The Dark Knight Rises, a belated review

On Sunday, 22 July 2012, I met Beruk A. and James B. at the AMC Loews Boston Common for a matinee of The Dark Knight Rises. Sadly, the superhero sequel was overshadowed by the tragic shootings in Colorado.

We enjoyed the film, which neatly wrapped up director Christopher Nolan and lead actor Christian Bale’s take on Batman. I liked The Dark Knight Rises a little more than The Amazing Spider-Man, if not as much as the four-color The Avengers.

Wallpaper 6
Nolan and Bale’s Batman comes to a conclusion

Cast: Bale is a decent Bruce Wayne, a tortured soul masquerading as a billionaire playboy. He’s not as fun as Adam West (who once called me “chum”), as slick as Val Kilmer or George Clooney, or as initially odd a choice as Michael Keaton was for the costumed vigilante.

Bale is again ably supported by older character actors in The Dark Knight Rises. Michael Caine is Wayne’s cockney and concerned butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman adds mischievous gravitas as technologist Lucius Fox, and chameleon Gary Oldman is the embattled Commissioner James Gordon.

Newcomers to this cinematic version of Gotham City include Marion Cotillard as mysterious executive Miranda Tate, Tom Hardy as brutal assassin Bane, and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as idealistic police officer John Blake. Blake becomes the audience surrogate in hoping for things to improve, even as the police as a whole are outmaneuvered.

They all did well in their roles — even if Hardy was sometimes hard to understand through his face mask — but Anne Hathaway deserves special mention for her performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

I had some doubts about the young actress, but Hathaway was properly slinky and cunning as the (never-named) cat burglar and con artist. She was believable in navigating Gotham’s seamy underbelly and its glittering galas, and she brought much-needed femininity and light to Nolan’s grim and gritty universe.

Plot: Batman Begins showed how an orphan could become an anonymous champion of justice, and The Dark Knight depicted Batman fighting grotesque villains (Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face and the late Heath Ledger’s unparalleled Joker). The Dark Knight Rises expands on both those themes and is Wagnerian in showing Batman fighting Bane and a conspiracy for the very survival of Gotham City.

Nolan tries to make the plot a complicated puzzle, but even the trailers for the movie telegraphed some of the resolution. Anyone who has read the comic book storylines of Batman: Year One, The Killing Joke, Son of the Demon, Cataclysm, No Man’s Land, and Nightfall knows what to expect.

I appreciate Nolan and Bale’s somewhat more realistic approach to Batman’s world and motivations, but the pendulum has swung very far from the cheerful camp of West’s 1960s superhero. Even the direct-to-video adaptations of DC Comics are moving to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, another obvious inspiration.

Rich felt that Nolan’s Batman isn’t as majestic or as much of a loner as he prefers, but I agree that the amount of time that passes for the desperate citizens of Gotham (and the audience) is on the long side.

I thought that The Dark Knight Rises‘ political subtext was muddled. Following Joseph Campbell’s hero pattern, the aristocratic hero must wander, reject his father figure, be humbled, triumph over his dark reflection, and then walk away or die. Other than a bus full of orphans, we see very few of the 12 million ordinary citizens whom Batman is supposedly fighting to protect.

On the other hand, there’s a populist “99%” strain to Bane’s Robespierre-style demagoguery — even if he’s just a tool of the League of Shadows. The military and police are shown as impotent, implicitly endorsing vigilantism. Granted, dressing up as a bat to fight crime doesn’t always make sense, but why bring up those points if you’re not going to fully show both sides?

Visual effects: From the opening scene of a daring aerial hijacking, The Dark Knight Rises‘ set-piece scenes were clearly inspired by the James Bond movies, which Nolan also paid tribute to in Inception. The battles of The Avengers were more cosmic and colorful, but Batman’s gadgetry and vehicles are still impressive.

Like some comic book writers and fans, Nolan’s Dark Knight is more of an urban warrior than a stealthy detective or martial artist. Perhaps this leaves room for the next set of filmmakers to interpret and develop different aspects of Batman. Even though I miss the Batman: the Animated Series of the 1990s and even the recent campy Batman and the Brave and the Bold, I look forward to the upcoming animated Beware the Batman on TV.

Soundtrack: Hans Zimmer’s score is appropriately operatic, if not especially memorable. Unlike the Marvel Universe, whose movies include relatively recent popular music, it seems fitting that DC’s iconic heroes such as Batman stick with classical.

Spoilers and ratings: Note that some of the articles I’ve linked to contain “spoilers” about the plot, but I’ll try to avoid giving anything away directly here. I can see a few ways for how Nolan’s version could have continued, but I’m also content with his conclusion to Bruce Wayne’s story.

Since Batman is the single most profitable superhero film franchise, there’s little doubt that Warner Brothers/DC Comics will reboot the movies as soon as possible, not unlike various Marvel remakes. I do wonder if they’ll be able to maintain the quality amid stylistic and cast changes. I’m cautiously optimistic about the Superman reboot Man of Steel, as well as early plans for a Justice League film (for which I’ll have to write up my own ideas). I just hope they’re fun and well-done.

I’d give The Dark Knight Rises, which was rated PG-13 for violence, three out of five stars, a B+, or a 7.5 out of 10. The only upcoming movie that’s getting buzz and I’m excited about is Peter Jackson’s planned trilogy adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In the meantime, keep tuning in, same Bat time, same Bat channel!

P.S.: Here are my Batfilm ratings:

  • 1943: Batman serials — yet to watch
  • 1965: Batman ***/B+
  • 1989: Batman **/B
  • 1992: Batman Returns **/B-
  • 1993: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (animated) ****/A
  • 1995: Batman Forever ***/B+
  • 1997: Batman & Robin */C
  • 1998: Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (animated) ***/B+
  • 2000: Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (animated) **/B-
  • 2003: Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (animated) ***/B+
  • 2005: The Batman vs. Dracula (animated) **/B, Batman Begins ***/A-
  • 2008: Justice League: the New Frontier (animated) ***/B+, The Dark Knight ***/B+
  • 2009: Batman: Gotham Knight ****/A-, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies **/B (animated)
  • 2010: Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths ***/B+, Batman: Under the Red Hood ***/B+, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse **/B (animated)
  • 2011: Batman: Year One (animated) ***/B+
  • 2012: Justice League: Doom (animated) **/B, The Dark Knight Rises ***/B+, The Dark Knight Returns (animated) coming soon
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Ennies and recent favorite RPGs

Fellow role-players, as we continue to discuss our current games and what we might play next, don’t forget to vote for this year’s Ennies! Here’s how I voted:

While I haven’t played many of these, I own several, and I’ve looked at many more products and Web sites. I explain why I chose what I did below.

RPG dice
A pile of polyhedral dice — most tabletop role-players’ fancy

Fantasy

Standouts include Paizo and others’ continuing strong support for the Pathfinder system (a.k.a. “D&D3.75”) and Obsidian Portal, whose wikis our current face-to-face and telecom groups have been using.

I haven’t yet played The One Ring, but it has impressive production value, as do supplements such as DungeonMorph’s cards and the “Mass Transit” series of maps. Many of you have received the news and Game Mastering advice I’ve forwarded from Gnome Stew and EnWorld.org. I enjoyed Rich’s “Way of the Wickedone-shot.

Modern and superheroes

I voted for DC Adventures: Heroes & Villains Vol. 1 (using D20/OGL Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Ed.) over the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game even though we’re using the latter in Jason‘s “Glassworkssuperhero miniseries. I thought Green Ronin’s relatively timeless approach to DC’s iconic characters was better than Margaret Weiss Production’s dice-intensive take on recent Marvel continuity. I’ll leave the various Cthulhu supplements to the horror authorities among us.

Science fiction

I’ve used various SFRPG supplements in developing the “Vortex” space opera, including Ashen Stars: Dead Rock Seven, Eclipse Phase: Panopticon, and Star Hero. Even though FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer has been our baseline, Bulldogs! is a much clearer presentation of similar rules.

Publishers

I’m not sure that Wizards of the Coast’s polls are the best way to get feedback for “Dungeons & Dragons Next” (5e), and Mongoose still has too many errors in its rulebooks, even if I like that it’s keeping Traveller going. Cubicle 7 has let support for Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre slip, so I voted for the publishers of my other favorite supplements of the past year.

What were your favorites? In addition, don’t forget to vote for which of my campaigns you’d like to see for the face-to-face groups in the coming year! Happy gaming, -Gene

Catching up again on comics

The Batfamily, late 2011
The "Batfamily"

In addition to celebrating the holidays and catching up on movies in the past few weeks, I picked up comic books at New England Comics, Newbury Comics, and The Outer Limits near Boston. There’s still a sense of community at these shops that no digital subscription can yet replace.

My tastes run toward mainstream superhero comics, which I’ve been sharing with college chum David I.S. in return for some indie and horror titles. Despite controversies around its revised continuity and treatment of female creators and characters, I’ve enjoyed much of DC Comics, especially its various Batman titles. Detective Comics, Batman and Robin, Batwoman, and Birds of Prey are among my favorites, with a young Superman in Action Comics and the latest attempt to refocus Wonder Woman coming close behind.

On the Marvel Comics side, I’m still following Captain America, even if I can’t keep up with the various teams of Avengers and X-Men. Of the indie comic books I’m getting or looking forward to, I like sword and sorcery (Conan, Red Sonja), high fantasy (Mouse Guard and Avatar: the Last Airbender), steampunk and pulp (Zorro), some humor (Muppets and Liberty Meadows), and science fiction (Warlord of Mars and Flash Gordon).

Dave and I are looking forward to TV adaptations of Powers and other comics and graphic novels, not to mention upcoming movies and direct-to-DVD releases such as Justice League: Doom. We’ll have no shortage of viewing or reading material for 2012!

Latest Comics Wednesday lists

From DeviantArt.net
100 comic book characters

Since today is when many comic book fans visit their local shops to get the latest issues of their favorite titles — and I’m still catching up on work and gaming notes — here’s a quick rundown of what I’m currently subscribing to.

In particular, as DC Comics’ renumbering/reboot continues, the initial reviews have been mostly positive. So far, I think the experiment has been a success at getting print and digital issues out on time, increasing awareness in the wider public, shaking up continuity, and reviving characters such as Aquaman. We’ll see whether DC can keep up its sales numbers.

Yes, several of the costume redesigns aren’t especially good (Teen Titans and Birds of Prey), there’s an emphasis on horror (Justice League Dark) over all-ages superheroes. While DC’s reboot includes a few well-written female characters (Batwoman), other titles feature blatant pandering and sexism (Red Hood and the Outlaws). Overall, however, I’m still buying and reading more DC than Marvel.

Good, already subscribed to Issue 2 and beyond:

Batfamily: Batgirl, Batman and the Brave and the Bold (animated), Batman and Robin, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Detective Comics

Other DC Universe: Action Comics (young Superman!), Aquaman, Green Arrow, Justice League, Wonder Woman, Young Justice

OK, might keep buying:

Batfamily: Catwoman, Batman, The Dark Knight, Huntress, Nightwing

Other DC Universe: Static Shock, Superman, Teen Titans, Zatanna

Dropped: Red Hood and the Outlaws

-David I.S. getting: All-Star Western, DC Universe Presents, Mr. Terrific, Resurrection Man

Not getting (doesn’t include Vertigo): Animal Man, Batman Beyond, Batwing, Blackhawks, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Deathstroke, Demon Knights, Flash, Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE, Fury of Firestorm, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Green Lanterns: New Guardians, Grifter, Hawk and Dove, I Vampire, JLA Beyond, Justice League Dark, Justice League International, Legion of Superheroes, Legion Lost, My Greatest Adventure, OMAC, Red Lanterns, Savage Hawkman, Sgt. Rock and the Men of War, The Shade, Stormwatch, Suicide Squad, Superboy, Supergirl, Swamp Thing. Voodoo

Marvel: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Captain America, Mystic

Other publishers: Conan, Doctor Who, Flash Gordon, Godzilla, Guns & Dinos, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Liberty Meadows, Red Sonja, Rocketeer Adventures, The Shadow?, Sherlock Holmes, Star Trek, Star Wars: Old Republic, Steampunk Fairy Tales/Women of Steampunk, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Warlord of Mars, Zorro Rides Again

Done/dropped: Aladdin/Sinbad, Buck Rogers, 50 Girls 50, Green Hornet, Jungle Girl, Magnus Robot Fighter, New/Mighty/Secret Avengers, Ruse, Thor, Turf, Umbrella Academy

To borrow from David I.S.: Angel & Faith/Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, Domino Lady, Echo, Farscape, Firefly/Serenity, Ghostbusters, Knights of the Dinner Table, Mystery Society

Trades only: Age of Bronze, Astro City, Girl Genius, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Mouse Guard, Powers, Wizard of Oz

What are you reading, and why?

My Justice League, Part 3

The animated Justice League
The Justice League Unlimited

 

As DC Comics‘ renumbering continues, here’s more of my take on an ideal Justice League. This is by no means the only way to approach that superhero team, but it’s more of a tweak than the current overhaul being given to that fictional universe. I’m still catching up on the new continuity (three weeks of issues have already come out).

I’ve tried to pick an interesting assortment of characters with varied powers and personalities. Since my version is shaped partly by the needs of my role-playing campaigns, I’ve stated that the current wave of metahumans has been publicly known for about 10 years, rather than the currentDCnU‘s” five. This gives more breathing room for supporting casts, elements from the past 70 years’ worth of stories, and multiple teams, without making the core members too old.

I’ve already named shrinking scientist the Atom, magician Zatanna, winged warrior Hawkgirl, shapeshifting telepath Martian Manhunter, martial artist Black Canary, and archer and social conscience Green Arrow. Here are my remaining six picks:

Like Hawkman and his convoluted backstory, Aquaman has been the butt of jokes for his ability to communicate with sea life. However, I’ve always thought that Aquaman was cool, from his days with the Superfriends and his crossover duel with Namor, Marvel’s Submariner, to his recent strong participation in Justice League Unlimited and Batman and the Brave and the Bold. Like Wonder Woman, animators seem to have had an easier time unifying Aquaman’s personality and demonstrating his prowess than many comic book writers.

Arthur Curry is not only the Justice League’s environmental champion, but as king of Atlantis, he has responsibilities and experience that few can match. Whether he’s “Conan of the sea” with long hair and a hook hand or wearing the gold and green scales, Aquaman should be regal, mighty, and just a bit playful. His protégés include Tempest in the Titans, Aqualad II in Young Justice, and possibly Animal Man. In addition to his wife Mera, Aquaman would get along well with Princess Diana of Theymiscira.

The Flash is the fastest man alive, with Marvel’s Quicksilver an analogue for the onetime police scientist. I’d use the recently resurrected Barry Allen, who’s a contemporary of most of my other choices. While other heroes have families and sidekicks, Barry’s relationships are especially close, with Jay Garrick in the Justice Society, Wally West in the Titans, and Bart Allen in Young Justice.

The Flash‘s sense of loyalty, strong moral compass, and creativity make him close friends with Hal Jordan/Green Lantern and Superman, but the speedster’s impatience may occasionally grate on Batman and Aquaman’s nerves. Arguably one of the most powerful metahumans in the DC universe, the Flash is the resident expert in time travel (backed up by Booster Gold in Justice League International).

Speaking of the JLI, while I’d put Guy Gardner on that team, John Stewart is my choice for Green Lantern on the Justice League. Sure, he could occasionally swap places with Hal Jordan when one or the other has a mission in deep space, but Stewart’s military background, ethnic diversity, architectural ability, and pangs of conscience make him an interesting addition. Stewart’s straightforward attitude would be an asset in working with the Flash and Batman.

With Alan Scott on the Justice Society and Jade in the Titans, Stewart would be the resident expert in alien invasions, occasionally putting him at odds with exiles Superman, Hawkgirl, and Martian Manhunter. As cosmic energy wielders, members of the Green Lantern Corps are similar to Marvel’s Thor or Silver Surfer. Green Lantern could also be a mentor to Firestorm and Static Shock in Young Justice.

The final three members should come as no surprise. Wonder Woman is the Justice League’s supreme tactician (similar to Ms. Marvel in the Avengers) and is nearly as powerful as Superman. Wonder Woman‘s mother, Queen Hippolyta, could have served with the Justice Society during World War II. Diana’s “sisters,” Donna Troy/Troia Cassie Sandsmark/Wonder Girl, would be on the Titans and Young Justice, respectively, with Artemis as occasional backup and foil.

Wonder Woman is a role model for all superheroines, but even for her, the expectation of perfection would be hard to live up to. I figure that her optimism, desire for peace, and toughness would be reasons enough for her to get along with just about everyone in the league. I also think that Wonder Woman would be the Justice League’s first choice as diplomatic representative to world governments.

On the strategic side, Batman keeps the Justice League working. Bruce Wayne is responsible for the team’s satellite Watchtower, training numerous up-and-coming vigilantes such as the Outsiders, and trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. Similar to the acrobatic Captain America on the battlefield, inventive Iron Man in the workshop, and brilliant Sherlock Holmes as a detective, Batman stands equal to his superpowered allies, if often in the shadows.

Batman’s protégés are equally impressive, with Nightwing leading the Titans, Red Robin in Young Justice, and Oracle helping both the Justice League and the Birds of Prey. His focus on the streets of Gotham is similar to that of Spider-Man or Daredevil in New York City. Bruce is serious and reserved, occasionally annoying Barry, Ollie, and Hal, but Diana and Clark are close enough to know and like his true self.

Superman, the first modern superhero, should be the standard-bearer and unofficial leader of the Justice League. He’s a powerhouse like Marvel’s Hulk, a natural authority like Captain America, and has a cool cape like Thor — or rather, they have those qualities like the last son of Krypton. Superman‘s foes, such as Lex Luthor, Darkseid, and Brainiac, are worthy challenges to the entire superhero community.

Although Superman doesn’t typically have sidekicks, he does have family such as Karen Starr/Power Girl with the Justice Society, Kara/Supergirl with the Titans, and clone Connor Kent/Superboy with Young Justice. Superman‘s moral certitude might irritate Batman or Green Arrow even he inspires them and others. I don’t mind if “big blue” is a “boy scout”; his extraterrestrial origin and sheer strength of muscle and will are more than balanced out by his Midwestern regular-guy charm and desire to defend and — be a part of — humanity at all costs.

Of course, superheroes are only as good as their opposition. Even a pantheon of 12 and assorted sidekicks and spinoff teams can’t be everywhere at once in a world with almost 7 billion people. Natural disasters, common criminals, supervillains, and the occasional alien or mystical attack should be more than enough to keep the Justice League busy, not to mention rivalries within their own ranks.

In the DC Universe Online MMO and my “Societe de Justice Internationale” scenarios (using GURPS Supers and D20 Mutants & Masterminds/DC Adventures), it’s cool when Player Characters get to meet a “named” character. However, they have to feel like they can make a positive difference. I hope that any version of the Justice League in print, TV animation, games, or live-action retains that sense of camaraderie and fun while saving the world… Whom would you pick and why?