Spoiler Alert: Sorry to be all philosophy of language about this, but words have meanings, and I don’t believe any information about this movie can be considered a spoiler. A spoiler reveals something about the plot of a movie that would otherwise be a surprise. This movie has no plot. No event in the movie, however ensconced in slow motion and loud music, is actually important to the story. Because there is no story. I guess if you do not want to read any descriptions of the moving images that you have not yet seen in the trailers, stop reading, but only after letting me tell you one thing: under no circumstances should you or anyone you care about go to see this movie.
Bechdel-Wallace Score: -10,000/3 – Negative ten thousand points for disgusting misogyny. After sexualizing a 17-year-old girl character in the previous Transformers travesty – and suffering no negative consequences for it – Michael Bay and Universal Studios decided to see what would happen if they sexualized a 13-year-old girl character (played by a 16-year-old actress) in this movie. I’m not kidding – within the first 30 minutes of the movie, you see her running in slow motion in a tank top. It is really fucked up. And this latino girl’s character is introduced largely by a white boy having a crush on her for being a badass. I’m not a licensed or credentialed psychologist in any way, but I am going to go ahead and speculate that maybe Michael Bay is subconsciously trying to get caught for being a danger to children and will keep escalating this behavior on film until someone intervenes in real life. In the meantime, don’t leave your children alone with him. Also don’t take them to see this movie. Oh and re: the usual Bechdel-Wallace test parameters, there are three feminine characters with names in the movie and I don’t recall them ever speaking to each other, certainly never alone, and none of them say anything that isn’t addressed to and/or about a man.
Shukla Score: -10,000/3 – There are two, or three if you count voice work, named characters of color in The Last Knight. They have no significant dialogue with each other because there is no significant dialogue in the movie. The negative ten thousand points is because within the first 30 minutes of the movie there is such blatant racist caricature on display (a young overweight black boy is show screaming bombastically and exclaiming that he thinks he had a heart attack) and it doesn’t really get better later. The young black man who is in the movie beyond those scenes is – you guessed it! – there for comic relief, which he provides by yelling about things that scare, surprise, or anger him. The fact that he was forced into a job without adequate pay or any benefits is a punchline. He gets shot by a police drone and freaks out about being killed, but the joke is he only got shot with a bean bag. Violence against black bodies is an ongoing crisis in our Republic, not a comedic relief avenue for an action movie.
Russo Score: -10,000/3 – I assume there were several LGBT-phobic moments in the movie, but that I already blocked them out of my memory. The negative ten thousand points here is because as far as I can tell, LGBT folks don’t even exist in Universal’s shared Transformers Shitverse. Total erasure.
Kittehs: 0/5 – It’s been a while since I published one of these, so just as a reminder the Kitteh score is how many kittens it would take to distract me from the movie. I am pretty sure I imagined kittens to distract myself at one point, but under no circumstances would I allow an actual kitten to be in a room where this movie was playing. Keep your pets away from this movie.
Low points: The whole thing is a low point for culture. This is the movie equivalent of Donald Trump winning the electoral college. The movie isn’t just really bad, it is toxic. I don’t know what else to tell you. Other reviewers have written artfully scathing reviews that are better than what I can manage. Read them. Or don’t. I mostly wrote this review to discuss the sexist and racist stuff I mentioned above, which gets a mention in other reviews, but I feel like they focus on how bad the movie is at the expense of how offensive it is. Yes, it is, start to finish, incredibly bad – but the offensive angle is even worse. Total erasure of queer folks, sexualizing of a minor, making the only black characters into walking punchlines, body-shaming for a laugh (doesn’t work), a couple of quips that are basically jokes about disabled people – it’s like a bingo game of toxic isms in a movie, except in this bingo game everyone gets all the spots on their card filled up early and then you just have to sit for two more hours and wonder how you ended up there at all.
Highlights: The movie was so bad I could not stop myself from writing about it, which sadly is the first time I have written and published one of these reviews in a while, but I guess it is some kind of silver lining. I felt I needed to warn people. (And I am too extroverted to keep this kind of pop culture despair to myself.)
Dad edits: I deeply regret getting my kid excited about this movie in advance. I am very uncomfortable with the coding of the characters and the subtext of the film. My concerns are heightened by the fact that, unlike other problematic movies, this one doesn’t offer any worthwhile story elements for him to hold on to and ignore the ick. It’s just spectacle and ick rolled up together. I really hope future movies set in the Transformers universe, without Michael Bay directing and with stories set on Cybertron, will be acceptable entertainment for him. Of course the kid loved the battle scenes, but he also took a 45 minute nap on my lap during the second act and did not realize he had slept through part of the movie until I told him afterwards. That’s how little sense the ‘story’ makes.
Final Thoughts: Do not see this movie. Do not let people you care about see this movie. Do not let people you despise see this movie as their ticket sales will contribute to its financial success and could lead to more such movies in the future. Avoid this movie at all costs. So say we all!
Normally I would put a trailer for the movie here, but instead let’s look forward to something else entirely.
TLP’s Morning Memo is brought to you by all the circumstances that leave me with not enough time to write full length essays about these topics. Enjoy.
Morning Memo for Saturday, July 23rd, 2016
All (okay, some of) the things in my mind I wish I had time to blog about today. Some of these things may get a full post later, but most will not. As always, many more links can be had by visiting TLP’s Facebook page.
Philosophy, Re: patiently struggling with patience
I find it very difficult to practice patience and, truthfully, am not entirely convinced of its virtue (yet). The idea of all things being used in moderation finds a lot of purchase in my mind and I apply that to everything including patience (and, for that matter, moderation). Context provides a lot of the information needed to discern which virtue(s) to apply, and how. In the tao te ching Laozi is pretty clear about a lot of things, including the importance of patience. He first speaks directly of it in Chapter 15:
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.
I am actually okay at this kind of patience, which I think of as personal or interpersonal non-action. To wit: A stressful situation develops and I don’t know how it is going to turn out, but I want it to end, my way, now. The intense desire to know and bring about the end of the stress prompts a flurry of mental action – what am I going to say? what am I going to do? who will help me? – that isn’t really based on reality (aka what is actually happening) so much as it is based on fantasy (aka what I wish would happen). Acting on fantasy in conflict with reality is a bad idea. Reality tends to (read: always, every time, without fail) win that fight.
How does on practice personal or interpersonal non-action? In my case at least, the flurry of mental action at the beginning of the process is inevitable, so I use it as step one in my non-action practice. Because as long as I don’t take behavioral action, all that mental action is really doing is bringing my options, my resources, and my allies into my awareness. These are good things to know as I allow the situation to develop without interference. So that is step one. Step two is asking myself two basic questions: What is actually happening? What do I need to do right now to prevent real harm? The first question helps separate my fear of what might happen (fantasy) from my understanding of what is actually happening (reality). If you’ve ever had a personal or professional relationship with someone who likes to make veiled threats, this is really important, because people like that rely on you to give their meager words the might of action, but really they’re just talking. The second question is a good way of figuring out if this is really a time for patience, and even if so what actions might be exempt non-action practice. For example: If water starts leaking in the kitchen, I probably shouldn’t call the landlord and yell at him about it just yet, but for sure I need to put some towels down right now, find the leak, and end the flow of water to it. Step three is the simplest and most difficult: wait for the best possible solution to emerge. I have no idea how this works for people less extroverted than myself. I hear some folks have epiphanies in the shower – that sounds great, try that. I am more likely to have my epiphany while talking to someone about showering, because nearly 100% of my “ah ha!” moments come through dialogue. So take a shower, or phone a friend, or meditate – you do you. The solution will come.
Of course life isn’t limited to the persona/interpersonal realm; there is also the cultural, political, institutional, and spiritual. This is where I have some trouble with patience, and where Laozi’s second mention of the virtue in tao chapter 67 comes to mind:
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
With both friends and enemies? Not so much. At the rate at which black women and men are being extra-judicially executed by police, children are falling into severe poverty, transgender folks are being murdered, and our drones are dropping bombs on foreign civilians – among other concerns – patience as an American has a body count that I find unacceptable. Even compassion gets difficult, here, especially when so many folks I know are already patient and compassionate with the warmongers and white supremacists in our midst. It seems to me that the “let’s walk to the future together, hand in hand, at whatever pace suits you” position has been overfilled, whereas the “hey fuck you, the future is here, stop crying about it and deal with it” position needs a great many more applicants. Even the kind of patience to look at the bigger picture and think “hey I may be yelling at this Trumpster right now, but in the grand scheme of things he will lose and we will win,” is only really available to me because I am an intelligent, able-bodied straight white cis man. My compassion for the struggle and oppression of folks who are not like me seems to conflict with the only kind of patience that I can find for corrupt institutions and a culture of domination.
This is where a good blogger would tie it all together and put a bow on it. Sorry! Not going to happen. I don’t know the answer. Human civilization is better than ever – global poverty and conflict are on the decline – but it isn’t getting better fast enough. And my country, where poverty in particular is concerned, is actually going backwards and I see way to many people boisteroulsy proclaiming their support for the policies, parties, and politicians who will make things even worse. I fail to see any way to apply the virtue of patience to all that. Surely patience in response to oppression, injustice, and deprivation becomes a vice.
If you encounter a personal quandry or an asshole at the office, I think the process I outlined earlier is a good move. Just wait. And while you’re waiting for the best solution to those problems to emerge, maybe donate to #BlackLivesMatter or go register folks to vote. Right now.
Politics, Re: Ted Cruz, Donnie and the Trumpsters, Citizen Kaine? What the Hill!
Let’s see if I can catch up quickly:
On Wednesday night, Ted Cruz gave a speech where he pointedly did not endorse Donald Trump and then got epically booed by the crowd. Cruz is getting cool points from a number of folks – reactionaries and progressives alike – for “standing on principal.” Cruz later told the Texas delegation that he didn’t back Trump because of Donnie’s attacks on Teddy’s family during the primaries. What the fuck ever! The only principal Ted Cruz is standing on is that he wants to defeat President Clinton and win the White House in 2020. Everything Ted said and did – or will say and do for the next four years – is about his desire to be President. He needs Trump to lose for that to happen, so he humilitated Trump on national TV. Deft? Yes. Courageous? No.
On Thursday night, Ivanka Trump came out to introduce her dad and made a speech full of Democratic policy goals to introduce her dad, who she says will make America great again. Ms. Trump then tweeted a link for folks to buy the dress she was wearing from her fashion line at Macy’s. The dress is not manufactured in America.
Donald Trump then came out and auditioned for the role of America’s Next Top Despot. I don’t think he will get the job since it doesn’t even exist. Trump got kudos from some folks – and contemptous surprise from many others – for using the prompter and mostly staying on message, thus prompting the question: is this new, better, general election Trump? The answer – umm, no, not at all – came during a press avail the next day.
The next day, Friday, aka yesterday, Hillary Clinton announced Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate. Look, I get it: Kaine is a Senator from a state with a Democratic governor – unlike Senators Warren and Booker – which means he can be elevated without costing the Democrats a much needed Senate seat. Kaine is good on some issues, or so I’m told (he speaks Spanish?), but is also problematic on other issues (reproductive justice). Young/left voters are pissed because they wanted Clinton to pick somoene to persuade and even get them excited about voting for her. And while I may have wanted the same thing, I understand the realpolitik of picking Kaine.
The fact is that Kaine will help Clinton keep some voters she might otherwise lose to Trump and maybe even win over some Trump voters. Kaine is also competent to be President if something happens to Clinton, which is always the fundamental concern in picking a VP. As for the young/left voters, the harsh truth is that they don’t tend to vote in general elections – either by not voting at all, or by voting for someone who stands no real possibility of winning. The irony here is that if young/left voters really want national-ticket Dems to cater to them in the future, the best way to make that happen is to show up in droves to vote for Hillary Clinton this November. Probably not going to happen, so the cycle will continue – disregard causes disengagement causes irrelevance causes disregard.
But hey, from a Taoist perspective, Clinton is much better at the patience thing than I am. Kaine is meant to reassure as many freaked out white people as can be reassured, and that hurts Trump, and anything that hurts Trump helps all of us. Kaine is an entirely uninspiring, but not unintelligent, pick for VP.
Better than the second, not as good as the first, but the most fun of any of them.
Star Trek Beyond
Spoiler Alert: There are no spoilers in this review that were not already delivered via trailers and TV spots for the movie. That said, they gave up a lot of plot points in the trailers and TV spots so consider yourself warned.
Bechdel-Wallace Score: 1/3 – Two women barely ever shared the screen during the whole movie. Their character backgrounds, development, and activities were almost all centered around men. Even one point seems a bit high, but hey there was more than one named female character, so okay. Seriously though – it’s 2016 and this is a Star Trek movie. I expect better. That said, Uhura’s relationship with Spock was not an absurdity in this film as it was in Into Darkness and Jaylah is not seduced by, or seducing, any of the Enterprise crew. So that’s something.
Shukla Score: 3/3 – Well, okay, so there are at least two named characters that are people of color and they do speak to each other about something other than race. There is one sequence where Sulu and Uhura are working together for a minute, and that gets 3/3. The only other scenes that might pass the test are a few where Uhura and Krall (played by Idris Elba) are talking, but Elba’s face is hidden away for most of the movie underneath a great deal of makeup – including the scenes with Uhura.
Russo Score: 3/3 – Even if you didn’t see any of the hoopla about it online, the movie clearly identifies Sulu as a gay family man. No fuss is made about this and Sulu goes on to be pivotal to the developments of the film and in no way a caricature. Indeed, one of the best emotional moments of the film is a brief shot of Sulu as he realizes his family is in jeopardy.
Kittehs: 😺😹😻😺/5 – I enjoyed the movie a great deal, although it was not entirely engaging – the first and third act both had some uninteresting moments – so I score it four kittehs. The laughing and love-eyed kittehs are for the second act, which showcased the best of the new Spock/McCoy relationship and had the best action and story moments of the whole film. Folks who saw the first trailer for the movie and, like me, thought “oh no this looks awful” will be pleasantly surprised by how not-awful, and even good, Star Trek Beyond turns out to be.
Low points: *NERD ALERT* As a severe Star Trek nerd, I find stupid continuity errors hard to forgive. As you’ve seen in the trailers, the marooned crew of the Enterprise find an older Starfleet vessel – the USS Franklin, NX 326 – to use in the third act of the movie. The problem is that the Franklin is described as being one of the first Warp-4 capable ships from the beginning of the Federation. Now, I’m not saying anybody should watch Enterprise, but plenty of people did and maybe the filmmakers should have run this by one of us since we could have said “well, the NX01 Enterprise was pre-Federation and could go Warp-5, so maybe say “first Warp-6″ vessel instead and avoid a stupid error.” But no, they went with stupid error. *end nerd alert* If the movie had any other low points, they weren’t anything significant. I think it was a waste to put so much makeup on Idris Elba for so much of the film; I think the starbase shown in the movie is just completely preposterous, not to say the Federation couldn’t build it – I like that part – but just that it seems odd to put something so large and fragile and full of people next to a big, dense, chaotic nebula and then, you know, hope for the best.
Highlights: Well, so, that starbase is a highlight too. Even if the positioning of the thing is absurd, it is cool to see folks imagining the Federation as a bold venture of civilization into the vastness of space. Partly I’m sure due to budget and effects limitations in the past, Starfleet ships and bases always had a fairly standard military feel – especially the bases. Here the space station is imagined with all the resources and engineering skill you’d expect a multi-planetary space-faring alliance to be able to muster. And it looks like a beautiful place to live. An overall great thing about the movie is that they finally get the hell away from Earth, unlike the first two movies in the franchise that were very Earth-bound and suffered for it. Seeing the ship and crew in deep space was cool and gave me some serious nostalgia feels. Another highlight actually turned out to be the motorcycle sequence; not wanting to spoil it, but this looked like the stupidest thing in the first trailer and it ended up being the most fun of the whole movie. Last but not least, and again without spoiling it, the solution the crew devises for dealing with the alien swarm is absurd, hokey, and so simple in the end it is kind of stupid – classic Star Trek. I loved it. Into Darkness was so, well, into its own darkness. But in Beyond the franchise remembers how to have fun again. Yay!
Dad edits: Damnit, this was so close to being the first Star Trek movie I could take my son to, but not quite. Several people are shown during or after having the life drained out of them. Some folks are vaporized on screen. Many, many people are blown into space. A bit too much death in general, plus a dash of torture at one point, has me saying this movie earns its PG-13 rating.
Final Thoughts: I still haven’t quite let go of wanting a return to the less frenetic, more cerebral, Star Trek movies that I grew up watching. Beyond, if a bit too flashy and hectic for my preferences, was nonetheless a lot more enjoyable than Into Darkness and came much closer to replicating the near-total awesomeness of 2009’s Star Trek. I think the folks running this franchise now are learning from their mistakes and really getting the hang of it. I am relieved this movie turned out so much better than I expected and I am excited to see what they do in the as yet untitled Star Trek 4.
Morning thoughts and links are brought to you by all the circumstances that leave me with not enough time to write full length blog posts. Enjoy.
Morning Thoughts & Links for Wednesday, July 20th, 2016
Welcome to the new feature, where I will write down the things in my mind I wish I had time to blog about today. Some of these things may get a full post later, but most will not. As always, many more links can be had by visiting TLP’s Facebook page.
Philosophy, Re: writing both creatively and well
There is a quote, often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway, imploring us to “write drunk; edit sober.” The quote is a sort of Hemingwayified paraphrase of a much longer thought that is sometimes misattributed to Dylan Thomas:
“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”
“My training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote nor while I was writing.”
And again, Hemingway:
I have spent all my life drinking, but since writing is my true love I never get the two things mixed up.
Of course Hemingway didn’t have a blog, but his wisdom applies. I generally don’t try to use my faculties if I have done anything to impede them – it just seems like a lose/lose proposition – but have found there are a couple times when blog posts are not too ill-affected by a drink or two. Specifically tv show/movie reviews and contemporary Republican/right-wing politics. Even then, while the former can be helped by an uninhibited “fuck it, just publish the thing,” the latter is more likely to lead to a “fuck it, why am I even writing about this” well before anything is ready to publish. I can’t imagine how someone like Christopher Hitchens – who famously drank every day and evening while nonetheless producing copious copy – was able to pull it off. I suspect that a fair number of aspiring writers have fantasies about being drunken prophets, which dreams are presumably only half realized, but I prefer my personal excuse of being too busy to write. It feels virtuous and is much less fattening. But I digress.
The intention of the original misquote, fleshed out by the actual original passage by DeVries, is to draw attention to the need to be both disciplined and uninhibited while writing; both focused and careening. Altered states – be it from drink or ADD meds – tend to provide one at the expense of the other, so that’s a bad move. In my limited experience as a writer, and much more extensive experience as a conversationalist, the best way to get Apollo and Dionysus playing nice together is to have as little self-image involved as possible. I set intentions for the pieces I write – a Game of Thrones recap needs to be funny, movie reviews should have a dash of serious but never ever be severe, a critical response to another writer should be vulnerable and even self-effacing – while making my best effort to have no intentions for myself as a writer. Having some sort of writing-ego-based rules that always apply would be (and used to be) stifling. Sticking with the Greek mythology archetypal metaphor, my inner Apollo brings its own rules and my Dionysus won’t suffer any, so there is nothing to be gained by me setting them. The big bonus here, too, is the vulnerability; if I’m never sure who I am as a writer, then I get to be surprised each time I write something, and that keeps it fun.
So there is my take: have fun writing; have fun editing. Or if you like it in a more judgmental tone: If writing doesn’t feel like play time, then you aren’t doing the work. I look forward to being flattered by seeing to whom those quotes get misattributed.
Politics, Re: GOP Convention Day 2 (a mini Voyeur Recap)
Well the political story at the moment is still the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Day two sounds – or at least reads – like it was as bad as day one.
Dr. Ben Carson ditched his prepared remarks that figuratively demonized Hillary Clinton in order to, well, literally demonize Hillary Clinton. Seriously, he spent time talking about how Hillary is in league with Satan.
The epic conclusion to the Steve Rogers / Bucky Barnes bromance trilogy is here and it is glorious.
Captain America: Civil War
Spoiler Alert: There are no spoilers in this review until the Dad edits section at the end, which contains some non-trivial spoilers, but you only need to read that if your question is “should I take my kid to see this movie?” Also, I will provide another warning before it happens, I promise.
Bechdel-Wallace Score: 1.5/3 – Well, shit. There are at least three significant, named women in the movie – arguably four. I honestly can’t remember if they ever talk to each other except for a few times using a comm link, and even then it is always about a man. So I am scoring Civil War at 1.5 points because earpiece talk about bad guys doesn’t quite count as talking to each other. When I see the movie again (inevitable), I will pay extra close attention and revise the score if warranted. Of course I shouldn’t have to work this hard to remember if they would just represent women more in the first place.
Shukla Score: 2.5/3 – There are multiple named persons of color in the film almost all of whom are black men. If you were as excited as me when you learned Alfre Woodard had been cast to play a role in Civil War, you will be delighted with the content of her moment on screen (she is so good) and not at all pleased that she only has the one moment. All the rest of the Shukla score comes from black men in the movie, who have at least two moments when they are speaking to each other about topics other than race, but no actual scenes to themselves (hence 2.5 instead of 3).
Russo Score: 0/3 – There is no LGBTQ representation in the movie. Goddamnit, Marvel! Do better! Oh how you sully what would otherwise be my unbridled joy and unfettered appreciation for your work by failing to in anyway represent some of the most normal and most special real world people when you make your fantastical movies about normal, special people. Do better!
Kittehs: 😻😻😻😻😻/5 – I just loved it. Certainly this movie, and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, are due some serious criticism when it comes to representation. And yet if you are going to do a sausage fest, I say do it all the way, and this movie did. Don’t get me wrong, women play some important roles in this movie (see highlights below), but this movie is about men and the relationships between men. Fathers and sons, mentors and proteges, fans and heroes, friendships that can withstand anything, and friendships that must be torn apart because the men in them are too similar not to fight. And each of those kinds of relationships are rendered in a bipolar way, with the most true and the most horrible on display. A lot of movies focus on male characters, but this movie focuses on men qua man in a way that is enriching rather than simply patriarchal (although it is that, too).
Low points: The representation scores are mediocre at best and that is no small thing. Otherwise, seriously, no low points. The Russo brothers really crafted a remarkable movie and the actors all nailed their parts; I’m not going to pretend to have any specific complaint. Civil War is fucking awesome. Personally, I would have liked to have seen more of a focus on the Steve/Bucky relationship, but to some degree that had to be traded in order to give all the (many) other characters enough screen time not to just feel like cameos. Honestly, I’m amazed they got this many characters into the movie without selling any of them short, so I’m not going to complain that they didn’t get more immersed in the bromance. Trade-offs have to be made.
Highlights: Philosophically the biggest highlight is that almost everyone is a good guy. In the original Marvel Comics Civil War event, both Captain America and Iron Man are batshit crazy. There are no good guys in that story. In this movie almost everyone is acting in good faith and with the best of intentions (Crossbones and Zemo excepted, of course). As scenes go, the best moment (I think) comes early in the third act when Steve and Bucky share a memory as friends. As characters go, Black Panther comes in first with Spiderman being a solid second for scene stealing. Scott Lang/Ant-Man is comedy gold, of course. Black Widow gives the proceedings a much needed conscience as she is the good gal with good intentions who is most nobly struggling with the difficult reality instead of just working her own agenda and/or feelings. And last but by no means least, Wanda Maximoff has seriously stepped up her Scarlet Witch game and is a complete badass at multiple points in the movie. I could go on and on – it’s just great fun. Personally, my favorite thing about this movie is that it reveals that the Captain America movies – The First Avenger, Winter Solider, and Civil War – are somehow just a Steve and Bucky bromance trilogy. Civil War is the climax of that trilogy, if not exactly the conclusion of their story, and it is glorious. One last highlight: Helmut Zemo is a very understated villain in the movie with an entirely relatable motive (even if his actions are unconscionable); you have to be dead inside not to feel for the guy, and that is more than you can say for most Marvel movie villains.
Dad edits: Reminder – SPOILERS! this sections has SPOILERS! – so stop reading now because they start after the period. Zemo tortures a guy to death by drowning him (slowly). T’Challa watches his father die in an explosion. Towards the end of the film, you see Tony Stark’s parents brutally murdered in cold blood with almost nothing left to the imagination. This is, without a doubt, the most grown up Marvel movie yet and if your kid is under 15ish years of age I would seriously urge you to see the movie yourself before deciding whether or not to take your child. When this movie is out on iTunes and/or disc, I’ll be able to skip past those scenes without really interfering with the rest of the movie for my kid. In the theater though, there is no way to avoid the harshest moments, and they are brutal. Be careful.
Final Thoughts: I can’t wait to see how they tie the end of this movie into the beginning of Infinity War. Also, big props to the Russo brothers for healing all the wounds I have from Batman v Superman. Now I can be happy again with superhero movies.
The only way to get Batman right in a movie is to respect the character as a cultural myth, of which Batman:The Animated Series is the best on-screen representation.
In part 1 of this series, I briefly described the importance of Batman as a modern myth and gave a (relatively) concise overview of all the cinematic depictions of the caped crusader that have thus far been made. In part 2, I demolished the argument (made in this case by Zack Snyder himself) that previous Batman movies are worthy source material for future Batman movies. Here in part 3 I will provide some history of Batman the comic book character, an argument that that character has evolved into a myth, and that Batman: The Animated Series (TAS) is the best representation of that myth ever on a screen. As such, I think TAS is the most worthy source material for future Batman movies. At the very least, it is the standard by which other on-screen depictions of Batman should be judged.
The Dawn of the Knight
In early 1939, after the successful debut of Superman the year before, National Publications (now DC Comics) wanted more superheroes in their lineup. A man named Bob Kane first had the idea for a character named “the Bat-Man,” which Bill Finger helped him develop into the earliest version of the character we know today. If Kane is the originator of the character who wears a bat suit, Finger is the originator of the myth; it was Finger who wrote the origin story of young Bruce Wayne vowing to fight criminals to avenge his parents. (Finger also came up with the idea of Robin as a sidekick.) As early as 1940, right after the publication of Batman #1, then-editor Whitney Ellsworth made the rule that Batman would not kill or use a gun.
Batman as a comic book character changed a lot in the first 25 years. While the earliest Batman stories were gritty and violent – even after the caped crusader ceased killing or use of guns – the stories started lightening up fairly quickly in the early 1940s. In the 1950s, after reactionaries began criticizing comic books in general, and specifically the homosexual undertones of Batman’s relationship with Robin, a beard was drawn in the form of Batwoman. There was a Bathound, named Ace. And let’s not forget Bat-Mite, a magical imp from the fifth dimension who wears a Batman costume. Sigh. Some science fiction elements were introduced during this time as well (e.g. Mr Freeze). Then Batman went camp in the 1960s, particularly after the initial success of the TV series starring Adam West (1966 until 1969).
I think of this first 30 years as being the years of Batman as a comic book character only, as opposed to his current status as both a character and a myth. Most of these Batman stories, and the characters in them, were created by the same people who created Batman in 1939. Most – though not all – of the modifications to Batman in these years were in an attempt to suit the tastes of post-war popular culture and sell more comic books. While the need to sell more comic books would remain important – indeed remains important – to the writers and artists telling Batman stories, something very important happens when a character makes the leap from transpersonal to transgenerational: it becomes a myth.
The Character Becomes the Myth
Archetypal themes showed up in Batman comics from the beginning. The villains Joker (1940) and Scarecrow (1941), introduced by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, might as well be credited to somebody’s Jungian analyst (or at least a psych textbook). The Joker is a personification of society against its own absurdity, while the Scarecrow represents the personal conflict of the persona against the true self and/or shadow (a conflict built on fear, which the villain weaponizes). Archetypal themes are inevitable in storytelling, but becoming a myth is not. To become a myth a story must: be told across generations; be both archetypal and transpersonal in content; give some inspiration and guidance. In this way myths provide us with personal value in understanding ourselves, interpersonal value in being a point of comparison and dialogue, and cultural value in being a shared experience and a framework for the telling and understanding of stories. How we experience myths personally impacts how we share them interpersonally and then what we want from them culturally, which then impacts how we experience them personally, and so on. It’s a virtuous cycle of storytelling – at least as long as nobody decides to try to hijack it into some kind of personal political catharsis (I won’t name names, but his initials are Frank Miller).
Starting in 1969, a new generation of writers and artists (O’Neil, Adams, Giordano, Schwartz, etc.) began to reconnect Batman with his origins as the Dark Knight of Gotham. Moving away from the lighthearted fun of the 50s and the camp of the 60s, this new iteration of Batman retained his identity as the avenging detective of the night who does not use guns or kill people in his quest to protect the people of Gotham from the same evil that claimed the lives of his parents. In 1977 writer Steve Englehart worked on a run of Detective Comics that saw the Joker return to his original, maniacal and homicidal self and cemented Batman’s return to form as the Dark Knight.
Then things got a lot better and also really fucked up.
On the one hand, in 1986 Dennis O’Neil became editor of the various Batman comics and, intentionally or unintentionally, did a lot to help Batman go from being just a character in DC Comics to being a mythical figure in our culture. Through stories like Frank Miller’s Year One (1987), Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988), and Jim Starlin’s A Death in the Family (1988/89), the story of Bruce Wayne/Batman achieves a fullness that was not there before. It is through these stories that we “learn” that Bruce Wayne traveled the world and trained in martial arts and criminology before returning to Gotham, we see an origin story for the Joker that puts both him, Batman, and their symbiotic rivalry in clearer perspective, and we see the limits of the Dark Knight as that rivalry leads to the death of one of Bruce’s wards and Batman’s sidekick, Robin (this is the second Robin, Jason Todd, not the more famous first Robin, Dick Grayson). Now Batman has not just an origin, but a history as well as a nemesis and a tragedy. This is in addition to all of the caped crusader’s other defining characteristics that had now been maintained through three generations of storytellers. Combine all that with the success of Tim Burton’s 1989 movie and the myth of the billionaire crime fighter who stalks the wicked at night became a seemingly permanent cultural fixture and household name. Since 1989, if you make a Batman reference, everyone will at least know who you’re talking about.
On the other hand, 1986 also saw the publication of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a story about a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne who has been in retirement since Robin’s death, but decides to become Batman again as part of a mental breakdown, or something (yes I have read it, twice). In this story: Batman comes through a wall to take a machine gun from one gang member and then use it to blow the brains out of another gang member in a situation where a batarang had always previously sufficed; eschewing the harder work of being a detective, he drives into a meeting of the Mutants gang in a tank and kills them and/or helps them kill themselves; he breaks the Joker’s neck and somehow convinces himself that the Joker did it. If you think that sounds awful, it gets worse: tDKR is one of the most successful Batman stories of all time; it ranked first among IGN’s list of best Batman graphic novels; even Time magazine put it among the top ten graphic novels in English. Not everybody is or was impressed, though. Comics Bulletin once ranked tDKR #2 on a Top 10 Overrated Comic Books (Watchmen took #1) and Mordecai Richler concluded his NYTimes review of Miller’s brutal opus with an astute observation, writing:
If this book is meant for kids, I doubt that they will be pleased. If it is aimed at adults, they are not the sort I want to drink with.
Batman v Dark Knight
Frank Miller wrote two sequels to The Dark Knight Returns, and in fact is making more still. He also did the writing for All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, which is a sort of “midquel” between Year One and tDKR. While the canonical Batman and Miller’s Dark Knight share the events of Year One, the rest of Miller’s work is considered non-canonical. Nonetheless, Miller’s work is also very popular, and perhaps there is no greater example of his influence than Zack Snyder’s intimations that he and his bros on the set of BvS were going off of only tDKR and previous Batman movies. Since there are not Batman facts to make such a determination, we are left with the decidedly philosophical question of truth: which Batman is true to the myth, and which is not?
I had originally planned to make a purely ad hominem case against Frank Miller as a storyteller: Alan Moore (!) has criticized Miller for the homophobia and misogyny in his work since (and including) Sin City; Miller’s 300 is obviously racist and fascist (movie or graphic novel, also they’re both uninteresting); Holy Terrorhas been called Islamophobic; All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder was almost universally disliked; and of course Miller has made comments as a private citizen that are loathsome, e.g. describing Occupy Wall Street as “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness.” Not wanting to leave any question about whether his Islamaphobia is merely a creative choice, Miller then implored the protestors to, “wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy. Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.” (No word yet on whether or not someone has explained to Frank Miller that al-Qaeda was not responsible for the economic catastrophe of 2008 that began the Great Recession.) So there is a case to be made that Frank Miller is neither morally nor politically suitable to be the steward of any shared cultural mythology, and especially not that of our beloved Batman, who has been a fan favorite since long before Miller was around and who will continue on long after Miller finishes his last violent, pathological screed.
A better approach to the question of which is the true Batman of myth came to me in a Facebook message from a dear friend (you know who you are). While this approach does not rely on Miller’s lack of grace, empathy, or any other traits one would want in a modern Homer or Ovid, it is also not entirely unrelated. We must simply ask: Which version of Batman is coherent and sufficient on its own, and which is not?
The Batman created by Kane & Finger, advanced by O’Neil & Adams et al, filled out by Miller (credit where due, yo) & Moore & Starlin, and I would say greatly enhanced by the more recent work of Grant Morrison – this Batman makes sense and stands on his own. His world shattered by experiencing his parents gunned down by a nameless, faceless thug, Bruce Wayne uses his inheritance to travel the world and become the greatest martial artist and detective he can be. He returns to Gotham city as a young man, adopts a playboy alter ego along with his industrialist day job, and proceeds to begin fighting crime as the Batman. There is no other story like this. If you took away the mask and the name, you wouldn’t be able to say “oh yeah, that’s just like Billy the Kid” or “that’s just like Lancelot” or “that’s just like Mercury.” This is a myth that makes sense on its own terms and is not easily comparable to any story that came before or since. Every hero may just be a difference face for the same archetype, but the canonical Batman of DC Comics (and Warner Brothers animation) can at least be said to be a unique face for that hero.
On the other hand, excepting his work on Year One, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight doesn’t make much sense and doesn’t stand on its own. Why would someone radicalized by murder of his parents become, himself, a murderer? It’s not so much that that could never happen, but that there is no damn point traveling the world and training if you could just take your trust fund check to Don’s Guns and get started today. Take off the mask and the utility belt and he is Dirty Harry with a grappling hook; Robocop with a cape. Ever wondered what the movie Falling Down would be like if Michael Douglass had been rich and wearing tights? Read All-Star Batman and find out. (Or just watch Batman & Robin, since both are Joel Schumacher shit shows films.) Miller’s Dark Knight is not a new face for the timeless archetypal hero as much as it is an attempt by an aggrieved white man to hijack Batman and make him the hero of aggrieved white men everywhere. (I bet Miller’s Bruce Wayne, if not Frank Miller himself, is sporting a Make Gotham Great Again hat. Sad!)
It is no coincidence that the guys who run Warner Brothers, Frank Miller, and Zack Snyder are all in the demographic most likely to taken in by the aggrieved white man agenda, both culturally and politically. I’m not saying they’re all regressive, reactionary asshats like Miller; I’m saying there is a reason why they would fail to notice that the Batman in the earlier movies, BvS, and graphic novels like The Dark Knight Returns is a false transmogrification of our true hero. But this does not mean that we are doomed to see only Angry White Batman on screen for the foreseeable future, because in fact we have already had 25 years of the best possible Batman on television and in home movies (one went to theaters).
Batman: The Animated Series shows us how to bring the myth to the screen (and how the screen can improve the myth)
When you hear the name Mark Hamill, you’re more likely to think of Luke Skywalker than the Joker – but Mark Hamill has spent way more time playing the Joker than the Jedi. If you have noticed that in recent Batman movies there has been an attempt (not always successful) to use two voices, one for the caped crusader and one for Bruce Wayne, you can thank Kevin Conroy, the actor that has played Batman in more shows, more movies, and for more years than all other actors combined. If you like seeing police zeppelins on Fox’s Gotham tv show or are excited to see the Joker’s sidekick Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, then you can again thank Batman: The Animated Series (TAS).
Developed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski – who pitched the series to Warner Bros. with a two minute pilot – TAS ran for three seasons from September, 1992 through September, 1995. The series was widely praised by comic book fans, won critical acclaim, and is still adored by an entire generation of nerds who grew up watching the show – myself very much included. Thanks to the ubiquity of options for streaming tv shows (anyone with an Amazon Prime account can view the whole series) TAS will be able to mold current and future generations of Batman fans as well – my kid very much included. From the series’ Wikipedia entry:
The series was praised for its thematic complexity, darker tone, artistic quality and modernization of its title character’s crime-fighting origins.IGN listed The Animated Series as the best adaptation of Batman anywhere outside of comics, the best comic book cartoon of all time and the second best animated series of all time (after The Simpsons).Wizard magazine also ranked it #2 of the greatest animated television shows of all time (again after The Simpsons). TV Guide ranked it the seventh Greatest Cartoon of All Time. The widespread acclaim led the series to win four Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Animated Program.
That DC animated universe (DCAU) included Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures (which was like a belated fourth season of TAS), Justice League, Justice League: Unlimited, and Batman Beyond (which started showing an older Bruce Wayne’s last adventure as Batman before he retired, and then the rest of the series was about a young man named Terry McGinnis later taking over the Batman mantle with the help of an even older Bruce Wayne being a sort of uber-Alfred). There were also at least four animated movies included in the DCAU continuity.
I could probably write a four part essay just about how great TAS was (and is): the art deco Gotham and noirish animation style combine for relentlessly cool visuals; the music is of much higher quality than in any other superhero show before or since; the voice work (especially Conroy and Hamill) is, again, the best I am aware of on any comparable show; the characters, whether adapted from comics or created for the show, are compelling and several of them are developed over the course of multiple episodes. For my current purpose I will focus on how the series succeeds both at representing and shaping the myth of Batman and that is does so in a way that can and should be used to guide future live-action film adaptations.
Of course, being a children’s show, TAS could not do justice to the full Batman mythology. There is no way to adapt The Killing Joke or A Death in the Family storylines for younger viewers, so for instance with the latter Jason Todd is ignored entirely with Tim Drake taking over the Robin mantle from Dick Grayson. Barbara Gordon is never crippled and does not become Oracle. Bane appears in the series, and his appearances are not bad, but they are certainly not as compelling as the story arc from Knightfall, which I would say has earned a place in the Batman mythology. And of course TAS and that version of the DCAU was, tragically, long ended by the time Grant Morrison introduced reinterpreted the character of Damian Wayne, Bruce’s biological son with Talia al’Ghul (long story), which is probably the only development since Knightfall that seems to me to be worthy of being adopted into the broader cultural mythology of Batman. (Jim Gordon’s BatMech need not apply.) The Joker of TAS is necessarily a sort of midway between the homicidal maniac of the 1940s/1970s – present and his silly, campy version from the 1950s and 60s, which is nonetheless voice acted masterfully by Mark Hamill. Last, but by no means least among its flaws, multicultural representation is a big problem: nearly everyone in the series is white; women (including Batgirl and Catwoman) are generally portrayed as helpless and/or crazy; and there is no indication that there are any LGBTQ persons anywhere in the entire DCAU continuity.
Even with those limitations, most of which stem from being an animated adaptation aimed at a younger audience during television’s white supremacist 1990s, the series had a substantial impact on the comic books and shared cultural mythology of Batman. As I mentioned earlier, the fan favorite character of Harley Quinn originated on TAS, along with eight other characters later adopted by comic books. Preexisting characters were influenced by the show as well, with many of Bruce Timm’s designs from the series influencing their appearances in the comics books (e.g. Clayface) and are the basis of the look for almost all of the LEGO minifigures and the LEGO Batman video game series, which gives TAS a multi-generational influence. The current origin story for Mr. Freeze, as a tragic figure who was transmogrified by his attempts to save his nearly-dead wife, was an innovation of the cartoon show as well.
Most importantly of all Batman: The Animated Series just gets Batman right as a character, as do the other shows and movies in that DCAU continuity. It would be difficult to pull out all the best moments from 85 episodes plus other series and movies, but here are a few clips that I think help make the case that TAS is a faithful and compelling adaptation of Batman, worthy of primacy on the source list for anyone writing, directing, producing, financing, or even contemplating bringing the Dark Knight to the big screen.
First up is episode 3, Nothing to Fear. In this episode, which is a textbook hero’s journey, Bruce Wayne is in his ordinary world until he is accosted by a friend of his father’s in an elevator. The older man shames Bruce for being a playboy and disgracing his family name (of course the dude has no idea that Wayne is Batman). Moments later, Bruce is called to adventure when he sees a helicopter up to no good and changes into his batsuit to pursue it. After becoming Batman and engaging Scarecrow and his thugs in a bank vault (!), our hero’s tests begin as he is doused with Scarecrow’s fear agent, which causes him to hallucinate images of his father, disappointed, in the flames of the now burning vault. Alfred, as the ally and mentor in this story, picks up Bruce/Batman and helps him recuperate from the incident both physically and emotionally by telling him his father would have been very proud. Batman continues his pursuit of Scarecrow, despite still being confronted by voices and visions of his father shaming him, until at last he is closing in on his enemy while suffering his worst hallucination yet. Then he claims his value and identity, which is the “seizing of the sword” moment in this particular journey:
After handling the blimp situation, Batman discovers Scarecrows identity, hunts him down, and then they fight. At that point Crane (aka Scarecrow) manages to douse himself with the fear toxin and promptly gets scared out of his mind by Batman, as you do. Returning home with the elixirs of confidence and self-worth, Bruce places some flowers on his parents’ grave. If you’re only going to watch one episode of TAS, make it Nothing to Fear. (Aside: If you combine this episode with episode 28, Dreams in Darkness, you’ve got most of the plot to Batman Begins.)
Other episodes fill in important parts of Bruce Wayne’s pre-Batman backstory. A particularly touching episode is number 18, Beware the Gray Ghost. In this episode, Batman comes to the aid of his childhood idol from television, the Gray Ghost – voiced by none other than 1960s Batman Adam West himself:
Most of the backstory on the show has more to do with Bruce’s travels as a young man, training to one day become Batman. Here is a scene from episode 35, Night of the Ninja, where Alfred tells the story of Bruce’s samurai training to Dick Grayson:
And here in episode 54, Zatanna, we see the origin of the titular legging-averse magic wielder herself along with some of Bruce’s training in illusion and escape techniques:
A number of other great episodes from the series defy my attempts to find a quick clip. Episodes 32 & 33, Robin’s Reckoning Parts 1 & 2, show Dick Grayson/Robin’s origin story and also delve into the nature (and impotence) of revenge. Batman and Robin are both excellently developed as characters in these episodes, which won the show a primetime Emmy award. Episode 62, His Silicon Soul, shows Batman struggling to dismantle an intelligent computer named HARDAC that has created a robot Batman, which is itself struggling with its own identity. Eventually, robot Batman chooses to be a good guy and sacrifices itself to save the real Batman and Gotham city. By the way, even robot Batman manages to avoid killing and/or shooting anybody. Some episodes, like Almost Got ‘Im, are just fun; that episode shows several of Batman’s enemies playing poker and trading stories about a time when they nearly killed the Dark Knight… …before he shows up, kicks all their asses, and sends them to Arkham (which, seriously, needs a major security upgrade). Last but not least among my favorites (that can’t be clipped effectively, at least), is the two-parter The Demon’s Quest (episodes 60 & 61), which introduces Ra’s al-Ghul and his daughter Talia to TAS and is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the 1971 comic book introduction of the al-Ghuls by O’Neil and Adams.
Two more of my personal favorite moments of this version of Batman were not part of Batman: The Animated Series but are found in the Justice League and Batman Beyond series of the same DCAU continuity. The first, from Justice League episode For the Man Who Has Everything, requires a bit of explanation. Mongul is a big bad alien dude who sent Superman a “gift” – a chest-hugging alien creature that takes over the mind of whoever it attaches to and shows them the world they most long to see. Batman and Wonder Woman show up and find Kal-El standing there, completely immersed in a virtual Krypton where his world, his people, and his parents are still alive. Wonder Woman fights Mongul while Batman works to detach the alien from Superman. Batman succeeds, but the alien then attaches to him, and then this happens:
Reminder: that action-packed psychodynamic sequence takes place on a kids show and still manages to be both more compelling and less disturbing than the opening sequence of Batman v Superman. If anyone is ever thinking about putting Batman’s crime alley origin in a movie again, they should watch that clip, ask themselves honestly if they’re going to do better, and if not just forget about it. But I digress.
The last clips are from the opening moments of Batman Beyond. In what looks to me to be an explicit rebuke of Frank Miller’s Nocturnal Rambo, we see a 55-year-old Batman who has not yet retired, but increasingly relies on technology to help him get the job done, as he has what turns out to be his last fight with some Gotham city goons:
Finally we see animated Batman – who has neither killed nor shot anyone in decades of crime fighting – brought low by a beating, a heart attack, and aging in general. He is forced to save his own life and the life of an innocent woman by picking up a gun, which he only points at the one criminal still standing. This Batman doesn’t decide that now is the time to get all Deathwish on crime fighting, but rather that if he can’t be Batman without guns, then he just can’t be Batman:
This is the true Batman in the eyes of almost every generation of his fans; no guns, no killing. Not ever.
It is worth mentioning that there is a murderous, cruel version of Batman that has appeared in comic books in a way that enhances rather than abandons the history and myth of the caped crusader. In 2011, DC Comics had a huge crossover arc called Flashpoint. In this story (SPOILERS!), the Flash/Barry Allen realizes that he is in a weird alternate reality where his mother is alive but he has no speed force powers (also other stuff is weird – there is no Superman, Cyborg is the main hero of the USA, and most of the world is being destroyed by a war between Wonder Woman’s Amazons and Aquaman’s Atlanteans). Allen goes to Gotham and to Wayne Manor because he has seen there is a Batman. Once there, he meets Thomas Wayne, who is a corrupt and brutal Dark Knight driven by a desire to make the criminal underworld pay for the murder of his young son, Bruce, in an alley way. Get it? Barry needs Thomas’ help to regain his powers and only gets it by mentioning that in the alternate reality he wants to restore, it was Thomas and Martha who were shot and Bruce who lived (and become Batman, no less). Not only does Thomas help Allen regain his powers, but in the final battle of the entire story arc, Thomas kills the Reverse Flash, saving the Flash, even though he knows it will lead to his own non-existence. Such is the love of a father for his son. The Flash restores his reality (mostly), having to endure no small sacrifice himself in the process, and is also able to deliver a note from Thomas to Bruce that contains these words:
When Barry came to me for help, I turned him away.
I’m not the hero of this story.
I’m a man who’s been corrupted by his own unbearable pain,
I’m a man who has too much blood on his hands to be called good.
I’m a man who had nothing to live for…
Naturally, Bruce cries after reading the letter. And this is my whole point with this essay: In the age of mass shootings and smartphone videos of police officers using guns to execute innocent people for looking scary, we need our caped crusader to remain committed to fighting crime through excellent detective work and a mastery of non-lethal weapons and combat techniques. We need a Batman, the Batman, who uses his training and resources not just to fight against crime, but to fight for justice. We need a hero whose superpower is his virtue (and, okay, extreme wealth). As the antepenultimate animated clip shows, our Dark Knight’s quest is not rooted in a violent pathology so much as an altruistic desire to be the last boy whose life is defined by trauma and tragedy. It may be a fool’s errand, but it is not a monster’s, and this defining element of the character is completely lost in Miller’s hyperviolent (and sometimes hypersexual) fever dream version. Miller’s Dark Knight is not the hero of this story. The hero of this story is the Batman who was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, then evolved by them and many others across three-going-on-four generations of story tellers like Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams, Alan Moore, Jim Starlin, Bruce Timm, Christopher Nolan, and Grant Morrison – and who now belongs, in a very significant way, to the multiple generations of fans that have funded the development of comics, shows, video games, and movies that keep Batman alive and fresh in the cultural imagination.
Batman belongs to all of us now and Warner Bros. needs to respect that reality by making a real effort to do right by the fans in future movies. For better or worse, the cineplex is the contemporary Lascaux, and we want to see our favorite myths painted excellently – or at the very least recognizably.
In part 4 of The Once and Future Batman, I’ll provide DC and WB with some tips on how to do just that. (I’m sure the writers, producers, and director are all eagerly waiting for my input. 😹)
Batman fans sound off! Do you agree? Do you disagree? Tell TLP! Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweeton Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. The best responses will be added to this post or included in a follow up post.
Zack Snyder’s defense of his own Batman movie is really an indictment of them all. (This is the second in a four part series on the past, present, and future of Batman at the movies.)
In part 1 of this series, I described the importance of Batman as a modern myth and gave a (relatively) concise overview of all the cinematic depictions of the caped crusader that have thus far been made.
Snyder’s confesses to directorial malfeasance while trying to defend BvS
In 8 movies spanning almost 30 years, Batman has yet to be rendered in a way that is faithful to either the vast majority of his comic books or the popular perception of the character as a virtuous vigilante who goes to great lengths to avoid using guns or killing anyone. And that is a key element of a character who saw his parents killed by someone using a gun.
In a recent interview, Snyder uses this poor cinematic track record – along with references to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and a Clayface-sized heap of shitty reasoning – to mount a defense of his mostly-loathed depiction of Batman as judge, jury, and executioner in Batman v Superman (aka BvS). Here is Snyder, talking with HeyUGuys, revealing just how little he knows what he is doing in the course of trying to claim that he knows exactly what he is doing:
I tried to do it in a technical way. There’s a great YouTube video that shows all the kills in the Christopher Nolan movies even though we would perceive them as movies where he doesn’t kill anyone. I think there’s 42 potential kills that Batman does! Also, it goes back and includes even the Tim Burton Batman movies where this reputation as a guy that doesn’t kill comes from.
So, I tried to do it by proxy. Shoot the car they’re in, the car blows up or the grenade would go off in the guy’s hand, or when he shoots the tank and the guy pretty much lights the tank [himself]. I perceive it as him not killing directly, but if the bad guy’s are associated with a thing that happens to blow up, he would say that that’s not really my problem.
A little more like manslaughter than murder, although I would say that in the Frank Miller comic book that I reference, he kills all the time. There’s a scene from the graphic novel where he busts through a wall, takes the guy’s machine gun…I took that little vignette from a scene in The Dark Knight Returns, and at the end of that, he shoots the guy right between the eyes with the machine gun. One shot. Of course, I went to the gas tank, and all of the guys I work with were like, ‘You’ve gotta shoot him in the head’ because they’re all comic book dorks, and I was like, ‘I’m not gonna be the guy that does that!’
I think it is worth demolishing this nonsense point by point.
First off, let’s watch and analyze the video Snyder is referring to, which is not exactly what it claims to be and certainly doesn’t show what Snyder says it does (hey for real, it is less than four minutes, watch it):
What did we just see? Let’s consider these 45 kills:
Kills 1-20 are from the Tim Burton movies, which make no serious attempt to be faithful to the comics or the archetypal meaning of Batman. As I said in part 1, these are Burton’s movies first and Batman movies second.
Kills 21-29 are from the Joel Schumacher movies, the first eight of them involve bad guys killing themselves via bad driving, and anyway again these movies aren’t even trying to depict Batman qua Batman.
Kills 30-39 are from Nolan’s Batman Begins and occur before Bruce Wayne has become Batman, so they are not Batman kills. We all make mistakes, people. Also, I think the thing about this scene that has always stuck out to me is that Wayne torches the place in order to avoid killing a man who… …surely must have then died in the fire! What is he thinking? “Hey, I’m going to spare your life by blowing up the building we are both in. Ready, go!” Not that Wayne doesn’t save anybody here because he goes to great lengths to save the man who asked him to kill the other guy. Got it?
Still with Nolan, kill 40 is just Batman not saving Ras al’Ghul, which is dicey but not the same thing as killing somebody. This is infuriating not for Mr. al’Ghul’s fate but because it comes after Wayne saved Ras from the explosions that he triggered, and that surely killed the man Ras wanted him to kill, in order to avoid killing somebody.
Kill 41 is from the awesome chase sequence in Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and is debateable since we don’t see the guy die, but for sure it looks hard to survive that kind of sudden compression of the driver’s seat.
Kill 42, from the same Nolan movie, is for real. Batman killed Dent to save Jim Gordon’s son. Still, I bet if Batman had three arms, he would’ve saved Dent too. The grappling hook and the kid have to come first, you know?
Kill 43, from The Dark Knight Rises, happens as a result of vehicular combat. It is definitely a kill, even if a little bit indirect (Batman is shooting the truck’s engine) and that is how Nolan seems to like it.
Kill 44 is another bad guy killing their own dumb self. Talia had plenty of chances to get out of that truck all ninja like, but she got in the driver’s seat and decided to ride her bomb truck off an overpass. If this kill belongs to anyone, it belongs to Isaac Newton.
Kill 45 is clearly an accident, the guy wasn’t even a real human, and it is from the Adam West TV show (I mean, come on).
That is what this video actually shows.
Next, let’s demolish what Zack Snyder claims this video shows. Contra Snyder’s claim, the video does not show a bunch of kills from the Nolan movies – it shows all the kills and proximal bad guy deaths from all the movies, only 1/4th of them are from the Nolan trilogy, and most of those are from before Bruce Wayne was even Batman. Nolan actually got closer to getting this right than anybody else so far, but that isn’t the point. Neither the Nolan movies nor the Burton movies are “where this reputation as a guy that doesn’t kill comes from” – that reputation comes largely from the comics, but (as I will demonstrate in part three) was and continues to be cemented by Batman: The Animated Series and subsequent animated shows and movies that have built on to that version of the character for almost 25 years. Across decades of comic books and a quarter-century of cartoons, Batman has eschewed guns and killing. Maybe for Zack Snyder, learning from anything before Nolan’s trilogy is just too much work.
Nothing Snyder says next is any better. He moves on to the bizarre claim that BvS Batman is “killing by proxy” in a way that is “more like manslaughter.” Does he really think that if you use a gatling gun to blow up a car full of people that you would not be charged with murder?! I can imagine the defense now: “Your honor, my client did not kill those men. My client shot a car and the car then exploded and killed those men. It is BMW that should be on trial here today.”
Snyder finishes up by again referencing Frank Miller’s version of Batman, which has never been canonical if for no other reason than because of how Miller presents the caped crusader as a violent psycho. So maybe there is a clue. Most disturbingly, Snyder says that some folks on the BvS set that the director considers “comic book dorks” insisted that Batman shoot someone between the eyes, with a machine gun, on screen, in the PG-13 movie that we would all be watching.
Note to Mr. Snyder: Your peeps are not comic book dorks, if anything they are some kind of graphic novel bros – or maybe they are sociopathic Frank Miller literalists? – anyway you need new people on set ASAP.
This is the most regressive moment in Snyder’s “defense” because he is wanting to absolve his guilt by saying that at least he did not commit another more severe crime; “I’m not gonna be the guy who does that.” It’s the Donald Trump defense, movie director edition.
Over and over, Zack Snyder is defending his decision to get Batman really wrong by claiming he is just standing on the shoulders of other people who got Batman really wrong. In doing so, the director makes it clear that he didn’t think it through very much, didn’t make any attempt to draw from the rich comic book and/or animated history of gun-free non-lethal Batman, and really just doesn’t have any fucking clue what he is talking about. It is shocking to me that someone who displays so little understanding of the Dark Knight of Gotham was put in charge of building a cinematic shared universe for DC and Warner Brothers. It is even more shocking that he found himself on set surrounded by people that wanted Batman to use a machine gun to shoot someone between the eyes. I suppose the upside is that by bear-hugging the earlier movie versions of Batman in an attempt to defend his own malodorous steaming pile, Snyder may help convince the next director of a Batman movie to ignore the previous films altogether – including BvS.
Zack Snyder has done, and can do, good things
I want to end on a positive note, because Zack Snyder is a human being. We all make mistakes, even if we don’t all get hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on making those mistakes in a way that frustrates and disappoints millions of people. So here is the upshot: Snyder has never gotten enough credit for Man of Steel. The movie has flaws – the Battle of Metropolis goes on too long and many of the shots are too hectic. Nonetheless, Snyder managed to adapt Superman not as some Reaganized do-gooder like previous movies, but as a tragic myth with a deeply science fiction origin. Maybe he tapped into the cultural well of that myth on purpose, or maybe he just managed not to get in the way of viewers doing that themselves (and Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score surely did a lot of the emotional lifting). As I wrote in my BvS review:
Man of Steel was great (and really underrated) precisely because it recognized and depicted Superman’s origin as a tragic science fiction story. Snyder managed to tell that story like a graphic novel, going back and forth between vignettes of Kal-El’s journey to become Clark Kent and his journey to become Superman.
What this means is that even Zack Snyder was able to disregard the mistakes of previous film adaptions in order to see deeper into the story of a now-mythical superhero. This gives me hope that Snyder could make a decent Justice League movie, and surely Ben Affleck can make a badass Batman solo movie, if they can get themselves into a good perspective on the right source material.
What that source material and perspective ought to be is exactly what I’m going to describe next! So come back tomorrow (ish?) for part three of The Once and Future Batman.
Batman fans sound off! Do you agree? Do you disagree? Tell TLP! Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. The best responses will be added to this post or included in a follow up post.
How did we get here and why does it matter? (This is the first in a four part series on the past, present, and future of Batman at the movies.)
On the Friday morning after first seeing Batman v Superman I woke up still disappointed from the night before. I didn’t think any better of the movie after sleeping on it, but I tried to stay hopeful for the future: Wonder Woman is in the movie so little that she is untainted by it; like Wonder Woman, the other meta-humans that have cameos in the movie are mostly untouched by its problems; the (very underrated) version of Superman from Man of Steel is intact after BvS having mostly just been out of place in a story that doesn’t suit him or develop him much at all (lack of development is not the same as bad development). Even the new DC cinematic universe can be redeemed via other directors helming other films in the new canon. The only character that really, deeply took a disastrous hit in BvS is our dear Dark Knight, sullied as he was by repeated use of guns, flagrant killing, torture, and the insinuation that he has a drinking problem.
Why does this matter so much to me and so many other nerds? It matters because Batman is no longer a comic book character created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Batman is now a modern, archetypal figure of myth found in comic books, movies, television shows, Legos, action figures, and the imaginations of children and adults all over the world. Here in America, Bruce Wayne as Batman is a paradoxical combination of our dreams, fears, past and future. He combines great privilege with terrible tragedy, vast wealth with hard work, great power with great discipline, and disdain for authority with deep principles of community. In a nod to the recent past, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate Americanized ideal of noblesse oblige – doing good works by day as an industrialist and philanthropic billionaire. At night Batman is in his primal form as a modern, urban hunter – preying on the wicked and unjust in an attempt to serve and protect his village. At a personal level, I believe the Dark Knight represents for many of us the idea that the pain of our childhood – and we all had some – can be the source of our greatest works and gifts as adults. For these reasons and others, myself and a great many people have many, many, many fucks to give about how Batman is portrayed on screen.
And so I found myself that Friday morning so immersed in an effort to cope with my sadness and anger about a pretend portrayal of a fictional character that I started writing. My idea, the case I want to make, is that the early 90s Batman: The Animated Series is by far the best version of Batman ever on television and certainly better than any of the movie versions, and as such could be the basis for either an entirely new take on Batman or some kind of cinematic salvage operation on the Snyderstroyed version now inhabiting the DCEU. The resulting post got too big and unwieldy so I’ve decided to break it into four parts: part one, an introduction to the importance of Batman movies (done) and their problematic history (coming next); part two will use Zack Snyderp’s defense of his own Batman portrayal as the best possible indictment not only of BvS, but of every Batman movie before it; in part three I make the case that the only proper on screen portrayal of Batman as an American mythological figure was in The Animated Series (and some other related series and films); part four will discuss how to replace or rehabilitate the DCEU Batman in the upcoming Justice League movie and/or a solo project helmed by Ben Affleck (please Warner Bros. just greenlight the thing now, please).
Bonus: if I receive enough feedback/criticism of these posts via email and/or comments, I will compile them into a fifth post.
A pithy history of Batman movies and their problems
I present to you, on no authority whatsoever, The Latter Procedure’s concise and snarky history of Batman movies:
Tim Burton’s Goth Knight (1989 – 1992)
Tim Burton made two movies (Batman, Batman Returns) with Michael Keaton starring as Bruce Wayne / Batman. Burton is an auteur so these really are Tim Burton movies first and Batman movies second. And they’re fine, I suppose. The late 80s and early 90s are the Stone Age of superhero movies so Burton and Warner Brothers (WB) deserve credit just for trying. That said, there is nothing especially compelling about these movies and they don’t particularly embrace or eschew guns and killing. Burton’s version is an agnostic Batman based more on the director’s style than on the character’s mythology.
Joel Schumacher’s Star-Studded Shit Show (1995 – 1997)
Schumacher’s two entries in the cinematic history of the caped crusader (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin) are risible in their best moments and execrable in their worst moments – and the films are mostly made up of worst moments. It’s like the guy had never heard of Batman before seeing the Tim Burton movies, then decided to make two movies focused only on Batman’s toys, some bright colors, and a lot of souped-up and gentrified B-movie contrivances. Schumacher’s take on the caped crusader is iconoclastic in the worst possible way; I can’t imagine ever sitting through these films again.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012)
While not without problems, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) are the first movies that really made an effort to get Batman mythologically correct while also being culturally relevant beyond mere spectacle (Schumacher) or style (Burton). Nolan’s Batman eschews killing, with few exceptions, and those exceptions are mostly failures to save bad guys from themselves. He only uses vehicle-to-vehicle guns, although Catwoman does eventually use his batbike guns to kill Bane, which is a bit sketchy, but okay. The biggest flaw of Nolan’s version is that he is very much isolated in a world without other superheroes and, you know, the voice thing. Not that Batman and Bruce Wayne having different voices is a bad idea, just that the Batman voice that Christian Bale used in the films is distractingly, laughably bad. Still, compared to the films that came before, this trilogy is an immeasurably large improvement. Nolan’s take is our first doctrinaire Batman-as-mythical-figure at the movies. Good stuff.
Zack Snyder’s Pretentious Hack of Frank Miller’s Vigilante Fever Dream (2016 – ?)
On the upside, Ben Affleck does as good a job being Bruce Wayne/Batman as the material allows and he/Snyder even found a good solution to the dual voice challenge. I’ve already said my piece about the downsides in my review of Batman v Superman. Basically: Batman uses guns and kills people, flagrantly – even methodically – while also engaging in torture. This is Dick Cheney’s kind of Batman. Ripped off from inspired by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Snyder seems to have decided to begin building a new cinematic Batman around an interesting, but ultimately misguided, caricature of the caped crusader’s worst psychological maladies and political implications. The movie version is not as far out there as the version in the graphic novel, but it is pretty far out there. Snyder’s Batman is so wrapped up in the Dark that he has lost touch with the Knight.
So that’s what has happened so far. Come back tomorrow for part two – a deeper analysis of why the problems with these movies are problems and not just things some nerds don’t like.
Batman fans sound off! Do you agree? Do you disagree? Tell TLP! Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. The best responses will be added to this post or included in a follow up post.
Dear Warner Brothers, Step 1 is admitting that you have a problem. (And you do.)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Spoiler Alert: Normally I avoid spoilers in opening day movie reviews. However, something already rotten cannot be spoiled and so a lot of details about the movie are in this review. Because fuck it, it was really bad, and I need to talk about it. I know I shouldn’t write when I’m angry, but…
Bechdel-Wallace Score: 1.5/3 – There are multiple named characters in the movie that are women, but they barely ever speak to each other, and when they do it is about a man. Technically that is a 2 out of 3, but I am docking a half a point because in a two-and-a-half hour movie that has Ma Kent, Lois Lane, and Wonder Woman in it you can fucking do better. Or at least have the courtesy to officially rename the studio “Warner Bros”
Shukla Score: 0.5/3 – There are two named non-white characters in the movie. Barely. Again I docked a half point because this is 2016. Do better.
Russo Score: 0/3 – There is no LGBTQ representation in the movie. Indeed, the washed out palette of every shot in the movie, the dour mood of everyone shown, and the lack of fun in any of the proceedings all make me wonder if Snyder actually imagined an entire DC universe with no gay or queer people at all. Not even just that they’re not represented on screen, but that they aren’t even abstract beings in this new cinematic canon. On the one hand this is offensive and Warner Bros should do better, but on the other hand I don’t think I would ever wish upon LGBTQ folks that they spend any time in the grim, humorless world of Batman v Superman. It is a bitterly serious and completely square realm; a straightverse, if you will. Run away!
Kittehs: 😿🙀😾/5 – The kitteh rating is somewhat indifferent to questions of quality as it is more about engagement, but damn if I didn’t repeatedly find myself thinking about checking Facebook or sending texts or maybe live-tweeting the movie as a cry for help. The movie wasn’t just not good, it was off-putting. The first kitteh is sad because (begin so-called spoilers), the first fucking thing we see is the Batman origin, aka the murder of Mommy and Daddy Wayne. The shocked kitteh is because apparently Wayne Jr., in the Snyder version of things, didn’t develop an aversion to killing or guns when he saw his parents killed by a gun. The third kitteh is angry because fuck you, Zack Snyder. What the fuck were you thinking?
Low points: This has to be organized into a list. The usual paragraph won’t do.
Batman uses guns and kills people. Not just in dream sequences, although those are the worst of it. This is the worst part of The Dark Knight Returns. This is the part you do not adapt. I could go on about this for a while, but suffice to say this is 90% of what I am pissed about. Batman does not use guns and does not kill people. These are his laws. If you are going to dabble in modern mythology, get the basics of the mythology right. This kind of storytelling and characterization decisions isn’t just in poor taste, it is incompetent.
Man of Steel was great (and really underrated) precisely because it recognized and depicted Superman’s origin as a tragic science fiction story. Snyder managed to tell that story like a graphic novel, going back and forth between vignettes of Kal-El’s journey to become Clark Kent and his journey to become Superman. In Batman V Superman, no character development scenes last long enough to be a vignette. Instead there is a manic, intermittent kind of characterization that never gets emotionally anchored and ends up resting on platitudinous one-liners. It’s like superheroes by strobe light.
The scenes that do (sometimes) last for a whole two minutes, the action sequences, aren’t good. They’re just not. Too much cgi, too little story, too much scene changing. They’re just not good. It is a blockbuster superhero smashup movie without any good smashing up. You had one job, Batman v Superman, one job! It’s in your title!
With one exception, the meta-human cameos are all crap.
!!!Major Spoiler!!!Skip this point to avoid!!!Major Spoiler!!! Dude seriously tried to cram the start of a new Justice League, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Death of Superman all into one fucking movie? Again: WTF was Snyder thinking?!?!
Seriously was that a hipster Barry Allen I saw? Because, I mean. Yeah. /facepalm
Highlights: Wonder Woman’s entrance, the actual fight sequence between Batman and Superman, and a batmobile chase are all good action moments. There is a cool cameo from the Flash, who seems to be time traveling, that is another example of how the sci-fi notes are the only ones Snyder seems to be able to hit. The actors’ performances were really good, especially considering what they were working with. Last but not least, one big highlight that should be mentioned is that Lois Lane knows that Clark Kent is Superman. This was actually established in Man of Steel and it is still great to see in Batman v Superman. There is nothing more stupid than the “lady can’t recognize the dude she knows if he is in tights” subplot that keeps so many women in these stories not only without super powers, but looking foolish. Props to Zack Snyder for getting this one very important thing very right. (Look! I said something nice!) I will also say that I noticed that Snyder was trying to put the movie together like a comic, which I suppose he did do well, even if it actually took away from all the other good things about the movie (especially the cast).
Dad edits: Perhaps the worst thing of all – there is no way I can see this movie with my kid. For one thing, ugh, fucking Batman uses guns and/or kills people. That is just such an unbelievably shitty development and it puts this movie years away from having any use as a father/son event. Really, Warner Brothers and Snyder have created an entire DC cinematic universe that my kid – who loves the Flash and Batman above all others – won’t be able to enjoy for a long time. This is the one thing I’m not angry about, I’m sad. Not like Donald Trump “Sad!” I mean visceral, this is a genuine bummer, feel-it-in-my-belly sad.
Final Thoughts: Hey no kidding, the Justice League movie doesn’t start production until April. That is a whole week to find a new director! Get to it, WB. The first step to getting better is admitting that you have a problem. (And you do.)
[Note: There is nothing in here that can reasonably be considered a spoiler.]
Bechdel-Wallace Score: 3/3 – There are a few scenes where named, female characters speak to each other about something other than male characters, but only barely. That said, the main character seemed to me a fairly progressive take on an animated female lead. 👍
Shukla Score: 2.5/3 – Technically the movie scored 3/3, but the one interaction between two named characters voiced by African-American actors just wasn’t enough to justify a perfect score.
Russo Score: 0/3 – Well, I so wish I could give the movie something. Judy Hopps (pictured above) has gay neighbors, but I know this because I am savvy not because they identified themselves as gay (and identification is the first part of the Russo test). Then again, they would have failed the other two tests anyway as they were just there as a sort of urban-decoration to the story and were otherwise superfluous. So basically it was as little LGBTQ representation as you could have without having none at all.
Kittehs: 🙀😺😺😺/5 – Right from the beginning I was surprised how much better this move was compared to the trailers, and I stayed engaged for the entire movie (as did my kid). Maybe I just saw the trailers too many times, but if I never see an animated sloth joke again it’ll be too soon. The actual movie was a progressive social (and personal) lesson about the rewards of, and obstacles to, empathy for others and respect for differences. The lesson is delivered via a fun, funny caper set in a place where animals (mostly) wear clothes and talk. It’s great. (And yes, the sloth scene does happen, but it is over quickly… …h… …a… …h!)
Low points: The has a few highlights, but otherwise stays very level, and so doesn’t have any real low points to speak of. The Godfather rat character was the only thing to nearly qualify as a low point, but it wasn’t so bad. Oh wait! I forgot about Gazelle, that pop star. That shit was awful (but also very limited). Update: A reader emailed TLP with a snarky, and spot on, critique of Judy Hopps’ behavior as a cop in the movie. The reader was emphatic that she liked the movie a lot, but also thinks this issue needs to be considered another low point:
To prove her value her first day on the job, she hands out parking tickets like it’s 2014 Ferguson. And she TAKES PRIDE in this. Way to make the world a better place, one parking ticket at a time!
During her first investigation, she fabricates probable cause to conduct an illegal search, and later threatens the life of a witness she is interrogating. I mean, maybe I wasn’t the target audience for this film, but Jesus Christ! These are egregious violations of constitutional rights, and they’re just plain WRONG.
And while she experiences the wrath of a few residents upset over the parking tickets, there are never any repercussions for her gross constitutional violations, no discussion that maybe that isn’t the best way to approach police work, nothing. NOTHING. So yes kids, if you are in a position of authority, the ends totally justify the means.
Highlights: Idris Elba’s voice, omg. The other highlights are difficult not to discuss without spoilers, but here goes: The movie deals a lot with the fears people have about each other based on differences, the assumptions we make about each other based on those fears, and how social roles, friendships, and personal livelihoods can be significantly determined by those prejudices and assumptions. The movie also spends some time showing how even progressive, fair minded people have regressive, small minded moments and that a lot of damage can be done to relationships very quickly. Best of all, the lesson isn’t “we’re all really the same,” which is bullshit, but instead “we are all in this together and we need each other,” which is 100% true. In the real world our differences are real, but our sense separation is an illusion. This movie has several scenes that get into this humorously and/or dramatically. Good stuff.
Dad edits: Nothing at all. There is a wide range of emotional content – scary parts, sad parts, happy parts, etc – but nothing at all problematic for my 4 year old. Hell, I would have gladly watched this with him when he was 2. It’s pretty great. There are no firearms in the movie and very little violence, which is also very mild. Take all the kids. (Update: Okay I am also going to talk to the kid about proper vs. improper use of authority. Thank you, reader!)