Review – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

bvsBack in 1986, as Superman star Christopher Reeve was prepping work on the ill-fated Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, he approached the writer of Superman I and II, the late, great Tom Mankiewicz, for advice. Reeve pitched Mankiewicz on his idea for Superman to rid the world of nuclear weapons, a parallel to real-world social issues of the time. Mankiewicz replied with this advice:

Don’t ever get involved with something Superman could fix. He could disarm the world in fifteen minutes. He doesn’t have to go to the UN. If he feels that strongly about it, he could get rid of all the missiles. Superman could feed the world if he wanted to. He could establish agricultural fields in outer space. Don’t bring up things like that.

I would like to add an addendum to that. Don’t get Superman directly involved with real-world issues. Do not twist his mission of peace into a political struggle. Do not bog him down with the ugliness of reality, the superfluity of man’s government, or the problems of democracy, especially at the expense of his message of hope, of inspiring the best in humanity.

I write this, because my many concerns over the past few years with director Zack Snyder’s approach to Batman v Superman were finally realized last month. Not only has the filmmaker indulged in all the above missteps, he’s delivered the most vile, morally reprehensible depiction of Superman and DC Comics on film to date. The film is a brutal assault on our senses, on the spirituality and idealism of these characters, on our intelligence as moviegoers, and on the vitality of quality filmmaking in big-budget studio tentpoles. It’s not just a disappointment; it’s a resolute misstep for the future of the DC Universe on film.

The film centers on a middle-aged Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck getting first billing in a long history of big actors being billed before the guy playing Superman) who after witnessing Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod topple one of his company’s buildings at the end of Manbatman-v-superman of Steel two years ago, grows weary of such dangerous forces being left unchecked.  Rather than blaming the indulgences of the director in the previous film, we are to blame Superman for Metropolis’ destruction. Bruce’s fear is shared by a great deal of the public, who endlessly debate Superman’s heroics and the fact that he “answers to nobody.” Bruce returns to Gotham City plotting to neutralize, and kill if necessary, the Man of Steel, despite repeated claims by butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that “he is not our enemy.” “That son of a bitch brought the war to us!” replies Bruce. Blah blah post-9/11 themes.

Back in Metropolis, Clark Kent is living comfortably with fellow Daily Planet staffer Lois Lane (Amy Adams). I guess Lois knowing Clark’s secret identity from the get-go at the end of Man of Steel hasn’t yielded any interesting twists on their decades-long will they/won’t they relationship from the comics. Contrastingly, Superman has been entirely anti-social in public, saving the world yet not really interacting with it in any way beyond that for these two years. Meanwhile, wealthy philanthropist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) plots to acquire the recently-discovered Kryptonite to control Superman, by manipulating a senator (Holly Hunter) and indeed everyone else around him. Oh, and there’s also other DC characters like Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) lying in the wait for the eventual Justice League movie.

It’s an overflowing plot, but there are traces of intrigue. Chris Terrio of Argo fame uses the characters as players in a larger piece about terrorism, power, corruption, and security, the groundwork of an intriguing political thriller. It is critical of heroes like Batman and Superman, examining their failings and the real consequences of their actions. It’s also a huge deviation from the reverence Snyder and his Man of Steel team showed for the universe in that film. In part to blame is perhaps the director’s long-standing love of Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns; Snyder carts over that story’s older, world-wearier Batman, some talking-head-style political commentary, and perhaps intentionally or not, Miller’s own disdain for the Last Son of Krypton.

Indeed, Dawn of Justice continues the tradition of recent Superman media by placing the hero in no-win scenarios that go directly against the winning spirit the character has always been about. There is a scene wherein (avoiding spoilers) Superman enters a building and a bomb goes off, and Superman just watches somberly as everyone around him is vaporized. Uh, Zack? This is Superman. Not Doctor Manhattan.

That’s an issue I had with Man of Steel too, though to a lesser extent. The Superman mythology isn’t about “well, what if he were REAL? What if a humanoid that had all these powers came to earth?” I don’t care how the real world reacts to Superman’s presence. That’s not appealing to me. Superman is about fantasy, he’s an ESCAPE from the real world. He’s a guy flying around in a red cape who makes a difference in his community and inspires those Batman-V-Superman-Trailer-Fight-Heat-Visionaround him to pitch in themselves. Why is there debate about whether or not he’s doing the right thing? We KNOW he’s gonna do the right thing. He’s SUPERMAN. And yet here we are, watching Charlie Rose and Neil DeGrasse-Tyson (both make brief appearances) debate about a Superman that exists and whether or not his power should be checked. But this is a Superman that hasn’t even begun to build bridges with people publically, so he’s clearly failed in his mission. The Superman of the comics won people over with a smile and a wave as he flew above them. Pity Henry Cavill’s Superman isn’t allowed such joy, regulated to stand and mope idly about how people don’t understand him.

As for Ben Affleck’s Batman, he busies himself in these ridiculous, jarring dream sequences reflecting his fear of aliens from the sky. I had hope after one such sequence, wherein a bat-creature bursts from the tomb of Martha Wayne to attack him. It recalls the jump-scares of a horror movie, a cool new twist that might really transport audiences into Bruce’s tortured psyche. Yet the movie never goes anywhere with it, taking us into even more absurd (and immodestly-budgeted) nightmares, one of which is a full, unabashed teaser for the Justice League movie. Pity Affleck, who’s been suckered into this mess with the promise of redemption after the indignity of 2003’s Daredevil. The actor/filmmaker isn’t altogether unfitting in the cape and cowl, but is also far from the finest performer to fill it.

But I digress. After characters have waxed poetic enough, director Snyder yanks the film’s breaks and yells, “less talk, more EXPLOSIONS!” All political discussions or reflections on real-world politics (clumsy as they were) are gone, leaving all its ideas entirely unresolved, lost in Snyder’s blaring self-indulgence and Junkie XL and Hans Zimmer’s blatant, blaring, borderline parodical score. What of Scoot McNairy’s legless homeless guy? Why has Amy Adams’ role been all but reduced to damsel-in-distress? Shouldn’t Clark be getting in trouble every time Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne) passes by his empty desk? No answers here, we only have enough time left in the already bloated two-and-a-half hour runtime for the movie to live up to its namesake – the bout between Batman and Superman.

And…it sucks. Not only does Snyder fail to build up their conflict in any meaningful way, their fisticuffs aren’t satisfying, nor are they really even warranted in the context of the film. It’s seriously the weakest explanation for pitting these two characters against each other. And it was at this point in the movie, after suddenly becoming aware of the intense grimace on my face, I wondered, “aren’t I supposed to be having fun?”

Apparently not. There’s actually a really ugly undercurrent to Dawn of Justice, boasting such brutality, such bloodlust, such hyper-machismo bullshit that makes for the most uncomfortable, punishing experience. That’s not just during the title fight too, that’s the whole movie. Snyder and his cinematographer Larry Fong absolutely do not know when to stop with the hypermasculinity, when enough is enough, to the point where one starts to feel ashamed at being a man at all. It’s more than enough to build a case accusing Snyder, who also shoots the death of Bruce’s parents with all the slow motion and heavy breathing of a sex scene, of using DC Comics characters to work through his own crippling manhood issues.

The studio is even prepping an R-rated cut of this movie for home video release. That’s right, your favorite childhood comic book characters have been perverted into a movie that, without certain cuts, was deemed too violent and too intense by anyone under 17 years old. Wow.batman-v-superman-the-complete-guide-to-frank-miller-dark-knight

So inevitably, we know Batman and Superman are to resolve their differences at some point. And after all that thirst for blood, all that shoddy build-up, their altercation is capped off in the most mind-bogglingly stupid, overwhelmingly left-field conclusion, that literally any idea you, the audience, could come up with as to why these characters should stop fighting, will better qualify you to write this movie than the filmmakers being paid hundreds of thousands to do so.

And then they’re friends, as if nothing had happened, teaming up to destroy an even more laughably stupid threat. And if you thought this film would be answering for Man of Steel’s destructive climax, you’d be wrong, wrong, wrong. Batman v Superman doubles down on the needlessly high body count. In fact, in one scene Batman has the big baddie in a totally isolated area, but rather than returning to the city to bring the necessary tools to kill the baddie to him, he actually draws him BACK INTO THE POPULATED CITY to get HIM to the tools. Remember how Christopher Nolan’s Batman had that one rule about killing people? Apparently Zack Snyder doesn’t share that sentiment.

So we finally realize, Batman v Superman is a movie about uncomfortable extremes. Snyder has always been an overwrought mess of a filmmaker, favoring style over substance, but the responsibility of pitting together two beloved DC characters has done nothing to curb his sadist, ear-rapingly obnoxious hard-on for destruction. What the hell? Doesn’t this go against everything DC Comics characters have stood for the past 70 years? You bet. Both Batman and Superman are acting totally out of character here. Batman’s a crazy, single-minded bruiser who brands criminals and wants nothing short of Superman’s death, while Superman is totally willing to bend his own moral code if his family is threatened. In the comics, the two have had their quarrels, occasionally even violent ones, but they have never, ever been pushed to the point of foaming at the mouth, hungering for each other’s head on a spike like in this movie. Pity the children who have to witness such overt brutality by the hands of characters who should, ideally, be serving as their role models.

And again, pretty much all the problems posed by the movie would’ve been solved immediately had Superman simply TALKED OPENLY. A simple, “Bruce, we’re being played!” would’ve stopped the title fight altogether. And every single other problem of the movie could’ve been completely avoided had Superman simply stood up in front of the public after Man of Steel and been like, “Hey guys, my name’s Superman, I’m just here to help out with the problems you can’t solve yourselves and really just help everyone to do better. Sorry about that Zod character, he’s a bad guy on my home planet, and I was just trying to stop him. Next time we face a threat like this, I’ll do it in space or something so there’s not as many casualties. Again sorry, still new to the whole superhero thing. Anyway, up up and away and all that!” *woosh*

Boom. /conflict.

Even the other DC characters teased in this movie lack subtlety; they basically appear in mini-trailers for their upcoming solo movies. It’s a sad day when I’m longing for the more natural, thoughtful teases of Green Lantern.

I haven’t even mentioned Jesse Eisenberg, who gives the most abysmally misguided performance as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg, known for his mousy-yet-charming teenage characters in Adventureland and _1436830197Zombieland, is not only insanely miscast as the powerful billionaire, he’s clearly never even glimpsed a Superman comic long enough to know who this character is supposed to be. So he instead plays Luthor the only way he knows how – by going over-the-top awkward, hammy, and creepy, his hands shaking as he speaks about power at a charity event, stumbling over the girth of his words. There’s even a point at the end where he actually hums the notes of the musical score. It’s just uncomfortable, a lot like…well, Zack Snyder’s id – angry, unrestrained, bratty, unlikable, and sadistic.

And that’s pretty much Batman v Superman too, the Donald Trump of superhero movies – loud, blunt, ugly, stupid, fear-mongering, extremist, tasteless, and bearing several cringe-worthy teases of what’s to come. Zack Snyder was always the wrong architect for the DC Universe on film, merely a loud, annoying kid bashing his action figures together. I don’t think Tom Mankiewicz could’ve envisioned anything like it, but if he could see Dawn of Justice now, there is no doubt he’d be shaking his head, collecting his valuables, and leaving the theater. I’d be right behind him.

3.5/10

 

QUOTE: Rossen, Jake; Millar, Mark (2008-02-01). Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon (Cappella Books) (p. 164). Chicago Review Press. Kindle Edition.

IMAGES: cinemablend.com, mirror.co.uk, screenrant.com, cdn.idigitaltimes.com, i.ytimg.com

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Justice League on Film: Then and Now

 

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With Christopher Nolan’s Bat-films ending and the seeming new beginning of the Superman franchise picking up steam, there’s been a lot of talk in recent months about Warner’s plans for a live action Justice League film. Bringing together both Superman and Batman, along with Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter, the Justice League has been DC’s premiere superhero team since its inception in the pages of The Brave and the Bold #28 back in 1960. And given the recent success of the Marvel’s Avengers, not to mention the stagnant development on solo films for each of the aforementioned teammates sans Supes and Bats, it’s safe to assume Justice League will be the company’s next foray into the superhero subgenre.

But by going for the big bucks of the team-up without familiarizing audiences with its individual characters and building a cohesive universe for them to occupy as Marvel did, does WB risk tarnishing its most beloved brands? More importantly, will they repeat the same mistakes as they did the last time they pursued a team-up film following successful Batman and Superman films? What we do know at this stage is that a script from Will Beal, writer of the studio’s upcoming Gangster Squad, is being shopped around, and was rumored to have been offered to Argo director and Daredevil actor Ben Affleck. It’s an ill-fitting choice of course, and one which I noted the director would obviously turn down. Still, it’s yet another testament to WB’s sheepish trend of seeking talent within its own doors before branching out and looking for the best man for the job.

But that’s of little consequence, considering the company’s last attempt at joining up its heroes. Back in 2007, after thrilling to the prospects of sequels to Batman Begins and Superman Returns (convinced anything would be an improvement on the latter). After a quick search, I learned that Mad Max trilogy director George Miller would be helming an ambitious Justice League film, subtitled Mortal, and would be gearing up for production in Australia very soon. Then I got a glimpse of the film’s cast list on IMDB, and saw not Christian Bale, not Brandon Routh, but a group of woefully miscast, overly young unknowns, among them a kid seemingly named after a baking soda as Batman, and one of the nerdy guys from Knocked Up playing the villainous Maxwell Lord. All hope was lost.

Worse yet, unbeknownst to me at the time, the script for Mortal by the husband-and-wife team of Michele and Kieran Mulroney (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) was reportedly abysmal. I read a breakdown of the steaming pile here, a thoroughly nauseating prospect made barely readable by the writer’s snide commentary. Described by the script holder as what “would’ve been the new Batman & Robin”, Justice League Mortal chronicles the systematic takedown of the superhero team at the hands of the evil Talia al Ghul and Maxwell Lord, using Batman’s own spy tech. Loosely based on Mark Waid’s Tower of Babel comic and borrowing the ending of 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries, as well as elements from the animated Justice League Unlimited cartoon (on air at the time), the script contains bizarre moments such as a surgical procedure involving a blind John Stewart using his Green Lantern constructs, in conjunction with Martian Manhunter’s telepathy, to extract nanobots from an incapacitated Flash. Later, Stewart’s blindness is cured by swallowing Aquaman’s water-based prosthetic hand, which subsequently spurts out his ears. Just to reiterate, this is a script WB was literally weeks away from commencing production on.

Chief among the script’s travesties was its horrifying misrepresentation of first Flash Barry Allen. Comparing him to Jar-Jar Binks, the script holder described the character’s demeanor as annoying, citing several inappropriately-timed wisecracks at his fellow teammates’ expense. There’s even some sort of screwy, twisted love scene involving the character and his wife, which for the life of me, I can’t bring myself to type out here. Add to that an incoherent, overblown clusterfuck of an ending I couldn’t picture anyone over the age of ten actually penning, and in short, Mortal looks to haven been nothing short of vomit-inducing. Even with some reported changes made by Miller himself, it’s hard to imagine anything worthwhile coming from such an awful, thoughtless template.

No doubt like Batman & Robin, in accordance with WB’s notorious demands, the script presented a multitude of opportunities for selling toys. Still, had this utterly trashy slap in the face to DC’s iconic characters been given the go-ahead to begin filming, again like Batman & Robin, it would’ve surely shot the the slowly reviving comic book movie in the foot. Luckily, with the 2007 writer’s strike preventing WB from commissioning further rewrites, a whopping estimated $300+ million budget, the loss of valuable tax breaks for filming in Australia, and an uproar of fan dissent, the production was mercifully shut down. Mortal stands as yet another example of WB’s cluelessness as to how its DC properties should be handled, and a huge bullet dodged for the continued credibility of comic book movies. As a fitting postscript to Mortal’s reviled history, I distinctly remember reading a rumor or posting of some sort at the time claiming Christopher Nolan had read the script and promptly threw it in the trash. I tried my damnest to find the original source to no end, but if the story’s legit, who can blame him?

Bearing all that in mind, you can understand my skepticism over WB’s next attempt to unite its heroes. Many of the missteps of Mortal can still be easily avoided at this point, so consider the following an open letter to WB on how to properly approach this beast. Objectively, what’s most important is to get the build-up right. The Avengers was such a huge box office success in part because it took its time developing its characters in solo films, giving audience plenty justification why even goofier characters like Thor could be badass. By the time the actual film rolled around, the marketing was practically in the bag. Sure, WB may want to jump straight to the team-up and, if successful, produce spin-offs with the same actors, but it’s an entirely unnecessary gamble. When the company botched last summer’s Green Lantern, the damage was limited to that one character. With JLA, they risk tarnishing multiple potentially profitable properties, and killing off any chance of further films featuring these characters.

Also, it should go without saying that Justice League demands to be part of a shared universe of characters. Creating a stand-alone film featuring different actors than the solo films as Mortal would have is not only insanely lazy, but only serves to confuse audiences. Taking time to plan out each film, its unique place in a larger universe, and being smart about continuity is a must. Thus, if Man of Steel is successful, they’ve got to sign Henry Cavill for Superman. Though I’m sure people will be happy to look the other way if the company were to let Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern contract lapse.

Still, if WB is adamant about moving straight on into Justice League, it’s important they don’t jump right into storylines like Tower of Babel that require prior knowledge of the characters. Something like JLA Year One, giving us ample backstory into who each of these guys are and how they come together would be preferable. And there’s something to be said about using the New 52 for inspiration on the new film. Namely, don’t use the New 52 for inspiration on the new film. Replacing Martian Manhunter with Cyborg, among other alterations in the new comics, is just a flat-out bad idea.

Most importantly, WB needs to get the script right. Lazy storytelling will no longer fly in today’s superhero films; it’s vital they find an accomplished writer, not some in-house brown-noser, who’s passionate enough about the DC Universe to commit him/herself to upholding its established legacy. If the company is dead-set on looking for talent within its own doors, why not turn to Bruce Timm and the animation department? Timm’s team have been creating faithful adaptations of DC comics for twenty years now, surely those guys know a thing or two about how to handle these characters, if not theatrically, then thematically.

At the end of the day, a Justice League film should be a colorful, fun movie that entertains and inspires its audience. As DC’s premiere property, the team requires the same, if not more care and attention than Marvel lent to Avengers. I’ve seen far too many people, writers even, who are convinced Justice League wouldn’t work on film, an admittedly extreme and rather ignorant opinion, given the countless comics and aforementioned Justice League Unlimited cartoon that prove otherwise. It’s up to WB to convince them they’re wrong with a fantastic adaptation that could, in fact, easily blow Iron Man and Co. out of the water. It’s a massive undertaking, WB. Don’t fuck it up. Or worse, bring about another Justice League Mortal.

Killing a Superman: DC’s Grave Misunderstanding of the Man of Steel

Last month, I stumbled across an article by Mike Romo of iFanboy entitled, “Reflections on Superman’s Sad Decline.” In the article, which I highly recommend reading, Romo illustrates the current attitude of many towards the Man of Steel, with some calling him “overpowered”, “unrelatable”, and too “naïve” and “dated” a concept to be relevant to today’s audiences. Romo counters, however, with an excellent point: Superman is too relatable, in that we can all relate to his alienation from humanity, or his desire to do what’s right. And in a more tech-based society, many of Superman’s powers may not seem as amazing as they did back in the 30s. Romo also says this:

Now, it seems to me, that the character who defined the very concept of heroism for so many of us has the potential to be the most relevant, the most complex and most intriguing modern character in all of comic books. Yet it also seems to me that DC does not seem him like this as at all, and, if anything, has forgotten just why Superman is an icon.

As I read that paragraph, I found myself nodding in somber agreement. Superman is the hero, and my favorite superhero since very early childhood. To call Superman irrelevant and outdated is to call every hero as such. But it seems like these days, even the best writers and artists at DC Comics can’t think up ways to make the Last Son of Krypton fresh, or even relevant again. Worse yet, the company and its parent studio Warner Brothers are going about modernizing Superman with a revisionist attitude, rewriting the character into something practically unrecognizable from his namesake. Tragic, to say the least, especially considering how important this character is to DC Comics and indeed the whole of Americana. Thus, I’m compelled to chime in with my own thoughts on the current status of one of the world’s most recognized and beloved icons, and encourage anyone reading this to help promote a better direction for the Man of Tomorrow.

As Romo mentions, one look at certain Superman comics from the past few years shows the extent to which DC has mishandled the Superman property. First we have Geoff Johns’ “Secret Origin”, which merely rehashed everything old and outdated about the character, literally lifting sequences from Superman media of yesteryear. Artist Gary Frank’s Clark Kent is a dead ringer for Superman actor Chistopher Reeve; an unsettling design, especially when Frank draws Clark as a child. Johns’ writing is so stale and uninspired, it sees Superman reminding a child to “drink his orange juice”. It’s a nauseating look at how hackneyed and worn-out many of the character’s past exploits have become.

Then we have Grant Morrison’s T-shirt wearing ““champion of the opressed” Superman in the current New 52 Action Comics. The first issue of the new volume sees a younger, more obnoxious Superman, who dangles villains off buildings and bends crowbars around their necks. Morrison claims to have been inspired by the original Golden Age Superman of 1938, a similarly less-restrained hero, but even that Superman had a sense of maturity and morality about him, with old-timey charm to boot. Needless to say, Morrison’s Superman is not the bright, heroic icon of Truth, Justice, and the American Way I grew up with. He’s written as a punk kid with no concept of responsibility, flaunting his recklessness and generally acting like a douche.

Like “Secret Origin”, Morrison’s Action Comics also features Superman constantly being hunted by the military under General Sam Lane, father of  Lois Lane. This is perhaps my greatest contention with DC’s “modern” take on the mythology – Superman is not a perceived menace to society, nor is he some misunderstood monster, always on the run and feared by the people he protects. That is, in fact, the mythology of Marvel’s Hulk. Why DC would even consider this as a suitable update to the character is beyond me.

Finally, there’s Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League. I haven’t read any of the issues, but judging by the previews and reviews I’ve glanced over, it looks like they’ve turned Superman into more of an alien outsider than ever. Amidst poor writing, I gathered in one such preview that Superman was living in some kind of abandoned computer terminal. No Fortress of Solitude, no Kryptonian artifacts, just Supes in a dismal living space acting as this lonely hermit figure. And I may be a bit off the mark here having not read any full issues of the book, but it seems to me this is yet again entirely unlike the character I know and love. 

Add to that the practically dead-on-arrival film reboot Man of Steel under the largely mediocre direction of Zack Snyder (300) and from a script by the hit-and-miss-but-mostly-miss David Goyer (Batman Begins, the Blade trilogy). Some members of the cast divulged that the film will be considerably “darker” and “edgier”, qualities as fitting for Superman as they are for Mickey Mouse. It’s yet another tonal shift from the clueless Warner Brothers studio that suggests Superman will be taken even further from his roots than the comics have already.

What happened here? What changed so that fans like myself understand how to properly approach this character more than the company that created him? To quote writer Keith Giffen, once involved in a potential Superman vs. Lobo film (see the book “Superman vs. Hollywood” by Jake Rossen for details), “Why would you want to take the single most recognizable pop culture figure and remove everything that’s familiar?”

Let’s look at Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Why are these films so popular amongst fans? Apart from being damn good movies in their own right, they get to the heart of what Batman is all about, asking the big questions of its protagonist – who is the man behind the suit? What drives Bruce Wayne to be Batman? Albeit taking a far lighter approach, a future Superman film should ask similar questions. Who is Clark Kent? How have his values shaped to make him who he is? Why does he choose to take on this awesome responsibility? Why does he choose to embrace the lighter side of humanity and inspire hope and goodwill throughout the world?

And no, the answer to that isn’t “make him darker and angst-ier,” or rehashing the things about him that worked in the past, or drastically altering the character himself. When Clark Kent makes the choice to become Superman, he becomes almost an absolute, an incorruptible, unstoppable force for justice. Superman represents the ultimate good in all of us, what we all aspire to be. Unless his mind is being controlled by one of his enemies or something, that part of Superman doesn’t change. Rather, the answer lies in writing a believable, convincing world around Superman. The character’s ideals are timeless and adaptable to practically whatever changes in scenery modern society may see. Taking possession and other mind-altering villain activity out of the equation, that part of Superman can’t be changed. Rather, the answer lies in crafting a believable, convincing world around him.

A new coat of paint is fine every once in a while. I’m not saying Superman doesn’t require a more modern direction. But to get to the heart of the character, one has to understand that Superman can’t just take on a new personality every time sales start to dip, altering who he is at his core. It’s all about writing a classic, unwavering Superman that inspires hope in those around him. Only then can you make a case for why he’s the greatest superhero out there.

There are still, thankfully, writers out there who understand all that. Romo doesn’t mention it, but George Pérez’s brief, recently concluded six-issue run on Superman, soon to be available in hardcover here, is easily the character’s best arc in years. It’s not only the work of someone who understands who Superman is and what makes that mythology work, but it’s also an effective update. Pérez largely keeps the character the same, changing the world around him to be a bit more cynical and more media-based. Pérez isn’t the best writer out there, but his criminally short tenure works so well because the essence of the character is still there amidst the changes brought on by the New 52.

It’s also nice to see DC adapting the excellent Action Comics #775, better known as “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” into a new direct-to-DVD animated movie titled “Superman vs. the Elite.” I wouldn’t dare spoil the details of the comic, but if you want a truly compelling case for why Superman is still the greatest of all heroes, read that comic or wait for the movie next month.

Still, the artists that truly “get it” are quickly declining in number. Superman used to be the central figure of DC’s entire line, now largely regulated to following in the shadow of Batman. Meanwhile, Morrison’s Action Comics and Johns’ Justice League continue to sell well, having all but removed the true magic of the character. The Man of Steel celebrates his 75th anniversary next year, and I fear the festivities will be tainted by these aforementioned mischaracterizations. Nothing super about that.

Review: March Comics (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

The Curse of Shazam! Part 1 (Justice League #7)

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An ordinary passerby recounts a surreal experience of getting into an elevator and being whisked away to a magical realm, where he is quickly deemed unworthy and returned to Earth. Several others recount similar experiences, collected together by the crazed Doctor Sivana, who believes them to be the evidence he needs to prove magic exists. Meanwhile, troubled young orphan Billy Batson puts on a happy face for a prospective foster family in a ruse to get out of the foster system, but higher powers have bigger things in mind for the mischievous young man.

I’ve never really been a fan of Captain Marvel, or “Shazam” as he’s being called now. As something of a Superman rip-off with a magical twist (according to the courts at least), the character never really seemed to stand out as much as he should have. The concept is interesting, but I found a lot of the so-called “high points” of the mythology, like Jerry Ordway’s Power of Shazam, or Jeff Smith’s Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil to be both horribly dated and nauseatingly childish. In my mind, Shazam needed this update.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised with the new take written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Gary Frank. Billy Batson acts more like a real kid, and I loved the scene where he and the foster care lady worked together just so they could be rid of each other. It’s more interesting to have a kid be stuck in the foster care system on his own accord, rather than simply be homeless, down on his luck, and living in an abandoned apartment. I also like the Shazam’s new look (pictured above). The hood not only gives him a more magical sensibility, but also works as a way of eliminating the Superman comparisons, which the character incurred mostly as a result of his chiseled jaw, black hair, and winning smile.

Curse of Shazam is darker and more adult, both sorely needed alterations to an ailing character. Writer Geoff Johns explained to Newsarama, “Batman had Year One and Superman had Man of Steel, Wonder Woman had George Pérez, and all these characters kept evolving. And changing. Shazam didn’t really have that consistent publishing. A lot of great creators could have introduced some great takes on the character if he had.” My sentiments exactly, and though Curse of Shazam seems to be taking steps to eliminate some of the more ridiculous bits of the mythology, the story still manages to remain true to the heart of the character, an important part of modernization.

I do take issue with the fact that the villain Doctor Sivana literally looks and acts exactly like Lex Luthor. It really is best not to draw more Superman comparisons right when you’ve begun a whole new approach to Shazam. On the whole, though, Curse of Shazam is a great start to a much-needed update of the mythology, and DC would do well to consider giving the character a book of his own.

Recommended, if only for this story, not Justice League, because that shit sucks.

 

Superman #7

Superman is targeted by the demon Helspont and his army of daemonites, who challenge Superman on his home turf of Metropolis. After a short battle and annoyed by spectators and media types, Superman flies off, leaving the people to complain about having to pick up the damage left behind. Meanwhile, Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent struggles to balance his day-to-day job and his responsibilities as Superman.

Following in the footsteps of George Pérez, the book’s new creative team of Keith Giffen (co-writing) and former 90s Superman writer/artist Dan Jurgens (co-writing and pencils), and also carrying over Jesus Merino (finished art)from Pérez’s run, Superman #7 is another great jumping on point for new readers. Where Pérez effectively modernized Supes by placing him in a more cynical, media-based society, Jurgens and Giffen run with those same themes, portraying a Metropolis that isn’t overwhelmingly appreciative of the big blue boyscout, the reception to his heroics being decidedly mixed.

What I like about this issue specifically is that we finally get to see Clark in his ordinary routine at the Daily Planet for the first time in the New 52, just a normal guy in over his head and back to his old self after the events of Pérez’s run. Jurgen’s pencils in these Daily Planet scenes are a little more cartoony than I’d prefer – some panels make Clark look more like the Angry Video Game Nerd than a Man of Steel in disguise. Still, they get the job done, and at least now Perry White actually looks like Perry White, and not…well, how he was drawn in the first six issues.

A standout moment in Issue #7 is when we get to see Supes actually change into the new costume for the first time. A lot of fans, including myself, wondered how Clark could disguise the Superman armor under his normal civilian attire. Now, all is revealed and…well, you be the judge:

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(The above image belongs to DC Comics. I do not own, nor am I affiliated with DC/Time Warner)

And…I don’t like it. I’m all for modernization, but having Superman tear off his shirt, reveal the logo, and suddenly appear in the costume moments later is an iconic transformation and certainly not one worth changing in favor of…this. Of course it makes no sense for him to be wearing red boots under his clothes, it’s Superman, a property heavily reliant on suspension of disbelief. This “Kryptonian biotech” business just reeks of a bad 90s idea, a way of putting a new spin on the character that absolutely will not last. We don’t need some derivative, unnatural explanation for how Supes changes into his costume; getting caught up in petty details like that just takes me right out of the fantasy DC is constantly working to maintain.

That above image alone says volumes of Issue #7’s underlying feeling of being at odds with itself. Sure, we still get a look at the classic shirt-tear in the upper right-hand panel, but the assimilation of the actual suit that follows feels altogether different and poorly designed, like a compromise between two writers locked in a game of tug-of-war (both Giffen and Jurgens readily admit their differing visions here).

Overall, I didn’t care for this issue as much as I did any of the first six issues, but Superman #7 is still worth checking out, I suppose, if only to see where the new team may be taking the book from here on out.

Recommended.

 

The Flash #7

The Flash continues battling the evil Captain Cold, saving the lives of people plummeting towards an icy abyss in the process. But after defeating Cold and rescuing the citizens, including alter-ego Barry Allen’s girlfriend Patty, Flash discovers that by exceeding his set speed boundaries, he inadvertently opened a wormhole that sucked more people, among them reporter Iris West, into another dimension. In addition, Patty now believes Barry to be dead, blaming The Flash for the incident. Flash must now create a new wormhole to get Iris and the others back, but will Central City turn on the Scarlet Speedster by the time he returns?

I have never followed a series authored and illustrated by the exact same people with such glaring inconsistency in writing quality. The new Flash series has had so many varying ups and downs that each issue is a toss-up for passable writing. Luckily, this time the coin has landed right-side up, finally giving readers some significant superheroics that have been sorely missed in the series so far.

Supported by some decent writing this time around, the artwork is, as always, quite stunning. The blank whiteness of the cold setting is a great contrast to Flash’s bright red-and-yellow color scheme. I like the new characterization for Cold – he’s much more of a serious threat to Flash than in previous years, receiving updates in appearance, powers, and overall dangerousness. Despite Geoff Johns’ pushing Professor Zoom on readers in recent years, I’ll always see Cold as the Joker to Flash’s Batman, and this issue really makes a solid case for that notion.

I’d prefer to see a better, more consistent writer on the book, but on the whole, I like seeing the new, revitalized Rogues in action, and I may yet stick around for the upcoming arc featuring Gorilla Grodd.

Recommended.

 

All-Star Western #7

Jonah Hex and Amadeus Arkham are welcomed into the city of New Orleans with a bang – literally. A nearby building blows up and catches fire, forcing Hex to leap into action to save a little girl from the flames. Hex’s antics attract the attention of Nighthawk and Cinnamon, two crusading cowpolks who enlist Hex’s help in tracking down the bombers. As Hex is snooping around a gladiatorial stadium, he gets caught up in his own ring fight to the death.

All-Star Western once again proves itself to be a consistently good book, and Issue #7 is no exception. As I’ve mentioned before, in the more-than-capable hands of Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and artist Moriart, the book remains one of the best New 52 titles on the market.

There’s an amusing scene where Nighthawk and Cinammon are getting suited up, and they ask Arkham if he has any masked vigilantes back in Gotham, to which Arkham brands the mere notion ridiculous and unnecessary. One wonders how the present-day Caped Crusader would respond to such a notion.

But as fun a read as All-Star Western is, I’m torn on how much longer I’ll continue following it. I’m a bit burned out on Jonah Hex for now, and I did mention in my January comic review post that I wasn’t planning on sticking around for much longer. That said, there’s nothing particularly wrong with Issue #7, though I do miss Arkham’s internal monologues on Hex’s behavior, like the one in Issue #1. A similar analysis of the anti-hero’s behavior could’ve certainly made this issue’s opening scene more meaningful.

Still, there’s little to complain about in this week’s All-Star Western, and I’d be remiss to let my own feelings on the mythology to keep me from recommending a solid, well-written, and great-looking issue.

Recommended.

 

That’s all for this month. In April, I’ll be posting about Green Lantern: the Animated Series, reviewing the first issues of the upcoming Avengers vs. X-Men event, and hopefully taking a look at the new Ultimate Spider-Man show. Stay tuned!

Review: Justice League Doom

As many of you may know by now, I’m a huge DC fan. But as huge a fan as I am, the now half-decade old line of DC original animated movies usually don’t inspire much more than a shrug of indifference from me. While quite a few of the films are solid enough in their own right, most of the time the potential exists for them to be something even better. The latest installment in the line, Justice League Doom, released last month on Blu-Ray and DVD, stands as yet another example of one such run-of-the-mill adaptation of a great comic book.

Produced by DC animation mainstay Bruce Timm, written by the late Dwayne McDuffie, and based on Mark Waid’s beloved “Tower of Babel” arc, Doom finds the heroes of the Justice League under attack by the immortal Vandal Savage and his Legion of Doom. The Legion organizes a plan to exploit the weaknesses of each JLA member in ways that only the League’s closest allies would know about. The Leaguers soon discover that Batman secretly devised plans to neutralize each of them, which then fell into the wrong hands. The League must pull together, overcome their weaknesses, and defeat Savage and the Legion, but will they ever be able to trust one another again?

Much of Doom’s appeal is getting to hear the voices of Tim Daly (playing Superman), Kevin Conroy (Batman), Susan Eisenberg (Wonder Woman), Michael Rosenbaum (The Flash), and Carl Lumby (Martian Manhunter) filling their former roles from Bruce Timm’s old Justice League TV series. Fan-favorite Nathan Fillion returns from his turn in last year’s Green Lantern: Emerald Knights to voice Green Lantern Hal Jordan again, though Fillion has a ways to go before he’ll be as accomplished as his fellow cast members.

If only the animation could better support such talent. Cutting corners with an anime-style design, characters’ eyes never move, their mouths move in two repeated frames, etc. This technique works when it’s executed properly, but here, it just looks cheap. Faltering sales in these direct-to-DVD films are likely a contributing factor, but perhaps sales wouldn’t be down in the first place if the creative team consistently went the extra mile in its visuals.

While there’s always a certain amount of awkward, pulpy dialogue in these movies, Doom seems keen to amp the cheese factor significantly. There’s a scene when Vandal Savage and the Legion of Doom laugh and celebrate the destruction of the Justice League together which probably should’ve been prefaced by this:

Classic.

Superfriends jokes aside, where both Tower of Babel and Doom shine is in their creative ways of neutralizing the individual Leaguers, giving the League’s greatest enemies a way to pinpoint each Leaguer’s weaknesses in his/her powers and personalities. Babel’s traps were a bit more effective, shocking, and seemingly long-term, whereas Doom, suffering from a criminally short runtime, features more generic, run-of-the-mill, and easily undone traps. For one, Superman is taken out by a Kryptonite bullet, something we’ve seen in various media several times before.

I especially didn’t care for the way Green Lantern was handled. In Tower of Babel, Kyle Rayner (Green Lantern at the time) is blinded and, as a painter by trade, cannot visualize the images he wants the ring to form, rendering it useless to him. In Doom, the villain Star Sapphire leads Hal Jordan into a mine and ends up killing a hostage, telling him he could’ve saved her and that he’s unworthy of the ring. Hal simply drops the ring and seems to completely give up hope, thus disabling him. Quite the contrast…is this really the best the team behind Doom could come up with? All Hal needs is a good pep talk, what villain would seriously think this was a good solution for eliminating Green Lantern? The film later tacks on an explanation for Hal’s behavior, but it’s flimsy and doesn’t excuse what is, frankly, poor writing. Simply put, a mere hour-and-fifteen minutes isn’t enough time to get this story across with the amount of weight and thoughtfulness it deserves.

As with any adaptation, Doom takes a few liberties with the source material. Among the deviations from Tower of Babel are replacing Ra’s Al Ghul with Vandal Savage and the Legion of Doom, or at least, a version of the Legion that’s limited to an obscure member of each Leaguer’s respective rogue’s gallery. One subplot involving Batman’s parents being removed from their graves is altered for Doom, but without revealing anything, Ra’s purpose for doing so in Tower of Babel was far more sinister and compelling.

Doom also chooses to stick longtime Teen Titan Cyborg into the JLA to reflect the hero’s Leaguer status in the New 52 initiative going on in the comics right now. It also changes Kyle Rayner and Wally West, the Green Lantern and Flash during Tower of Babel, to the original members to hold their respective mantles, Hal Jordan and Barry Allen, which again reflects the current comic status. The latter two changes I don’t particularly mind, but Cyborg is incredibly out of place here, included only as a cheap promotional tool for the New 52.

Budget constraints result in Doom not being able to realize its full potential, bringing nothing new to the table and failing to come close to the effectiveness of the original Tower of Babel. It’s also more tailored to casual fans of the DC Universe, non-comic readers with only a passing familiarity of the mythology, rather than diehard fans who will probably be just as nitpicky over the details of the film as I was. Overall though, Justice League Doom is still a decent enough addition to DC’s recent animated adaptations. With a great premise and a familiar, perfectly-cast ensemble, the film is certainly worth checking out for fans of the characters or prospective audiences interested in the universe.

6.5/10