s packed with shout-outs to every incarnation of Batman that has ever graced the screen, from the ’60s TV show to Suicide Squad–which it soundly mocks. It even gives a nod to HISHE’s “Because I’m Batman!” meme, for those of us who frequent YouTube. And the story itself wouldn’t feel too out-of-place in a Batman comic (well, with the exception of a few non-DC properties that turn up towards the end). It truly feels like a movie made by and for Batman fans.

“How many characters from the comics should we put in this movie?” “ALL OF THEM!”

This is undoubtedly the most light-hearted incarnation of the Dark Knight to hit the screen in my lifetime, but he’s still got some issues. Just like in all his appearances, he’s hung up on his parents’ death, which in this case makes it hard for him to form relationships, for fear of being hurt again. It’s a pretty relatable problem, and in between all the jokes, it’s developed in a pretty touching way. When it comes time to give Batsy some much-needed character development, this story does so with great sincerity and heart.

And as always, Batman would be nothing without his supporting cast, who are all in fine form here. Alfred has never been more kind and fatherly, or more awesome. Robin has never been more adorable. And Batgirl–well, Batgirl hasn’t made a lot of appearances on the big screen, has she? So I guess I’m just happy she’s here. I’m also happy that she’s voiced by Rosario Dawson, a.k.a. Claire Temple, who has lots of experience talking sense into overly angsty male superheroes. Even the Joker is kinda likable in this movie, even though he’s still pretty evil.

He just needs a hug. And an archnemesis.

I have some nitpicks, of course. For example, I’m sick of seeing Batgirl played as a love interest for Batman. It’s creepy, it’s weird, and it still feels a little wrong even when it’s played for laughs in a kid’s movie. Also, I don’t know how I feel about Sauron being part of Joker’s evil army at the end (minor spoilers, sorry). I know it’s fun to put a bunch of Big Bads from various franchises together in a LEGO movie, but if you’re going to parody the incarnation of evil from the best fantasy tale of all time, you should at least  pronounce his name right. Also also, did Batman need to be waving an iPhone around? Do Warner Bros. and LEGO really need the advertising money?

Look at this. I’m critiquing a LEGO movie. What is wrong with me?

I’m as useless as Bat-Shark Repellent.

Despite some minor flaws, this is, without question, the best Batman movie since the Dark Knight saga. I won’t go as far as some critics have and say it’s the best Batman movie ever made, but it’s definitely in the top five. And like The LEGO Movie, it comes with a message any parent should be glad to teach their kid: You can’t do everything on your own. It’s worth it to make friends and be part of a family, even if you risk getting hurt in the process. That lesson isn’t exactly revolutionary coming from a kid’s movie, but I can think of a few grown-up superheroes who could stand to hear it again. Not to mention a few real-life humans.

Bottom line: LEGO has, indeed, saved Batman. (At least until Justice League comes out and ruins him again.) And everything is still awesome in the LEGO-verse.

The seating arrangements could use some work, though.

Grade: A

Batman vs. Superman and The Dark Knight Returns

Happy Batman day, folks!

I’ve decided to celebrate this, the 77th anniversary of my favourite hero’s first appearance in print, by giving you two movie reviews for the price of one! And after this, I promise I’ll calm down with the Batman posts.

As it happens, both of the Batman movies I saw most recently draw inspiration from the same comic, Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” which…I have not read. But I think it’s fairly obvious which one is more faithful to it.

The Dark Knight Returns, Parts 1 and 2

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This two-part animated movie starts out with Bruce Wayne in his 50s, having been retired from crimefighting for several years. When a violent gang called the Mutants threatens to take over Gotham, he decides it’s time to put on the cowl again. He even picks up a new Robin and puts the Batmobile back into action. But while his return ends up inspiring the people of Gotham to fight back against crime (again), it also inspires a few old enemies to get back into it.

There are many things I like about this movie, a few things I don’t like, and some things that are just plain odd. (Like, what’s the deal with Batman dressing up like an old lady at the beginning of Part 2? Not to mention the entire existence of “Bruno”…I mean, just…what was that?) I enjoyed the first part quite a bit more than the second part, but I won’t deny that the latter did have a pretty epic finale. The soundtrack is amazing, Peter Weller does a great job voicing Batman, and the fight scenes are on par with the very best live-action superhero movies I’ve seen. The movie also does a pretty good job of making an older Batman seem convincing (he’s a lot less agile than he used to be, he has to rely on his tech a little more, etc.) while still allowing him to be his usual intimidating, unstoppable self. No small feat. Oh, and I rather like the girl Robin.

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Especially compared to every other female in this movie…

One thing I didn’t like was that the plot requires pretty much everyone not wearing a costume to do very, very stupid things. The mayor allows himself to be alone in a cell with a huge, crazy gang leader who has already threatened to kill him. A psychiatrist and an entire talk show studio decide it’s a good idea to invite the Joker to appear on live television (because when has that ever gone wrong before?). Then there’s the whole subplot of the U.S. government using Superman as a weapon in a Cold War-like conflict…realistic on the government’s part, perhaps, but somewhat dumb and out-of-character for Supes.

Like many a superhero tale, this movie spends quite a bit of time discussing whether Gotham’s better off with or without its costumed vigilante. Is he the only one who can stop the colourful psychos that constantly terrorise the streets, or is he the only reason the colourful psychos exist in the first place? Although there’s some ambiguity around the issue, in the end, the movie seems to decide that the world needs Batman–someone not under the authority of the law or the government, but who still refuses to cross certain lines–in order to keep people safe. Of course, if the authorities in charge of upholding the law didn’t act brain-dead most of the time, one wonders if that point would still hold water. But to Batman’s credit, he doesn’t see himself as Gotham’s only hope–he works to teach other people to fight crime the non-lethal way, and to carry on the Bat-legacy after he’s gone.

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Can’t stop the signal.

Anyway, that fight with the Mutant leader at the end of Part 1? That was awesome. Also, Batman totally beats Superman in a fight in this movie. A good fight, not the kind that will be described in my next review. Sorry, but that’s not a spoiler. That’s how every fight between those two is destined to end.

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Batman on a horse. Your argument is invalid.

Grade: A-

Speaking of Batman fighting Superman…

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice

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It’s probably only fair to say that I did not set myself up to like this movie. I didn’t see it in theatres, because I was still bitter about having wasted money on Man of Steel. Instead, I read every review I could find online, including the spoiler-y ones, rented it when it came out on DVD, and watched it on my laptop at midnight, alcohol in hand, right after marathoning the Dark Knight trilogy. If I’d watched it under better circumstances, maybe I would have liked it a little better…but I kinda doubt it.

The plot is so convoluted it almost defies description. In a nutshell, Batman wants to murder Superman for causing tons of civilian deaths in Man of Steel and for being too powerful in general. Lex Luthor wants to murder him for more or less the same reasons, plus something about daddy issues. So he decides the best way to do this is to pit the two superheroes against each other, via an overly complicated plan that takes more than an hour to come to fruition.

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Laser his brain! Laser his brain, now! 

What can I say about this movie that hasn’t already been said by every critic ever? No, Luthor’s motives did not make any sense. Yes, the “Martha” scene (WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?!) was unintentionally hilarious. No, none of this was Ben Affleck’s fault. I could talk about how spectacularly everyone at the Daily Planet sucks at their job, or how Jesse Eisenberg’s performance destroys everything I ever loved about Lex Luthor as a villain, or how utterly confusing and pointless Batman’s visions/dreams/whatever are. But I think my main problems with this movie can be boiled down to two.

First of all…*deep, cleansing breath*…BATMAN DOES NOT KILL PEOPLE!  Yes, I know previous live-action takes on him have bumped up against the line a few times, but this movie has him intentionally mow down an army of low-level criminals in one of his first action scenes, stab dudes in the chest, and turn to murder as his first solution in dealing with Superman (instead of, I dunno, talking to him, or even doing detective work to find out what his intentions are towards humanity). This take on Batman would kind of make sense if it was the third or fourth movie in the franchise, if his reputation as a principled hero had already been established, and if he was given a compelling motive for temporarily abandoning his principles. (In fact, BvS does attempt to explain it a little by establishing, in one easy-to-miss shot, that this story takes place after the death of Jason Todd. Not that any casual fans will get that.) But this is Batman’s first appearance in the Snyder-verse. Anyone who somehow came into this movie without any prior knowledge of Batman would get their first impression of him as a callous killer. And that makes me very sad inside.

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Even sadder than Sadfleck.

The worst thing about BvS, though, is that it takes itself so darn seriously. There’s hardly a moment of (intentional) humour in the entire three-hour runtime, while there are plenty of speeches about God and man, the Problem of Evil, what it means to be a hero, etc. I thought Man of Steel went a little bit overboard with the Superman-is-Jesus symbolism, but this movie takes it waaaayyy further. Which is vaguely offensive, considering this Superman’s main personality traits are sulking, self-doubt, and monumental stupidity. Not exactly the things Jesus is known for. But all of the grand philosophical talk amounts to nothing anyway. For one thing, I was unable to understand or care about any of the people doing the talking, and for another, the movie tends to answer complex questions like, “What does a being with god-like power truly owe to mankind?” with, “Time to punch a cave troll!” A lot of dialogue is there to make the characters sound “deep,” but it doesn’t really mean anything or have anything to do with the plot.

One day, I have hope that the DC cinematic universe will finally get its act together and make a good movie. It’s possible. Ben Affleck does a fine job as Batman in this movie, on the rare occasions when his script makes sense, and Wonder Woman is pretty cool during her five minutes of screen time. And a lot of it looks really nice. Money and special effects technology is clearly not the issue when it comes to DC. They just need to start spending a little more of that money on screenwriters and directors who actually know how to tell a story. And won’t make Batman kill people.

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I would like to point out, though, that Batman still beat Superman in this movie.

In the meantime, I prefer to celebrate Batman Day by watching something with “Dark Knight” in its title.

Grade: D

 

DC Animation

I’ve always been on Marvel’s side in the Great Cinematic War between Marvel and DC. To a non-comics reader like me, it seems like a no-brainer. Ever since superhero movies became cool again, Marvel has consistently put out movies that range from decently entertaining to completely awesome, while, with the exception of the Dark Knight Saga, DC has put out movies that range from brain-meltingly horrible to ploddingly dull.

But when I express this opinion to one of my many DC-loving friends, their reply is almost always along the lines of, “Stop judging DC by its live-action!”

So I’ve taken their advice and dived into the world of DC’s animated creations. And so far, I am pleased with what I’ve found. DC cartoons are as diverse and creative as its live-action films are boring and colorless. They’ve got something for all ages (a general rule seems to be that the TV shows are for kids and the feature-length movies are for adults) and just about every taste (I mean, as long as you like superheroes).

Here’s what I think of the DC cartoons I’ve discovered so far:

Young Justice

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My precious, adorable children, who could all kill me in a heartbeat.

A bunch of teenage sidekicks (starting with Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Miss Martian, Superboy, and Artemis) form their own super-team to work alongside the Justice League–complete with their own shadowy evil conspiracy to fight. This show has one of the most complicated plots, and largest casts, that I’ve ever seen crammed into two seasons, but it’s so well-paced that nothing ever feels rushed and every character gets a chance to shine. The first season is significantly better than the second, but the second season is still well worth watching. Alas, it was cancelled too soon. This is the show that made me realize Robin can be awesome. It also made me really conflicted about which version of the Flash I like best.

Every episode moves the story along or develops characters in some important way, so I can’t recommend skipping any of them, but some of my very favourite ones include: “Bereft,” “Homefront,” “Failsafe,” “Coldhearted,” “Bloodlines,” and “Satisfaction.”

Grade: A

Justice League

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Batman’s standing off to the side so no one notices he’s in charge.

Note: This is listed as two different shows on Netflix–Justice League and Justice League Unlimited–but they follow the same continuity, are made by the same people, etc. (JL comes first). They do have different theme songs, though. Anyway, this is the story of the Justice League proper, starting with the original group of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, and Hawkgirl, and later expanding to include a slew of other heroes. (But secretly it’s all about Batman. Seriously, he saves the rest of the League’s butts in like half the episodes.) There are some multi-episode story arcs, especially in Unlimited, but for the most part these are all self-contained episodes about heroes saving the world from the threat of the week. They can be silly or serious, but they’re almost always a lot of fun.

My favourite episodes include: “Legends,” “The Savage Time,” “Only a Dream,” “A Better World,” “Hereafter,” “For the Man Who Has Everything,” “Question Authority,” “Divided We Fall”…basically, any episode that prominently features Batman, the Flash, and/or the Question is going to be amazing. Even if it also includes a witch who turns people into pigs.

Grade: A

Batman: Under the Red Hood

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Get it? He’s literally under the Red Hood!

This was the first DC Animated Original Movie I watched, and I’m afraid I watched it first because it has Jensen Ackles’ voice in it. (Yes, I’m a Supernatural fan.) But it really is quite good. It mostly takes place a few years after Jason Todd, the second Robin, is killed by the Joker. Batman’s still struggling with the guilt he feels from that incident, but he also has another problem: a vigilante called the Red Hood is terrorizing Gotham’s criminal underworld, and he absolutely does not have a no-kill code. What he does seem to have is a grudge against Batman. While there’s a decent amount of humour in the movie (mostly provided by Nightwing and the delightfully hammy minor villain Black Mask), it ends up being a real tear-jerker. Like, I wanted to watch The Dark Knight after this to cheer myself up. That’s how depressing it was. Doesn’t stop it from being a thoughtful character study on several people in the Bat-verse, and providing the best answer I’ve heard to the age-old question, “Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?”

Grade: A

Justice League: War

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Guy on the right? He’s voiced by Sam Gamgee. Guy on the far left? Wash from Firefly. You’d think this movie would’ve turned out better…

Another version of the Justice League’s origin story, this one pulls together the same seven characters mentioned above–except with Cyborg and Captain Mar…er, “Shazam” instead of Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl, and with a different version of Green Lantern. They’re all just starting out as heroes, and are happily working alone, when an invasion by the world-conquering Darkseid forces them to form a team. The story is fun, and pretty light-hearted by DC animated movie standards, but I don’t think it shows all of the Justice League at their best. Superman in particular comes across as a huge jerk, and Wonder Woman’s gung-ho fighter attitude, combined with a really shocking amount of naivete, gets annoying fast. And of course this is the movie that finally supports my Superman/Wonder Woman ship. *sigh* Batman’s still amazing, though, so it’s not all bad. The TV show just did it better.

Grade: B

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox

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“He ran so fast he broke reality! And now he has to fix reality…by running faster!” –a lot of Flash stories 

One day Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash, wakes up to find that his whole world is different. On the bright side, his mom’s alive! On the other hand, he has no powers, his wife is married to someone else, Batman is a gun-toting alcoholic with no qualms about killing people, no one has ever heard of Superman, and Aquaman and Wonder Woman are locked in a war that could destroy the Earth. Clearly, there’s a timeline here that needs fixing. I am not a fan of the animation in this one–it makes the more muscular characters look ridiculous, and a lot of others have weird lips– but the story makes up for it. It puts a really interesting twist on several familiar characters, while teaching Flash the most difficult lesson of his life. But I can’t stress enough how much it is NOT FOR KIDS–or sensitive adults, for that matter. I’m pretty sure the only reason it isn’t rated R is because it’s a cartoon. Hard to imagine a live-action movie getting away with a PG-13 after showing a close-up of a gaping head wound, or stabbing a 10-year-old onscreen. If you can make it through the gore, though, the ending is a tear-jerker in the best way possible.

Grade: A-

I think it’s time Marvel and DC fans shook hands and admitted that their franchises are just good at different things. Any suggestions as to which superhero cartoon I should watch next?