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Josh Reviews Batman: The Long Halloween Parts One & Two!

The latest direct-to-DVD/blu-ray DC animated film is a two-part adaptation of Batman: The Long Halloween. This comic book story was originally published as a 13-issue mini-series back in 1996-1997, written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Tim Sale.   The story is set soon after the events of Batman: Year One, the re-telling of Batman’s origin written by Frank Miller and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli in 1987 (and subsequently adapted into a pretty excellent animated film in 2011).  In The Long Halloween, we follow the development and then destruction of the friendship and alliance between Batman, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent.  As the story opens, the three men – the vigilante, the Police Commissioner, and the District Attorney – agree to work together to take down the mobs that control Gotham City.  Over the course of the story, which takes place over a full year, we witness the transition of Batman’s villains from mobsters into colorful supervillains… as well as Harvey’s descent into madness and transformation into Two-Face.  Weaving among all this, we see all of the characters in the story seeking to identify the mysterious Holiday Killer stalking Gotham, who commits a new murder on each holiday.

The Long Halloween is a famously great Batman story, so it was ripe for adaptation.  While I myself am not the hugest fan of the original comic book series (I got a little impatient with the storytelling, and I found the ending to be a bit of a letdown), I for sure acknowledge that it’s a much-loved story, and I was excited to see what an animated adaptation might look like.  The folks at Warner Animation made a terrific choice to stretch this adaptation into two films, giving the story plenty of room to breathe.

The result is one of the best of these DC animated films in years!  (Or TWO of the best, if you want to count the two parts separately!)  I thoroughly enjoyed this two-part adaptation of Batman: The Long Halloween.  It’s an excellent, very faithful adaptation of the original comic.  I was impressed with the way that the filmmakers molded the original story to work as a (two-part) film, making changes that I felt mostly strengthened the film.  Allowing this story to be told over two films gave the story the room it needed to flesh out and develop the characters and give the drama time to build.  One of the main conceits of the original story was that it took place over the course of a whole year, and this two-part adaptation gave the story the time required to maintain that structure without feeling rushed or edited down into just a Cliff’s Notes version of the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Batman: Soul of the Dragon

Batman: Soul of the Dragon is one of the most interesting DC animated direct-to-DVD/blu-ray films to come down the pike in the past several years.  This out of continuity story features Bruce Wayne/Batman and other (relatively obscure) DC characters in a 1970’s style martial arts action movie.  It’s a hoot!

The story is set in the seventies.  Bruce Wayne is just beginning his crimefighting career in Gotham City.  As the film opens, we meet Richard Dragon, an ass-kicking James Bond type, albeit one who uses martial arts.  Richard is on the trail of an evil secret snake cult called Kobra.  It turns out that Kobra is seeking the key to an ancient evil, one that is connected to Richard and Bruce’s shared past as younger men, when they trained together in the secret city of Nanda Parbat.  Also at Nanda Parbat, years ago, were Lady Shiva and Ben Turner (Bronze Tiger).  The four surviving students of their dead sensei must now reunite to combat this rising menace.

Soul of the Dragon is enjoyably dripping with seventies vibe!  The music, the outfits, the locations, all combine to give this movie a wonderfully retro feel.  I love how the film was able to incorporate aspects of Denny O’Neil’s classic martial arts DC comics from the seventies, as well as other movies from that era.

The film feels far more like a classic James Bond spy film than it does a superhero adventure, and I love it for that!  The movie wisely keeps Batman and the other characters in their civilian clothes for most of the movie.  It’s a great choice, one of many stylistic aspects that sets this animated film apart from the usual way these DC animated films play out.

That Bond movie approach is front and center right from the start of the film’s terrific opening sequence, a very James Bond-like opening in which Richard Dragon fights bad guys and then parachutes onto a yacht with girls in bikinis.  I thought that was hilarious and a great way to open the movie.

I liked that Richard Dragon, more than Bruce Wayne/Batman, was the main character in the film.  (Actually, there’s part of me that wishes Batman wasn’t in this movie at all, and that Richard could have been 100% the lead.  I understand they need Batman’s involvement to market these animated films, and I do love all the Batman/Bruce Wayne stuff in the movie.  Still, it would have been interesting to have allowed Richard, along with Shiva and Ben Turner, to carry the movie on their own.)  Richard Dragon is a cool character, and Mark Dacascos is very strong in the role.  I quite liked every member of the film’s … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Joker

October 23rd, 2019
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Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and written by Mr. Phillips and Scott Silver, tells the origin of the famous Batman villain, the Joker.  However, this take on the Joker is almost entirely divorced from the Batman comic mythos, and it is also completely separate from all of the recent DC Universe films from Warner Brothers.  This stand-alone tale tells the story of a loner named Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who longs to be a star on the late-night television show of Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro.  Arthur lives with his ailing mother and struggles to get work as a performing clown.  The film charts his descent into madness and violence, and the chaos stirred up in his wake.

Joker represents an interesting and somewhat unusual approach to take, and frankly I am of two minds about it.  I am all-in on a serious, adult take on superheroes.  I loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which were dead-serious in their approach to Batman and his world.  Joker is an even deeper dive into the psychological underpinnings of a Batman character, the titular Joker.  I love that about the film, and I think it succeeds in presenting a very disturbing look at this character and how he might have emerged in a world that feels very much like our own.  On the other hand, just as I wasn’t interested in a movie about Spider-Man villain Venom in which Spider-Man didn’t appear (I skipped 2019’s Venom), while watching Joker I found myself often thinking that this felt like only half a film.  As much as I was enjoying the journey towards the creation of the Joker, I often felt like I was missing the Batman side of the story.

The strongest aspect of the film is Joaquin Phoenix’s tremendously compelling work as Arthur Fleck.  Mr. Phoenix paints a viscerally gripping picture of a slowly disintegrating man.  There is not a whiff of cartoonishness or over-the-top stylization in this performance.  Mr. Phoenix plays things totally, hauntingly real.  Even in an otherwise grounded superhero film, there’s usually the point in which the hero or villain makes the choice to put on a costume, and we’re in the land of fantasy.  But Joker never goes there.  Arthur Fleck never transforms into what you’d expect a super-villain to look like.  This is the film’s power.  As we see this man break, and slip into delusion and violence, it’s all the more painful because it all feels real.  Mr Phoenix’s performance is terrifying and unhinged.  I have often complimented Mr. Phoenix for the way he adjusts his physicality for his different roles; that skill is on impressive display here, as he has somehow contorted his … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Latest DC Animated Film: Batman and Harley Quinn

The character of Harley Quinn is extremely popular these days, with a much-loved solo series published by DC comics and a leading role in the recent (terrible) Suicide Squad film.  And so it’s not a huge surprise that the folks behind the series of DC direct-to-DVD/blu-ray movies would want to put Harley at the forefront of the latest new animated adventure.  What made this of more interest to me was the involvement of Bruce Timm, one of the key creative voices behind Batman: The Animated Series and the co-creator of Harley, along with Paul Didi, for Batman: TAS back in the day.

In Batman and Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy and another plant-based villain, the Fluoronic Man, have teamed up with a mad scheme to transform all of humanity into plant-based creatures.  Batman and Nightwing turn to Ivy’s former friend and confidante Harley Quinn to help find and stop her.

I love that this film returned to Bruce Timm’s classic Batman: The Animated Series character design style — I vastly prefer this to the over-designed look of most of the recent DC animated films.  And it’s a pleasure to hear Batman: The Animated Series veterans Kevin Conroy and Loren Lester back voicing Batman and Nightwing.

But unfortunately that’s about the only good thing I have to say about this new animated film.

The tone is all over the place.  There are times when the film feels like it’s trying to be a noir mystery, like Batman: The Animated Series was at its best.  But at other times it veers into wacky comedy that is a) usually not funny and b) wildly incongruous with the attempts at drama that surround those moments.  Some of the drama actually works.  There’s a moment in which Harley grieves at the unnecessary death of a scientist, and it is genuinely moving.  But it’s undermined by the wacky shenanigans that came before.

Unfortunately, the film is filled with the type of juvenile jokes and sexual innuendo masquerading as “adult” content that has plagued so many of these recent DC animated films (and the live-action ones as well!).  Watching Harley slink around in a nightie in the classic Batman: The Animated Series episode “Mad Love” was sexy and adult.  Watching Harley strip down to her undies and wiggle her barely-clad butt in Nightwing’s face in this film was, well, kind of gross.  (Just look at this screencap.  Or, better yet, don’t.)  That Nightwing and Harley seem to have sex at the start of the film feels wrong for a lot of reasons, and it throws off-balance the bantering between the Batman-Harley Nightwing threesome for the rest of the film.  The Harley character has often been wildly … [continued]

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Josh Actually Doesn’t Hate the Extended “Ultimate Edition” of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice!

So, yeah, I wrote a pretty scathing review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and also of the DC follow-up film Suicide Squad.  I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d be in any sort of rush to watch Batman v Superman again any time soon (or even ever).  But when I read that Warner Brothers was releasing a new cut of Batman v. Superman (I’m just refusing to keep writing out Dawn of Justice, OK?) with almost thirty minutes added into the film, I found that, despite myself, I was intrigued.  Thirty minutes is a lot of additional footage.  Was it possible that this longer cut salvaged the mess that I had seen in the theatre?  I doubted that this was a Kingdom of Heaven situation (in which a truncated to the point of being almost nonsensical version was released to theatres and was rightfully savaged by critics as being terrible; and then when Ridley Scott’s much-longer director’s cut was released to DVD we all discovered that the film was, lo and behold, almost a masterpiece), but was there a chance this longer version might salvage the film?  I was dubious but, like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe.


Well, I am pleased to report that the “Ultimate Edition” of Batman v Superman is actually, wait for it, not entirely terrible!  It is actually sort of almost OK.

Most of the major flaws of Zack Snyder’s film remain.  The film almost completely misunderstands the characters of both Batman and Superman, turning Superman into a dopey, wishey-washy moron and Batman into a criminal-murdering crazy-person.  The film’s version of Lex Luthor is lame and criminally disappointing.  The way glimpses of all the Justice League characters are inartfully shoehorned into the movie is painful, and Batman’s long dream/vision/whatever of a future in which Darkseid controls Earth and Superman is his lackey is head-scratchingly confusing and totally out of place stuck in the middle of the film.  The entire extended climax is a disaster, in which Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman don’t talk to one another at all while spending an inordinate amount of time punching an ugly, horrible CGI creation and Superman sacrifices himself for no reason when Wonder Woman (who doesn’t happen to be deathly allergic to Kryptonite) could have easily killed Doomsday with that spear.

But the new material provides a lot of useful connective tissue for the film’s various interwoven stories, and at last I can understand what Zack Snyder’s vision was for the film: a dark, complex epic that attempted to blend the ultra-serious and “grounded” approach that Christopher Nolan used so successfully in his trilogy of Batman films with more of an embrace of large-scale super-powers … [continued]

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The Force Awakens and News Around the Net!

So the new Star Wars film is going to be called The Force Awakens?  Sigh.  Someday I would love to be really EXCITED by the announcement of a new Star Wars title.  While The Force Awakens is certainly a better title than The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, it seems very nondescript and bland.  It also seems to imply that somehow the Force has been asleep or not present during the events of the previous six films, which puzzles me.  What’s most interesting is that this new film is no longer being referred to as Episode VII.  I am all for dropping the numbers — I prefer subtitles over numbered sequels, and at a certain point the high sequel numbers just get silly.  But it means the new “main” trilogy won’t be distinguished from the spin-off films that are also being worked on.  That is likely Disney’s intent, as they wouldn’t want those spin-off films to be seen as any less important than the “main” films.  (Though I suppose it’s also very possible that the film will still be identified as Episode VII in its opening crawl.  We should remember that, for the Original Trilogy, the episode numbers weren’t really used in the advertising of the films, including their logo designs and posters.  They were only identified as Episode IV, Episode V, and Episode VI in their opening crawls.  It was only with the prequels that the episode number became so prominently incorporated into the titles and logo designs of the films.  Hmmm.  It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out with Episode VII.  I do very much like the idea that J.J. Abrams and his team are returning to the approach used by the Original Trilogy when it comes to the episode numbers.)

Speaking of Star Wars, this is fun: five minor actors from the original Star Wars trilogy who you didn’t realize were in everything you liked.

Who doesn’t love spending a little time reading about The Shawshank Redemption?

I wasn’t at all interested in NBC’s live telecasts of Peter Pan or The Sound of Music.  But A Few Good Men?  I’m in!!  Boy I hope this happens, and with a great cast.  You want me on that wall.  You NEED me on that wall!!

This is cool: as an alternative to the hideously ugly U.S.S. Enterprise re-design from J.J. Abrams’ films, here is a very cool looking, fan-designed, souped-up version of the Big-E that hews very closely to the ship’s original design from the Original Series.  Matt Jefferies’ design from the sixties ain’t broken, friends.

This is a great, fun interview clip with Benedict Cumberbatch.  Behold his perfect Jar Jar … [continued]

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Batman: Assault on Arkham

September 12th, 2014
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I have soured recently on the DC Animated direct-to-DVD/blu-ray releases, and I’m afraid their latest release, Batman: Assault on Arkham, does little to change my general impression that this line of animated films has lost its way.

This film had a few things going for it off the bat (no pun intended).  One, it was a separate tale from the new continuity of animated films (begun in the horrible Justice League: War and continued in the not quite as bad but still not that good Son of Batman).  It also featured the return of a few of the classic voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series and the Bruce Timm-run shows that followed, most notably the great Kevin Conroy as Batman (for me, THE definitive voice of Batman) and also C.C.H. Pounder as Amanda Waller.

On the downside, this film was set in the continuity of the Arkham video games, something in which I have little interest.  I am pleased to say that the film totally stands on its own — there weren’t any points where I was confused or felt that I needed to have played those games in order to understand the story.  On the other hand, I wonder if this story would mean more to people who had played the games, since for me I was left rather cold.

Assault on Arkham is interesting in that the story is told, not from Batman’s point of view, but that of the villains.  The Suicide Squad is a group of villains who have been assembled by Amanda Waller to undertake black-op, off-the-books missions.  In this case, they need to break into Arkham Asylum in order to recover the Riddler’s question-mark-shaped cane, in which he has hidden valuable data he stole from Ms. Waller.  (This whole concept of using unstable super-villains to do your dirty-work seems crazy to me, but the Suicide Squad has long been a popular concept in the DC comics.)

I like the idea of a Batman story told from the point of view of the villains, I just wish the villains were more interesting.  (Assault at Arkham pales unfavorably to the last season of Justice League Unlimited, which also spent a lot of time telling stories about the villains.  The penultimate episode of that show ONLY featured the villains, and it was phenomenal, one of the best episodes of the series.  I can’t say the same for Assault on Arkham.)

I also have the same complaint I have had about the last few animated films, in that it has some bad language and some sexual content/references that are supposed to feel adult but to me just feel out of place and juvenile.  … [continued]

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“I am the Night” — Music From Batman: The Animated Series!

I can’t believe that Batman: The Animated Series is over twenty years old.  Oy vey, that means I am getting pretty old myself!  I immediately loved Bruce Timm’s animated Batman series, and as a kid I watched and re-watched those episodes incessantly.  To this day, I think that Batman: The Animated Series remains the finest on-screen depiction of Batman, and so many of the show’s versions of Batman’s familiar supporting cast and cadre of villains still stand as the most iconic, most definitive version of those characters.

One of the many ways in which Batman: The Animated Series excelled was in its gorgeous music.  Overseen by Shirley Walker, each episode of the series had its own fully-original, scored-by-an-orhcestra soundtrack.  The music of the series was so rich and expressive and memorable.  It was a HUGE element of the series’ success.

Back in 2009, I was delighted by La-La Land Record’s 4-disc CD collection of music from the series.  Click here to read my thoughts on that release.  The CD set was labeled “volume 1,” leading me to hope that a “volume 2” would be on its way.  Sure enough, last year La-La Land released volume 2, and I must say I think this collection is even stronger than the first.

Disc One — This first disc begins with music from “Beware the Gray Ghost,” the wonderful episode in which 1960’s Batman Adam West portrays Simon Trent, an actor who years earlier played a Batman-like TV superhero “The Gray Ghost,” who inspired Bruce Wayne as a boy.  I love how the peppy “Gray Ghost” TV theme heard in track 2 turns forlorn and mournful when we catch up with washed-up actor Simon Trent in the present day.  This theme becomes a haunting motif that runs through the rest of the episode.  The two-parter “The Cat and the Claw” (which, although it was the fifteenth episode made was actually the first episode aired — I remember watching it that first night!) begins with a great four-and-a-half minute-long piece of music (track 13) that scores the depiction of Batman and Catwoman’s first encounter.  It’s a great piece of music that introduces the show’s playful Catwoman theme.  In track 33 on the disc, which contains music from the Scarecrow episode “Nothing to Fear,” it’s interesting to hear Shirley Walker quote Danny Elfman’s Batman theme from Tim Burton’s Batman movie.  Then, a little later in that episode, in track 37 we hear the Elfman Batman theme transition into the Batman: The Animated Series Batman theme, which is very cool!  The disc concludes with music from “Heart of Ice,” one of the finest episodes of the entire series (it was written by Paul Dini, … [continued]

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Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic Part 7: The Devil’s Daughter

It’s taken me many months, but I have at last arrived at the end of my project re-reading Grant Morrison’s seven-year-long Batman epic.

You can follow these links to read my previous reviews of the last several years of Batman stories: Part 1 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, part 2 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, Batman: The Animated series’ Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics, the post-death-of-Bruce-Wayne stories that culminated in Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, the re-launch of the Bat-books under the Batman: Reborn bannerPart 3 of Grant Morrison’s run, the launch of the new Batman and Robin seriesPart 4 of Grant Morrison’s run, Time and the Batman, Part 5 of Grant Morrison’s run, The Return of Bruce Wayne, The Long Road Home, the story of the return of Bruce Wayne to life and the DCU, and Part 6 of Grant Morrison’s run, Batman Incorporated.

I am excited to dive into an analysis of the end of Mr. Morison’s story, issues #1-13 of Batman Incorporated volume 2.  But first, a warning: there are spoilers ahead.  There is just no way to discuss this final run of issues without talking about some of the major plot twists.  I will try not to spoil every single twist and turn of the stories, but I’m going to have to mention a few of the big events.  These developments are, I think, pretty well known to comic book fans, even if they didn’t read these specific issues.  But still, fair warning: SPOILERS ahead, so proceed at your own risk.

In the middle of the final arc of Grant Morrison’s storyline, the DC Comics universe was completely rebooted, re-starting all of its series back at issue #1 and re-starting all of its characters and their story-lines.  This “New 52” universe-wide reboot was intended to be a massive blank slate for all of DC’s characters, so that they could tell new stories, unburdened by decades of continuity.  Unfortunately, Grant Morrison’s long-running story was just nearing its conclusion!  What would happen?

Well, his Batman Incorporated series was cancelled and re-started with a new #1.  Fortunately, DC editorial seems to have been willing to turn a blind eye to what Mr. Morrison was doing in his series, and while this new Batman Incorporated title was theoretically set in the “New 52” rebooted continuity, it’s actually way more complicated than that.  The most major plot twist in the story, the death of Damian Wayne, was referenced in all of the other “New 52” Bat-books, which dealt with the impact on the Bat-family on Robin’s death.  So, in that respect, the events … [continued]

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Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic Part 6: Batman Incorporated

Back in 2006, Grant Morrison began writing DC Comics’ flagship Batman title.  Now, seven years (and two title changes) later, Mr. Morrison’s epic Batman saga has concluded.  Over the past six months I have had a heck of a time re-reading Mr. Morrison’s story from start to finish, along with a lot of the other Batman comics written in the past few years before the DC Comics universe-wide reboot called “The New 52.”

You can follow these links to read my previous reviews of the last several years of Batman stories: Part 1 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, part 2 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, Batman: The Animated series’ Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics, the post-death-of-Bruce-Wayne stories that culminated in Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, the re-launch of the Bat-books under the Batman: Reborn bannerPart 3 of Grant Morrison’s run, the launch of the new Batman and Robin seriesPart 4 of Grant Morrison’s run, Time and the Batman, Part 5 of Grant Morrison’s run, The Return of Bruce Wayneand The Long Road Home, the story of the return of Bruce Wayne to life and the DCU.

Mr. Morrison had killed of Bruce Wayne in Final Crisis, the DC-wide crossover miniseries he masterminded, settling off a major re-shuffling of all of DC Comics’ Batman books.  In the newly-launched Batman and Robin title, Mr. Morrison chronicled the exploits of the new Batman-and-Robin team: Dick Grayson (the former Robin who had become his own solo super-hero Nightwing, before assuming the mantle of the Bat following Bruce Wayne’s death) and Damian Wayne (the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia — the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul — from the 1987 graphic novel Son of the Demon by Mike W. Barr and Jeremy Bingham, a tale that had been considered out-of-continuity until Mr. Morrison’s story).  But, of course, it wasn’t likely that Bruce Wayne would stay dead for long, and sure enough, after just a little over a year, Mr. Morrison wrote the return of Bruce Wayne in the mini-series titled, creatively, The Return of Bruce Wayne.  Published simultaneously, Mr. Morrison brought many of his long-running story-lines to a head in the pages of Batman and Robin, as Dick Grayson and Damian confronted the villainous Dr. Hurt (a silly villain from the ’60s who Mr. Morrison brought to prominence in his story-line, making him a credible threat to our heroes despite his goofy name) and were reunited with Bruce Wayne.  In the final pages of Mr. Morrison’s last issue of Batman and Robin, we see Bruce Wayne call a press conference to reveal that he has … [continued]

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Batman: The Long Road Home

I’ve been having a grand old time, over the past six or so months, re-reading Grant Morrison’s years-long Batman epic, as well as many of the other Batman stories published around the same time, in the last few years of DC Comics’ pre-“New 52” continuity.

You can follow these links to read my previous reviews of the last several years of Batman stories: Part 1 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, part 2 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, Batman: The Animated series’ Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics, the post-death-of-Bruce-Wayne stories that culminated in Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, the re-launch of the Bat-books under the Batman: Reborn bannerPart 3 of Grant Morrison’s run, the launch of the new Batman and Robin seriesPart 4 of Grant Morrison’s run, Time and the Batman, and Part 5 of Grant Morrison’s run, The Return of Bruce Wayne.

DC Comics killed off Batman in their 2008 company-wide crossover Final Crisis, but just a little over a year later Bruce Wayne returned in the six-issue mini-series creatively titled The Return of Bruce Wayne.  (Both those stories were written by Grant Morrison.)  This set the stage for the final act of Mr. Morrison’s Batman saga: Batman, Incorporated, which I will be writing about soon.  The return of Bruce Wayne set about another large re-shuffling of the other Batman books.  While Grant Morrison’s tale got a lot of attention, there were some great stories being told in the other books and, in a bizarre turn, by the time DC Comics re-launched their entire comics universe in “The New 52,” Mr. Morrison’s Batman story had been shifted to the sidelines.  (More on that when I write about Batman, Incorporated, soon.)

Bruce Wayne: The Long Road Home — Setting the stage for the post-Return of Bruce Wayne stories, DC released a series of one-shots, spotlighting different characters in the Batman universe.  I like the idea of giving some attention to the Bat-universe’s many supporting players, and certainly the hook of taking this opportunity to show how Bruce Wayne’s return affected these other characters, and updating the audience on their current status quos, was a good idea.  The execution left a little something to be desired, as the story that connected the one-shots, of Bruce donning a new costumed identity so as to spy on and evaluate all of these other characters, seemed a little dopey to me.  Bruce Wayne has ninja-like training, so he could certainly observe other characters without being seen if he wanted to.  The reasoning for him to create another identity and get involved in the goings-on seemed flimsy to me.  … [continued]

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Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic Part 5: The Return of Bruce Wayne

September 6th, 2013
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My re-reading of Grant Morrison’s years-long Batman epic continues!  You can follow these links to read my previous reviews of the last several years of Batman continuity: Part 1 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, part 2 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, Batman: The Animated series’ Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics, the post-death-of-Bruce-Wayne stories that culminated in Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, the re-launch of the Bat-books under the Batman: Reborn banner, and then Part 3 of Grant Morrison’s run, the launch of the new Batman and Robin series, and Part 4 of Grant Morrison’s run, Time and the Batman.

As I wrote about last week, Mr. Morrison was giving out long-withheld answers in three story-lines being published simultaneously in three different comic book series: Batman and Robin, Batman, and the mini-series The Return of Bruce Wayne.

The Return of Bruce Wayne At the end of Final Crisis, we saw that Batman had not been killed by Darkseid’s Omega beams.  Instead, he was somehow transported to the dawn of time (actually, in a clever bit of DC Comics continuity, Batman found himself in the time of Anthro, the “first boy” from a DC Comics series in the 60’s).  The events of R.I.P. The Untold Story in Batman #701-702 gave us a little more information on how that came to be.  In this six-issue mini-series, writer Grant Morrison set about telling the tale of how Bruce Wayne would manage to return to the present day.

The premise of this mini-series is silly on the surface: that Bruce Wayne was sent back in time to pre-history, but is jumping through the centuries on his way back to present day.  Andy Kubert’s covers to each issue playfully render Batman in different time-frames: neanderthal Batman, pirate Batman, Puritan Batman, 1960’s private eye Batman, etc.  Grant Morrison’s story, thankfully, is far more serious, playing up the mystery of what is happening to Bruce Wayne and why, as well as the dread of the terrible danger that apparently is waiting for Bruce Wayne once he arrives in the future.

Each issue was illustrated by a different artistic team.  The first few issues, in particular, are gorgeous, illustrated by Chris Sprouse, Frazer Irving, and Yanick Paquette & Michael Lacombe.  The art seems to deteriorate a bit in the last few issues — I get the feeling the series was rushed to completion, which is a shame after such a high-quality artistic beginning.  (Ryan Sook does a fantastic job illustrating issue #5, but the last third of the issue is drawn by someone else, nowhere near as good.)

I was surprised by how much I … [continued]

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Let’s begin the day with this phenomenal article from badassdigest.com about how Optimus Prime’s death defined a generation of kids.  Do you want to understand the depths of my geeky heart?  Then read that article.  My parents wouldn’t let me see Transformers: The Movie in theatres, but I was allowed to rent it on video.  I didn’t cry, but I was shocked by the brutal deaths of all my beloved characters in the film’s opening minutes.  When Optimus Prime bought the farm I was changed forever.  I had loved the Transformers before, but one viewing of Transformers: The Movie sealed that flick’s place in my heart forever.  “Megatron… must be stopped.  No matter the cost.”

Boy, those crazy guys and gals at badassdigest.com have a direct line into my psyche these days, because while the experience of seeing Transformers: The Movie was seminal, so too was my discovery of Voltron.  This magnificent article examines the mysterious origins of Voltron, a show that combined and repurposed several different Japanese cartoons.  Oh my lord I loved Voltron.  The continuity of that show — the way story-lines flowed from one episode to the next — was a staggering discovery to me as a kid, and I fell in love hard.  To this day, I have a love for long-running continuing stories in any media (Movies, TV, books, comic books, etc.), and I think that began as a kid when I discovered Voltron and Robotech…

I just discovered Jerry Seinfeld’s web-series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and it is magnificent.  I love stand-up comedy and I loved Seinfeld, so no surprise I think this series of shorts of Jerry hanging out with his very funny pals is phenomenal.  With this project, Seinfeld has inched even closer to truly having made a show about nothing.  Genius.  I have already watched them all.  If you haven’t seen this, click on the above link immediately.

Want to watch Ewan McGregor tell a hilarious story about filming the Star Wars prequels?  Jump to 7:50 below:

So far I am very, very excited for next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.  My only cause for worry?  The film’s very unimpressive redesign of the Sentinels.  I wish they had stuck a lot closer to the classic, iconic original design by John Byrne.  The Sentinels aren’t just any robots, they have a very specific look, and this isn’t it.

As for this summer’s X-Men movie, I have already written my review of the good-but-not-great new Wolverine solo film, The Wolverine.  Click here for a fascinating interview with Chris Claremont, who shares his thoughts on the film.  Chris Claremont didn’t create the X-Men or Wolverine, but in … [continued]

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Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic Part 3: Batman & Robin

Grant Morrison began spinning an epic Batman story, back in 2006, one that is only now, in mid-2013, wrapping up.

You can follow these links to read my previous reviews of the last several years of Batman continuity: Part 1 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, part 2 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, Batman: The Animated series’ Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics, the post-death-of-Bruce-Wayne stories that culminated in Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, and the re-launch of the Bat-books under the Batman: Reborn banner.

Now, after some digressions reading the various other Batman series of the time, written by other authors, it is time at last to return to Grant Morrison’s story.

Following Batman: R.I.P. and his killing-off of Batman in Final Crisis, Mr. Morrison launched a brand-new Batman book: Batman and Robin.  This book would follow the new Batman, former Robin and former Nightwing Dick Grayson, partnered up with the new Robin, Damian Wayne (the son of Bruce Wayne from the 1987 graphic novel Son of the Demon, a story long-considered to be out of continuity until Mr. Morrison included the character in his run on Batman).

Batman Reborn (Batman and Robin #1-3) — The new series launched in fantastic style as Mr. Morrison was reunited with his frequent collaborator, Frank Quitely.  Mr. Quitely is an artistic genius, and he is able to draw some of the most fantastic super-hero comics that I have ever seen.  His super-detailed but slightly off-kilter design work is the perfect complement to Mr. Morrison’s stories. Together they are able to create a book filled to the brim with almost unparalleled weirdness, but also one that is fiercely compelling.  I love Mr. Quitely’s redesigned flying Batmobile (introduced in spectacular style in the double-page splash at the start of issue #1).  I love the way he incorporated his sound effects into his artwork.  I love the “Next in Batman and Robin” panels on the last page of each issue that preview the following issue.

Grant Morrison’s story is at once more fun than any of the other stories being told in the Bat-books of the time, and also far more serious.  I have often commented on Mr. Morrison’s ability to bring a true sense of danger into his super-hero comics.  He is able to create a world in which terrible things can and do happen, and that gives his stories a sense of tension that most other super-hero comics lack.  The last two pages of issue #1 are a great example of this.  In this terrifying two-page sequence, we see the horrific Mr. Pyg burn a pig-mask onto the face of a … [continued]

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News Around the Net: Comic-Con Edition!

Lots of cool news coming out of Comic-Con this week!

Let’s begin with the hilarious Game of Thrones “In Memoriam” video:

Look!  It’s Caesar and his Ape Council!  Awesome.

The Simpsons is going to do a crossover episode with Family Guy?  Awesome!  Even more exciting?  The Simpsons is also going to do a crossover with the cancelled-again Futurama!!!  Oh boy I can’t wait for that.

Speaking of crossovers, in news that I found VERY surprising, DC/Warner Brothers have announced that the follow-up to Man of Steel is going to be a Batman/Superman film.  As much as I love all the allusions, in the announcement, to the seminal Superman-Batman grudge match in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (and I love the Frank Miller-inspired Batman/Superman logo that you’ll see if you scroll down this article) I must confess to not be so excited that they are rushing into a crossover film.  I felt that Man of Steel had a lot of flaws, but it was a terrific reintroduction of Superman.  I’d love to see them get a little deeper into exploring this new incarnation of the character, before throwing him into a Batman crossover film.  Plus, since it seems clear that Christian Bale will not be reprising the role, wouldn’t it be weird to introduce a new Batman in this crossover film, without a stand-alone film of his own under his belt?  The whole thing feels to me that they are rushing things in order to combat Marvel’s success with The Avengers.

Still, if done right, a Batman/Superman film could sure be awesome.  I must admit that despite my qualms, there is some geeky excitement there.

I feel similarly about Marvel’s announcement that The Avengers 2 will be called Age of Ultron The deadly, humanity-hating robot Ultron is a classic Avengers villain, and the thought of seeing him realized on film should be tremendously exciting.  And it is, for sure.  It’s just that I am really thrown for a loop since after seeing Thanos at the end of The Avengers, and with the cosmic Guardians of the Galaxy set as one of Marvel’s Phase 2 films coming before Avengers 2, it seemed like Marvel was setting the stage for a big cosmic story with Thanos as the main bad-guy.  I thought that was such an awesome plan.  I am very uncertain, now, as to how Ultron is going to play into all that.  Is Thanos going to be held until The Avengers 3?  That is a looong way away!

Adding to my uncertainty is the specificity of the subtitle of Age of Ultron.  That is actually the title of a Marvel Comics crossover series that … [continued]

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Following the much-ballyhooed death of Bruce Wayne in Final Crisis, in 2009 DC Comics re-launched all of their Batman books, with former-Robin Dick Grayson assuming the mantle of Batman, while young Damian Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s son as seen in Son of the Demon from 1987, and brought into modern-day DCU continuity by writer Grant Morrison) became Robin.

You can follow these links to read my previous reviews of the last several years of Batman continuity: Part 1 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, part 2 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, Batman: The Animated series’ Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics, and the post-death-of-Bruce-Wayne stories that culminated in Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?.

Batman #687-691Batman #687 is a stand-alone issue, written by Judd Winick and illustrated by Ed Benes and Rob Hunter.  It covers pretty much exactly the same ground as the three-part Battle for the Cowl mini-series (and rather more effectively).  We see our characters’ grief over the death of Bruce Wayne (such as the powerful moment in which Alfred tells Superman and Wonder Woman that “my son has died”), and we see Nightwing’s resistance to stepping into the cape and cowl, and ultimately his acceptance of the role of Batman.  Long-time Marvel comics illustrator Mark Bagley (who had terrific, lengthy runs on The Amazing Spider-Man and then on Ultimate Spider-Man, one of the longest uninterrupted runs ever) joins Mr. Winick for Batman #688-691, in which we see Dick Grayson’s early days in the role of Batman.  We see the differences in style between Dick Grayson’s Batman and Bruce Wayne’s, and we see Dick’s attempts to forge a partnership with the difficult, stubborn Damian.  More interestingly, at least to me, is that we see the villains’ reactions to this new Batman — specifically Two-Face, who notices immediately that this new, more-smiley Batman must be a different man than the Batman he had known.  I love Two-Face’s plan for utilizing that knowledge, and I think Mr. Winick gave him a clever scheme for gaining access to the Bat-cave.  Mark Bagley’s art was solid, and I was sorry that he didn’t continue as regular artist on the book.

Detective Comics — Amidst the re-shuffling of the Batman: Reborn story-line (the banner given to all of the post-death-of-Bruce-Wayne Batman books), Greg Rucka returned to Detective Comics (Mr. Rucka had written a memorable run on the book several years earlier), replacing Paul Dini.  But rather than telling new Batman stories, Detective Comics now focused on the new Batwoman character who had been introduced in DC’s weekly series, 52.  Lavishly illustrated by J.H. Williams III, this run of Detective Comics quickly became my favorite Bat-book, … [continued]

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Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

What started as an attempt to re-read Grant Morrison’s weird, epic, years-long run on Batman (which began back in 2007 and is just now wrapping up) has expanded into a more thorough re-reading of the last few years’  worth of Batman continuity.  It’s been fun!

Click here for Part I of my re-read of Grant Morrison’s run, and click here for Part 2.  Click here for my thoughts on Batman: The Animated Series’ Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics, a terrific read that ran parallel to Mr. Morrison’s run on Batman.

When last we left Mr. Morrison’s story, the six-part Batman: R.I.P. and the Morrison-written DCU crossover series Final Crisis (click here for that review)  had left Bruce Wayne dead, killed by Darkseid.  This lead to a major re-shuffling of all of the Batman books published by DC Comics.

I am not someone who gets too bent out of shape when one of the major publishers kills off one of their main characters.  Obviously I know it’s not going to last forever.  The question is, does the “stunt” of knocking off a main character lead to great new stories, or does it just feel like a lame attempt to drum up publicity and boost sales?  Let’s see what I thought of DC’s post-death of Bruce Wayne stories:

Last Rites (Detective Comics #851 & Batman #684) — Following Grant Morrison’s terrific Last Rites story-line (in Batman #682 & 683 ), long-time Batman writer, the great Denny O’Neil, returned to write this two-part story.  I was excited to read a new Batman story by Mr. O’Neil, the man responsible for some of the most seminal Batman stories ever written (he created Ra’s al Ghul with Neal Adams in Batman #232), but sadly this story-line was just eh.  It mostly focuses on a new super-heroine character, and feels like a completely separate story that was shoe-horned into the post-Batman R.I.P. continuity.  Spectacular Alex Ross cover on Batman #684, though!

Faces of Evil — The next month saw a DC-wide publication hook in which all the books temporarily focused on the villains, rather than the heroes.  In Detective Comics #852 & Batman #685, Paul Dini focused on Hush and Catwoman, picking up the story-limes from his phenomenal Heart of Hush storyline in Detective Comics (which I wrote about here).  Hush has been defeated and is near death, but after having altered his face to resemble that of Bruce Wayne, Hush discovers an incredible opportunity, since the real Bruce Wayne is out of the picture.  Attempting to pass himself off as Bruce Wayne, Hush briefly seems to be on a path back to his lost fortune, but … [continued]

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Re-Reading Batman the Animated Series’ Paul Dini’s Run on Detective Comics!

I am digging deep into some old Batman continuity, friends!  After starting a project to re-read Grant Morrison’s years-long run on Batman (click here for part one, and click here for part two), I decided to also re-read some of the other Batman comics of that era.  Parallel to the beginning of Mr. Morrison’s run on Batman, Paul Dini, one of the major creative forces behind Batman: The Animated Series (still my favorite non-comic book depiction of Batman), took over Detective Comics.  Right now I am having a heck of a time re-reading Mr. Dini’s run on Detective!

While most comic books of the day favored lengthy, multi-issue stories (something that is still the case today, a style which I quite enjoy when done well), Mr. Dini took the opposite approach.  In a deliberately retro choice, Mr. Dini decided to tell a series of done-in-one single issue stories.  This is a surprisingly difficult task to do well.  To introduce a compelling mystery and/or character story-line, provide several twists and turns for the reader and complications for our hero, and then to resolve everything in a satisfying conclusion, all within the span of just twenty-two pages is fiendishly difficult.  Mr. Dini, thankfully, proves a master at this form of story-telling.  Each issue is a little gem all of its own, an entertaining Batman short-story.

I was particularly heartened to see how seriously Mr. Dini took the comic book’s title.  This isn’t Batman, this is Detective Comics.  Almost every one of Mr. Dini’s stories has a mystery aspect, in which the Dark Knight Detective must use his brains, far more often than his fists, to solve the mystery and foil the villain’s plot.  I love this more cerebral take on Batman.  There are super-villains galore in Mr. Dini’s run, and there are certainly some great fight scenes.  But the joy of each issue is in the slow unraveling of each new mystery, as the reader races with Batman to solve the caper.

Mr. Dini’s run gets off to a terrific start in Detective #821, illustrated by the great J.H. Williams III.  In my post about Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, I commented that the Black Hand three-parter (in Batman #667-670) was my first exposure to Mr. Williams’ amazing art, but I now see that I was wrong, as I definitely read Detective #821 first.  All of the characteristics of Mr. Williams’ spectacular work is on display: the brilliant way he shifts his art style to differentiate different characters and different situations, his dynamic page-layouts (including some particularly jaw-dropping double-page spreads), and a gorgeous, lushly painted depiction of Batman himself.  I wish Mr. Williams had illustrated more than … [continued]

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Re-reading Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic — Part Two

Last week I began my look back at Grant Morrison’s years-long run on Batman!  His run got off to a great start, but then things got a little shaky:

The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul — this storyline crossed over through Batman, Detective Comics, Robin, and Nightwing.  I was very excited to read Grant Morrison’s take on Ra’s al Ghul, but this crossover was a huge disappointment.  The artwork on all off the titles ranged from terrible to atrocious, really downright embarrassing for such high-profile DC titles.  In addition to being just plain bad, the artwork is completely inconsistent from issue to issue, with, for example the look and costumes of Ra’s and Talia being totally different from issue to issue.  (In one issue, Ra’s is a decomposing zombie in tattered rags, in the next he looks pretty normal just with some bubbles on his skin.)  I understand different artists having different styles, but this is ridiculous.  And the storytelling is totally inconsistent as well, with, for example, Grant Morrison writing Damian as an arrogant little bastard, while some of the writers on the other books depicted him as being far more sympathetic.  (And all sorts of other snafus such as Damian escaping from Ra’s’ men at the end of Batman #670, and then the next issue, Robin #168, opening with Ra’s’ men reporting that they lost Batman.  Who they weren’t even chasing!!)  And ultimately, most damningly, the crossover amounted to nothing at all.  Rather than being the Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul, as it was titled (which I had assumed would mean the return of Ra’s to prominence and significance in Batman stories moving forward), in the story’s epilogue in Detective Comics #840, Batman easily defeats Ra’s and takes him off the board.  What a waste!  What, then was the point of that whole story??

Batman # 672-675 —  Tony Daniel, who took over drawing Batman during the Ra’s al Ghul crossover, continues as the series’ artist, a real disappointment to me.  I was let down at the time, and I still am, that Andy Kubert only drew seven issues of this run with Mr. Morrison.  I never cared for Tony Daniels’ artwork, I found it messy and lacking in clarity.  I wonder if I would have enjoyed this part of Mr. Morrison’s Batman run more had a higher quality artist been illustrating it.  It’s a big what-if for me.  In these issues, Mr. Morrison returns to the weird story he had been spinning several issues earlier, when he introduced the the imposter Batmen and the black casebook.

In these issues, one of the imposter Batmen attacks police HQ.  When Batman intervenes, the impostor shoots Batman in the chest, … [continued]

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Re-Reading Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic — Part One

March 25th, 2013
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After completing my big project of catching up on Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern saga, I decide to dive back into another DC Comics epic: Grant Morrison’s long run on Batman.  Mr. Morrison took over the Batman title back in 2006, and he’s been spinning a long, complex Batman yarn on and off ever since.  (His story appears to be in its final stages in the pages of Batman Inc.).   Unlike Green Lantern, I followed this story as it was published, and have re-read many of the individual issues ever since, but I always felt this story would be best enjoyed when read all together, as a whole.  It’s been… well, interesting, to say the least!

Batman # 655-658 — This first four-part story, illustrated by Andy Kubert, starts things off strong.  Mr. Morrison is one of the best writers out there at writing a dynamite first issue, and his first Batman story is no exception.  Issue #655 kicks things off with all kinds of crazy moments, starting with Commissioner Gordon getting poisoned by the Joker and thrown off of the roof of the Gotham Police HQ, and then Batman shooting the Joker right in the head.  Oh yeah, and then Mr. Morrison finally brings the seminal but usually ignored 1987 graphic novel Son of the Demon, by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham, into continuity by reintroducing the son Bruce Wayne fathered with Talia, the daughter of the crime-lord Ra’s al Ghul.

Its a really strong opening, and the issues that follow are also very entertaining.  There’s all sorts of madcap craziness with Talia’s army of man-bat ninjas, and a bravura sequence in issue #656 in which Batman fights the man-bats in the middle of a modern pop-art gallery.  There are lots of Roy Lichtenstein-style paintings drawn into the backgrounds of the panels, and the old-style comic-booky captains and thought balloons drawn into those paintings in the background serve as a funny running commentary to the main story being played out in the foreground.  It’s a very clever piece of work.

The centerpiece of the story is the introduction of Batman’s son, Damian, an arrogant pup who is nevertheless a brutally efficient warrior, having been trained since birth by the League of Assassins.  This is a bold new direction in which to take a Batman story, that’s for sure, and Mr. Morrison makes a nice meal out of it in these early issues.  It’s fun to see how this little terror makes everyone in the Bat-family crazy, particularly Robin (Tim Drake).

But while these issues are very strong, the seeds of problems that will bug me more as Mr. Morrison’s run continues can be seen even here.  Specifically, unneeded … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Part 2)!

February 11th, 2013
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DC’s series of direct-to-DVD animated films stepped up to the plate big-time, recently, by taking on direct adaptations of two of the greatest comics that DC ever published.  Both were written by Frank Miller.  The first was Batman: Year One (click here for my review of that adaptation) and the second was The Dark Knight Returns.  In 1986, Frank Miller wrote and drew this seminal story, one that has continued to powerfully influence Batman stories in the comics and on film ever since.  On the surface, the plot is simple: following the death of Robin, Bruce Wayne gave up the guise of Batman.  But as Gotham City sinks into crime and despair, Wayne once again picks up the cape and cowl in an attempt to free Gotham of crime.  This is the Last Batman Story that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises so desperately wanted to be.  Mr. Miller’s graphic novel is a work of genius, a brilliant take on Batman elevated by his complex, nuanced storytelling and gorgeous, unconventional artwork and page layouts.  It’s one of my very favorite graphic novels.

To give their adaptation the room to breathe, in a very cool step, Bruce Timm and his team decided to release this adaptation in two parts.  Part One was a very solid effort.  (Click here for my review.)  It’s not a home run — I wish that they had used the voice actors from the original Batman: The Animated Series, and I wish the animation was of a higher quality.  (I recently picked up the blu-ray edition of Batman: Return of the Joker, and I found the animation in that 2000 animated film to be superior to all of the recent direct-to-DVD DC animated projects.  I wonder why that is?)  There were a few key moments that I felt that got wrong in Part I of the adaptation, and it seemed to me that many of the layers in the narrative were lost in favor of a more straight-forward telling of the story.  But I was still very entertained by the pleasingly faithful adaptation.  I thought it was a very solid effort, and even a straight-forward telling of this incredible story is extraordinarily entertaining.  I suspect that anyone who has never read the original graphic novel will be blown away by this grim, intense Batman story.  Those of us who worship the graphic novel will be entertained, though less impressed because for everything the adaptation got right, we are cognizant of the layers that were lost.

Part II of the animated adaptation is pretty much exactly the same.  I was hoping that things would get kicked up a notch, and since that didn’t happen … [continued]

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And so, at last, we arrive at my final Best of 2012 list!  I hope you enjoyed the rest of my lists.  You can follow these links to see my Top 15 Movies of 2012: click here for part one, here for part two, and here for part three.  Click here for part one of my Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2012, and here for part two.  And finally, you can click here for part one of my Top 10 Episodes of TV of 2012, and here for part two.

And now, my final list: the Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2012!

10. Great documentaries for not-so-great films: Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises Both of these films disappointed me when I saw them.  The Dark Knight is an extremely well-made film and a great super-hero epic, but it’s a big let-down after the magnificence that was The Dark Knight.  And Prometheus was just a catastrophe.  Nevertheless, the blu-rays of both films contained terrific feature-length documentaries.  Prometheus’ special features are particularly compelling — the 220-minute documentary “Furious Gods: The Making of Prometheus” (directed by Charles de Lauzirika) is extraordinary.  Is it crazy to be so interested in the behind-the-scenes stories of two films that ultimately disappointed me?  Maybe, but I loved these glimpses behind the curtains.

9. Jay and Silent Bob Get Old: Tea-Bagging in the UK Every few years, Kevin Smith releases a DVD collection of some of his Q&A  sessions, and I always gobble them up.  None have topped the original An Evening With Kevin Smith DVD from 2002, but Mr. Smith’s skill as a spinner-of-yarns is unparalleled, and I adore listening to his lengthy, raunchy, hilarious answers to the audience’s questions about his life, his film-making, and all sorts of other details of his personal life.  (I even saw Mr. Smith live, in Boston, a few years ago!)  This latest DVD is a recording of some of the “Smodcast” podcasts that Mr. Smith recorded with his “hetero life-mate” Jason Mewes, on tour in England.  These shows are nowhere near as great as some of the previous Q&A DVDs — I like Jason Mewes, but I think Mr. Smith is much funnier solo — but these shows are still a lot of fun, and I enjoyed the frank, friendly interplay between Mr. Smith and Mr. Mewes.

8. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 — This animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s seminal comic book from 1986 is one of the best of Bruce Timm’s recent direct-to-DVD animated films.  With solid (though not spectacular) animation and a phenomenal voice cast, I was very impressed … [continued]

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The Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2012 — Part Two!

Yesterday I published part one of my list of the Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2012.  You can also check out my Top 15 Movies of 2012: click here for part one, here for part two, and here for part three.

And now, on to the conclusion of my list of the Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2012!

5. Batman: Earth One  A staggeringly entertaining ground-one reinvention of Batman, I can’t believe how much I loved this hardcover graphic novel by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank.  I don’t have too much patience for creators reworking classic super-hero origins — do they think they know better than the original creators of these long-lived, much-beloved characters?  And if you’re going to re-tell Batman’s origin, how could anyone possibly do it better than Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s superlative Batman: Year One from the eighties?  While I wouldn’t consider this origin story to be superior to Batman’s established origin, it’s a marvelously entertaining what-if version in which all of the familiar beats play out differently.  (And it’s hugely superior to DC’s first “Earth One” graphic novel, J. Michael Straczynski’s woeful Superman: Earth One.)  Mr. John’s tweaks to the familiar characters (I particularly love Earth One’s versions of Alfred and Harvey Bullock) plus Mr. Frank’s exquisite art make this a knockout.  I hope they make lots more sequels so that I can return to this world for further adventures.

4. America’s Got Powers — This six-issue mini-series (of which four issues have been published so far) has been blowing my socks off.  Superstar artist Bryan Hitch (for my money, the very best illustrator of super-hero comic books working today) and Jonathan Ross have teamed up to create this original, powerhouse new series.  Something has gifted a whole generation of young people with super-powers.  A fearful government has rounded up anyone exhibiting special abilities, but to keep them (and the general population) from focusing on the hideous human rights abuses, they have created a super-powered reality TV show in which the super-powered kids compete for fame and glory.  No surprise, the behind-the-scenes reality is far different than the happy, televised spectacle.  This series is deft speculative fiction of the very best kind, crossed with a terrific super-hero adventure story.  I have loved every single page.  I hope this series continues beyond the scheduled six issues.

3. All-New X-Men The biggest surprise of the year for me has been Brian Michael Bendis’ new X-Men series.  The Beast, fearing that his life is nearly over and distraught at the state of the X-Men, the world, and the actions of his former best friend Scott … [continued]

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Batman: Earth One

“Earth One” is a series of new original graphic novels from DC Comics.  The idea is to re-invent their characters from zero by re-telling their origins as if they occurred in our world, a world without other super-heroes.

They launched the series two years ago with Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis.  I thought it was pretty terrible.

When Batman: Earth One was announced, I had no interest.  But then I read the graphic novel would be created by the team of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, who worked together on some terrific Superman comics a few years ago, including the spectacular six-part Superman: Secret Origin. (It’s a far superior re-telling of Superman’s origin than that seen in Earth One, and I also reviewed it in the above link.)  OK, I thought, let’s see what they can do with Batman.

They knocked it out of the park!  Now that Christopher Nolan has completed his trilogy of Batman films, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ll soon see a reboot of the Batman film series and another telling of Batman’s origin.  In many ways, Batman: Earth One seems like a perfect pitch for an awesome new film version of Batman.  I don’t know if that was the creators’ intention, but I could absolutely see this graphic novel working as a film.

Let me be clear: this story was not intended to be an “iconic” version of Batman’s origin.  No, Mr. Johns and Mr. Frank have taken a very different approach, re-shaping and re-thinking aspects of the character and his origin. On the one hand, I am not exactly sure why that is something worth doing.  Why bother messing with one of the simplest, most perfect origin stories in comics?  Why change things that don’t really need to be changed?  Why fix what isn’t broken?  On the other hand, if one can let go of one’s sense of continuity and the occasional horrified “No!  That’s not what’s supposed to happen!”, then this bold reinvention of Batman is very exciting and, for the most part, very successful.

What works?

I love the new version of Alfred.  Physically the character looks totally different (yep, that gun-weilding dude on the cover is Alfred), and though the character’s central affection for Bruce Wayne remains, the changes are more than just physical.  This is a younger, more vigorous, more virile Alfred than we’ve ever seen before.  This Alfred is a military man, and in this story he becomes far more directly responsible for the training of the man who would be Batman than ever before.  (Although the idea that Bruce Wayne spent years traveling the world training to become Batman is a … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Part 1)!

Released in 1986, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most seminal Batman stories ever written, and certainly one of the finest super-hero comic-book stories ever told.  The Dark Knight Returns forever changed the depiction of Batman, and it has been influencing comic book writers and artists not to mention filmmakers ever since.  The dark, gothic look and tone of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was heavily influenced by The Dark Knight Returns, and the first hour-and-a-half of Christopher Nolan’s similarly-titled The Dark Knight Rises (in which an aging Bruce Wayne, having not been Batman for nearly a decade, puts back on the cape and cowl, attempting to rebuild his body and then doing battle with a muscle-bound terrorist attempting to take control of Gotham City) is nearly a direct adaptation.

That’s a bit of a joke, of course, partly based on my disappointment with The Dark Knight Rises (click here for my review, though my dissatisfaction with the film has grown since I wrote that initial, mostly-positive review), but it’s certainly true that many of the major story-beats from that film were taken directly from The Dark Knight Returns. They even directly took the scene in which two cops, a veteran and a rookie, respond after first seeing Batman again on the night of his return.  (“You’re slowing down?”  “Relax, kid.  We’re in for a show.”)

I first read The Dark Knight Returns only a few years after it was initially published.  I was WAY too young to read it, not question.  I didn’t understand everything in the story (the twist about Harvey Dent’s psychosis at the end of Book one totally went right over my ten-year-old head) but I was nevertheless gripped by this dark, violent, gripping story.  I have since read The Dark Knight Returns countless times, and it has lost none of its power.  I’ve written about it before on this site, naming it one of my favorite graphic novels of all time.

I was thus very excited and also very nervous when it was announced that Bruce Timm & co. would be adapting this groundbreaking work as their next direct-to-DVD DC Universe animated project.  This is exactly the type of comic source material that I desperately want to see Mr. Timm and his crew adapt — a classic series from the DC pantheon.  But The Dark Knight Returns is so good, so beloved, that the idea of a lame, sub-par adaptation was far worse than the idea of no adaptation at all.

One of my biggest continual complaints with these DC Animated DVDs has been that they’re way too short.  They all seem to be clocking … [continued]

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Did you enjoy the new Hobbit trailer I posted last week?  If you haven’t seen them, here are all of the other alternate endings to that trailer.

Uh oh.  Looks like Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt has dropped out of work on the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, apparently because Fox is rushing the film to meet the release date the studio had chosen.  This is not a good sign.

This past weekend, on the eve of Treme’s season 3 premiere came the good news/bad news that HBO had renewed the show for a fourth and final season (four seasons was apparently David Simon’s ideal length for the run of the show), albeit a shortened season.  The exact length of this shortened fourth season, what Mr. Simon refers to as “season 3.5,” is TBD.  I’m bummed the show couldn’t swing a full final season, but I’m thrilled that HBO is at least giving Mr. Simon and his team some episodes to bring their television masterpiece to a conclusion of their choosing.

Well,  now I know why Robot Chicken did a DC Comics special this year, rather than a fourth Star Wars one.  It’s because Seth Green and many of the rest of the Robot Chicken gang are working on a whole new Star Wars parody show, Star Wars Detours. This first trailer is funny, though I’m not sure why this is a whole new show and not just more Robot Chicken…

Speaking of Star Wars, it looks like Episode II and Episode III will be getting a 3-D theatrical re-release in 2013.  I sat out the Episode I re-release (I must admit I was a little tempted, but that film is just so bad I couldn’t see spending the money, even though I was curious about the look of the 3-D), and I’m not that much more interested in seeing Episode II. But seeing Episode III back on the big screen, and in 3-D?  That just might have my ticket.  But I am really waiting to see if they re-release the Original Trilogy.  Any excuse to see those films on the big screen again is exciting for me, no matter how much new digital fiddling Mr. Lucas and his minions have done…

This is an interesting list of the Top 5 Best-Acted Moments in a Steven Spielberg Film.  I definitely agree with numbers 5, 4, and 1, not so sure about 3 and 2…

I was already interested in Judd Apatow’s new film, This is 40, and this interview with Robert Smigel and Albert Brooks, both of whom are appearing in the film, has … [continued]

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In response to this summer’s lousy Spider-Man reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man (click here for my review), comes this great article on 10 Remakes that Got it Right.  There are some really intriguing films on this list that I have never seen, but have been immediately placed on my “to-watch” list…

It’s old news by now, but I haven’t yet waxed poetic on this site about how excited I am that Peter Jackson has expanded his adaptation of The Hobbit from two films to a trilogy!  Very exciting.  The hints of obscure bits of story from the Lord of the Rings appendices that Mr. Jackson is going to be filming in order to flesh out the story are even more exciting still.  The battle of Dol Goldur??  Awesome!!

The new X-Men film is going to be Days of Future Past??? That’s hugely exciting, but also very worrisome.  Days of Future Past is one of the greatest X-Men stories (heck, one of the greatest comic book stories) of all time.  The idea of that being adapted into a film is extraordinary!!  Bravo to Bryan Singer and xx on taking on this iconic story.  But the thought of a BAD version of Days of Future Past would be horrifying.  I was burned by X3′s brutalization of the Dark Phoenix Saga (probably THE greatest X-Men story of all time), and that’s a pain not easily forgotten… I am crossing my fingers and toes about this one…

Speaking of Bryan Singer, why the heck is he still developing a Battlestar Galactica movie?  Do we really need another version of Galactica, after Ron Moore’s fabulous TV series…?  The only place to go is down…

I am excited to see DC’s upcoming animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s seminal “Last Batman Story” The Dark Knight Returns. (DKR was a strong source of material for Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, as I noted in my review.)  However, this first trailer leaves me underwhelmed in the extreme.  This trailer should have been slow, spooky, and reverent, selling us on a world that had moved on without Batman.  Instead, it seems to be selling a zippy animated adventure.  I hope this doesn’t reflect the tone of the finished product.

In happier news — Larry David, Dave Mandel, Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer (key players on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland, Paul) are working together on a new movie for HBO?  Can’t wait!!… [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Dark Knight Rises

Although I really enjoyed Batman Begins, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how spectacular the follow-up, The Dark Knight, was going to be.  I didn’t expect it, and that film knocked me flat.  I’ve revisited The Dark Knight several times in the last few years (I just wrote about it last week!) and I continue to be dazzled by its grim majesty.

The Dark Knight is so good that it immediately puts its sequel in an unenviable position of having to equal or top a masterpiece.  The Dark Knight Rises is not at the level of The Dark Knight — it’s rather unrealistic to hope that it would be.  It is definitely more flawed than its predecessor.  But it is a ferociously entertaining film, smart and serious and with bold intentions, and it brings Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy to a sure-footed conclusion.

The Dark Knight Rises is a huge film — it’s scope is far larger than the previous two films, as are its ambitions.  The film is set over a period of many months (which I love, as it really gives the story and the characters room to breathe).  Crazy, crazy stuff happens in and to Gotham City in the second half of the film.  Sure, the Joker terrorized the city in The Dark Knight, but what happens to Gotham in the film’s second half takes the scope of this tale to a whole other level.

The main ensemble continues to shine.  All the main surviving characters from the previous two films return and each gets his time in the spotlight.  Michael Caine’s Alfred gets some big emotional scenes, and the great Mr. Caine is, as always, tremendously effective.  More than ever before, Alfred is the heart of this film, and the lone anchor keeping Bruce Wayne tethered to some sort of reality.  Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox.  He gets a great “Q” scene early in the film, and I was pleased that Lucius stayed involved in the story as Bane’s grip on Gotham city tightens as the film progresses.

Gary Oldman is spectacular, once again, as Commissioner Gordon.  I got a bit worried at first when Gordon gets sidelined to a hospital bed — in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight I wished there was more of Gordon.  (The whole Gordon-pretending-to-be-dead bit in the middle of The Dark Knight is one of that film’s only mis-steps.)  But luckily the Commish gets a lot of meaty scenes in the film’s second half.  Gary Oldman just IS Commissioner Gordon at this point — he is absolute perfection in the role.  When the Batman film series is inevitably rebooted, I suspect this is going to prove to … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews The Dark Knight (2008)

My excitement is building for The Dark Knight Rises, which opens today!  I hope to be seeing it soon, and of course I’ll be posting my thoughts right here as soon as I do.  In the mean-time, let’s continue my look back at Christopher Nolan’s previous two Bat-films. Last week I wrote about Batman Begins. Of course, after re-watching that film, I was eager to dive right back into Christopher Nolan’s first Bat-sequel, The Dark Knight.

I have written about The Dark Knight before on this site.  Here is my original review of the film, which I wrote soon after having my brains blown out the back of my head by my first viewing of this magnificent film.  I stand by my rapturous review.  Having now seen the film several times, I think it has held up extremely well.  When I first saw it, I was continually shocked by the film’s plot developments, but even knowing what is going to happen I think the film still totally works.  In fact, knowing what is to come, there’s a powerful sense of additional dread watching the story unfold.  You know it’s not going to end happily.

I have read this film described as “Batman Loses” and that pretty much sums up the story.  Bruce Wayne gets smacked around for pretty much the entirety of the film’s long run-time.  This is the way a super-hero sequel should be.  Once you’ve established your super-heroic character, you need to really stack the deck against him/her.  It needs to be nearly IMPOSSIBLE to conceive of a way that your hero can overcome these tremendous odds, and boy oh boy does The Dark Knight do that in spades.

Key to this, of course, is the incredible success of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker.  Everyone went crazy, back in 1989, for Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, and rightfully so.  It’s a spectacular performance, and one that was long-deemed un-toppable.  But Mr. Ledger’s work absolutely blows Mr. Nicholson out of the water.  This Joker is DANGEROUS in a way that Nicholson’s never really was.  Ledger’s Joker is creepy and weird and scary.  He clearly has a brilliant tactical mind (a point driven home by the film’s terrific opening sequence, an intricately-orchestrated robbery of a mob-controlled bank) but also a wild unpredictability.  Pretty much every single Joker scene in this film is instantly iconic, from his magic trick making a pencil disappear, to his various stories about how he got his scars, to his taunting of Batman in the police station’s interrogation room, to his conversation with a scarred Harvey Dent in his hospital room.

Which brings me, of course, to Harvey … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Batman Begins (2005)

With Christopher Nolan’s third and apparently final Batman film only weeks away, I thought it would be fun to go back and re-watch his first two Bat-films.

Having seen so many great super-hero films in the years since 2005, it’s easy to forget just how impressive Mr. Nolan’s achievement was with Batman Begins. Finally, here was a filmmaker ready to bring to movie-screens the character of Batman that I have loved for so long in the comics, and to treat that character seriously.  I love Tim Burton’s Batman, but while that’s a great film, it’s not in my mind a great depiction of the character of Batman.  Then, of course, the later films descended into ridiculousness and camp.  In the minds of many in the public, the Batman they knew was still the Adam West Pow! Book! Zap! version.

But Mr. Nolan took Batman seriously, and he and co-writer David S. Goyer set about to dig into the character of Batman: who he is an how he came to be.  (Comic fans know, of course, that I am paraphrasing a chapter title from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s seminal four-part story Batman: Year One, to this day the definitive origin story of Batman and a text from which Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer borrowed liberally for their screenplay for Batman Begins.)

The genius of Batman Begins is that you don’t spend the whole movie just waiting for Bruce Wayne to put on the cape and cowl.  The details of Mr. Wayne’s adolescence, as depicted in the film, are rich and fascinating, and fully hold the audience’s attention for the first two-thirds of the movie.  Indeed, it’s the final third, in which Wayne finally becomes Batman, that is the weakest part of the film, but I’ll get to that in a few moments.

I love how well-thought-out and focused the film’s script is.  Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer seized on the idea of fear as central to Batman and Bruce Wayne.  I love how the film, and the characters, continually return to that idea.  Ducard (Liam Neason) constantly needles young Bruce Wayne on the subject, exhorting him to identify and conquer his fear.  The choice of the Scarecrow as one of the film’s villains further plays into this subject.  That’s smart screenwriting.  They didn’t just choose a random villain, they chose one who really meshed with the story being told.

Speaking of villains, I love Liam Neeson’s role in the film.  Yes, Liam Neeson has played this type of mentor character many, many times before.  Yes, when he and Bruce Wayne are training with swords on a frozen lake I can easily imagine him with a lightsaber in his hand instead … [continued]

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The Dark Knight Rises

May 1st, 2012
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Josh Returns to the DC Animated Universe with Justice League: Doom

Justice League: Doom is the latest direct-to-DVD DC Universe animated feature.  The story is adapted from the “Tower of Babel” story-line that ran through issues #42-46 of JLA back in 1998.  Those original comics were written by Mark Waid and Dan Curtis Johnson and illustrated by Howard Porter, Drew Geraci, Pablo Raimondi, and Steve Scott.  This adaptation was written by the late Dwayne McDuffie.

In the original story, villain Ra’s al Ghul is able to take out the Justice League using strategies specifically tailored to disable or destroy each individual member of the league.  The hook of the story is the revelation of the inside-the-League source from whom Ra’s was able to attain the specific information he needed to create his stratagems.  (Every on-line review I have read of this DVD has spoiled the identity of that member of the Justice League.  I understand the reasons for doing so, since a) most comic-book fans know this story and so know who it was, and b) the identity of that Leaguer is really cool, and the story behind that betrayal is at the heart of this tale and part of what makes this such a great, fascinating story.  But I’m going to try to preserve the surprise for anyone reading this.)

Justice League: Doom is a very, very loose adaptation of the “Tower of Babel” story-line.  Though the central hook remains the same, the villain has changed (here it is the near-immortal Vandal Savage, rather than Ra’s al Ghul), many of the tactics used to attack the League members have been changed, and the villain’s ultimate goal (and his methods for achieving that goal) have changed.  After the very-faithful animated adaptations of Batman: Year One (click here for my review) and All-Star Superman (click here for my review), it came as somewhat of a surprise to me that this adaptation played so fast-and-loose with the source material.  On the one hand, I don’t think the original “Tower of Babel” story was so perfect that any change is a mistake.  Still, I was surprised by the degree to which the story was altered.

First of all, I have no idea why the villain was changed from Ra’s to Vandal Savage.  Why not use Ra’s?  He’s a terrific villain, and his connections to Batman provide a great extra layer of resonance to the “Tower of Babel” story.  (Also, since this DVD used so many of the original voices from Batman: The Animated Series and the Justice League cartoon — more on that in a minute — I would have LOVED to have seen the great David Warner reprise his role of Ra’s, who he voiced so memorably in Batman: [continued]

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The (Animated) Dark Knight Rises

OK, I already posted a link to a “sweded” version of The Dark Knight Rises trailer.  Now check out this version of the trailer created entirely from re-edited footage from the seminar and still-amazing Batman: The Animated Series:

I love that so much!!… [continued]

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In Space, No One Can Hear Anyone Deny that Prometheus is an Alien Prequel

December 27th, 2011
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So just a day after I posted a whole bunch of movie trailers last week, Sir Ridley Scott unveiled our first official look at his upcoming film, Prometheus, and it is pretty friggin’ awesome:

That’s a pretty spectacular trailer, and in addition to guaranteeing that I will be seeing it opening weekend, the trailer also puts to rest all of the denials that the film is an Alien prequel. First of all, there is the really, really clever way in which the text of the title reveal mimics that of the main title of Alien. (Whoever came up with that idea deserves a BIG raise.)  And then, I mean, come one, there are eggs (albeit different-looking ones), there are face-huggers (albeit REALLY different-looking ones) and then there is my favorite shot of the trailer: when we glimpse the “space-jockey’s” control/piloting unit (or whatever the hell that is) that we saw in Alien come up out of the floor of the ship.  Pretty cool.  I wonder if the ship we see crash at the end is the same ship the Nostromo finds on LB427…

This isn’t a trailer.  Well, not exactly.  It’s a “sweded” version (come on, you’ve seen Be Kind Rewind, right?) of the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, and it’s pretty phenomenal:

If that doesn’t make you smile, I don’t know what will!

OK, maybe this, a look at the best thing about Parks and Recreation, Bert Macklin — er, I mean, Andy Dwyer:


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Josh Reviews Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (and the Dark Knight Rises Prologue!!)

I’ve really enjoyed all three Mission: Impossible films, though none of them quite reached perfection in my mind.  Probably my favorite part of all three films is the first 30 minutes of the first one, where we got to see an awesome team of super-spies engaged in some really fun, twisty covert operations.  Then, of course, they all get killed off and the film (and the sequels) turns into the Tom Cruise super-hero show.  J.J. Abrams’ third installment was a big step back in the right direction, but even in that film I felt the team was too-quickly sidelined.

What a delight it is to report, then, that I think the latest installment, Ghost Protocol, is the strongest film in the series so far!  I saw the film in huge, glorious IMAX, which is how I highly recommend that you see it as well.  People are all atwitter about 3-D these days, but I think that seeing a film in IMAX represents a far more immersive experience than the often-distracting 3-D effects.  (Although I did just see Martin Scorsese’s new film, Hugo, in wonderful 3-D — check back here on Wednesday for my full review).  Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible film takes full advantage of the huge canvas that IMAX has to offer.

I’ve long-worshipped Brad Bird, from his work on The Simpsons to his amazing animated films The Iron Giant (GO SEE IT right now, you won’t regret it), The Incredibles, and Ratatouille.  Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is Mr. Bird’s live-action directorial debut, and it represents a triumphant announcement of an incredible talent.

The action in this film is phenomenal.  Ghost Protocol is alive with action, from start-to-finish.  This film MOVES.  There are so many gleefully inventive set-pieces that I hardly know where to begin.  There’s the opening break-out from a Russian prison, with the film’s playful withholding of the identity of the man being rescued.  There’s the fiendishly clever way the IMF team infiltrates the Kremlin.  (I LOVE the screen employed by Ethan and Benji in the hallway.)  Then there’s the gangbusters sequence in which Ethan (Tom Cruise) is forced to scale the exterior of the tallest skyscraper in Dubai.  In the trailers, I actually thought that scene looked rather silly.  But in the film I found it to be a bravura sequence of phenomenal special effects and mounting tension.  Here is where seeing the film in IMAX really pays off.  There’s a terrific shot in which Ethan steps out of the window onto the side of the building.  Suddenly the camera follows him out, and we the viewers are right there vertiginously hanging off the building right along with him.  As the sequence escalates and things … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Batman: Year One!

Back in 1986, Frank Miller turned the comics world on its ear with the release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.  This four-issue prestige-format limited series, which Mr. Miller wrote and pencilled (with inks by Klaus Janson and gorgeous colors by Lynn Varley), told the story of a bitter, middle-aged Bruce Wayne.  In Miller’s story, Bruce had retired from being Batman following the death of Jason Todd (the second Robin, who was actually killed in-continuity in the Batman books a year or so later in the “A Death in the Family” story-line).  But disgusted by the cess-pool of crime and corruption that Gotham City has become, Bruce puts back on the cape and cowl and resumes his one-man war against crime, leading to his final confrontation with the Joker and, ultimately, with Superman, who is now in the employ of the U.S. Government.  Violent, gorgeous, and compelling, The Dark Knight Returns blew my mind when I read it (at far too young an age, back in 1988), and it still stands today as one of the finest comic book stories ever made (and certainly as one of the very best Batman stories ever told).

One might have thought that such a work could never be equaled, but the following year, in 1987, Frank Miller returned to Batman and told a story that is as good — if not even better — than The Dark Knight Returns.  For four issues in the regular Batman comic (#404-407), Mr. Miller and David Mazzucchelli retold Batman’s origin in the story called Batman: Year One.  Whereas The Dark Knight Returns was a huge, epic saga, Batman: Year One is a street-level, entirely stripped down Batman story.  In fact, the genius of the story is that it isn’t really Bruce Wayne’s story at all.  The focus is on a young James Gordon, as he attempts to survive his first year on the force in Gotham City.  Batman: Year One is a tough, violent, gritty tale, populated by the corrupt and the broken.  Even our heroes, Bruce Wayne and James Gordon, are presented as being far from perfect — but their heroism derives from their striving to battle past their flaws and imperfections and attempt to do the best they can in a city without hope.  It’s one of Frank Miller’s very best-written tales, and David Mazzucchelli’s art continually takes my breath away with its gorgeous stylization (the man knows how to spot blacks better than pretty much anyone else in the business) and astonishing detail.

Like The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One sits at the very top of the heap of comic book story-lines.  It’s been mined for inspiration by several of … [continued]

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DC Animated Update

It’s been a while since I’ve chimed in with my thoughts on the recent direct-to-DVD DC Universe animated films!  Here are my thoughts on the last three releases:

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse — Coming hot off the heels of what I consider to be the strongest film in this series so far, the grim and intense Batman: Under the Red Hood (read my review here) comes this, by far the worst film so far.  This one is pretty much a total, unwatchable catastrophe.  Despite what the title and cover art might have you believe, this isn’t a story about Darkseid (one of the best Superman villains) at all.  It’s really the latest version of the Supergirl story (adapted from Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner’s story which did not interest me when it was published and still does not interest me now).  Now don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against Supergirl!  I loved the character on Bruce Timm’s animated Superman and Justice League shows.  But this desperate-to-be-hip reinterpretation has always smacked of desperation to me, and shoe-horning in Darkseid and his minions just robs those great characters of the focus they deserve.  Darkseid and the New Gods mythos were presented with far greater success in the afore-mentioned Superman and Justice League animated series.  This is just a sub-par retread of ground that has already been covered.  Skip this one at all costs, gang.

Superman/Shazam!  The Return of Black Adam — In addition to re-presenting the three DC Universe universe shorts that appeared on the three prior DVDs (with commentary tracks that are interesting but really should have been included on the original releases), this DVD collection includes the new Superman/Shazam short.  I say “short,” but it’s a good deal lengthier than the previous three shorts.  At almost 25 minutes, this is much more the length of an episode of one of the DC animated series.  And, indeed, this short feels just exactly like we’re watching a long-lost episode of one of those Bruce Timm DC Universe animated series.  That’s both good and bad.  It’s good in that the quality of the story-telling and the animation is high.  I find origin stories to be a little tiring, but I like this version of the Shazam/Captain Marvel mythos and I thought everything was presented in an effectively succinct, to-the-point way.  But it’s bad in that this felt pretty much like just another episode.  There wasn’t anything that jaw-dropping to see, and the story never reached anything near the apocalyptic heights glimpsed in the DVD’s terrific cover painting.  Also, as with the Darkseid stuff in the previous DVD, I felt that all of this had been done before, and better, in the old … [continued]

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Though I think the quality of his films has dipped considerably in the last decade or two, I remain an enormous Woody Allen fan.  So I tip my hat to Juliet Lapidos from Slate Magazine who just watched every single Woody Allen film and summarized what she’s learned.  It’s a wonderful piece — well-worth your time.  (I’m also pleased that to learn that, after her massive re-watching project, she concurs with my long-held opinion that 1997’s Deconstructing Harry was Mr. Allen’s last truly great film.)

Here’s also a fascinating ranking of Mr. Allen’s films into categories (from the “masterworks” to the “bad”).  There’s not too much I can disagree with about this listing!  It’s pretty spot-on, I think.  A few quibbles: I think Hannah and her Sisters and What’s Up Tiger Lily should be bumped up to “great,” as should Play it Again Sam, Deconstructing Harry, and Zelig. Bananas deserves a spot in the “Masterworks” category, and I’d bump The Purple Rose of Cairo down one notch to the merely “great.”  And Scoop definitely needs to be shifted down into the “bad” category.  OK, I guess I did have some objections!  But still, over-all, a terrific list.

Speaking of obsessive-compulsive types, check this out: a complete guide to every single sneaker Jerry Seinfeld ever wore on Seinfeld.  Very cool (and just slightly frightening).

So, Rise of the Apes (which was originally called Caesar) is now Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Wow, the title just became simultaneously way more awesome and also way, way stupider.  I can’t wait!  (By the way, did you watch the new trailer???)

I’m not sure what makes me happier: that we’re actually getting a new Planet of the Apes movie this summer, or that in New Zealand right now they’re actually, finally, for-real, filming Peter Jackson’s two-film adaptation of The Hobbit. Have you seen the first new production diary? I have tingles.  I’m not kidding!  Peter Jackson was a true innovator with the video diaries that he posted back in the day, chronicling the making of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then King Kong, and I have fond memories of devouring those whenever they were released during the pre-production and production of those films.  It makes me so happy that they’re finally back, and that The Hobbit is at long last under-way.  CAN’T WAIT FOR MORE.

Are we really just a few weeks away from Thor? I really want that movie to be good, but I’m a bit nervous.  This very positive early review has me optimistic, though!

I’ll be posting a piece soon with my thoughts on the last few DC animated projects … [continued]

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The Worst Movie Endings of All Time

A few days ago, Devin Faraci wrote a great piece over on Badassdigest.com (a really phenomenal site that I can’t recommend highly enough) about the terrible ending of the classic Bill Murray film, Stripes.

Mr. Faraci is right on the nose — the last 30 or so minutes of Stripes are really quite terrible.  Now, I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of the first two-thirds of Stripes, either.  I think I saw the film way too late in life to really connect with it the way other children of the eighties did.  Despite my long-held love for Bill Murray’s movies of the 1980’s (epitomized by my near fanatical worship of Ghostbusters), somehow I missed Stripes throughout my childhood — I only finally saw it when I was in college, and by then I just didn’t find it all that funny.

But Mr. Faraci’s article got me thinking about other good films undone by their endings… and wondering if there any films, as Mr. Faraci asks, whose first two-thirds are so good that I forgive their weak ending?

(Let me state that, obviously, SPOILERS LIE AHEAD for the films under discussion!!)

Let’s begin with some films that start off strong but are, in my opinion, completely ruined by their terrible endings:

No Country for Old Men — I was totally engrossed in this tense, beautiful film for much of its run-time, but the ending totally sunk my enjoyment.  After following the character of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) throughout the film, and totally investing in him, I couldn’t believe how that character was completely abandoned and ignored in the final few minutes of the movie.  The film’s title — No Country for Old Men — and the way the end of the film focuses on Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) indicates to me that the Coen Brothers intended the film to be the Sheriff’s story, not Llewelyn’s.  But the movie never earns that.  It never shows us the message given by its title, and Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue in the last scene.  What was it about the death of Llewelyn Moss that so affected Sheriff Bell?  For a man who had clearly been involved in other cases that involved murder and death, what was it about this particular event that shook the Sheriff so deeply?  We’re never told, and ultimately, as a viewer, I didn’t care too much about Sheriff Bell — I was invested in Llewelyn!  And having the end of his story be cut off by the finale really disappointed me.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence — Not that the first two-thirds of this film were so perfect to begin with, but had the movie ended … [continued]

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Josh Enjoys Danny Elfman’s Newly-Released Complete Soundtrack to Batman (1989)!

Last month, La-La Land Records released a limited edition 2-CD set containing the complete score to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), composed by Danny Elfman.

As I’ve written before here on the site, I’m a bit of a nut for movie soundtracks, and I love it when we’re blessed by the release of a great score in its complete, unedited form.  And Danny Elfman’s score for Batman is a real winner.

As I recall, Mr. Elfman’s score was widely praised, and with great justification, when Batman was first released back in 1989.  Mr. Elfman’s spooky, mysterious score and sweeping, iconic themes were as much a part of the film’s over-all success as was Tim Burton’s direction and Anton Furst’s marvelously creepy, decayed production design.  It’s great fun getting to listen to the complete score, start-to-finish, on this new CD.

Modern super-hero movie scores could learn a thing or two from Mr. Elfman’s work on Batman.  Recent successful super-hero films — from the latest incarnations of Batman (Batman Begins & The Dark Knight) to Marvel’s recent successes (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, etc.) — have had passable scores, but none of those films has had a really great, hummable theme for their central character.  I think that’s an unconscionable failing for a super-hero movie.  Contrast that with John Williams’ iconic Superman theme, as well as with Mr. Elfman’s magnificent Batman theme created for this film, and I think my point is clear.

Mr. Elfman wastes no time introducing his Batman theme to the audience, as it plays over the film’s opening credits (and the slow build-up to the reveal of the bat-emblem) in what is presented on CD as track 1, “Main Title.”  As Jeff Bond notes in the wonderful liner notes included with the CD set: As the camera prowls the stone environment, Elfman develops a propulsive march from his Batman theme, driven by snares and trumpets punding out a rapid 7/8 rhythm before giving way to a more drifting, supernatural treatment for strings and pipe organ. This Batman theme is instantly memorable, and it is one of Mr. Elfman’s greatest achievements with this score.

Another stand-out from the score is track 5, “Shootout,” a lengthy arrangement that plays over Jack Napier’s confrontation with Batman and the police in Axis Chemicals.  Mr. Elfman uses the repetition of what Mr. Bond describes as a churning, low rhythmic figure from double basses to drive the action and build the suspense of the sequence, all the while wonderfully weaving the Batman theme in and out of the action.

Track 18, “Descent into Mystery,” is probably my favorite piece of the score.  As Batman drives Vicki Vale back to the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Batman: Under the Red Hood, the Latest DCU Animated Film!

I’ll admit, I had been starting to lose hope about the continuing series of DC Animated films, but Superman/Batman: Public Enemies was a step in the right direction, and the latest installment, Batman: Under the Red Hood, is even better.

Under the Red Hood is based on the story-line that ran through the Batman comic books in 2005-2006 (and was eventually collected in a two-volume collection called Under the Hood), written by Judd Winick and illustrated by a variety of artists but primarily Doug Mahnke.  In the story, Batman must confront a new nemesis: The Red Hood.  The mysterious character at first appears to be a new crime-lord, vying with The Black Mask for control of Gotham City’s criminal element, but he turns out to be a vigilante aiming to destroy those criminals, albeit using much more violent (and deadly) methods than Batman ever employs.  That’s troubling enough on its own, but when evidence points to the Red Hood as being a mysteriously resurrected Jason Todd (once Batman’s second side-kick Robin, murdered by the Joker in the infamous A Death in the Family storyline from back in 1988), Batman finds himself painted into an impossible corner.

At the risk of repeating the point I have made in my last several reviews of these DCU animated films, I’m much happier seeing direct adaptations of famous comic book story-lines, rather than all-new stories (like the mediocre Wonder Woman and Green Lantern: First Flight films, or even the Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths film which I found more enjoyable).  So Under the Red Hood had that going for it, in my book, right off the bat.  The problem is that, with the exception of the graphic novel New Frontier (which is a phenomenal piece of work by Darwyn Cooke), I haven’t been too wild about the choice of comic story-lines these films have adapted.  Superman: Doomsday adapted the sprawling, months-long Death of Superman storyline, and while that story-line was a smash hit at the time it came out, it has aged very poorly.  I thought Jeph Loeb’s Superman/Batman storyline (adapted for Public Enemies) was over-rated at the time — all flash and dazzle without too much actual meat to the story.  And Judd Winick’s Under the Hood story-line was, in the comics, fairly mediocre in my opinion.  It had a killer hook, bringing back Jason Todd, but rather than building to a powerful climax I felt the story was abandoned.  There was no clear resolution as to what happened to Jason/Red Hood, and when we finally got the answers as to how he was resurrected (in Batman Annual #25) it seemed like a convoluted mess.  Also, read … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, the Latest DCU Animated Adventure!

OK, we’re getting closer!

We’re now six films into DC Comics and Warner Bros.’ exciting new endeavor to launch high-quality direct-to-DVD animated films masterminded by Bruce Timm, one of the key creative forces behind the amazing Batman: The Animated Series from the 90’s.  In my review of the fourth film, Wonder Woman, I wrote that I enjoyed the effort but that I was disappointed that, to that point, the DVD series wasn’t turning out as I had hoped.  I wrote:

The original announcement had seemed to indicate that the series would focus more on adaptations of classic comic stories as opposed to this sort of one-off origin story that isn’t based on any specific source material.  This is the sort of thing that most of the live-action super-hero films do, creating a new story that is sort of a “melange” of various bits of story-lines and background from the many years of the character’s history.  It’s not what I was hoping for from these DVDs.  (To my dismay, the preview included on the Wonder Woman disc seems to indicate that the next DVD, a Green Lantern adventure, will be exactly this same type of not-based-on-anything-specific tale.)  Where is my epic animated adaptation of The Great Darkness Saga?  Or Batman: Year One?  Or Kingdom Come?  How cool would that be?

I never got around to writing about Green Lantern: First Flight, which was released earlier this year.  It turned out to be a much stronger film than Wonder Woman, but it was exactly the type of totally-new, one-shot story that Wonder Woman was.  The latest animated film, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, is an entirely different breed of cat.  Like the first two DVDs (Superman: Doomsday and Justice League: The New Frontier), this is a direct adaptation of a comic book storyline: specifically, the first six issues of Superman/Batman, by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness, released in 2003/4.  I love that we’re back to a direct adaptation of a specific comic book tale.  THIS is the direction in which I want to see this DVD series continue to go.

Other than my philosophical support of its premise, is Superman/Batman: Public Enemies actually any good?  Well, it definitely is, though like the rest of these new DVDs it does not match the heights of any of Bruce Timm’s animated DCU series (Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, etc.).

The story is simple:  Lex Luthor has been elected President of the United States.  He uses the discovery of an enormous fragment of Kryptonite that is on-course to impact with Earth (to what would be sure to be devastating consequences for the planet) as an excuse to … [continued]

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News Around the Net!

I followed a link the other day to the 10 Most Insane, Child-Warping Moments of ’80s Cartoons.  Pretty funny stuff there.  I’d also like to direct your attention to this list of the 10 Star Wars Toys that Unintentionally Look Like Other Celebrities.  (It’s worth your while if only so that you, too, can be stunned by the resemblance of General Riekaan — from The Empire Strikes Back — to Senator John Kerry!!)

I’ve just discovered a phenomenal web-comic called Let’s Be Friends Again.  It’s mostly about comic books.  I love it to death, and it’s well worth your precious time, so check it out.

Have you seen this ten-minute fan-made live-action G.I. Joe film, Battle For the Serpent Stone?  I’m a big proponent of fan-films, and this one is of pretty high quality.  It’s quite an achievement — take a look.

Here’s a link to an terrific interview with IDW Comics editor Scott Dunbier, discussing his work in putting out the gorgeous new hardcover Bloom County: The Complete Library, Volume One (1980-1982), the first of five books that will collect every single strip (many of which have never before been collected) of Berkeley Breathed’s masterpiece comic strip.  I lust after this collection, and very much hope that Mr. Dunbier is able to move forward with collections of Outland and Opus as well.

This is a great story about an annoying movie theatre patron.  I wish there was a theatre like The Alamo Drafthouse here in Boston, because I would be more than happy to spend an enormous amount of money watching movies there and nowhere else.  I am sick to death of having my enjoyment of a movie interrupted by some jackass talking, texting, or some other such nonsense.

Harvard University is offering a class on The Wire??? Sign me up!!

I never believed it would happen, but filming on the two-film adaptation of The Hobbit is coming closer and closer to getting underway.  Click here for an interesting interview with director Guillermo del Toro with some updates on how things are progressing.

Despite my renewed appreciation for the final run of episodes of Battlestar Galactica, this hilarious evisceration of the plot points in the last 45 minutes of the finale is impossible to argue with.

Here’s a terrific list of one fellow’s Top 15 Episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.  It’s an interesting list.  I absolutely adore episodes such as “Over The Edge,” “Mad Love,” “Robin’s Reckoning,” and “Heart of Ice,” and I was also pleased to see some lesser-known gems like “The Ultimate Thrill” and “Growing Pains” make the cut.  (However, while “If You’re So Smart, Why … [continued]

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Last week I wrote about some of the great comics I’ve read lately.  That list was just scratching the surface!  Here’s some more fantastic stuff that I’ve been enjoying recently:

Hellboy: The Wild Hunt and BPRD: 1947 – The Hellboy saga continues in these two new wonderful mini-series.  In Hellboy: The Wild Hunt, things are coming to a head for the big red guy.  Cut off from his old friends and comrades in the BPRD, and hunted by the newly-resurrected Queen of Blood, things are looking grim for our hero!  Last month’s issue (#6) was jam-packed with astonishing revelations about Hellboy’s origin that I never saw coming, but that I thought worked absolutely PERFECTLY.  Meanwhile, BPRD: 1947 takes us through a rollicking tale of the second year of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense as Professor Bruttenholm struggles against vampires and a lot of other weirdness.  The Hellboy universe has really richened and deepened over these last few years, and I am really excited to see where things go from here.

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man — The relaunch of Brian Michael Bendis’ take on Spider-Man (three issues have been published as of this writing) continues just where the previous 133 issues (plus a handful of annuals and other specials) left off.  Young Peter Parker must juggle his, um, interesting love-life with a boring job at a fast-food joint (since he lost his job at the Daily Bugle following the devastation of NYC in the truly awful Ultimatum miniseries) with, oh yeah, his crime-fighting escapades as Spider-Man!  Mr. Bendis is well-known for his witty, true-to-teenaged-life dialogue, but I think his real strength is the depth of characterization he brings to Peter Parker and all the rest of the extraordinarily numerous cast of this comic.  Mary-Jane, Flash Thompson, Aunt May, “Kong,” Kitty Pryde from the X-Men, Johnny Storm from the Fantastic Four (and it is almost embarrassing how much more interesting Kitty and Johnny are here than in their “home” comics) and many more characters are all brought to amazingly real life in these pages.  I’ve been following Bendis’ run on “Ultimate” Spider-Man and I’ll be with the series until he leaves.  Spider-Man has never been done better (in my comic-reading life-time, at least!).  My only small complaint: I’m not quite taken with the overly stylized work of new series artist David Lafuente.  Let’s see if it grows on me any more after a few more issues…

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower — I fell way behind on this series of mini-series, adapting and expanding upon the back story of Stephen King’s seven-book The Dark Tower opus, but I was finally able to catch up last month.  Breathtakingly gorgeous art by … [continued]

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“I Am The Night” — The Very Best Episodes of Batman: The Animated Series

Last week I wrote about the terrific new soundtrack collection of music from the early episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.  That got me reminiscing about that amazing cartoon series, and so of course I busted out my DVDs to enjoy a few episodes.

Several few years back, I was rather shocked to discover that one of my good friends who dug comics had never gotten into Batman: TAS.  So I put together a collection for her of several of my favorite episodes — everything I could squeeze onto one VHS tape.  A few days ago I happened to stumble across the list of the episodes I’d selected (yes, I save everything), and I thought I’d share it with you all.  

So what follows are some of the best half-hours of animated television you’re ever going to find, and also among the most perfect non-comic book depictions of Batman.  If you’ve got these episodes on DVD or on tape, then dust ’em off and give ’em a watching!  If you don’t, then go out and find a friend who does!!  


1.  The Demon’s Quest , Parts I & II — Batman traces a criminal conspiracy across the globe, in an effort to locate a kidnapped Robin.  Liam Neeson was fine in Batman Begins, but if you want to see the REAL Ra’s Al Ghul, check out this version, voiced by the incomparable David Warner (Time Bandits, Star Trek VI).

2.  I Am The Night — A depressed and disillusioned Batman goes into an emotional tailspin when Commissioner Gordon is shot during a botched stake-out.  

3.  It’s Never Too Late — There are no supervillains to be found in this episode — it’s just a small, personal story about an aging mobster’s fall from grace.  This is why this series is awesome.  

4.  Robin’s Reckoning, Parts I & II — Perhaps the series’ finest hour.  Batman and Robin’s relationship is strained to the breaking point when the man responsible for the murder of Robin’s parents returns to Gotham City.

5.  Legends of the Dark Knight — This episode pays homage to some of the most iconic comic book depictions of Batman over the years, from Dick Sprang’s Batman of the ’50s to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns from the ’80s.  

6.  Mad Love — A disturbing examination of the twisted relationship between the Joker and his “hench-wench,” Harley Quinn.  Plus, Harley asks the Joker the question that comic fans have been wondering about for over 50 years.

7.  You Scratch My Back — I really enjoyed how, over the life of the series, we saw a noticeable passage of time.  This episode from late in … [continued]

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The Sounds of Gotham City — Music from Batman: The Animated Series!

In 1992, the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series premiered on Fox.  To this day, despite some mighty competition from the last two live-action Batman movies (especially the magnificent The Dark Knight), this show still stands as my favorite non-comic book depiction of Batman, the one that is most true to the character I have always pictured in my head.  Gorgeous animation combined with terrific stories that played Batman serious and scary made the show a knock-out right from the beginning (and ensured that the episodes would be as strong upon repeated viewings over 15 years later as they were when the show first launched).

But when considering all of the elements that made Batman: The Animated Series such a terrific success, we would be remiss in neglecting to mention the magnificent music.  In support of this point, La-La Land Records has recently released a phenomenal two-CD collection of the soundtrack from the show.  Unlike most cartoons of the time, which relied on a lot of recycled music, each episode of Batman: TAS had its own original score, performed by an orchestra.  The music was masterminded by Shirley Walker, ably assisted by a team that included Lolita Ritmanis and Michael McCuiston (all three of whom have a lot of work represented on this new CD collection).  Like the very best film score, the music from Batman: TAS was a critical element in creating the over-all tone of the piece, and it is strong enough to be tremendously enjoyable when listened to on its own.

The CD begins with a presentation of the Batman: TAS main title theme, which was composed by Danny Elfman (creating an interesting and catchy variation on his theme from Tim Burton’s Batman).  We are then presented with music from eleven notable episodes from the series’ early run.  

I am not a musician, so writing about music doesn’t come easily for me, but let me try to share how much I enjoyed listening to these CDs.  What is incredible is the way each episode has its own unique themes, composed to reflect the action and the characters (heroic and villainous) featured in that particular show.

Right away a stand-out is the work on the series’ first episode, “On Leather Wings,” in which Batman is blamed for crimes committed by a mysterious and monstrous Man-Bat creature.  The Batman: The Animated Series theme is wondrously woven in to the adventurous, exciting score that the conveys the energy and action of Batman’s vertiginous mid-air battle with the Man-Bat while establishing the series’ dark, brooding tone.

Other stand-outs for me include the creepy, almost child-like theme for Harvey Dent, tracking his descent into madness as he becomes the creature … [continued]

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Top 10 Movies of 2008! — Part Two!

Today we continue my list of the Top 10 Movies of 2008!  Scroll down (or click here) to read yesterday’s installment, listing numbers 10-6 and several honorable mentions, if you missed it.

5.  Tropic Thunder — Ben Stiller’s evisceration of Hollywood actors and their quest to win Oscars by making “serious” movies is one of the funniest films in recent memory.  Somehow Stiller was able to corral an astonishing group of actors and comedians (Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, and many more) into the project, creating one of those special films in which every single scene has about ten funny things going on.  Special attention must be paid to the brave work by Robert Downey Jr. (as Australian actor Kirk Lazarus, a man so “method” that he dies his skin black to become the Afrian-American character Sgt. Osiris) and Tom Cruise (buried under a hilariously hideous hairy fat-suit as studio head Les Grossman), who turn in two of the best performances of the year.  Though not the type that will win Oscars!  (Click here for my full review.)

4.  Religulous — Comedian Bill Maher partnered with director Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Borat) to create this movie in which Maher travels around asking people questions about religion.  You might not agree with Maher’s views, but it is impossible not to respect someone willing to ask straight, tough questions of believers.  (Well, not impossible, apparently, as Maher’s film certainly angered some.)  Maher speaks with members of various different religions and denominations, both religious leaders and common people.  He demonstrates a surprising (to me, at least), gentleness with most of the people he questions.  Whatever your faith, the issues that Maher raises are important ones to consider, and it doesn’t hurt that the film is also absolutely hysterical.  (Click here for my full review)

3.  Man on Wire — This extraordinary documentary looks behind-the-scenes at Philippe Petit’s incredible achievement of walking on a high-wire strung between the roofs of the Twin Towers in NYC back in 1974.  The audacity of Petit’s artistic crime is astounding to contemplate, and this film provides an insightful peek into the years that Petit and his friends spent planning the event.  It also explores a variety of ideas about art and human accomplishment.  Amazing.  (Click here for my full review.)

2.  Iron Man — Director Jon Favreau and actor Robert Downey Jr. created one of the best, most joyful comic book movies I have ever seen.  A fun, funny epic that is also a serious film filled with great character work (as opposed to a camp-fest), Iron Man is everything that a super-hero film should … [continued]

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The Dark Knight Returns: Spoiler-Free Review!

I am almost speechless.

For the past two and a half hours I had my brains pretty much blown out the back of my head by the The Dark Knight in IMAX.

This is a SPECTACULAR film.

It is dense. It is dazzling. And boy oh boy it is dark. It is SHOCKINGLY dark — not in terms of gore but in terms of how brutal it is towards all of the major characters in the film. I’ve heard people compare this sequel to The Empire Strikes Back (sort of the geek Mount Olympus in terms of a sequel), and one way the two are very much alike is that both films are not afraid to pretty much beat the hell out of “our heroes,” both physically and emotionally, for pretty much the entire running time.

This is a Batman story. And the best Batman stories, in my opinion, are the downbeat ones. But the Batman movies to this point, even the very excellent Batman Begins, have always seemed to be rather afraid to veer too far away from the happy ending. In the films we’ve seen previously, Bruce Wayne and co. always seem to be able to find fairly painless ways out, narratively, of the troubles they find themseves in. But not here. Time after time in The Dark Knight, our characters are faced with difficult situations and impossible choices, and no easy exit is presented to them. This makes for an extraordinarily compelling film.

There’s great action in this movie, no question. But this movie isn’t driven by action set pieces. It is driven by STORY, and by CHARACTER. The scenes that I can’t stop thinking about aren’t the car chases (they are awesome) or the fight scenes (they are bone-crunching). Its moments like the scene in which Batman and Jim Gordon must confront a deranged, hopeless man with a gun to the head of an innocent. Or Bruce Wayne’s dinner with Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent. Or the Joker talking about his scars. Those are the scenes that are staying with me long after the lights went up in the theatre. And it is those sorts of intense emotional moments that propel the plot forward, rather than just fight scenes leading to more fight scenes.

Its a long movie, but I was on the edge of my seat right from the opening bank heist through to the absolutely note-perfect ending. Seeing the movie in huge, loud, glorious IMAX certainly enhanced that, but I simply cannot imagine anyone watching this movie in any sort of movie theatre not being intensely gripped by this film. I suppose some might complain that the film is too downbeat. But for … [continued]

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With Great Power…

I love comic books. And that means that I grew up with a great love of super-hero stories. These days its true that many of my favorite comic books have little to do with super-heroes (looking through my “to-read” pile I see titles like David Lapham’s Young Liars, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower adaptation, Jeff Smith’s new boot RASL, Mike Mignola’s BPRD and Abe Sapien, Ed Brubaker’s Criminal, Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets, to name just a few.) But there is still something about a great super-hero yarn that really excites me. (For instance, I’ve been reading and throughly enjoying Ed Brubaker’s run on Daredevil, Brian Michael Bendis’ work on Avengers and Secret Invasion, and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men.)

That love of a good super-hero tale extends to movies. While working on these new Iron Man cartoons, and thinking about the movies still ahead this summer (Hellboy II, The Dark Knight, and The Incredible Hulk), I’ve been thinking about what makes a great super-hero movie.

Here are my five favorite super-hero movies of all time:

5. Unbreakable — Back when I loved M. Night Shyamalan, he made this fantastic little tale about a man (Bruce Willis) who discovers that he cannot be injured. There are no costumes, no witticisms, none of the silly trappings that have come to be associated with super-heroes and super-hero movies. Just a compelling story with some terrific under-played acting from a great cast (Bruce Willis has never been better than he is here as the sad, empty man who discovers that he is different), and some really interesting scene composition, shot set-ups, and editing choices from director Shyamalan.

4. Hellboy — Adapted from a series of mini-series written and gorgeously illustrated by Mike Mignola, Hellboy follows the adventures of a paranormal investigator who is actually a demon from Hell himself. Who loves pancakes. The comic is a wonderfully bizarre, textured mix of fairy tales, folklore and some good old-fashioned monster-fighting action. The film, directed by Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, and the man tapped to direct the upcoming two films based on The Hobbit) is a remarkable realization of Mignola’s comic. The splendid, consistently under-rated Ron Perlman is brilliant as Hellboy, bringing enormous depth and warmth to the character despite all the red rubber makeup.

3. Spider-Man 2 — Like Hellboy, Spider-Man 2 is another film whose greatest strength is the way it is able to distill the essence of a beloved (albeit much more widely-known) comic book character into a compelling film all its own. Tobey Maguire was born to play the stiff, dorky Peter Parker who one day discovers that with great power comes great responsibility. … [continued]