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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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Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo’s Run on Batman – Endgame (Review)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman has been lodged in a constant state of apocalypse.

The duo have framed Batman as a blockbuster comic book, to the point that it seems like Batman stares down the end of all things more often than the rest of the superheroes in Geoff Johns’ Justice League. All of Snyder and Capullo major stories have placed Gotham City on the edge of the abyss, teetering (and even falling) into darkness. It is a sharp contrast to the lower key threats of Snyder’s work on The Black Mirror, very consciously a stylish affectation to reflect the fact that Batman is very much one of the comic book industry’s blockbuster title.

Bringing back the laughs...

Bringing back the laughs…

In The Court of Owls, Gotham finds itself subjected to a long night of terror by an army of undead assassins. In Death of the Family, the Joker carves his way across the city. In Zero Year, the origin of Batman is tied to a disaster on the scale of No Man’s Land. Even outside of his work on the main title, Snyder’s role as “executive producer” of Batman Eternal saw yet another apocalypse visited upon Gotham in a relatively short space of time. It becomes exhausting after a while.

To be fair, it is reasonable to ask whether this is just part of a larger cultural context. Pop culture has always been fascinated with the end of the world, but it seems increasingly fixated on the concept in recent years. The popularity of the zombie genre is just one example, but any list of critically and commercially successful art in the twenty-first century will confront the reader with multiple ends of all things. The Walking Dead, The Road, Mad Max: Fury Road, Jericho, Revolution, Book of Eli, and so on and so forth.

"Hm. Maybe we should consider counselling...?"

“Hm. Maybe we should consider counselling…?”

However, popular culture is not just fascinated with post-apocalyptic horror. Increasingly, media engages with the question of what the end of the world will look like, rather than the question of how we might survive it. Fear the Walking Dead depicts the end of the world that led to its sister series. Chris Carter revived The X-Files so that the final episode could depict the end of the world as foreshadowed across the original nine-season run. With advances in CGI, blockbusters like The Avengers and Man of Steel can render destruction on an impossible scale.

As such, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s recurring fascination with the end of all things exists as part of a broader cultural context. Still, the writer and artist seem to position Endgame as the ultimate apocalypse for its two central characters.

Burning down the house...

Burning down the house…

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Batman – Knightfall (Review/Retrospective)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

Knightfall is one of the definitive Batman stories.

That is, to be clear, not the same as saying it is one of the best. Knightfall is far too chaotic and disorganised to rank among the best Batman stories ever told. This becomes particularly obvious when the story enters its second and third act, as everything falls to pieces and the saga sort of sputters out rather than coming to a clear end. Indeed, this problem can be seen even in the nineteen-issues-and-change introductory arc; the creative teams start with a strong focus and clear direction, but this quickly descends into anarchy as the story builds a forward momentum.

Batman just snapped...

Batman just snapped…

At the same time, there is something striking and ambitious about Knightfall. It is no surprise that Denny O’Neil considers it one of his crowning accomplishments as editor of the line. Asked to name his favourite Batman arc, O’Neil replies, “I guess it would be Knightfall because it involved me so deeply–I worked on it as a comic series, a novel, and a radio show. It was a very steep mountain to climb, but we climbed it and that was satisfying.” There is no denying the influence and success of the arc.

In some respects, Knightfall is an astonishingly cynical piece of work. It is quite blatantly designed as a crossover with a high-profile guest cast and killer high concept. Indeed, Knightfall could be seen as a headline-grabber in the style of The Death and Return of Superman, but with the added hook of Batman’s iconic rogues gallery. After all, it was the nineties, the era of sensationalist headline-grabbing sales stunts. It could be argued that comics (and mass culture) have always been stuck in this cycle, but it was particularly evident in nineties comic books.

All of Batman's greatest adversaries... ... and Maxie Zeus.

All of Batman’s greatest adversaries…
… and Moench.

However, Knightfall has two core virtues that go a long way towards excusing the confusion and excess at the heart of the story. The first is that there is a sense that the writers seemed to have a (very) rough idea where they would like to end up, even if the journey was not mapped in advance. While the plot resolves with a convenient and contrived twist, at least it does not hinge on Bruce magically waking up from a coma. More than that, though, there is a sense that Knightfall is actually trying to say something about its central character.

For all the noise and static along the way, Knightfall is essentially a story about Batman means in the context of the nineties.

Armoured and dangerous...

Armoured and dangerous…

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Batman Special #1 (1984) – The Player on the Other Side (Review)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

Mike W. Barr is one of the great Bronze Age Batman writers, a writer with a clear vision of what he expects Batman to be and with a body of work that seems build around that principle.

One of the interesting aspects of Batman is the character’s flexibility and ubiquity. Batman can be virtually anything that a writer needs him to be, and it does little to dilute the brand because there are so many other writers working on the character – often at the same instant. Even when a particular writer is working on the character, they cannot claim exclusivity. Grant Morrison’s version of the Dark Knight is distinct from Scott Snyder’s take on the Caped Crusader, for example.

Long Dark Knight of the soul...

Long Dark Knight of the soul…

Perhaps, as a result of this, there is more freedom for writers to craft their own unique take on Batman. Mike Barr wrote Batman across a variety of different titles over a considerable stretch of time. Barr had written random stories in Detective Comics dating back to the seventies, and had provided occasional scripts to Batman since the start of the eighties. He would continue to work sporadically on the character into the nineties and the new millennium, contributing scripts to stories like In Darkest Knight into the nineties and beyond.

However, Barr’s longest sustained work on the character came in the eighties. He wrote Batman as the headline character of Batman and the Outsiders for the first thirty-two issues of the title, collaborating with artists Jim Aparo and Alan Davis. He enjoyed a sustained run on Detective Comics with artist Alan Davis that overlapped with Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s iconic Batman: Year One run. The run culminated in Batman: Year Two. He and Davis also collaborated on Full Circle. He wrote Son of the Demon and Bride of the Demon.

"Face my Wrath!"

“Face my Wrath!”

Barr had considerable influence on the evolution of the character Batman. Grant Morrison’s creation of Damian Wayne, for example, was heavily influenced by Barr’s work on Son of the Demon. In a larger sense, Barr’s willingness to reintroduce classic Silver Age concepts into continuity following Crisis on Infinite Earths paved the way for more flexible interpretations of the Dark Knight. Barr is frequently overlooked in discussions of the character’s history, which is entirely understandable given that his most high-profile work overlapped with one of the greatest Batman stories ever told.

Still, as influential as Barr was on future depictions of the Dark Knight, it is clear that the writer had an internally consistent vision of the Caped Crusader, with a number of themes and ideas that he would visit time and time again in his work featuring the Dark Knight. Although The Player on the Other Side comes before Barr’s most extended and high-profile solo work on the character, those themes are most definitely present.

Batman Special I: The Wrath of Wraith.

Batman Special I: The Wrath of Wrath.

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