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New Escapist Column! In Praise of Michael Keaton’s Batman…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. The big news this week was that Michael Keaton might be reprising his role as Batman from Batman and Batman Returns, so it felt like the right time to celebrate his contribution to the role.

Michael Keaton was a controversial choice for the role of Batman. Indeed, he’s arguably been underrated and underappreciated since he donned the cowl, with stock criticisms describing his interpretation of the Caped Crusader as bland or boring, especially in comparison to his villains. However, Keaton offered a fascinating and compelling portrayal of the Dark Knight, one worthy of celebration and praise. Keaton offered a version of Batman who felt more vulnerable and more insecure than other iterations, a child playing dress-up. It has aged remarkably well.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

“… is Ra’s Al Ghul immortal?” Denny O’Neil, and Reflecting on a Bronze Age Batman Villain…

Denny O’Neil passed away last week, at the age of 81.

Many more informed and articulate individuals have written at length about the writer and editor’s contribution to comic books as a medium. In practical terms, Denny O’Neil was a crucial figure in the evolution of Batman, one of the medium’s most enduring characters. During the seventies, he served as a stepping stone between the bright and chirpy “New Look” of the sixties and Frank Miller’s gritty reinvention of the eighties. He also served as editor of the line during the nineties, overseeing beloved events like Knightfall and No Man’s Land.

This is to say nothing of O’Neil’s larger contributions to comic books. During the seventies, he served as the conscience of mainstream comics, reinjecting the sort of politics that had been largely missing since the earliest days of Action Comics and Superman. With runs on Justice League and Green Lantern/Green Arrow, O’Neil sought to engage the iconic DC superheroes with contemporary America. It was often clumsy, but it was always powerful. This is without getting into O’Neil’s hugely influential runs on books like Iron Man or The Question.

However, this week was also the fifteenth anniversary of the release of Batman Begins. This was a hugely influential superhero film, kicking off what might be considered the genre’s crowning accomplishment. Christopher Nolan’s film is heavily indebted to O’Neil, with O’Neil’s comic The Man Who Falls serving as a touchstone for the film’s approach to Bruce Wayne. However, the film was also notable for offering the first live action interpretation of one of O’Neil’s most sizable additions to the Batman mythos: Ra’s Al Ghul.

Batman has one of the most crowded and iconic rogues’ galleries in comics, packed to the brim with recognisable faces: the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, the Mad Hatter, the Scarecrow, Mister Freeze, Clayface. It’s a crowded field. Writers and artists are constantly trying to add to that, to add their own new characters to the mix. Very few actually catch on, with arguably only Bane and Harley Quinn managing to reach the top tier within the last thirty years. This makes Ra’s Al Ghul all the more impressive.

In the past few years, Ra’s Al Ghul has been cemented as an essential part of the Batman mythos. Both Arrow and Gotham featured the character as a major antagonist, anchoring season-long arcs, played by Mathew Nable and Alexander Siddig. (Liam Neeson reportedly even considered reprising the role for Arrow, even if he couldn’t make the schedule work.) The character has also been a staple of animated adaptations, going back to Batman: The Animated Series and continuing through Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Young Justice and Beware the Batman.

Ra’s Al Ghul has become such a fundamental part of the larger Batman universe that it is hard to imagine it ever existed without him. Nevertheless, he stands as one of the enduring creative legacies of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, who first introduced him to the Caped Crusader in the early seventies. In hindsight, as with Bane, it’s easy to see why Ra’s Al Ghul has endured in the way that he has. He fills an important gap in the larger Batman mythos. However, it was the genius of O’Neil and Adams to recognise that gap in the first place.

That’s what makes the character so fantastic. Despite being a relatively late addition to the Dark Knight’s collection of foes, he seems like he always belonged there.

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New Escapist Column! On Versatility and Adaptability as Batman’s True Superpowers…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. It’s been a busy couple of weeks with actors talking about the role of Batman. Val Kilmer discussed it in a long-form interview with The New York Times and Robert Pattinson brought it up in his GQ quarantine profile.

Kilmer argued that the actor playing Batman was unimportant in irrelevant, which is both true in the general case and false in this specific situation. In a general sense, Hollywood is moving away from movie stars and towards intellectual property. However, Batman remains one of the few established brands that is flexible enough to allow a unique approach shine through; Adam West, Kevin Conroy, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, Will Arnett and Ben Affleck have all offered distinctive takes on the Caped Crusader, each finding a different window to explore the cultural icon.

There is no single “right” interpretation of Batman, and this has contributed to the character’s ubiquity and endurance. Indeed, it’s arguable that Superman has struggled to remain relevant precisely because he doesn’t have that same flexibility. Superman remains largely stuck in a template defined by the Richard Donner movies, unable to escape their gravity and the pull of the nostalgia around them. Batman can be anything that he needs to be – and that is why he remains as popular as ever.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

182. Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle) – Ani-May 2020 (#134)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and with special guests Graham Day and Bríd Martin, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This year, we are proud to continue the tradition of Anime May, a fortnight looking at two of the animated Japanese films on the list. This year, we watched a double feature of Hayao Miyazaki’s Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta and Hauru no ugoku shiro. We’ll also be covering a bonus on a recent entry on the list next week, Naoko Yamada’s Koe no katachi.

This week, the second part of the double bill, Hauru no ugoku shiro, Miyazaki’s first film after the breakout success of Spirited Away.

Chance encounters with both a mysterious young wizard and spiteful old witch find Sophie Hatter cursed. The eighteen-year-old young woman finds herself trapped in the body of a ninety-year-old crone. Never one to be defeated or outwitted, Sophie embarks on an adventure to lift the curse that takes her into the wilderness and to the heart of a majestic ambulatory castle inhabited by a fascinating bunch of misfits. As war simmers on the horizon, Sophie finds herself drawn to the temperamental but sensitive young magician Howl, but can they ever find peace?

At time of recording, it was ranked 134th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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“… You Wanna Get Nuts?” The Unique Legacy of Tim Burton’s “Batman”…

Tim Burton’s Batman is thirty years old this year, having opened in Irish cinemas thirty years ago this weekend. It leaves a complicated and underappreciated legacy.

To be fair, at least part of that is down to how the series ended. Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman and Robin count among the worst blockbusters of the nineties and the worst comic book movies ever made. Taken together, they were responsible for killing not only that iteration of the cinematic Batman franchise, but also for effectively killing the superhero as a blockbuster genre until the triple whammy of Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man kick-started it again at the turn of the millennium.

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New Podcast! The Movie Palace – “Batman! (1966)”

I’m currently caught up in the middle of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, but it’s not all festival coverage this week.

I had the pleasure of joining the great and generous Carl Sweeney on his excellent classic Hollywood podcast The Movie Palace. Recovering a bit from last weekend’s Oscars, Carl decided to take things a bit lighter this week, and so invited me on to talk a little bit about Batman!, the classic Adam West adaptation of the Caped Crusader, and one of the defining images of the Dark Knight in popular culture.

The discussion was quite broad, covering everything from the origins and appeal of the Caped Crusader to the charm of Adam West, and the lasting impact of the various “special guest villains” on later interpretations of the characters. The whole thing was a delight from beginning to end. It’s always a pleasure to talk films with Carl, but especially to talk Batman.

You can listen to the episode here, back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

Iron Fist – Felling Tree With Roots (Review)

Danny Rand is perhaps the biggest problem with Iron Fist.

In many ways, Danny is really just an extrapolation of the kind of live action comic book hero seen in Daredevil and Batman Begins, the angsty young man with father issues who struggles to get past his own dysfunction to become the hero that the city (if not the world) needs at this exact moment. Danny is full of emotional turmoil, with Iron Fist revelling in his insecurities and uncertainties. Even when he succeeds, the show makes a point to stress how incredibly difficult it is to be Danny Rand.

Sleeping beauty.

This feels ill-judged on several levels. Finn Jones lacks the sort of nuance and ability that is necessary to bring that sort of mopey self-centred sulking to life in an engaging manner. Jones is no Charlie Cox, and he’s certainly no Christian Bale. However, Iron Fist itself also struggles to properly capture the right tone. Immortal Emerges From Cave ends with Danny saving an innocent life, but he spends Felling Tree With Roots whining about it. The loss of K’un Lun in Dragon Plays With Fire is treated as something that affects Danny more than its residents.

Ironically, the Iron Fist himself seems to be the weakest aspect of Iron Fist.

Her Hand-iwork.

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Non-Review Review: The LEGO Batman Movie

“I have aged phenomenally,” Bruce Wayne confesses about half-an-hour into The LEGO Batman Movie.

He is not wrong. The LEGO Batman Movie is in many ways an overt celebration of the legacy of the Caped Crusader, the pop culture icon who remains one of the most recognisable figures in the world. Repeatedly over the course of the film, character reference Batman’s rich history, from the Joker’s confession that they have known each other for “seventy-eight years” or Alfred’s reference to “that weird [phase] in 1966” or even Barbara Gordon’s slideshow presentation that goes back to the cover of Detective Comics #27 and the forties film serial.

Holding it all together...

Holding it all together…

The framework of The LEGO Batman Movie allows the characters and the script to comment upon the Batman mythology. The script is crammed with references from the length and breadth of the character’s publication history, from “Bat shark repellent!” to particular costume styles to minor villains to musical cues to fourth-wall-breaking references to other media that has inspired various interpretations of the Caped Crusader. This allows The LEGO Batman Movie to be explicitly about Batman in a way that few Batman stories can be.

As such, The LEGO Batman Movie offers a very broad summary of the Batman mythology and characters, surveying decades of printed and screen material to reduce Batman to his most simply and essential qualities. The LEGO Batman Movie offers a very compelling portrait of Batman as a man so traumatised by loss that he never allowed himself to grow up, while somehow subconsciously cultivating a family around himself. For all the character’s lauded darkness, The LEGO Batman Movie celebrates the hope at the heart of that mythology.

Welcome to his man-cave.

Welcome to his man-cave.

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Non-Review Review: Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad is a mess.

Like many contemporary blockbusters, it is overplotted and convoluted. For a film with a (relatively) straightforward story and an impressively large ensemble, Suicide Squad twists and turns in a way that makes it impossible to pin down. The film never seems entirely sure when enough is enough, and always seems ready to pile more on top. The film is never entirely sure what the audience should know at a given moment, particularly compared to the characters. Character development is secondary to a series of quick gags and cheap one-liners.

Whacky.

Whacky.

At the same time, there is a certain charm to the film, once it gets past the clunky exposition or the twisty plot or the inevitable myriad of complications that serve to eat up screentime. The core concept of a team of supervillains enlisted to deal with a national crisis is a great story hook, and Suicide Squad featured a collection of intriguing characters brought to life by a fairly great cast. Suicide Squad works best when it lets those characters cut loose, when it cedes the screen to Margot Robbie or Will Smith. There is an energy and verve to it that is contagious.

That energy does not make up for the movie’s shortcomings, but couple with David Ayer’s sense of momentum, it helps to keep the train from coming off the rails for most of the movie’s two-hour runtime.

'Sup Squad?

‘Sup Squad?

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Non-Review Review: Batman vs. Superman – Dawn of Justice

Batman vs. Superman is a curiosity, a fascinating mess of a film that doesn’t really work but which constantly teases its audience with the idea that it might work in a variety of intriguing way.

Batman vs. Superman is certainly ambitious. Although the story about a persecuted alien immigrant obviously comes with no small amount of political subtext that feels applicable at a time of resurgent nationalist sentiment, the most remarkable thing about Batman vs. Superman is the way that the script is very consciously and awkwardly attempting to get at bigger underlying themes. Whereas Christopher Nolan tailored his impressive Batman trilogy for the realities of twenty-first century America, Batman vs. Superman is attempting something greater.

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Of course, what it is actually attempting is hugely contradictory. It occasionally seems like director Zack Snyder is working at cross purposes with writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer. Appropriately enough for a director who recently announced plans to adapt The Fountainhead, Snyder is trying to construct a Randian power fantasy about the moral authority that rests with exceptional people like Superman. In contrast, Terrio and Goyer want to construct a fable about Superman as an embodiment of hope for a sinful Earth.

While Snyder seems at times to wrestle against the script, Terrio and Goyer face their own issues. While Batman vs. Superman is thematically ambitious and philosophically rich, it is also positively abstract in its plotting. Events occur for no reason beyond plot necessity, while character motivation is delivered through dreams and metaphor. Contrivances and illogicalities abound, to the point where any number of plot developments might have easily been avoided if characters simply talked to one another about what exactly they thought was going on in a given moment.

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There are no shortage of issues with Batman vs. Superman, issues so fundamental that it is hard to imagine how an extended cut will do anything but deepen them. There are points at which the movie’s attempts to fashion a pop mythology are so dense as to suggest a required reading list, saturating with knowing references to everything from Lolita to A Streetcar Named Desire to Final Crisis. There is an argument to be made that Batman vs. Superman is not only illogical, but unapologetically (and perhaps unforgivably) pretentious.

And, yet, acknowledging all of these flaws, there is something strangely compelling about the muddled spectacle of it all. There is a sense that Snyder and Terrio and Goyer are really trying to do something in a manner that is bold and ambitious. (Just not necessarily the same things.) As crazy as it sounds – and it sounds crazy – Batman vs. Superman is the result of the same style of Warner Brothers movie-making that led to the infinitely superior Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight. There is a willingness to let artists take massive risks with significant budgets.

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Warner Brothers has a track record of supporting and encouraging these gambles. Sometimes these gambles pay off. No other major studio would have signed off on Mad Max: Fury Road, to pick an example. Christopher Nolan produced a trilogy of engaged and exciting blockbusters built around a character most had written off in live action. Sometimes this big budget auteur model doesn’t pay off. Say what you might about Cloud Atlas and Man of Steel, but they are indisputably unique and distinct visions of their creative architects.

In its abstraction, its tone and its aesthetic, Batman vs. Superman has the look and feel of a two-hundred-and-fifty million dollar indie feature. It might lack the polish and finesse (and, to be frank, cohesion and internal logic) of other major superhero films. However, it has a weirdly compelling spark and ambition that is lacking from the more standardised model of Marvel Studios blockbuster. The result is deeply unsatisfying, yet strangely compelling.

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