Beginning Batman: An alternative to the DCnU

The DCnu Batfamily

As the mainstream news media continue covering DC Comics’ relaunch of 52 titles, the initial reviews have been positive, despite fan misgivings over the revamped continuity. Here’s how I would handle Batman, Warner Bros./DC’s most profitable franchise and one of the most recognizable superheroes in the world.

~1939: Thomas Wayne born? (See my blog post about shifting Superman’s origin by a generation.)

~30 years ago: Bruce Wayne is born to Thomas and Martha Wayne, wealthy physicians in Gotham City. The family fortune is a combination of old real estate (including Wayne Manor), savvy early biotech investments, and occasional shady dealings. The Waynes are also noted philanthropists, eventually running afoul of some of the megalopolis’ underworld.

~22 years ago: After attending a screening of the classic Zorro, Thomas and Martha are gunned down in a random mugging by Joe Chill in front of their son. Bruce is raised by family butler and head of security Alfred Pennyworth — a former street urchin, British intelligence officer, and thespian. Dr. Leslie Tomkins, another friend of the family, offers condolences. Bruce swears vengeance against all criminals (not merely Chill, who he’ll encounter later but comes to a bad end on his own). He also vows never to use guns or take a life.

~10 years ago: A prodigy, Bruce Wayne graduates from university with degrees in business, engineering, and criminology. He travels the world, honing his skills for his private war on crime, which continues to fester and grow in Gotham. He has a revelation that “criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot” and takes on a bat totem (whether it’s a utilitarian disguise; inspired by Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Die Fledermaus; or from a bat crashing through a study window can be left open to individual interpretations). Bruce also meets Zatanna, daughter of a famous stage magician who was friends with his father.

~9 years ago: The urban myth known as the Batman has begun stalking Gotham’s streets, working his way up the food chain from street thugs, drug dealers, and pimps to various gang leaders. Even as other costumed vigilantes are inspired by Superman, garish villains begin to arise in Gotham and elsewhere. A few thrill seekers, like Selina Kyle/Catwoman, toe the line between altruistic hero and selfish villain. Even as Bruce dons the guise of a billionaire playboy, he supports worthy causes, such as a clinic run by Tomkins in what’s become known as “Crime Alley.” Lucius Fox, head of Wayne Enterprises, learns of Bruce’s dual life and initially helps him acquire or develop his many “toys.”

~8 years ago: Partly inspired by the Justice Society, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman form the Justice League to handle global crises and provide a community for superheroes. (DC’s new official continuity puts this only five years ago or less, rather than eight — or 50 — years ago.) Meanwhile, 12-year-old Dick Grayson loses his parents, the Flying Graysons, when mobster Tony Zucco makes good on extortion threats to Haley’s Circus. With wary approval from Lt. James Gordon, whose daughter Barbara is about the same age, Bruce adopts Dick (and soon begins training him as Robin I). Barbara soon joins them as Batgirl I. While dealing with Middle Eastern intrigue, Bruce unknowingly fathers a child, Damian, with Talia al-Ghul.

~5 years ago: After co-founding the Teen Titans, Robin I eventually becomes Nightwing. Fourteen-year-old Jason Todd, who tried to steal the wheels from the Batmobile, becomes Robin II. Batman trains the Outsiders for covert missions that the Justice League can’t or won’t handle. Villains become more vicious, and Todd is apparently murdered by the Joker. Soon after, Gotham suffers from plagues, cultists, and an earthquake, and Bruce’s back is broken by Bane.

~4 years ago: Bruce works hard to recover and takes back the cape and cowl from religious zealot Azrael. Gotham City rebuilds, but corruption quickly returns as well. Thirteen-year-old Tim Drake, who has figured out Bruce and Dick’s secret identities on his own, is taken in as Robin III and joins Young Justice, which includes understudies to the (now-young adult) Titans, the revived Justice Society, and the Justice League. Like their mentor, the various Robins are able to hold their own, even when surrounded by metahumans, by virtue of training and wits.

~2 years ago: Dick and Barbara graduate from college, and Barbara becomes Oracle after being shot by the Joker in psychological torture against Commissioner Gordon. Oracle leads the Birds of Prey, including Huntress, Black Canary, and successive Batgirls Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown (who was also Spoiler and briefly Robin IV).

~1 year ago: Tim becomes Red Robin, and Damian becomes Robin V. During a lengthy absence by Bruce (out of time, technically, but offworld or abroad is also fine), Dick fills in again as Batman. Jason returns, but now as Red Hood, eschewing Bruce’s vow of nonlethal measures. Kate Kane, a 25-year-old relative of Bruce and former U.S. Marine, puts on a new uniform as Batwoman.

~Present day: Bruce Wayne/Batman is about 30 years old, at the peak of his abilities. He is obsessive but not obsessed, clinical but compassionate, and indomitable. He is the scourge of supervillains and an inspiration to numerous street-level masked crimefighters. Dick Grayson/Nightwing is about 20 and a talented acrobat and team leader. Barbara Gordon/Oracle is a master hacker, strategist, and support for the Justice League, “Batfamily,” and Birds of Prey.

Detective Tim Drake/Red Robin is 17 and leads Young Justice. The bratty Damian is 8 (going on 18) and trying to live up to his father’s legacy while avoiding his grandfather and mother’s preferred destiny as an assassin. Martial artist Cassandra Cain is Batman’s covert agent on the West Coast and in Asia, and Stephanie Brown is still debating whether to be Spoiler or Batgirl.

Yes, most of this somewhat simplified and rearranged Batfamily timeline follows the recently ended continuity more closely than “pre-Crisis” history or the current “DCnU.” It compresses events from the past 70 years without setting Gotham in any specific period. I tried to fit each character into a consistent setting.

In fact, this is the background I’d use for my “Societe de Justice Internationale” superhero scenarios with DC Adventures/Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Ed. From it, I can extrapolate the ages, rosters, and relationships of the rest of the DC universe. What do you think?

As for individual titles, I’d have Batman focus on Bruce Wayne’s dual life in Gotham City and with the Justice League (the first DCnU issue that’s out), Tales of the Dark Knight on out-of-continuity stories (horror/sci-fi Elseworlds, alternate futures such as Batman Beyond, etc.), and Batman and Robin on Bruce and his protégés.

Detective should focus on solving mysteries rather than punching supervillains. Related DCnU Batfamily titles include Batgirl, Batman Beyond, Batwing, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Catwoman, Huntress, Justice League, Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Teen Titans/Young Justice, and Zatanna. I expect DC Comics to take a different direction, but I look forward to checking at least the first issues of each of these titles. Batman lives!

Cowboys & Aliens review

Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig
Indy and Bond

On Sunday, 31 July 2011, Janice and I met Josh C., Thomas K.Y., and Thomas’ girlfriend Kai Yin at the Showcase Cinemas at Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts, for Cowboys & Aliens. Jon Favreau’s western/science fiction mashup was fun, if not especially original.

Loosely based on an independent comic book, Cowboys & Aliens follows amnesiac Jake Lonergan as he finds himself caught between a small-town sheriff, an angry cattle baron, and his former band of bandits. Complicating matters is a mysterious woman who seems to know more about a manacle on his wrist than he does, a gold mine, hostile Indians, and unearthly kidnappers!

James Bond’s Daniel Craig is the laconic Lonergan, and he is supported by an all-star cast, including Keith Carradine as Sheriff Taggart, Harrison Ford as cattle baron Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, and Tron Legacy‘s Olivia Wilde as the alluring Ella Swenson. Highlander and Superman: the Animated Series‘ Clancy Brown is preacher Meacham, Moon and Iron Man 2‘s Sam Rockwell is barkeep Doc, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee‘s Adam Beach is Native American scout Nat.

These actors elevate the film from a mere shoot-’em-up to a full-blown popcorn flick (if not at the box office, where Cowboys & Aliens tied with the unnecessary Smurfs movie). I enjoyed seeing Indiana Jones face off with James Bond and the cast and crew’s obvious enjoyment in riding horseback and blowing up alien invaders.

Just as Thor substituted Norse deities for Stargate‘s Egyptian ones, so too does Cowboys & Aliens tap into District 9‘s aliens and body horror, Unforgiven‘s gritty West, and Stargate‘s sense of adventure. Like this past spring’s Rango, which combined computer-animated talking animals with western tropes, Cowboys & Aliens is an alternate-history romp that manages to avoid the steampunk excesses of Wild, Wild West or Jonah Hex, even as it draws on the same clichés.

I’d give Cowboys & Aliens, which is rated PG-13 for violence, three out of five stars, a “B+,” or 7.5 out of 10. After his successes with Iron Man, Favreau continues to inspire confidence with his choice of workmanlike direction rather than the quirky stylings of Burton, Tarantino, del Toro, or Rodriguez. That said, the extended trailer for the sword-and-sorcery Conan the Barbarian was the only preview that was memorable.

Cowboys & Aliens reminded me of my favorite sessions of Boot Hill, Tim M.B.‘s GURPS “Arth,” Castle Falkenstein, Deadlands (arguably the best fit), and my own GURPS Steampunk/D20 Etherscope: “Gaslight Grimoire.” Back in grad school, I also ran a scenario for GURPS 3e Supers: “Visor and the Seer” using GURPS Old West involving time travel.

Coming soon: More Comic-Con roundups, games, and travel!

Captain America movie review

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers

On Sunday, 24 July 2011, Janice and I returned to the Showcase Cinemas at Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts, for Captain America: the First Avenger. I’m pleased to report that the latest movie adaptation from Marvel Comics is one of the best genre movies so far this year and could be one of my favorite superhero flicks ever!

Director Joe Johnston is no stranger to World War II and action films, with experience in the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Rocketeer franchises. Despite some anachronistic costumes and dialogue (not counting the deliberately science fiction premise and villains), Johnston keeps a steady hand on the proceedings.

For those not familiar with one of the older and more popular comic book heroes, Steve Rogers is a runty kid from Brooklyn who seeks to serve his country and is given a chance to do so by scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine. Turned into the super soldier Captain America, Rogers fights Nazis before being trapped in ice and finding himself in our era, decades later, surrounded by modern superheroes.

The First Avenger is faithful to the comics of Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Ed Brubaker, and Steve Epting. In fact, the work of the latter two brought me back to reading some Marvel titles. Actor Chris Evans, who played the cocky Johnny Storm/Human Torch in the Fantastic Four flicks, is properly virtuous and a blank slate for his physical transformation from a skinny street kid into the buff war-bonds salesman and eventual combat leader. It wouldn’t be Cap if he didn’t get to sling his trademark shield.

Evans is initially overshadowed by the performances of veterans Tommy Lee Jones as the gruff Col. Chester Phillips and Stanley Tucci as the humane Dr. Erskine. He later is supported by Sebastian Stan as sniper sidekick Bucky Barnes, Dominic Cooper as inventor Howard Stark (father of Iron Man‘s Tony Stark), and Star Trek: First Contact‘s Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan of the Howling Commandos. Hayley Atwell (from The Prisoner remake) as comely Peggy Carter and Natalie Dormer (from The Tudors) as minx Priv. Lorraine are among the few women who get to interact with Rogers.

The visual effects are good, especially in the beginning of the movie, where Evans’ face is transposed on a slight-framed body in Depression-era New York. I did notice some blue- or green-screen lighting in later scenes, but the requisite explosions, slow-motion combat, and airborne stunts were all decently rendered. A motorcycle chase scene, attempted train heist, and flying wing all pay homage to the other franchises that Johnston has worked on. The instrumental soundtrack evokes the jazz age but isn’t especially memorable.

Captain America‘s story moves easily from stateside to overseas. Richard Armitage (Guy of Guisborne in the BBC’s recent Robin Hood and Thorin Oakenshield in the upcoming Hobbit) is a Nazi assassin. He is soon surpassed in villainy by Toby Jones (from Doctor Who) as meek scientist Arnim Zola and Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, and V for Vendetta) as Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. the Red Skull and mad leader of Nazi splinter group Hydra. Their ambiguous fates, however, were refreshing for what could have been a uberpatriotic plot.

As with Thor and other recent Marvel origin stories, Captain America is somewhat predictable and obviously leads into next year’s Avengers (stay after the closing credits for a preview). The alternate-history war movie, which reminded me of Inglorious Basterds, leaves enough room for Capt. America to have flashbacks in future films.

Overall, Disney/Marvel has continued its winning streak, staying ahead of rival DC Comics in live-action adaptations. I’d give Captain America, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an “A-,” four out of five stars, or an 8.5 out of 10. I liked it a bit more than Green Lantern or Thor, if not as much as the 1978 and 1980 Superman films.

In other superhero news, I’ve watched the first few episodes of SyFy’s Alphas, which combines the ordinary people with powers from Heroes and No Ordinary Family with the covert teams from various espionage shows. It’s decent — I’d rate it a “B-” so far, but I doubt it’ll last.

Even as Marvel’s Super Hero Squad and DC’s Young Justice have yet to return, I’m looking forward to this week’s premieres of the anime-style Iron Man and Wolverine on G4, to eventually be joined by Blade and yet another incarnation of the X-Men. I expect Season 2 of The Avengers to be the strongest of these cartoons.

Also premiering this coming weekend is the Thundercats revival, whose previews gave me a good Avatar: the Last Airbender vibe. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will be getting another computer-animated makeover, similar to Star Wars: Clone Wars and Bruce Timm‘s upcoming Green Lantern TV series.

DC is holding onto its lead in direct-to-video cartoons, however, with Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, among other projects announced at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. So many superheroes, so little time! And I haven’t even touched actual comic books or RPGs based on them yet!