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

Latest Comics Wednesday lists

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?

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!

Superman, DC redux

Justice League revised
The DCnU Justice League

A few months ago, the editorial management at DC Comics announced plans to renumber or relaunchbut notreboot” — its fictional universe. Characters would be de-aged, costumes redesigned, and relationships shaken up. Most of the initial reactions from fans, competitors, and the mainstream news media were negative, but I want to wait and see if DC’s moves can renew interest in its iconic superheroes or if the changes are costly missteps in entertainment’s ongoing migration online.

The cornerstone of the DC universe has always been Superman. DC has had to react to lawsuits from the heirs of creators Siegel and Shuster, who were among the numerous writers and graphic artists who were poorly treated by the companies that made billions of dollars from their creations.

I understand the desire of Warner Brothers and Disney to hang onto profitable intellectual properties, but it’s a shame that popular characters Batman, Mickey Mouse, and Sherlock Holmes can’t enter the public domain.

Today marks the beginning of DC’s updated continuity. Sure, I wish that some things hadn’t changed. For example, I would have preferred that Clark Kent/Superman & Lois Lane and Oliver Queen/Green Arrow & Dinah Lance/Black Canary — not to mention Peter Parker/Spider-Man & Mary Jane Watson — had stayed married.

I also would rather that DC’s Jason Todd and Marvel’s Bucky Barnes had stayed dead rather than experience dubious resurrections, and that Barbara Gordon, paralyzed in The Killing Joke, continued to lead the Birds of Prey as the savvy Oracle rather than revert to Batgirl and displace Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown.

On the other hand, given the serial nature of comic books (and television and movies), periodically “hitting the reset button” makes sense. Despite the popularity of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Beyond, I generally don’t want to read about the adventures of an old Bruce Wayne or his protégés, so keeping our heroes forever young requires tinkering with continuity. Here’s how I’d handle Superman:

There are a few ways to recalibrate the timeline of the last son of Krypton, and by extension, the entire DC universe. Rather than use parallel universes, convoluted continuity, or an inconsistent mix of time frames, I’d do something like what I recommended for Wonder Woman.

-Kryptonians age differently. What if Kal-El had arrived in during the Great Depression? Clark Kent could have learned traditional values in Smallville, Kansas, observed World War II as a youth, and participated in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. What would Superman have done during the U.S. troop deployments in Southeast Asia or in the Middle East?

If he’s still at the height of his powers, Superman could help found the Justice Society and the Justice League, plus marry Lois Lane, anytime in the past few decades. In DC’s Multiverse, similar Supermen existed in the Earth 2 of Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Elseworlds such as Kingdom Come. However, this doesn’t help determine evergreen timelines for anyone else.

-Always the present: Marvel Comics has been fairly successful with this sliding timeline. For example, Tony Stark is a wealthy industrialist who turned from producing weapons to being an armored vigilante as Iron Man. Did the ambush and injuries that awakened his altruism happen in Vietnam or Afghanistan? When did he help create the Avengers — the 1960s or the 2010s? Whenever suits the current readership. This had the advantage of keeping past storylines in the vague backstories, but the buildup of history can be like barnacles on a boat, dragging down creativity and making stories less accessible to new readers. Hence Marvel’s Ultimates line and DC’s “softreboots.

-Fathers and sons: I find this idea somewhat intriguing, because it reflects the multiple generations of readers, fans, and characters. Instead of beginning his career or being born in 1938, what if Superman’s father and stepfather were both born that year? Jonathan and Martha Kent could be of the generation that remembers the Great Depression and World War II, as well as the U.S.’s supposed halcyon days of the 1950s before societal turmoil in the 1960s and ’70s.

Disclaimer: My parents were born in the 1930s, so I can identify with this as a reader and writer, but I also think this possible timeline can help ground Superman’s values. Speaking of values, I’d want the tone of Superman to be lighter than for Batman or the X-Men, and more grounded than the Fantastic Four. Thor or Captain America (or a good Spider-Man) are closer in mood.

If Jor-El was also born in 1938, and he and Lara had Kal-El around the age of 40, the destruction of Krypton could have happened in 1978, the year of Christopher Reeve’s seminal cinematic portrayal. For the kindly Kents to be middle-aged and wanting but unable to have children, putting them in their 40s makes sense.

Clark would have grown up during the 1980s and 1990s, a solid product of the Midwest even as smaller family farms became endangered. Around 2000, he would have finished college, traveled the world, begun mastering his abilities, and moved to Metropolis to work at the Daily Planet in the last gasp of print newspaper popularity. This is similar to Birthright in the comics and Lois and Clark and Smallville on television.

In the past decade, Superman would have become aware of technocratic nemesis Lex Luthor, helped found the Justice League, and inspired many other heroes — and villains — to don colorful costumes (perhaps inspired by the Justice Society of many decades prior). At 33 in 2011, he would be reaching the prime of his powers, like an NFL quarterback.

Pa Kent would have died of a heart attack around the age of 65 — long enough to have guided his son to adulthood, but early enough to be traumatic. I’d make Lois Lane about the same age as Clark but impatient, accomplished, worldly, and ready for a relationship, even if she wouldn’t admit it. Clark’s secret identity should be at least a little believable. In the end, I’d recommend a balance between the revised timeline and the timeless approach. The revised official continuity, or “DCnU,” states that Superman has been active for only five years.

While I don’t think that Superman’s origin story should be endlessly rehashed, a universal starting point is helpful to new writers and fans. As Marvel has often done, I’d start each new issue, TV show, or movie with a concise retelling a la Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman: “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.” New stories could start from that timeless point.

As for costume and abilities, I’d try to keep them simple. The new movie and relaunched comics use an overly textured, militaristic look, but I prefer the blue-collar (but not dumb) hero of the 1940s. I’m not a fan of the “ribbed for your pleasure” look that started with Raimi’s Spider-Man and has continued through Superman Returns and the Star Trek reboot to this past summer’s Green Lantern and Captain America. (The black leathers of the Matrix, X-Men, and Batman Begins — and the upcoming Catwomanhave also become just as clichéd as the bright, ill-fitting spandex of previous live-action attempts.)

The red briefs on the outside (now omitted) may resemble those of a circus strongman or a professional wrestler, but that’s kind of the point — Superman is powerful and direct, not an ironically cool or an angsty poseur. Kal-El is an alien who has taken it upon himself to defend humanity, not someone who needs armor, intimidation, or shadows to cloak his role as a beacon of hope.

Superman should be “faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” but he doesn’t need to be able to erase minds with a kiss, reverse the Earth’s orbit and time, or be strong enough to lift entire cities or the moon.

Kal-El can have “cousins” such as Kara Kent/Supergirl and Karen Starr/Power Girl and a clone in Connor Kent/Superboy, but he should still be the last direct survivor of Krypton as well as the alien who eventually most identifies with humanity (in contrast, say, to J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, or others).

The man of tomorrow should be smart enough to deal with weird science but not afraid to roll up his sleeves to smack down supercriminals, common thugs, corrupt politicians and businessmen, dictators, mad scientists, metahuman menaces, and alien horrors.

Kryptonite, magic, and his human heart should remain vulnerabilities. Many of Superman‘s villains are humans twisted by greed, ambition, belligerence, and selfishness, the opposites of his virtues and manifestations of our own darker sides.

Superman should still be the benchmark against which we measure all other superheroes, not just for powers, but also for their dedication to the “never-ending struggle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Let’s hope that those working on the DC Comics and Warner Bros. refreshes remember, don’t mess with the S!