In-Depth Movie Reviews & High Quality Trailers

DC Comics

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman Mask of the PhantasmI am so glad that I did see this animated feature in theatres twenty years ago.  Being a major fan of the animated series, there was no way I couldn’t be excited for it, and it has become a very respected high mark in the DC Animated Universe.  Batman: Mask of the Phantasm does tend to get lost in the mix when discussing the best Batman or even best superhero movies because it was an animated feature.  The film didn’t perform well in theatres, likely do to a less than aggressive marketing campaign.  Even professional film critics Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert did not see it in its theatrical run, but when they did eventually watch it, they indeed loved it.  So, with this preface, I think it’s easy to deduce that this is a definite favorite of mine.

When Gotham City’s most feared gangsters are systematically eliminated, the Cape Crusader is blamed, but prowling the night is a shadowy new villain, the Phantasm, a sinister figure with a vengeful agenda.  Meanwhile, Andrea Beaumont, the one time love of Bruce Wayne’s life, returns to Gotham City stirring up memories including those of how he almost didn’t become Batman.  As all of this unfolds, and the Phantasm becomes a more imminent, lethal threat, the Joker is brought into the fold as a major wild card.  Now, can the Dark Knight elude the police, capture the Phantasm and clear his name?

If you’re unfamiliar with the 1990’s animated series, you need not worry.  This film works entirely as a standalone feature, but for those who were serious fans, there’s a great sense of expansion and increased depth that this film offers.  This is a great story interweaving all threads into an excellent Batman origin, romance, and superhero action movie.  The heart of it is the romantic and heartbreaking story between Bruce and Andrea.  It starts with so much hope and passion, but as with many of Bruce’s loves, it ends in despair and some tragedy.  It’s a beautifully crafted tale that does touch an audience’s heart, and truly shows the emotional depth and humanity of Bruce before and after he becomes Batman.

This film shows us the events leading directly up to Bruce Wayne actually becoming Batman.  I love seeing his first outing as a crime-fighter.  It’s just him in black street attire and a ski mask.  He has the skills, but not the persona, yet.  Batman hasn’t been born, and thus, the key essentially elements of intimidation and mystique aren’t in play.  He’s not the haunting creature of the night that will frighten the criminal element, and afterwards, Bruce realizes that is what he’s missing.  It’s a thrilling action scene as Bruce takes down a group of thieves, and then, hangs off the back of an open van during a police chase.  Yet, the very moment where Bruce Wayne dons the cowl and becomes Batman for the first time is a quintessential moment in my Batman fandom.  No other film has ever matched this moment for me.  Done wholly in shadows, it is a purely simple scene, but perfectly effective and iconic in my eyes.  When he turns to reveal himself to Alfred, the reaction from Bruce’s loyal and lifelong butler is pure shock and fear.  That still sends chills all over my body.

Now, I absolutely love how the stories of Bruce and Andrea intertwine.  The flashbacks to their hot and fast romance are beautiful and classy.  You can see that Bruce is ready to give up the vigilante nightlife to be happy with Andrea forever, but the shady elements of her father, Carl Beaumont’s business dealings forge an inevitable wedge between Bruce and Andrea.  Smartly, these elements are the core of the present day story between Batman and the Phantasm.  It’s also a great turn that the Phantasm’s murders are framed on Batman simply by misidentification.  This forces the Gotham Police to begin a manhunt against Batman, but strongly true to his character, Commissioner Gordon refuses to be apart of it.  He knows that Batman doesn’t kill, and that little moment shows the bond of trust between Gordon and the Dark Knight.  It’s only a shame that that is Gordon’s only scene in the film.  Every aspect of this story flows organically and tightly.  With a 76 minute runtime, it could move at no other or better pace.

By no doubt, Kevin Conroy has been the definitive voice of Batman for over two decades now for legions of fans.  Whenever I read a Batman comic book, it is his voice that I hear as Bruce Wayne and Batman.  Conroy reflects all the best qualities of the character from the upbeat playboy, the serious businessman, the dark, brooding man in the shadows, and the powerfully imposing Dark Knight.  The most important thing is he brings life, depth, and intelligence to Batman.  Producer Bruce Timm and co-writer Paul Dini perfectly understood the character, and throughout this DCAU from Batman: The Animated Series to Batman Beyond to Justice League Unlimited, they stayed true to the core of Batman.  The ideals of justice, humanity, and undying determination have always thrived in this animated interpretation.  Beyond anything else, we see the world’s greatest detective at work, which is something none of the live action films have ever fully embraced.  Batman unravels the mystery of the Phantasm and these crime bosses with cunning and perceptive intelligence.  Conroy embodies all of these subtle, inspiring, and engaging qualities of Batman with a lot of heart and care.  It might only be voice work, but this still stands as the best adaptation of the character to date.

And I couldn’t discount Mark Hamill’s Joker.  Much like with Conroy, he has been a definitive voice for the character to many fans for so long, but has had real competition from great actors in this role.  I am a fan of all versions from Ceasar Romero to Jack Nicholson and beyond.  With the Joker, there’s almost no wrong way to go with him because he is such a radically unpredictable character that he could be very Romero one day and very Ledger the next.  What Hamill does is make the Joker this insane clown who will do whatever hits the biggest punchline in his own twisted mind.  He will still likely kill you, but he’s going to laugh his ass off doing it.  Hamill brings the jovial zaniness meshed with a lethal intimidation that forges a colorful maniac that is endlessly fun and entertaining while still being a major threat.

Beyond the fact that I do really adore Dana Delany, I believe she was a perfect choice to voice Andrea.  She brings a touching beauty of heart and soul to the character.  As the younger Andrea, she’s very optimistic and vibrant.  She’s a young woman with everything to love and embrace in life.  In the present day, she’s a little more heartbroken and tender.  There’s a great emotional complexity to her by the end which is very sad and sympathetic.  Delaney is a wonderful, charming actress, and she does a remarkable job voicing Andrea Beaumont.

The animation style of this feature film is definitely a solid step upwards from the series with more dramatic shading, and a bit more dynamic action sequences.  The opening title sequence even features a beautiful CGI fly through of the Gotham City skyline.  The entire series was heavily inspired by the classic Max Fleisher Superman cartoons, and that is very evident, especially with the great art deco designs.  Adapting this style to Batman pushed everything into a great film noir realm that works stunningly for him.

The main theme from Danny Elfman for Tim Burton’s Batman movies lived on in this DC Animated Universe.  They were reworked by the great, and now late, Shirley Walker.  For this feature, she makes it even more gothic and haunting with a beautiful chorus.  Yet, that’s only just the start of her stunning work.  It’s a fantastic score that rouses an audience, and nails all over the wonderful emotional beats.

And there is plenty of thrilling action throughout this movie.  The Phantasm’s stalking of mob bosses are dark, shadowy, and even a little scary.  They have a looming, ominous presence.  The film unfolds some rousing and even explosive moments at a regular interval, but they entirely flow from the progression of the plot.  Nothing’s extraneous, and it really wastes no time crashing you headlong into the action and story.  The climax with Batman and the Joker at the abandoned World’s Fair is pretty fun.  It shows the Joker’s dangerous playfulness, and creates an escalating sense of peril as he has rigged the whole place to explode.  Yet, the movie ends on the appropriate emotional beats remembering that the story is paramount, and it treats its character with due respect.

Unlike many live action movies, this animated feature was given a lot of creative freedom to its production team, and they were able to deliver a very well fleshed out, wonderfully balanced story.  This is entirely reflective of the quality that was consistently on display with the animated series and its spin-offs and follow-ups.  If you’ve never seen Batman: The Animated Series, this is a great introduction to it, and if you’ve watched and loved it, this is a gem that will satisfy your fandom.  Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a delightful and amazing animated Batman adventure that is well worth your time.


Man of Steel (2013)

Man of SteelMan of Steel was my most anticipated film of the year.  Not for an instant did I doubt it from any piece of marketing that came out.  Each trailer and TV spot just got increasingly better raising my excitement for this more and more.  Everything kept giving me hope for an amazing film experience.  I know there’s a full spectrum of opinions out there right now, but take it from someone who grew up on Christopher Reeve as Superman, whose main inspiration in life has been Christopher Reeve, from some who loved Smallville, and feels Superman is the most epic and emotionally powerful superhero of all time – I really liked this movie A LOT!  There’s plenty to get into here, and you can count on zero spoilers.

On the planet Krypton, renowned scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) discovers the hope for his seemingly doomed society in his newborn son Kal-El, but it is nearly thwarted by an attempted insurrection by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is later sentenced to the Phantom Zone before the planet’s demise.  Years later, on Earth, a young boy learns that he has extraordinary powers and is not of this Earth.  As a young man, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) journeys to discover where he came from and what he was sent here to do.  But the hero in him must emerge if he is to save the world from annihilation by the now freed Zod and become the symbol of hope for all mankind.

Okay, I really, really enjoyed this movie, but I just want to get my one big critique out of the way right up front.  It’s nothing damaging, just a structural issue.  The film does follow a linear storytelling structure except for all of the scenes of Clark growing up, and everything with Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, who does a fine, heartfelt job here.  These scenes are all very good, but I really think the film needed for us to go on that journey with Clark instead of flashbacking to isolated moments in his upbringing.  I didn’t feel as much build up as I wanted to with Clark discovering his origins and donning the costume.  We don’t get to see the linear development of Clark struggling through the pain, the adversity, the fear, and the doubt in his youth to see how he really overcomes and grows stronger through that.  If there’s any one major flaw with this film, it’s simply that.  It worked wonderfully in Batman Begins because we still saw Bruce Wayne develop and find his way in the world as an adult before dedicating himself to becoming Batman.  Here, it feels a little short on that emotional journey and impact, and the film would feel a little stronger if that played out linearly instead of through flashbacks.  Clark dons the Superman costume within the first, probably, thirty-five minutes of the movie.

Of course, I suppose the main question for everyone is with Henry Cavill.  By no doubt, the film lives or dies by his performance.  For me, he does a great job.  He gives us a grounded portrayal that feels real and genuine.  The somewhat familiar Clark Kent secret identity is not fleshed out until the end, and so, it is a story of Clark deciding what kind of man he wants to be.  Cavill does embody an honest sense of hope, and has a strong physical presence.  He trained extremely hard to achieve this physique, and it makes all the difference when you see him walking down the street in that suit.  He just exudes power.  When he is not being Superman, he feels very grounded and honest.  He stays true to Clark’s Kansas farm boy roots being a man of morality and admirable strength of character.  Clark is developing throughout the film, and continues to push his limits of what he can do, not just in terms of powers but in terms of determination.  Superman is a hero who never gives up regardless of the odds, and here, the odds are tremendously against him.  Yet, through hell and back, Cavill’s Superman shows us an icon of power that can inspire others to greater heights than ever imagined.  While he doesn’t usurp Christopher Reeve’s inspiring magic, this feels like a Superman for a modern era that still has potential for further development in the already greenlit sequel.  I feel Henry Cavill is a great successor to the mantle of the Last Son of Krypton, and he gives us plenty of humanity that shines through on the screen.

And this film is going to challenge many people on their long held preconceptions of the traditional Superman mythos.  I’m sure there will be some that are resistant to this approach, but it ultimately laid my apprehensions to rest.  The relationship with Lois Lane is built up very differently as she is closely associated with Clark / Superman throughout the film, and they develop a great, emotionally intimate connection.  Amy Adams does a wonderful job as Lois Lane, and what she and Cavill have together is purely stunning.  There’s an honest depth of emotion and understanding between them that shines through beautifully.  Lois is not a damsel in distress either.  Yes, she gets into perilous situations, but she is an active part of this story and plot.  She’s very integral to stopping Zod’s genocide of humanity.  Because she becomes so closely tied to Superman, she remains relevant to everything that’s happening.  Of course, most pertinent of all, we see her as a dogged yet relatable journalist.  Adams swirls a lot of different qualities into Lois from her determination as a reporter to her compassion and strength.  She was a pleasure to witness here, and I think she also brings this character into a grounded, modern age that still remains true to the core, classic aspects of Lois Lane.

Having no easy shoes to fill himself, Michael Shannon takes General Zod and runs with him in his own way.  There’s absolutely no catering to fan service here.  He’s built up as his own character through Shannon’s awesome portrayal.  He’s a bonafide bad ass villain bred as a warrior to protect Krypton at any cost, and he’s given solid depth.  You understand what he’s doing, and why he’s doing it.  Everything Zod does is for the sake of the people of Krypton, but he is a megalomaniacal, genocidal madman willing to eradicate our planet to fulfill his inherent purpose.  This is no weak or generic adversary.  Shannon has great presence that really commands your undivided attention, and he delivers a chilling General Zod that can be frightening by his sheer mercilessness.  This is a Zod who’s going to kill everyone in his path without a moment’s hesitation, and that’s just awesome.

There’s a great supporting cast here, but in short, here are the heavy hitters.  Laurence Fishburne is a damn solid Perry White.  I know there are people bothered by the classic character’s change in race, but Fishburne is a tremendously awesome actor who delivers the goods with strength, nuance, and passion.  Diane Lane is a lovely Martha Kent bringing a subtle, tender touch at the right moments in Clark’s story.  Antje Traue portrays Zod’s second-in-command Faora-Ul fantastically.  She’s extremely imposing and lethal.  Anyone who thought this was just Ursa revamped, don’t do that.  She’s not given as much development as Zod, but she’s a hardcore ass kicking machine.  Beyond that, there’s just a lot of really quality performances throughout this film that does what a supporting cast is meant to do – build a solid foundation for the leads to springboard off of and launch the film into the stratosphere.

And indeed, lest I forget, we get Russell Crowe portraying the great Jor-El.  I found his performance quite admirable with a unique sophistication, compassion, and depth.  The real Jor-El is seen only on Krypton at the start, and it’s great seeing Crowe doing some action oriented work alongside some inspiring emotional beats.  Later on, we see Jor-El as merely a projection through Kryptonian technology, and there is indeed still that strength and emotion present when meeting with Kal-El or confronting Zod.  Yet, since he also works as sort of a computer program, there’s a more clinical portrayal of him in those instances where analytical guidance is needed.  While I don’t wish to draw comparisons for my own sake, I know people are interested in the comparison to Marlon Brando.  I do feel Brando wins in this situation.  I think Crowe is an amazing actor demonstrating his best performance in what I consider Michael Mann’s best film, The Insider.  However, Brando will always stand as one of the finest, most powerful actors of all time when he was in his prime.  Crowe’s Jor-El is more fallible and vulnerable, by design, where Brando’s was inspirational and infallible through and through.  For this Jor-El, Crowe hits it right on the mark, and I wouldn’t ask for him to change a thing.

Man of Steel also features plenty of action, and the more we get, the bigger and badder it gets.  It just builds and builds to flat out epic proportions!  We get moments where Superman has to push himself so hard to destroy Zod’s terra-forming machine that it becomes pure epic Superman awesomeness.  Earlier on, there are some brutal knock down, drag out fights between the Kryptonian soldiers and Superman.  While it almost seems futile for beings of seemingly equal strength and invulnerability to just keep pummeling one another, it generally works very satisfactorily.  What’s more impressive is when Faora is using her super strength and speed to just blitz through a dozen soldiers at a time.  This is all the kind of stuff Superman II couldn’t do because of the limitations of effects at the time, but this delivers in full throttle mode.

And I’m sorry, but The Avengers be damned with this climax.  Superman versus Zod is the epic throwdown of the decade!  They beat the living hell out of one another, smashing up Metropolis from top to bottom with full on ferocity.  While some of the CGI can get to appearing somewhat obvious at some times, you knew this was going to be a CGI-heavy affair from the start to achieve extremely fantastical feats.  So, aside from those small moments, this is some stunning and awesome digital effects work!  It integrates so beautifully and realistically with the grounded, slightly gritty feel of the film in my eyes.  The design of Krypton is very alien and somewhat bleak, but still stunning and enveloping.

And Zack Snyder has well proved he is a brilliant visual director.  I’m a big fan of the Watchmen movie he made, and it’s amazing how much his visual style shifted for the material here.  Indeed, I think the Christopher Nolan touch as a producer influenced that, but this is indeed Snyder’s film.  Director of photography Amir Mokri has clearly not done anything that would suggest a film of this visual depth and emotion, but he does a remarkable job realizing Snyder’s vision.  And again, that translates fully into the visual effects on every level.  Every moment reflects a film of epic scope in terms of size and emotion.

By no doubt, the score by master composer Hans Zimmer is perfect for this movie.  Yet again, separating this film from that iconic John Williams theme wasn’t easy for even Zimmer, but he honed his talent and found the sound for Man of Steel.  His main theme has weight and emotion creating a driving rhythm from twelve of the world’s best drummers.  When the scene is rousing and building towards something big and drama, the score is just powerful.  Still, he has a touching piano version of that theme which really plucks the heartstrings in the more tender, lower key moments.  It’s a stunning piece of work he crafted here, and this is a score that I will treasure to own right alongside that original John Williams score from the 1978 film.  Both work on the right epic and inspirational levels for the types of the films they accompanied, and I love them both!

Man of Steel does feature a certain amount of depth that I felt was very good.  Clark finding his purpose and learning who he wants to be has very apt and meaningful.  Although, I do feel there was one missed moment for a little more character development and reflection.  After learning his origins and having a discussion with Lois about Jonathan Kent, Clark returns home, and shortly thereafter, Zod’s message is transmitted around the world forcing that plot forward.  I feel a scene or two of reflection and development right before that plot is introduced would have been perfect.  It would’ve allowed Clark’s journey of discovery to settle in more, and understand where his mindset is at this point in time before being propelled into the public eye.  We do get a number of very good introspective scenes following this in regards to Zod’s ultimatum for Kal-El to reveal himself, but a short lull would’ve felt right to me.  But that’s just me.

Of course, once Zod arrives in Earth’s orbit, the film just propels forward at a very consistent pace.  It’s not break neck, but it certainly doesn’t slow down much for character building.  We do get moments of emotion, passion, and insight into Clark, Lois, and Zod at certain points.  Still, I feel that there is room for further development in a Man of Steel sequel.  I think there’s still much to explore about this Superman, and an even further distance for him to mature and grow.  The foundation is strongly and solidly laid out here, and director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer can launch everything into a even vaster and deeper place next time.

This is the best film of the year for me by a long shot!  Man of Steel might show some room for improvement, but it delivers on so many epic and powerful levels that I give this a wholehearted recommendation.  If you are a Superman fan willing to embrace a fresh approach that still carries on the spirit of everything that encapsulates the greatest superhero of all time, this is your film to see.  I have no problem with the redesigned suit now that I see it in full bombastic action, and this film has plenty of inspiring imagery.  While we came to believe a long time ago that a man could fly, today, we can believe that Superman can once again live and thrive on the big screen once again.  My hope is restored in full.


Superman II – The Richard Donner Cut (2006)

Superman II RDCThe preface to this review and this version of Superman II in general is that this is more of a rough draft reconstruction of Richard Donner’s original vision of the film.  As much of Donner’s footage was culled together and assembled for this edition, but there’s even a screen test used for one scene and a lot of special effects that are not comparable to what would have been done in 1980.  This version also follows the intended original ending for Superman: The Movie where it would’ve ended on a cliffhanger of Luthor’s missiles being hurled into space and its explosion freeing Zod and his cohorts from the Phantom Zone.  So, even then, this is not the film we would’ve gotten had Donner finished filming this sequel.  So, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get deep into this special and unique version of Superman II.

Freed from the Phantom Zone by an exploding missile in space, General Zod (Terence Stamp) leads his fellow Kryptonian criminals on the path to super-powered tyranny over the planet Earth.  Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon.  As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) forces a series of events for Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) to reveal himself as Superman.  This leads to a romance between Lois and Clark, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.

The highlights of this version are the inclusion of Marlon Brando’s scenes as Jor-El.  We get a truncated version of Zod’s trial from the first film, conducted by Jor-El, with a few different angles thrown in.  This better establishes Zod’s personal contempt for Jor-El.  However, the best Brando content is in the Fortress of Solitude.  Clark’s interactions with Jor-El as he professes his love for Lois is strongly substantive and nearly heartbreaking.  Jor-El pleading with his son to think about his actions and re-consider his choices is a powerful scene, and is further enhanced when Clark learns of Zod’s tyranny on Earth and seeks to regain his powers.  This is the single biggest and best improvement from the Lester to the Donner cut.  We see how he gets his powers back, and while Reeves’ acting is deeper and more powerful in the Lester version, the overall scene has more impact and meaning with this interaction.  Brando’s presence simply enhances the emotional and consequential scope of the story.  This is due to Jor-El’s overall importance, and the quality of Brando’s legendary talent.

This version also excises nearly all of the silly humor that Richard Lester put into the film.  This makes for a leaner, more serious movie, and that’s exactly what Superman II required.  It has plenty of substance and thematic weight that shines through more clearly with that consistency of tone.  However, there are some structural problems that arise from this.  While I find this to be a faster paced version of the film, I don’t especially see it as a more streamlined or as well plotted of a version.

This version does have good ideas and intentions, but I think the editing is too aggressive to excise more and more Lester footage.  Beyond just having this match Donner’s version, a certain percentage of his directed footage has to be present for him to take credit as the film’s director by DGA rules.  This, along with the new timeline of events, affects the pacing and structure of the film in some negative ways.  For instance, Zod and company are freed from the Phantom Zone, and then, don’t reappear for another twenty minutes.  Then, after the moon scene, they don’t appear on Earth for another fifteen minutes.  Then, once there, the film jumps ahead so abruptly that within a one minute cutaway scene to Lois and Superman having dinner in the Fortress, it goes from their abbreviated encounter with the two cops on the outskirts of the town to them reaching international television coverage on their reign of terror.  Scenes are strung together in choppy ways to excise Lester’s comedy and to remove entire sequences that might be a little funny but also establish informative plot progression and gradual build-up.  The structure has some good intentions by tightening up the pace in a more modern way, and getting straight to the point, but ultimately, it doesn’t feel well balanced or evenly paced.

And it might be a nit-picky thing, but if these events happen within a day or two after the first film, how in the world is Lex able to build both a holographic projector and his alpha waves detector within that time?  I was realizing how much more sense some of Luthor’s dialogue with Otis was with these events happening immediately after those of the first movie, and then, that idea sprung to mind.  Some stuff works in that context, but other stuff, not so much.

Some of what I don’t feel works as well in that compressed timeframe is Lois’ suspicions about Clark being Superman.  First off, I think it’s rather abrupt as she begins suspecting right from the film’s start.  It’s not something built up in the first movie, and is introduced here at full throttle.  Lois also does some insanely radical things to prove it such as jumping out the window of the Daily Planet.  Furthermore, Lois and Clark have only known each other now for a few weeks, and Clark’s now willing to give up everything for her.  The dialogue between him and Jor-El alludes to him serving mankind for a long time.  He says things like, “After all I’ve done for them….will there ever be a time where I’ve served enough?”  In this version of the film, he’s only been Superman, again, for a few weeks, at most.  It simply doesn’t fit.  In Lester’s cut, you get the feeling that he has been around for quite a while, possibly a few years, but here, that is not the case at all.  This film picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of the first movie allowing for no such leeway.

The screen test scene is where Lois forces Clark to reveal himself as Superman.  Of course, this scene is jarring as Christopher Reeve looks quite different, even from shot to shot, as his hairstyle and glasses are different from the rest of the movie, and two screen tests were combined for one scene.  He’s also particularly thinner.  However, I especially don’t approve of Lois’ drastic measures, yet again.  Even though she loads the gun with blanks, the connotation is abhorrent.  Blanks or no, Superman or not, it’s not something you do to someone you love.  Not to mention, I’m sure even Clark could tell that no bullet impacted his man of steel body.  However, the real downside of this scene is that it’s not remotely effective or has nearly as much build up as the scene in the Lester version.  There’s more subtlety and underlining character and emotion in the Lester version where Clark feigns burning his hand in the honeymoon suite fireplace.  It’s also better acted as, again, Donner’s version is probably the first time Reeve and Kidder ever worked with one another.  Even if it were a properly produced scene, I just don’t like Lois pulling a gun on Clark.

The new digital effects for this version are divided in quality.  The one exceptional area is in the Fortress of Solitude with Jor-El’s projections.  You can sometimes tell they are digital composites, but overall, they are the best CGI this film has to offer.  They have a near dead-on look and feel to what we saw in the first movie.  Sadly, there are some really atrocious digital effects and composites on display here, especially the ones in space.  Those outer space background plates look like terribly cartoonish and laughable.  You would NEVER release a film with these cheap looking digital effects into a movie theatre.  Even for a low budget direct-to-video feature they are horrible.  Some of the effects in the Earth based scenes are more easily blended, but still leave a lot of room for improvement.  It is sad that you see other films of that era like Blade Runner or Star Trek: The Motion Picture that have been given similar director’s cuts and digital touch-up jobs with immensely superior results.  The former being a cult classic that did poorly upon release, and the latter still being one of the more maligned entries in the franchise.  Superman II has always been a widely revered film since release, and fans had demanded a Donner version for years.  It’s a terrible shame that Warner Brothers didn’t allocate a larger effects budget to this project because it severely needed it.  History shows you cannot do good visual effects on the cheap, whether in the optical or digital eras.

Another arguable issue is that Richard Donner chose to downgrade the use of Ken Thorne’s original score for Lester’s version in favor of cutting and pasting various pieces of John Williams’ score from the first movie.  This reportedly includes some previously unreleased tracks.  For certain sequences, especially with Zod, Ursa, and Non on the moon, the original Thorne score is more effective highlighting more subtle flourishes and moments.  One can never deny the value of a John Williams score, but his tracks are compositions created for certain other scenes from another movie.  They aren’t going to flow or fit as well as Thorne’s music.  Not to mention, there are times where you can hear obvious chopped up cues that are simply manufacturing moments to fit the scene.  Again, this sort of stems from a low budget for this project.  If this project had enough money, they could have gotten it scored the way it was supposed to be instead of pasting random cues together.

On the upside, there are a number of other improved scenes.  I like the extended assault on the White House.  There’s a peculiar moment where Zod, bored at the lack of a challenge, picks up an assault rifle and starts just shooting the soldiers with it.  All the while he’s got this smirk of amusement on his face like a man playing with a child’s toy.  To him, that’s exactly what it is.  While the scene of Zod being bored after having ceased control of the world is present in both versions, I’d just like to comment on this exemplifying a thought of mine.  What exactly does an all powerful villain and tyrant do once they’ve conquered the world?  For Zod, he sits around being bored out of his skull all day long.  I find that rather funny.

The battle through Metropolis is extended with a few more fun and exciting moments, but the Lester version does feel a little tighter in places.  Yet, Donner’s cut removes so much of the humor that previously undercut the drama of the scene, which is very welcomed.  I also wholeheartedly feel that the climax in the Fortress of Solitude is vastly superior here.  It’s simply better written dialogue and interactions.  Zod and Superman have a more confrontational exchange of words that build upon elements from the Metropolis battle and Zod’s history with Jor-El.  It’s better staged and shot in a more interesting way.  It just has a better, more cumulative feel to it, and is not hampered by a battle of bizarre powers.  It’s very character based, and Donner knows how to pay-off characters amazingly well.

There is a problem with the ending of this version.  While the time reversal usage in the first film, which was transplanted from this film, was strange but nothing really objectionable, how it’s used here negates the events of the entire movie.  Superman reverses time back to the beginning of this movie so that none of it actually happened.  All of the maturing and development of his character is washed away because he no longer has to face the consequences of his actions.  Him destroying the Fortress of Solitude showing that he is now moving beyond that and standing on his own is negated because turning back time restores it.  I also don’t know how reversing time actually prevents the missile from not exploding and releasing Zod, Ursa, and Non from the Phantom Zone all over again.  That’s not addressed in the least.  Plus, Superman did nothing to prevent Luthor from escaping prison, and then, traveling to the Fortress to learn all his secrets all over again.  It’s an extremely sloppy ending, and far too much of a copout power for Superman to utilize.  Any mistake he ever makes can be immediately undone by reversing time.  This applies to the ending of the first film, too, but at least, it was used in a rage of emotion for an isolated incident.  This might as well have had Superman suddenly waking up at the end revealing that it was all a dream.  Furthermore, the jerk at the diner that beat up Clark when he didn’t have his powers, he’s still given a beat down by Clark in this version AFTER he’s already turned back time.  So, Clark is now beating up a guy for something he actually now hasn’t even done.  It’s just sloppy, incoherent structure.  Donner seemed to want everything poured into this without really rationalizing out what made sense to belong or not.

I think somewhere between the Richard Lester and Richard Donner cuts lies the ultimate version of Superman II.  Something that features the best quality performances, including Brando as Jor-El, with a main focus on serious drama, but with a more even pacing that does not favor one director’s footage over another’s.  Warner Brothers should put the right money into it to enhance the new effects, clean up the original optical effects, and get a composer to create a full score with a solid mix.  Not to mention, a semblance of a truly satisfying and smart ending that doesn’t rely on either a memory wiping kiss or a time reversal concept, if possible.  Again, I like the intention and creative direction of Donner’s version, but because it is only a rough draft approximation of the film he would have made, it doesn’t feel like a complete film.  If Donner had been able to shoot his complete film the way he intended to, I truly believe this cut would be so supremely better.  Instead, his ideas have to cut around and chop up footage he didn’t shoot and doesn’t care for.  It’s like trying to fix someone else’s mistake on a sculpture by chipping your way around the undesirable parts.  It’s going to look awkward and clunky.  I more or less believe Donner did the best he could with the footage he had in approximating his vision while adhering to the rules of the DGA to receive a director’s credit on this.  I really hate to speak so negatively about this version because it should be the better version of the two on principal, but on a structural level, it doesn’t really work the way it’s supposed to.  If this was a script, I would say it would need rewrites.  I really enjoy Donner’s extended cut of the first film, and I only own his director’s cuts of the first three Lethal Weapon movies.  So, he does make some great choices in the editing room, but this is too peculiar of a situation for him to forge the best, unbiased edition of Superman II.  This feels more like a workprint than a final product, and I would hope that a better revision on this film could someday exist in an official capacity.


Superman II (1980)

Superman IIThis is one of those rare sequels which does measure up to the original.  Superman II does have some peculiar history, though.  In short, the producers didn’t care to continue working with director Richard Donner very much, and sought to replace him after he had shot part of this film.  Thus, Richard Lester was hired to complete the film, and to gain proper directing credit, he had to re-shoot several sequences himself.  What was released to theatres was Lester’s version, and that is what I am reviewing here.  I do intend on doing a review of the 2006 Richard Donner cut of the film, but one thing at a time.  Let’s delve into what many consider the best film of this franchise, so far.

When a group of terrorists threaten to eradicate Paris with a nuclear bomb, Superman (Christopher Reeve) races to the rescue.  However, after he hurls the bomb into space, the explosion unexpectedly and unknowingly releases the Kryptonian criminals – led by General Zod (Terence Stamp) – from the Phantom Zone who begin to forge a path of destruction towards Earth.  Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon.  As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) begins to piece together Superman’s secret identity which leads to a romance between Lois and Clark Kent, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.

The film has a nice montage recap of the first film over the opening credits.  Back when this was released there was no home video market for people to re-watch these films whenever they liked, and so, adding this at the start helped audiences get the first Superman adventure freshly back into their minds.  Even for me as a child it was rather important since we had Superman II recorded on VHS well before the first film.  However, one obvious omission is the absence of Jor-El during the trial of Zod, Ursa, and Non.  This was because the producers did not want to pay Marlon Brando his salary again for using his footage in a second film.  So, the scene was reworked and re-cut to eliminate Jor-El completely, and much was the same with the Fortress of Solitude scenes later on.  Moving past that, I really like the opening to this film with the Paris terrorist action sequence.  It gives the film its action packed jump start, and shows that Superman as established himself as a global superhero.  Overall, it’s an excellently well done sequence that launches the narrative forward.

This sequel gives us more depth into Superman as he has to deal with a number of emotional choices.  He clearly loves Lois, but having to maintain the disguise of the bumbling Clark Kent becomes increasingly difficult.  When the truth is undeniably revealed, the romantic fire is fully lit between them, and it creates some wonderful moments that bring warmth and heart into the movie.  This is excellently juxtaposed with Zod’s reign of terror that gradually begins to loom over all of humanity starting from the moon to a rural town to Washington, D.C.  As Clark’s world is getting brighter with dramatic changes being made, the world is facing a terrible threat that only he can combat, yet is entirely aware of.  This is an excellent piece of storytelling dynamics.  When the two stories finally cross paths, it creates a crushing reality check for Clark that I think is one of the best scenes of the film that shows us the character at his most vulnerable state.

Christopher Reeve puts in an amazing performance here giving us great depth in this far more vulnerable and emotional story.  The romance with Lois is touchingly played out with charm, heart, and genuine tenderness with both Reeve and Kidder.  They have a heartwarming chemistry that resonates through the screen.  What Clark is willing to give up to be with Lois is powerful, but it’s the little bit that happens afterwards that I love.  Unlike many super-powered heroes, Superman is one who doesn’t just give up when he’s lost his powers.  When he sees that the world direly needs him, he will go to any length, brave any danger, and face even the slimmest odds to set things right once again.  This film perfectly portrays that inspiring strength, and Reeve does a magnificent job reflecting the emotional turmoil over Clark’s decisions.  Yet, when Clark becomes Superman once again, he stands tall ready to live up to his responsibilities to the world in grand fashion.

Terence Stamp, of course, has become iconic as General Zod.  His Zod can be cool, calm, and confident when things are going his way.  He knows that his destructive powers make all the emphatic statements necessary for him, and so, when confronting the army or even the President, Stamp allows for Zod’s ominous presence to settle in and take over.  However, when circumstances turn against him, when the control begins to slip away, he becomes heated and commanding.  He speaks in a louder, more authoritative voice such as when Superman confronts him, and he yells the classic line of, “Kneel before ZOD!”  Overall, Zod is intelligent and cunning, but it’s his ego that works against him in those excitable situations.  Stamp is a stellar, powerhouse actor who knows when intensity is needed, but is able to excel in the quieter moments of villainy where Zod’s confidence shows through.

Sarah Douglas puts in a graceful performance as Ursa that maintains her as feminine, but also, sadistic and venomous.  It’s perfectly femme fatale without showing a sliver of weakness.  She has a great presence that really complements Terence Stamp as Zod.  She’s also sexy without having to flaunt anything.  It’s all about Ursa’s attitude and how she carries herself that makes her alluring.  One can easily see why Zod would want her at his side as she enjoys destruction and violence as well as being a beautiful, dangerous woman.

I also love how Gene Hackman’s Luthor is used in this film.  They expand his character and show more of his intellectual savvy.  Sure, he can still come off as comical here and there as he boasts his ego, but he’s just a bit smarter than anyone else around him.  How he discovers the Fortress of Solitude and learns about the history of Superman is great stuff.  Hackman has great chemistry with everyone, and I’m glad Otis and Miss Teschmacher are ultimately left behind after the first act.  This allows Lex to be unhindered by their foolishness when he confronts the Kryptonian villains.  Zod becomes so desperate for a challenge he’s ready to charge headlong into it.  However, Luthor uses his cunning and leverage to manipulate them so that he can benefit from their conquests.  I really like Hackman’s work here, and working opposite Terence Stamp’s more militaristic presence allows him to shine more.  It’s a nice balance of a serious, powerful threat and an intellectual one with a sense of levity to him.

Now, the major detriment that Richard Lester brought to this film is its sense of silly humor.  We see this mostly in Non who is given many quirky high pitched grunts, and moments where he seems like an overgrown child.  This was entirely unnecessary as Non being a dumb brute would be far more intimidating and remain consistent with the tone of these villains.  Still, there are moments peppered throughout the movie where little gags appear that were simply not needed, and they work against the dramatic integrity of the movie.  Those comedic grunts from Non were entirely done in post.  Jack O’Holloran has an imposing, sort of scary presence as Non, and in general, what he does in his performance is very effective, aside from the overgrown child ideas which were obviously not of his creation.  At the time, I imagine much of the camp humor was fine with audiences, and for years, it wasn’t a bother to me.  However, time allows you to crave a more consistently dramatic tone.  That’s the film’s strength, but Richard Lester apparently wanted more laughs for whatever reason.

Now, what has most come to bother me about the reign of terror from Zod and company is that they tear apart some remote rural town.  I would have preferred seeing them tear apart a major city.  Something that makes a grander sized statement to the world, and lays waste on a larger scale.  The small rural town, to me, just feels like something that would be done a cheap budget.  I get the feeling that those scenes were directed by Richard Lester as much of the comedic qualities seen within them were excised in the Richard Donner version.  While the Kryptonian villains eventually battle Superman throughout Metropolis, I feel setting their initial assault on humanity in a place of larger importance would have been more effective.  In the least, the rural town has no scope and is shot rather blandly.  It would have been great to see a return to the sweeping cinematic visuals in Smallville of the first film to amp-up this section of the movie.

The score by Ken Thorne, a regular collaborator of Richard Lester, does reuse John Williams’ themes and cues, but in the film itself, the score sounds kind of thin.  However, there was apparently a remastered soundtrack release done in recent years that reflected a much richer and more lush mixing job.  Thorne doesn’t do a bad job, but it is really all built on the strength of Williams’ compositions, which have always been exceptional.  It really comes down to a weaker sound mix this time out, but regardless, the score does add a lot of life to the emotional qualities of the film.

The other strange quality of the movie is all the additional new powers that are given to Superman, Zod, and the rest.  This is most prominently on display in the climax at the Fortress of Solitude with the energy beams shot out from their fingers, and all the teleportation and illusionary powers shown.  Yet, earlier on, Zod and company demonstrate telekinetic type powers.  These are also detriments to the film that are more apparent in Lester’s cut, and possibly sprung from his involvement.  It shows an unfamiliarity with the source material.  There was indeed a time where Superman gained all kinds of crazy powers in the comics, but his core, classic set of powers have long been easily defined in many forms of media.  Anyone with a decent knowledge of the character would know that none of these powers are Superman’s.

Regardless, the vast majority of the effects here are great.  As with the first movie, there are a few lesser grade moments of visual effects work, but on the whole, we are treated to some exciting and visually satisfying stuff.  The entire battle in Metropolis is quite ambitious with a number of large set pieces involved.  The transition from location shooting in New York to soundstages is quite good.  The lighting is consistent with some very good backdrops, and some rear screen projection work done in the more dynamic flying moments.  Surely, it’s not as impressive by today’s standards, but for 1980, the year I was born, this was some exciting action and movie magic.  It gave us Superman actually battling a super-powered adversary, and three of them nonetheless.  Yet, what I really like is that Superman ultimately puts the safety of the civilians foremost, and chooses to end this confrontation with smarts and cunning back at the Fortress of Solitude.  While some might see it as anti-climactic after such an action packed throw down, I think this sequence has some great pay-offs.

The film ends on some good notes, but also some odd ones.  The memory wiping kiss that Clark uses on Lois is another bizarre inclusion by Richard Lester.  Of course, having grown up with it, this is one of those things you take for granted until someone else starts criticizing it, as I have heard.  However, this is a beautifully heartbreaking scene as Lois sheds tears over her crushing emotional conflicts.  She understands that Superman can’t belong to one person, he has to belong to the whole world, but she loves him so dearly that she can’t just detach herself from her feelings.  Clark can’t bare to see her in such pain, and so, he relieves her of that knowledge.  This segues into the very good moment where Superman comes to the White House, and promises the President that he’ll never let him down again.  It shows that he’s gone through an arc, and now fully understands his role in the world.  He’s committed himself to the protection of humanity, and he has to be selfless in order to live up to his promise to the world.  Superman does face problems on a larger scale than we can relate to, but we understand his story and what being Superman requires from him.  Superman is a hero who will never shy away from his responsibilities to the world because of the burden that comes with being the greatest superhero of all time.

Superman II does have many great qualities of depth, drama, and action.  It is very worthy of its reputation of being a fantastic sequel.  It builds upon the characters and ideas in the first film, and breaks it open in a film with thematic material and purposeful arcs that have good pay-offs.  It also far and beyond surpasses the first film in terms of action, and the effects work is a little more improved.  Christopher Reeve has more room to breathe and expand, and he really shows a powerful depth and range.  We get some great villains that have become iconic which transcended through pop culture.  Still, the film could have done without the slapstick humor, the child-like qualities of Non, the out-of-nowhere new powers everyone has, and the visual gags that Lester slipped in here and there.  The change from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El to the mother Lara in the Fortress advising Kal-El is not horrible, but those scenes don’t resonate as deeply as they could have with Brando.  Regardless, this film delivers a wonderfully enjoyable, entertaining, and nicely dramatic experience with plenty of romantic warmth and emotional depth.  It is unfortunate that the following two sequels sharply declined in quality, but the pleasure is in enjoying what it is you have to cherish.  Superman II is definitely a fine piece of superhero cinema that deserves to be treasured despite any shortcomings it might have.


Superman (1978)

SupermanThe original superhero blockbuster was an epic task to achieve in the late 1970’s.  Richard Donner was the director given the main task of helming this ambitious project, but the true strength of bringing Superman to the silver screen lied within one man who remains, for so many, the quintessential embodiment of the Last Son of Krypton.  Christopher Reeve would carry this icon to soaring heights, and capture the hearts of audiences worldwide.

When the premier scientist of the planet Krypton, Jor-El (Marlon Brando), rightfully predicts the destruction of his peaceful planet, he sends his only son in a spacecraft to the planet Earth.  There, he is adopted by the kindly Kansas couple the Kents, but they quickly discover young Clark Kent possesses powers beyond that of any human.  As he grows to maturity, Clark (Christopher Reeve) learns of his alien heritage, and comes to Metropolis as a reporter for the Daily Planet.  However, when a perilous helicopter accident forces Clark to reveal his powers to the world as Superman, he becomes the target of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) who launches a diabolical plan to destroy the west coast and kill Superman.

When this film was being made, comic books weren’t taken very seriously, and so, these filmmakers intended to make a serious impression with Superman.  While this didn’t break the floodgates open for comic book movies to be produced, this laid the groundwork for things to come, especially 1989’s Batman.  Even though the tone isn’t consistently serious and epic, it never degrades the integrity of Superman.  That’s something I can at least say about all of the Christopher Reeve outings, regardless of how bad, cheesy, or stupid they may have gotten – Reeve maintains Superman as an icon of integrity and dignity.  However, he is not the only incredible acting talent on display in this epic blockbuster.

Casting Marlon Brando as Jor-El was a brilliant idea.  For those first twenty minutes of the movie, he carries it effortlessly bringing compassion, strength, and wisdom to this pivotal character.  No one could ever discount Brando’s talent, and he establishes a solid impression with just a few introductory scenes.  In addition to that, Glenn Ford really has only two scenes here as Jonathan Kent, but the substance of his talent and performance rings through purposefully.  It has weight and poignancy.  Both of these fathers are the moral building blocks of who Clark Kent becomes, and they are the men that forge the strength and virtue that are key to Superman.  Brando, in particular, sets a wonderful, heartfelt tone when he returns as this projection in the Fortress of Solitude to guide his son.  The film’s extended edition adds in another scene between Clark and Jor-El which is beautiful and touching.

And since Superman and Superman II were plotted out and conceived at the same time, we have an excellent setup at the beginning of this film with Terrence Stamp’s General Zod and his fellow conspirators.  Stamp makes a powerful impact in that one scene with a cold, tyrannical presence where he leaves Jor-El with a prophetic threat that pays off in the following film.

Richard Donner and his cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth do a remarkable job with the visuals here.  Krypton has its epic visual scope, but also, this intriguing utopian alien aesthetic.  The crystal structures are unlike anything that had been seen before reflecting a culture vastly different from our own, and the journey of Kal-El’s spaceship to Earth is wonderfully cosmic.  The scenes in Kansas are sprawling and picturesque.  They evoke that Norman Rockwell heartland of America feeling.  They use the landscape to stunning effect giving the film visual scope in distinct ways.  When the film shifts to Metropolis, it looks more standard with less visual flare.  More urban grit with locked down shots and less graceful camera movements.  The whole film also has this soft focus glow that I feel really works well.

Must I even say that John Williams’ score is amazing?  The man specializes in amazing.  However, what he does here I think is even more special.  No other theme in all of cinema, to me, reflects such hope, heroism, and inspiration as his theme for Superman.  It has lived beyond this continuity of films to be iconic with the character himself through all media and generations.  It is usually a surefire way to choke me up, especially with the right imagery, and it encapsulates Superman in the most epic ways possible.  The overall score is equally as stunning, and stands as one of Williams’ finest accomplishments.

This was a film of ambitious special effects as never before had the image of Superman flying through the air appeared convincing.  Largely, I do think many of these visual effects are still great.  They still work beautifully, but every once in a while you get a shot that looks quite dated and less than convincing.  However, the use of miniatures for certain shots, and every trick they used to make Superman fly is stellar.  Oddly, I really like the scene where he stops the car burglar from scaling the skyscraper, and you see Superman fly down across frame as the burglar falls.  It’s a simple shot that required no visual effects.  The opening shots on Krypton are stunning too especially after Zod and his cohorts are sentenced to the Phantom Zone, and we see that massive dome opening up.  It’s all about visual scope, and this film captured it with epic results.  In general, this film was an amazing achievement in visual effects that earned this team an Oscar.

Now, while this excellent special effects team made you believe a man could fly, Christopher Reeve made you believe in Superman.  That helicopter rescue scene remains possibly my favorite Superman moment of all time.  His moments at the end of that scene speaking with Lois are magical to me.  The confidence he projects with a glimmer in his eye is the moment I believed in the power of Superman.  Overall, Reeve brings the heart, humanity, compassion, and charm of the Man of Steel to brilliant life.  He even shows moments of emotional depth speaking again with Jor-El at the Fortress of Solitude after revealing his existence, and especially so opposite Lois.  But it’s the genuine kindness and earnest humbleness in Reeve’s performance that sells everything.  You can see that this is a character that believes in the best in humanity, and is truly a beacon of hope to all.  Later in life, we saw that Christopher Reeve naturally embodied these qualities in his struggle with paralysis, and because of his undying hope, he became one of the greatest inspirations in life to me.  He was a real life Superman.

Now, while the first fifty minutes of the film are very serious, dramatic, and vast in scope, the latter bulk of the movie shifts tones.  It delves more into a somewhat campy comic book tone.  You’ve got the charming yet bumbling Clark Kent creating a little bit of physical humor here and there.  Then, the introduction of the villains pushes the proverbial envelope.  Ned Beatty’s Otis is not to be taken seriously at all.  He’s an obvious dimwit, and Miss Teschmacher is not much better.  It almost seems like Lex Luthor surrounds himself with morons in order to make himself look like a genius in comparison.

Now, I am not a fan of this portrayal of Lex Luthor.  He’s little more than a ruthless con artist and a real estate swindler with bad fashion sense and maniacal aspirations.  I will give credit that he is a sociopath willing to exterminate countless lives for his own greed, and that does make him a serious threat.  However, regardless of the sort of silly characterization, Gene Hackman still puts in a damn fine performance.  The humor of Luthor is expertly done with sharp conviction, but what sells him as a villain is really the vile intellect.  The entire “greatest criminal mind of our time” thing does come off comically, but we do see moments where Luthor has a dangerous intelligence.  He can setup a cunning trap for Superman, but I’d love to be able to take the character seriously on a consistent basis.  I truly believe Hackman could have done a wholly serious, villainous performance, and done it awesomely.  Unfortunately, it really is the bumbling fools that surround Luthor which make him cartoonish for most of his screentime.  I don’t think the film needed silliness in any degree.  Regardless, Hackman is a magnificent actor, and his talent regularly shows here even if the material is a little goofy.

And the remainder of the supporting cast is exceptionally solid.  Jackie Cooper gives us a great, hard edged Perry White.  He’s a newsman who has gusto and aggression who motivates his people firmly.  Margot Kidder is indeed a stellar Lois Lane giving us both the assertive, ambitious journalist who will do whatever it takes to get the best story, but also, shows us the feminine vulnerability.  We see her genuine affection for Superman, and Kidder has solid chemistry with Reeve in both of his personas.  The scenes of tender heart and warmth are genuine while the bumbling Clark scenes have a nice contrast of humor and Lois’ aggressive nature.  It’s fantastically handled by two amazing talents, and honed by a great director.

This is a solid origin story and a colorful, vibrant film.  I do like the pacing of this movie because it is consistent even if it is slower than your modern day superhero epic.  Yes, Kal-El’s early life is kind of done in a Cliff’s Notes version as it just briefly touches on the largely important parts.  Then, when Reeve makes his appearance as the adult Clark / Superman, the pacing is more lax allowing for things to be stretched out further.  I did watch the expanded edition for this review as I like the extra content with Jor-El on Krypton, and Lex Luthor’s gauntlet that he lays out to test Superman.  There are a number of added segments throughout, but I do think they are mostly substantive and worthwhile.  The film has no overarching plot, and the extent of one is simply foiling Luthor’s crazed plan to blow up the west coat to make way for his real estate scam.  So, this isn’t a film of thematic material and heavy subject matter.  Yet, it accomplishes its goals – bring Superman to glorious life on the big screen in an epic sized adventure.  There’s really only two real action sequences – the helicopter rescue with a crime-fighting montage afterwards and the climax as Superman attempts to stop the missiles and save people from its destructive consequences.  The ending is rather ridiculous by most standards.  Reversing the Earth’s rotation to turn back time is a very cheap idea, but also very much in the style of the Golden / Silver Age of comics where logic didn’t figure into science.  So, given the time this was made, I can let it pass, but if a movie today did it, I’d cry out for someone to knock some sense into the filmmakers.

While it might be entirely perfect, Superman: The Movie was the wonderfully produced and directed film it needed to be.  It keeps things simple enough without sacrificing emotion and drama, but adds in touches of humor later on for a generally fun and enjoyable superhero film experience.  It set the foundation for where the franchise could go from here, and while directors, tones, budgets, and qualities would change, Christopher Reeve maintained the steady confidence of Superman through each film.  Here, there was no question that he was indeed the Man of Steel brought to cinematic life, and Richard Donner’s high quality direction with a great eye for visual scope made this a stunning success.  Add in the sweeping, epic, and iconic score of John Williams, and you have the greatest superhero of all time taking flight in a great and satisfying way.


Constantine (2005)

I very much love this film, and count it as an all time favorite.  I saw it twice in the theatre in 2005 because I was very much enthralled by the concept of the film and the excellent execution of all its characters and ideas.  It has since remained a strong favorite of the genre for me, and has driven my fandom of John Constantine further.  I was not knowledgeable about him before seeing this adaptation, but in the years since then, I have become a fan.  In the Hellblazer comics from DC / Vertigo, he was a blonde Englishman created by the widely revered Alan Moore and visually based off of Sting, the front man for The Police.  Obviously, that does not fit the description of Keanu Reeves, who portrays the title character as a dark haired American in Los Angeles, and there are numerous other changes here that deviate from the source material.  That inevitably irritated numerous hardcore Hellblazer fans, but since this was my introduction to him, I can allow both versions to co-exist in my fandom.   There are many reasons why I highly love this film including its gorgeous visual style, the world it showcases, and the potential of the characters.

It is said that whoever possesses the Spear of Destiny holds the fate of the world in their hands, and the Spear of Destiny has just been found and put into the hands of evil influences.  In Los Angeles, exorcist and occult detective John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) begins to see foreboding signs of something big and unfriendly coming with demons forcing their way into our world, but at the same time, the anti-social chain smoker is diagnosed with lung cancer.  It’s not so much the diagnosis that troubles him as the knowledge of where he’s going.  John was born with a gift he didn’t want, the ability to clearly recognize the half-breed angels and demons that walk the earth in human skin, and Constantine was driven to take his own life to escape the tormenting clarity of his vision, but he failed.  Now, marked as an attempted suicide with a temporary lease on life, the bitter hard-drinking, hard-living Constantine seeks a reprieve from his Hellbound fate.  He patrols the earthly border between heaven and hell, hoping in vain to earn his way to salvation by sending the devil’s foot soldiers back to the depths.  Unfortunately, he gains no absolution from the half-breed angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), and no consolation from strenuous allies such as the ominous former witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou).  They all adhere to “The Balance” which keeps half-breeds from directly interfering in human affairs in order to settle a wager between God and the Devil for the souls of all mankind.  When desperate but skeptical LAPD Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) enlists his help in solving the mysterious death of her beloved psychic twin sister, their investigation pushes them deep into a subversive plot to use the Spear of Destiny to bring forth an evil that threatens to destroy humanity.  Caught in a catastrophic series of otherworldly events, the two become inextricably involved, and seek to find their own peace at whatever cost.

Director Francis Lawrence came from a music video background, and that can be hit or miss when moving to feature films.  However, Lawrence’s background was clearly a benefit as he injects a very powerful and epic visual style into this film.  Director of Photography Philippe Rousselot realizes that immersive vision brilliantly.  His composition is rock solid creating very engaging visuals that pull an audience into the story and characters.  There is depth to spare in his frames, and plenty of grace and integrity in how he shoots everything.  There’s never any handheld camera work.  It’s all fluid movement that contributes to the overall enveloping otherworldly tone of the picture.  The use of color temperatures is very key to the atmosphere as it accentuates the dramatic tones throughout with a vibrant palette.  This is a gracefully shot film with great attention to creating a unique atmosphere and tone in its visuals.

The overall quality of the visual effects are stunning.  They are exceptionally consistent and of an amazing high quality.  From subtle effects like the fiery glint in the eyes of demons to the enveloping landscape of the Hell version of Los Angeles, they create a complete, rich, textured, and full world for John Constantine to exist within that is truly convincing.  The fearsome demonic creatures seen throughout are designed with consistency and originality.  This feels like a world with its own weathered history, and attention is paid to every detail to present it as such.  The entire “into the light” effect in the climax is awesome as the shadows are literally pulled away to force the evil presence into view.  There is never just one effect used over and over again as a crutch.  The film is full of vibrant effects that give the film its fantastical flare.  Overall, every effect is just executed and presented with amazing artistry complementing Francis Lawrence’s vision beautifully.

I also very highly enjoy the score to Constantine.  It has a great atmospheric, haunting electronic style that further fleshes out the otherworldly quality of the film, but still incorporates plenty of traditional score elements that punctuate the rousing, dramatic sequences as well as the softer, more intimate emotions of the film.  Composers Klaus Badelt & Brian Tyler put together one hell of a unique musical accomplishment with this.  I’ve never heard a score quite like this before, and it works so amazingly well.  There is a great use of melody all throughout which enhances the emotional depth that this film is truly rich with.  This is definitely a film that takes a different approach to things to give an audience a very distinctive identity for an all encompassing experience.  The addition of the song “Passive” from A Perfect Circle is wicked cool in my opinion.  It truly set a great tone entering into Papa Midnite’s club.

These enveloping elements wrap together to create a very rich story with a tone full of integrity and gravity.  It can be a very haunting and scary film that uses horror elements at times, but is best categorized as a supernatural dark fantasy action film.  The action in the film are not big set pieces with spectacular stunts.  John’s not some bad ass action hero who can slug it out with a demon.  Instead, he uses his occult and demonic knowledge as well as his skills as a con artist to help him win battles.  He fights smart using the tools he has acquired which exploit the weaknesses of his enemies such as holy water, Moses’ shroud, a pair of Holy Cross brass knuckles, dragon’s breath, and various eclectic items provided to him by his allies.

This story is partially inspired by the Dangerous Habits comics storyline, which I have read.  There’s little directly adapted from that story, and is more just taking the premise of Constantine being diagnosed with lung cancer and having to cope with that.  How he deals with it and the resolutions of the comic and the film are very different, but both greatly show off John’s cunning skill as a con artist to varying degrees.

Constantine himself is very fascinating, and I think this version of him is well portrayed by Keanu Reeves.  I am quite a big fan of his work ranking Point Break as one of my absolute favorite films ever.  I find his work quite enjoyable, and he has some highly impressive acting ability.  I think his approach tends to be more subtle, and with Constantine, he really drives home a very diverse character.  Reeves showcases Constantine’s jaded personality with depth and purpose.  He brings out that worn down, weathered texture that makes the character so intriguing and surprising.  He can be an outright asshole because he’s been both plagued by the knowledge he has about the world around him, and that he’s destined to spend eternity in Hell, regardless of what he does.  He’s tired and frustrated by these rules that these so-called “higher beings” have imposed upon humanity for their own sport, and he knows there’s little he can do to combat that.  Keanu gives the character enough edge while still maintaining an underlying sense of humanity which evolves through the film.  As the story goes along, he becomes more and more invested in Angela as a person instead of just her being a cog in a larger plot.  You gradually see the bond form between the characters, and how that starts to drive John’s actions.  There’s a pivotal shift in there where he stops sulking in his own pain and starts seeing Angela’s.  He sees her regret and how far she’s willing to go to mend it.  John can still be an asshole, but ultimately, it’s just to those that deserve it.  Reeves portrays these subtle and strong emotional beats powerfully showing that there’s more to Constantine beyond that spiteful, embittered exterior.

Another subtle part of John that’s retained from the comics is how his friends constantly pay the price for his battles.  In the comics, John is haunted by the ghosts of his dead friends, and the screenwriters slipped a brief line in here about John not needing another ghost following him around.  So, it’s no wonder that he’s as cynical and jaded as he is, but it’s also these circumstances which drive him to fight.  He challenges everyone on their egotistical or hypocritical behavior, and allows no one to slide.

However, the arc for the character takes him from being a self-serving person who fights evil for his own sake to someone that does the right thing for the sake of others.  It takes nothing away from the hardened core of the character, it just makes him an actual hero by the end.  That is helped immensely by Rachel Weisz’s emotionally impactful performance.  Reeves and Weisz had previously worked together on the 1996 film Chain Reaction as love interests, and perhaps that added a stronger chemistry between them.  In this film, their chemistry is exceptionally solid and tight.  They have great back-and-forth dialogue with sharp timing and rich character dynamics.  Angela is also easily able to stand up to John’s abrasive attitude which is a welcomed quality.  Weisz strongly portrays the more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable counter-balance of the story.  This allows an audience to have a relatable conduit into the character of John Constantine and his supernatural world.  Rachel Weisz is an incredible actress showcasing a wide range of abilities here.  She is remarkably powerful bringing out the emotional pain that Angela has deep within.  However, while Angela is vulnerable, she is a police detective, and thus, Weisz never makes her appear helpless or incapable of defending herself.  She has a definite strong will and confidence about her mixed in with a grounded, engaging charm.  It’s simply that the character been impacted by tragic events, and is thrust into a potentially frightening scenario which brings out those fearful or unstable elements in her.  Weisz handles it all with dramatic weight and grace.

It is also immensely impressive how strong the supporting cast is in Constantine.  Djimon Hounsou has such an awesome presence as the witch doctor turned night club owner Papa Midnite.  His deep voice and subtle charisma give weight and gravity to his performance.  He can be greatly imposing and intimidating without even standing up in his initial scene.  Hounsou and Reeves spark a fascinating chemistry.  They play the characters with a sense of shared history which has its turbulent areas which causes friction and some antagonism between them.  The screenwriters had a good philosophy of the best way to convey exposition about a character is to show them working.  You get to know more about Midnite and Constantine through what they do and how they go about doing it than can really be conveyed through straight dialogue interactions.  This is showcased beautifully in the sequence with “The Chair” which allows John to see the path the Spear of Destiny has taken recently, and to find out where Angela has been taken.  It’s a manner of operating alluding to information that is necessary for them to know to do what they need to do, but is not necessary to be spelled out for the audience.  This further reflects the sense that this a world with a long, textured history between characters, and it is presented in a very smart way that never bogs down the film with extraneous exposition.  Midnite himself has a very pleasing arc in the story that ultimately shows Hounsou’s range and charm.  He makes the character very fascinating, imposing, but ultimately, highly pleasing.

Tilda Swinton is immaculately graceful and elegant as the half-breed angel Gabriel.  The filmmakers chose to go with an androgynous quality for the character, and absolutely wanted Swinton for the role.  They chose incredibly well.  Her performance has a gentle compassion that eventually turns into a subtle megalomaniacal mindset.  She also has an ethereal aura and presence about her that is pitch perfect.  It’s a nice dynamic when Constantine goes to see her with him ranting and calling out the hypocrisy at hand, but she offers up a very warm, motherly tone with him.  They are both trying to make each other see things from their perspective, and neither is entirely in the right.  There is a very aristocratic, snobbish mentality from Gabriel that John can’t stomach, and it works so exceptionally well for this character.  It’s such a remarkable performance that the words to describe it in depth escape me.

Now, this film was before Shia LeBouf started grating on peoples’ nerves, but here, there’s enough heart and charm with him as Chas to make his performance a pleasure.  Chas is spirited and driven to be given the chance to be of real assistance to Constantine instead of just his personal cab driver, but John just knows the danger of allowing him to do so.  Yet, Chas is eventually given the chance to show his worth.  As with everyone else, the chemistry is dead on the mark perfect.  Gavin Rossdale’s turn as the demon Balthazar is oozing with charisma.  He relishes being engulfed in evil, and that delicious smarmy arrogance just pours out over the screen.  The tension and spite between him and John is thick as can be.  You can’t help but love and hate him all at the same time.  All of the actors throughout the film really inhabited their characters with exceptional commitment and nuance, and came together as a cohesive whole to deliver something diverse and marvelous.

Of course, there is Peter Stormare’s magnificent performance as Lucifer himself.  There have been so many portrayals of the Devil over the years in cinema from some massively talented actors, and each portrayal has been unique.  Stormare takes unique to a whole new level here.  The physicality alone is unsettling as if he’s trying to uncomfortably fit back into a human form like it’s an old out of shape body suit, and it results in some peculiar and tense nervous energy.  The look is striking enough without devolving into shock.  The shaved eyebrows and shorn haircut along with the tattoos really present a standout visual that separates Lucifer from everyone else in the film.  Stormare takes all of this to forge a weirdly eccentric Devil that doesn’t need to flaunt an ego or boast of his power.  His creepy, chilling presence sells everything.  The addition of the pure white suit and bare feet was a nice touch, and it really fits the visual aesthetics of the film.

While I have nothing against a well done origin, it is very commendable that this is not an origin story spending a large percentage of the film showing how Constantine became the man he is today.  His back story is not even revealed until well into the second act as we get to know it alongside Angela, and allusions to other shared histories are sprinkled throughout.  The film treats its audience as intelligent by not having to explain every little thing.  It presents a world, gradually lays out the general parameters of how it works, and then, allows it to envelop the audience.  I like this approach for the character because there is a lot of John Constantine history that is very relevant to the character, but it would be nigh impossible to hit all the poignant marks to develop him fully in a two hour film.  Starting a film series here is very interesting because it takes John from the jaded, weathered depths to someone more purposeful and formidable.  It is a greatly executed arc wrapped up in a strong plotline backed by some excellent talents in front of and behind the camera.

It seems hard to judge where this movie stands in terms of general consensus.  It’s not one of those comic book movies everyone talks about, or includes on the list of the best or worst adaptations.  I seem to perceive this as a film that had good commercial success, but tends to get overlooked for no apparent reason.  Professional critics were divided on it, but the thing with critics is that they get paid to go see movies they are not always pre-disposed to enjoy.  This was a movie that appealed to my tastes via its marketing, and it did blow me away.  Again, the hardcore fans of Hellblazer likely had their passionate gripes with all the changes made to the established elements of the property, but it’s not a bad film at all.  It’s exceptionally well made from a filmmaker with great vision and artistry, and features an amazing cast that put their all into it.  From an objective point of view, it’s a greatly entertaining and satisfying film.  It has plenty of interesting action, an excellently crafted world, fantastic, stunning visual effects, a unique and fascinating score, and is just generally well written all the way around.  I really love this film, and I love what I’ve read in the Hellblazer trade paperbacks.  Both offer me something different but equally satisfying to my tastes for supernatural horror and dark fantasy.  If you’re unfamiliar with the property, this film can ease you into the heavier subject matter and grittier feel of the comics, but they are two unmistakably different presentations on the characters and the world they inhabit.  Taking the film on its own merits, it’s a highly imaginative, excellent piece of work that is worth investing your time and interest in.


Batman Returns (1992)

This is the first Batman movie I saw theatrically, and at twelve years old, I loved it.  I think it’s a much more polished movie than Tim Burton’s 1989 film with a number of charismatic, excellent performances.  I’ve never perceived the film as weird or strange like many do.  I just see it as a damn good movie that I highly enjoy.  I think Batman Returns is far more of a Tim Burton style movie than the first, but in my opinion, that doesn’t make it a lesser Batman movie.

Gotham City calls upon its greatest hero, Batman, to combat its newest threats.  From the sewers, the deformed and hideous Penguin (Danny DeVito), head of the criminal Red Triangle Circus Gang, forges a fiendish alliance with the corrupt business mogul Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).  Penguin is discovered to be Oswald Cobblepot, the outcast son of a wealthy Gotham couple, and Shreck looks to set him up as the city’s Mayor to force his deceptive power plant upon the city.  However, the Penguin has his own schemes to wreak havoc upon Gotham.  Meanwhile, Max Shreck attempts to murder his frumpy secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) after poking around too deeply into his shady business plans, but she is resurrected as the dangerous and sexy Catwoman who seeks revenge on him.  Batman races into action to combat these villains, but as the caped crusader begins to put a dent in their plans, Penguin and Catwoman plot to discredit Batman, making him a criminal in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens.  While the Bat and Cat are at odds, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle quickly become romantically involved which further strains Selina’s already fractured psyche.  Batman must battle to stave off the treacherous, twisted plans of these eccentric villains before rampant destruction is inflicted upon Gotham City.

This is truly one of the very few superhero films that is able to balance out having multiple villains.  The plotlines are all interconnected smartly through the Max Shreck character.  The Penguin is the main villain while Catwoman is more of a subversive wild card, as she should be.  Her motives are more passionate while his are particularly methodical, but do later delve into the maniacal.  This film seems more character driven than the first, and has some stronger emotional context.  Selina has a wild ride that takes her through a slew of emotional states.  She is very conflicted between her vengeful psychotic side, and the one that is gradually falling in love with Bruce Wayne.  Michelle Pfeiffer just does a stunning job in this role ultimately making Selina grossly sympathetic.  The Penguin is fueled by spite for society for being rejected by it all his life, and goes through a character arc himself.  First, wanting to be accepted as man instead of a monster, but later, embraces the monster he has become to wreak havoc upon Gotham City.

I also love the plot of the villains launching an elaborate smear campaign against Batman.  They frame him for murder and more to position Cobblepot as the new face of hope for the city.  It makes for a more dire and interesting circumstance for Batman to deal with, but Bruce decides turnabout is fair play.  It’s all an excellently crafted story progression.  Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm really conjured up a great story that takes plenty of twists and turns that maintain excitement and interest in the characters.  It’s not just some colorful madman terrorizing the city, it’s more complex and involved than that.  There are numerous motivations at play with the main characters that create a more personal set of conflicts.  The Penguin does provide the larger scale threat near the end, but it’s still perfectly in line with his agenda.  He reaches a boiling point, and decides to let loose upon this city that has turned on him.  Everything builds up to him becoming that monster, and I believe it’s all greatly executed.  In general, the film is amazingly well paced always keeping a consistent energetic rhythm going.  At no point does the film feel like it drags.  There’s always something developing because of the multiple main characters and interwoven plots.  It never gets confusing either.  It’s all competently and tightly strung together.

I love the subtle detective aspects in Michael Keaton’s Batman.  While everyone else is very much buying the altruistic façade of the Penguin, he sees something that just doesn’t fit right.  Something nags at that inquisitive mind of his, and that is extremely faithful to the psychology of Batman.  He hardly needs to vocalize his intellect.  What is said is conveyed very succinctly as Keaton did a lot of trimming down of dialogue to keep Batman’s words sharp and telling.  The film also shows a little technical prowess with Bruce both having the forethought to record the Penguin’s rantings to cleverly use against him later, and showing Bruce attempting to repair the damaged Batmobile.  They are just subtle things which show that Bruce has these diverse skills.

This time out, Michael Keaton was given a wider canvas to stretch his talent across.  He still executes Batman amazingly well.  He is able to convey so much just through those intense eyes, and that sells the demeanor and intimidation of Batman so powerfully.  Of course, with the Catwoman dynamic, Keaton has more chemistry to strike up under the mask, and a few appropriate humorous exchanges while fighting with her.  Keaton has rich chemistry with the whole cast, and is able to offer up more as Bruce Wayne as well as Batman.  His relationship with Michael Gough’s Alfred is a little more light hearted and open.  One has to love the little jab about Alfred letting Vicky Vale into the Batcave.  Opposite Christopher Walken, Keaton holds up quite well, but Walken never makes it easy for anyone to stand up to his charisma.  Still, there’s a nice contrast in Keaton’s more grounded, respectable businessman to Walken’s wheeler and dealer type who definitely has skeletons in his closet.  What really shines, though, is that Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer have electric chemistry both in costume and out.  The romantic relationship is perfectly complicated as Batman and Catwoman are supposed to be.  There’s always some ethical or moral divide between them that cuts the pinnacle of their love short.  You can feel the affection Keaton puts into the performance to have the emotions strike deep within Bruce’s soul, and create the powerful connection Bruce and Selina are meant to have.  Even as Batman, Keaton shows that sparkle of fascination and intrigue for this seductive and dangerous Catwoman.  She, figuratively, hits him very close to the heart, and he sees someone possibly cut from the same jagged mold that he was.  There is much less of a sense of the brooding lone man in Batman Returns, but with the stronger love interest aspect and the story ties with Max Shreck, it naturally pushes Bruce Wayne out of the shadows and into a more active situation.  He no longer feels like the recluse he seemed to be in the first film.  He feels both like a real executive businessman and a human being here.  Bruce Wayne does have that dark shadow on his soul, but he has loved many woman in the comics and has been a responsible and quite public businessman.  So, it’s all perfectly in line with the source material, and Keaton, nor anyone else, could have done it better.

Danny DeVito is fantastic in this grotesque version of the Penguin.  In the comics, he’s just a short, stout crime boss dressed in a tuxedo and top hat with an affinity for birds.  Here, he’s made into a freakish man in both appearance and psychology.  DeVito just throws all of himself into this role making Penguin a disgusting, crude villain full of gross rage and despicable deceitfulness.  It seems like he purely enveloped himself in the character, and had the time of his life with it.  He puts on a sinister performance of a man who revels in his own vile intentions, and it couldn’t be better.  DeVito is immensely entertaining and charismatic.  The make-up design of the character is equally excellent creating a look that can be effectively unsettling.  Still, DeVito is easily able to show the wide range of subtle and verbose emotions of the character through the prosthetics.  It’s a masterful execution all around.

However, the absolutely stunning standout in this cast is definitely Michelle Pfeiffer.  She passionately embodies all phases and mental states of Selina Kyle.  From the meek and mousy secretary that awkwardly blends into the background to the bolder, more aggressive and seductive woman to the playful, sultry Catwoman to the ultimately fractured person whose emotions are strained between the love she has found with Bruce and the bloodthirsty vengeance she is driven towards with Shreck.  When she is that more lowly woman at the start, there is such a timid, oppressed quality about the character that you can’t help but feel bad for her.  Nothing seems to go right for Selina, and she couldn’t be more undeserving of Max Shreck’s intimidating and belittling treatment of her.  Then, when that nervous breakdown occurs, Pfeiffer turns on a truly manic performance that shows the traumatic transformation Selina has now gone through.  It’s the character violently breaking free of the restraints she’s had all this time, and out the other end of it comes this confident, aggressive woman.  This is a Catwoman that excites.  Beyond just the sizzling hot sexual aspects, she is electrifyingly dangerous between her ferocious fighting skills, the razor sharp claws, and the leather whip.  Pfeiffer slinks very smoothly into being Catwoman lusciously embodying her feline grace.  As Selina herself, she shows an amazing ability to subtly shift tone from humorous or casual to just plain dark and unsettling.  That venomous dark side seeps through beautifully.  Michelle Pfeiffer brings out such intense emotional pain and conflict which forges together an immensely fascinating and sympathetic character.  There’s so much subtle texture and emotional range in her performance that one could go on all day detailing it all.  Simply said, she put in a remarkably diverse and emotionally intense performance here, and greatly enhances the depth of the film.  From what she did in this role, you can definitely see why Selina Kyle had such a strong emotional impact on Bruce Wayne by the film’s end.  Pfeiffer absolutely left me wanting more in absolutely every good way imaginable.

Of course, you can never go wrong with casting Christopher Walken, and in Batman Returns, he’s definitely at his best.  He has fierce charisma that forces the character of Max Shreck vibrantly into the meat of the film.  He never gets lost or brushed aside in favor for the more fantastical villains.  There’s just too much weight and excitement in what Walken brings to the role for an audience not to welcome his presence.  Walken is massively intimidating when threatening Selina just before attempting to kill her.  You feel like Max Shreck is a powerhouse heavy.  He’s masterfully manipulative with a mesmerizing skill of twisting people’s minds with his words.  Walken just has such a fascinating delivery of lines that is a signature for him, but I think he adds something specially dynamic to this role.  He could carry this whole movie as the main villain if it had called for it.  Shreck is not damaged goods like Batman, Catwoman, or the Penguin, and that probably makes him the most condemnable villain of the film.  He’s a corrupt, deceitful, murderous human being wrapped up in the guise of a respectable businessman.  He’s an unethical vacuum of morality that will go to any crooked lengths to further his agendas and strengthen his legacy in Gotham.  He’s cutthroat to no end, and Walken embraces the unsettling, shrewd nature of the character powerfully.

Again, the look of Batman Returns is much more polished than the 1989 movie.  There is not as much grit in the visuals, and instead, has a stronger contrast.  Blacks are thick and rich.  They maintain a striking appearance as the shadows are nicely balanced with the light.  Burton and his Edward Scissorhands director of photography Stefan Czapsky give this movie its own visual identity.  I very much like the blue tones seen throughout which offer up a very complementary tone.  Batman Returns certainly doesn’t have quite as much iconic imagery as its predecessor, but it surely has its dramatic moments that are beautifully captured.  The snowy appearance of the film was a gorgeous choice as it further adds to the visual contrast and beauty.  It’s strange that while the subject matter is definitely darker than the first, Batman Returns actually doesn’t look nearly as dark as the 1989 movie.  It appears to be generally brighter and more inviting.  It has plenty of moody visuals, but moves away from the muted color schemes and grim aesthetics.  It’s definitely a pleasant experience for the eyes.

The production design is much sleeker, and that is reflected in the redesigned Bat suit.  It has a cleaner, more art deco armored design which makes sense.  Batman would likely evolve his suit into something generally more durable.  From a production standpoint, it just looks more refined and streamlined.  Gotham City looks more updated with a generally more modern feeling, but still showcasing an gothic industrial look as well as some 1930s or 1940s artistic mentalities.  It’s a beautiful city no longer tainted by grime and trash, but still has its darker qualities.  Even the Batcave gets a fine upgrade with more up-to-date technology and refined lighting schemes.  Plus, the Bat-Ski boat is a sleek addition which gives the film a little extra something near the climax.  The wardrobe is just wonderful all around.  The gorgeous pinstriped suits of Max Shreck have an excellent 1900s turn of the century class to them.  They make him feel like an iconic captain of industry, and the full grey head of hair was a nice touch to his look.  The Catwoman outfit could not be sleeker or more sexually charged.  It’s absolutely perfect for a character of this slinky nature, but also, reflects her fractured psyche with the stitched together look.  Even Penguin’s more upscale outfits, somewhat reflective of Shreck’s style, still have a grungy feel to them.  It creates a nice texture and contrast for the character.  Penguin’s lair is exceptionally moody, decrepit, and dank perfectly reflecting the striking image of the character.

Danny Elfman really broadens the musical landscape of the franchise with this film.  With more main characters come some very distinctive and marvelous themes that richly reflect the complicated natures of these characters.  Catwoman’s theme is so wonderfully complex representing the chaotic and unbalanced nature of the character, and throwing in a dash of sorrow and sympathy here and there.  Elfman adds a chorus into the score to enhance the operatic sense of everything, and the slight rearrangement of the main title march is very pleasing.  It is a heavily and finely textured score that is vibrant and epic.  The Christmas season setting of the film truly weaves its way into the score every so often, and makes for a very colorful and haunting listen.  While I’ve never seen A Nightmare Before Christmas, I have to imagine there’s some correlation between those musical styles from Elfman.

There is also a vast improvement in visual effects work here.  Before watching the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD, I never knew that the opening title sequence was entirely done with miniatures and effects work.  It always looked entirely natural to me.  Matte paintings are still great, but have a little more life to them with some extra color and integrated motion.  Since digital effects had progressed into the forefront, we definitely get the benefit of that higher end work here.  Being released in 1992, it was sandwiched right between 1991’s Terminator 2 and 1993’s Jurassic Park.  While the digital effects are not used on a massive scale, they are very seamless with both something like the armored shields on the Batmobile, and more so with the digital replication of the penguin soldiers late in the film.  Overall, it’s a very fine accomplishment from the visual effects department.  Stan Winston also provided his studio’s talent with creating numerous animatronic penguins that seamlessly blend in with the real life ones.

Tim Burton continues to show a great sense of action in this sequel.  Every single action sequence is choreographed and shot amazingly well.  They are smartly scripted making sure each one is organically different without forcing it.  With the eccentric nature of the Red Triangle Circus Gang, Batman has plenty of gimmickry to combat from the sword swallower to the fire breather and many more.  He handles each one with originality packed with some ironic entertainment value.  Igniting the Batmobile’s flaming turbine engine upon the fire breather is just too priceless.  Then, things get more interesting when Batman combats Catwoman.  She’s immensely skilled and agile making for a dynamically dangerous adversary that gets some stinging shots in.  Mixing that in with the sensuous aspects of their peculiar relationship, it creates a great twisting psychological unpredictability to their confrontations.  The climax of the film just blows me away.  There’s so much slam bang awesomeness packed into it which Burton handles with so much competency and balance.  The race to halt the Penguin’s missile attack on the city creates the fast paced excitement with the Bat Ski boat rocketing to its desination.  The explosive and poignant conclusions to the Penguin’s storyline are nicely balanced on either side of Selina Kyle’s own emotionally charged climax.  This entire sequence is tightly paced, and hits all the plot and character beats perfectly on the mark.  Everything is powerfully wrapped up to a highly satisfying degree.  Many superhero films with so many villains usually end up in a mess, but Batman Returns handles all of them exceptionally well all the way through to the end.

The film certainly has more impact upon Bruce Wayne than Batman, but it all ties in very nicely.   The parallels of Batman and Catwoman versus Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle was an excellent idea.  How both are tied into one is exceptionally strong.  Just a simple unassuming line of dialogue is what triggers the revelation to them both, and injects a much stronger emotional element into the climax.  It also does create a fine arc for Bruce Wayne / Batman.  Seeing him connect with this woman that is very much like him, and how he ultimately wants to be able to save her from the vengeance that’s eating her alive is wonderfully done.  The Batman / Catwoman relationship has always been one of the most fascinating and complex ones in comics, and I believe Tim Burton and his screenwriters did an excellent job bringing that to the screen while Keaton and Pfeiffer made it exceed any expectations.

After watching Batman Returns again, I think this might be my new favorite Batman movie.  While it’s not really faithful to all the characters as, in the comics, Catwoman is just a cat burglar with no mystical type powers or psychological unbalances, and Penguin is just a sort of quirky, non-freakish crime boss, I really like what was done with these characters, and all the concepts were executed with depth and intelligence.  If it was all done poorly or just fell short of its potential, I would surely have some gripes with it all, but everyone involved just couldn’t have done a better job.  The tight pace is really what excites me about the movie.  It’s constantly moving somewhere with one character or another, and they are all logically and organically tied in together instead of some slap dashed plot to force multiple villains into the same movie.  It’s this tightly wrapped sordid web of interconnected characters and plotlines that are smartly interwoven.  I will say that there was a slight missed opportunity by Batman not having to really deal with being framed for murder by Penguin and Catwoman.  It is an unresolved plot point that is brushed aside rather effortlessly, and it’s a shame too.  It’s a storyline that could be very fascinating to explore, but the film just didn’t have room to resolve it.  Any such resolution can only be implied, likely through Batman’s rescue of the children from the Red Triangle Circus Gang.  However, for the trade off we get for it, I can generally overlook this issue.  I enjoy Batman Returns thoroughly now, and I think it’s gotten some bad press over the years.  People seem to act like 1989’s Batman was this bright, happy, fun adventure film for the whole family in comparison, but like I said in that review, at nine years old, my parents did not let me see it in the theatre.  It was a dark movie that could be unsettling to a young audience.  Batman Returns at least has a bit more levity via light, appropriate humor and great chemistry to balance out the dark characters and subject matter.  I would venture to say that this sequel is more fun and more exciting than the first movie.  I just find this more satisfying on numerous levels.  It has a stronger, more layered story with more rousing action, and a tighter rhythm and pace held together by an incredible cast.  I believe Batman Returns is an amazing movie, and a great sequel.  I won’t say it’s perfect, or that it will give you everything you want from a Batman movie, but it’s a damn good one, regardless.  I know it almost certainly will never happen, but I would be very interested in seeing Tim Burton and Michael Keaton return to the franchise with a proper sequel to their Batman movies.  I think they could still do a great job if collaborating with the right creative talents, and Burton could likely use a change of talents these days.


Batman (1989)

The summer of 1989 was one of the biggest with blockbusters like Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, The Abyss, When Harry Met Sally, and Licence To Kill, but none were bigger than Tim Burton’s Batman.  This was the summer of DC Comic’s caped crusader.  The merchandising was inescapable.  I have two posters from this film one with Keaton in the Bat suit and another of the Batmobile with all the vehicle’s specs on it, and I used to have a Batman cap until it got burned up in a small fire.  Unfortunately, because of the film’s dark nature and PG-13 rating, my parents did not allow me to see it theatrically.  I had to wait until Christmas for the VHS, and I still have that VHS twenty-three years later.  Batman is my all time favorite superhero, and I have seen every Batman feature film theatrically from Batman Returns onwards.  Unfortunately, ever since the Christopher Nolan films, I’ve found it hard to go back to these earlier movies because they just don’t fully satisfy what I want from Batman, anymore, but that doesn’t mean Tim Burton’s 1989 mega-blockbuster is not a good film.  It’s an undeniable classic that stills holds up well nearly a quarter century later.

Gotham City is a grim urban landscape of economic downfall plagued with crime.  Heading up the city’s organized crime is the powerful Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), and his “number one” is an egotistical psychotic named Jack Napier who, after falling into a vat of chemicals during a police bust setup by Grissom, is deformed into the maniacal Joker (Jack Nicholson).  However, out of the shadows of this hopeless city is a creature of the night, the mythic crime-fighter known as the Batman (Michael Keaton).  Secretly, he is millionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne who witnessed his own parents’ murder as a child, and that drove him to strike out into the night in this fearsome persona.  The Joker’s reign of terror begins to engulf Gotham as his toxic chemicals, which are hidden in ordinary products, claim innocent lives.  Meanwhile, photojournalist Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) teams with newspaper reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) to uncover the mystery that is Batman.  However, Vale quickly falls in love with Bruce Wayne, and soon finds herself caught in between the clashing Batman and Joker while Gotham City’s fate and hope remain at stake.

As a lifelong fan of the character, I have seen numerous versions of him from Adam West to Super Friends to Batman: The Animated Series and beyond.  It ranges a wide spectrum from colorful and campy to fun and exciting to dark and gritty.  What Burton gives us here is a very gothic inspired Dark Knight.  His intention was for Bruce Wayne to be a man who presents Batman as a frightening urban myth.  Something that truly appears supernatural through the use of theatrics and nightmarish imagery.  The Nolan films took a more ninja-like approach whereas Burton truly wraps the character up in horror ideals.  He’s not frequently using quick vanishing techniques to be just a vague idea.  Instead, he wants his prey to see him prominently in order to be scared out of their minds at the thought of him.  He builds up his own myth with the regular street trash while eyeing the organized crime players of Gotham City, and does it with artistic mastery.

There was a lot of uproar over the casting of Michael Keaton in the title role.  Physically, I can see what they were all worried about.  At 5’9”, Keaton is not physically imposing, and not the athletic specimen you think of as a superhero.  However, Burton’s thought was that a guy of Keaton’s build and ability would need to dress up as a terrifying figure to compensate for his physical shortcomings, and I think that works in this film’s approach.  Michael Keaton is an awesome actor, and I’d love to see more of him in front of the camera, again.  He has a certain manic charisma where you can believe Bruce Wayne is a bit psychologically unbalanced, and could snap at a moment’s notice.  He engulfs himself in a dark, brooding aura that could destroy a lesser man, but because he has a purpose he is dedicated to, Bruce Wayne is able to focus that psyche into something positive.  As just Bruce Wayne, Keaton has a light-hearted charisma and charm.  He has smooth chemistry with Michael Gough’s Alfred and Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale.  Keaton and Basinger might not have the most exciting or interesting relationship of all the Batman movies, but it’s nicely understated and casual.  For most of the film, it’s Vicky dealing with Bruce as Bruce.  It’s not until late in the film that she has to knowingly deal with his alter ego.  As Batman, Keaton is electrifying and powerful.  The persona entirely works.  You get to see the dichotomy of the man where he does desire a sense of normalcy and happiness, but is driven towards the shadows as Batman.  Keaton allows you to feel the character’s somber sense that impacts both sides of his personality.  Michael Keaton is amazing.

One thing that I have come to find odd is that the wealthiest man in Gotham City is hardly recognizable by most people.  Neither Vicky Vale or Alexander Knox, both professional news people, seem to recognize Bruce Wayne, and the Joker and his henchman Bob barely seem to know his name.  The idea almost seems to be that Bruce Wayne is a recluse, but reclusive people don’t often hold large fundraiser parties in their own mansions.  This doesn’t seem to be carried over much into the sequel Batman Returns, thankfully.

The Joker has also had numerous interpretations over the decades, and I have found many of them enjoyable.  Cesar Romero was always infectiously fun as the exuberant campy character, and Mark Hamill’s voice work as the Joker in the DC Animated Universe has been stunning.  What Jack Nicholson gives us is something with shades of something dark and troubling as well as fun and hammy.  He makes the Joker a larger than life villain, almost a twisted live action cartoon in a good way.  He definitely throws himself fully into the role making him disturbingly funny.  He’s truly psychotic, and really electrifies the screen with his vibrant presence.  With this version of the character, I couldn’t see anyone else doing a bolder, more charismatic job.  Unlike a lot of comic book characters, there’s rarely a wrong interpretation of the Joker as the character is so completely out of his mind that he can easily adopt a new personality depending on his disposition from day-to-day.  When Christopher Nolan brought the Joker back to the big screen for The Dark Knight, it was a great iteration that worked phenomenally for the story being told, and the world of his films.  For Tim Burton’s movie, Nicholson’s Joker was dead-on perfect.

Kim Basinger portrays Vicky Vale with a wonderful depth of class, but the character has just never done anything for me.  Her fascination with the Batman legend helps to drive her part of the story forward, and it is a fine low key romantic relationship between Vale and Wayne.  In concept, the two things being intertwined is good, but the script hardly plays with that at all.  Later films did a more satisfying job playing up those conflicted dynamics.  None of this is a failure of Basinger as she does all she can with the role, and she does it well.  I just don’t think the character was given enough substance to be what the script seemed to want her to be.

The supporting cast is entertaining and nicely cast.  Robert Wuhl adds a little bit of heart and humor to the picture as the upbeat journalist Alexander Knox.  He’s got a nice counter-balance chemistry to Kim Basinger, and allows for a few moments of levity in what’s generally a dark, heavy toned film.  Michael Gough, as the butler Alfred, also offers up a sense of family and heart opposite Keaton providing Bruce Wayne a fine confidant.  Carl Grissom becomes an excellent heavyweight crime boss in the hands of Jack Palance.  You would need someone of Palance’s imposing dramatic ability to rival Nicholson.  Now, it would’ve been nice to see more of Billy Dee Williams’ charismatic and charming Harvey Dent beyond this film.  The Christopher Walken character in Batman Returns was originally supposed to be Dent, and have the electrocution by Catwoman give birth to Two-Face.  I’ll never oppose the inclusion of Christopher Walken into a movie, but there was definite further intent with the Dent character in Burton’s hands that Williams was game to dive into.

On the down side, I’ve never been too pleased with this version of Commissioner Gordon.  Making him such an older gentleman with a more uptight sensibility took away the rich relationship Batman and Jim Gordon tend to have in the comics.  There is usually a strong sense of respect and close friendship between the two.  In this franchise of Batman films, that relationship is never developed, and I think that’s a definite negative mark against these films.  We never see how Batman truly earns the trust and respect of the Gotham City police because he hardly ever interacts with them.  Jim Gordon has been shown to be a great, rich character to explore, but this franchise just seems to include him because he’s supposed to be there.  This is not a hit against Pat Hingle, who does a fine job with the character as written, I just know that it was a wasted opportunity by not developing or truly utilizing the character at all.

Back on the positive side, Batman certainly has a 1930s retro production design while still maintaining a modern sensibility.  It gives the film an interesting appeal that avoids visually dating itself.  The color palette is nicely toned down so that the Joker’s vibrant outfits truly pop out on screen.  The overall artistic design of Batman is rather elegant at times while still integrating industrial aspects.  The Bat Cave reflects the very depths of the industrial design making it a totally utilitarian environment for Batman to work in.  It’s all just a striking achievement.  Building off of that artistry is how Burton creates dramatic introductions for the film’s iconography.  Batman enters the film with that powerful mythic and frightening style ambushing those muggers on the rooftop.  The Joker theatrically reveals himself just before gunning down his boss.  Even the Batmobile has an awesome reveal during the escape from the museum.  This is what gives the film such an iconic status.  Incredible moments are peppered throughout the movie to burn them deeply into an audience’s psyche.  There are quotable lines all throughout the film which further strengthened its place in pop culture.

I really love the mystique the film builds around Batman.  Tim Burton creates a sense of Batman being more than just a man in a suit capable of extraordinary things.  He maintains a shadowy air of mystery around him so that others can still perceive him as an unkillable supernatural being.  The leather and rubber suit gives a more black fleshy appearance to him, and the Batmobile is an imposing, fierce vehicle with a lot of muscle.  It looks absolutely awesome barreling down a darkened road.  It’s all carefully crafted to enhance the persona.  Batman never gives away enough of his personality and methods for anyone to really figure him out.  He is truly enigmatic.

The way the film is shot, with a lot of noir style lighting, strongly emphasizes that mystique.  It definitely looks like a Tim Burton film with its dark visual aesthetic, and it is beautifully done.  He worked with an excellent cinematographer in Roger Pratt who has also worked with the also off-beat Terry Gilliam on a few occasions.  So, you know this is a director of photography who knows how to realize a unique vision with amazing results.  I like the occasional Dutch angled shots to give the film a little bit of that comic book composition here and there.  The look of this film really sparked off a whole dark, gothic visual style for the next several years, and was probably best and most beautifully showcased in The CrowBatman itself has its own beauty and striking cinematic qualities thanks to Burton’s vision and Pratt’s artistry.

This film is filled with some great action sequences, and are all exceptionally well executed.  While the intent is that Bruce Wayne does not have amazing athletic ability, Batman is still shown to have sharp prowess in hand-to-hand combat.  He dispatches with thugs quite quickly and easily.  He throws kicks and punches with a nice dash of martial arts talent, but keeps it straight and to the point.  He’s very capable of holding his own opposite all styles of opponents with both physical capability and intellect.  The more explosive scenes are excellently paced and give the film more bombast.  It livens up the movie exactly when it needs a strong shot of adrenalin.  The climax is very well done with Batman fighting through a couple of henchmen working his way to confronting the Joker.  Although, I can’t say that making Jack Napier / the Joker the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents was particularly necessary.  Yes, it does add a more personal, passionate purpose to Batman’s fight with him, but it’s only a minor part of the climax.  Batman and the Joker have been passionately battling one another perfectly well in comics for decades without the aid of this element.  It doesn’t bother me all that much now that Christopher Nolan has given us a more faithful adaptation of that event, but it’s not something that the filmmakers needed to do here.

Of course, one has to praise Danny Elfman’s iconic score.  The theme he composed for Batman ranks right up there with John Williams’ Superman theme.  Elfman’s work here is operatic with a gothic feel, and I’ve even heard it said that it’s very evocative of Christopher Young’s score for Hellbound: Hellraiser II.  I surely cannot deny the similarities in the musical styles with the big, grand swells with the ominous, dark overtones, but I will never take away what Elfman achieved with Batman.  I will also never downgrade the work of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard on the Nolan films, but Elfman’s theme is near impossible to overshadow.  And yes, I am a fan of Prince.  He does some fine work here composing numerous original songs for the film that suit the tone overall.  They give the film some vibrancy in a few of the Joker’s most outlandish scenes, and help enhance some of the darker toned scenes as well.  It’s definitely not Prince’s best work, but it is quite notable amongst his body of work to have done this soundtrack.  Of course, even some of Prince’s lesser work is exceedingly better than some artists’ very best.

The story is very straight forward for a superhero film, but it does seem to lean more heavily on the Joker than Batman.  You get to see a full character arc for Jack Napier as he goes from this dangerous gangster to a fully psychotic deformed madman with an objectionable conclusion.  I generally don’t like killing off a villain at the end of the movie.  They’ve existed in comics for decades with countless stories told about them, and then, a filmmaker essentially says that they’re only good for one story in movies.  So, they dispose of them promptly at the end.  For one, it goes against Batman’s ideals to outright kill someone.  He stands for justice, and wishes to bring hope and balance back to his city.  If he starts killing them, he ultimately becomes no better than those he is trying to combat.  This became an ill trend in superhero movies, and I think it’s generally a bad idea in most cases.  I don’t mind it in a Punisher movie, or even the Blade movies.  It suits those characters to off their villains by the end, but not for Batman.  Of course, over time, I have mellowed towards Tim Burton’s Batman movies, and while I still don’t think it was a good idea what was done to the Joker, it doesn’t greatly annoy me.  Part of Jack Nicholson’s deal to star in the film was to get top billing, and it’s almost appropriate since the Joker is the one with far more back story and development put into him.  Batman is just Batman throughout the movie, and really doesn’t go through much of an arc at all.  The character remains fascinating and captivating, but he’s essentially the same guy at the end of the film that he was at the start.  It’s only peoples’ perceptions of Batman that change, not the character himself.  So, I would have to levy some criticism upon that aspect of the film.  It’s a Batman film that’s not really all that much about Batman.

The visual effects can come off as dated.  This was still in the optical composition, matte painting, and rear screen projection days.  I have a fondness for some of those days, but regardless, these effects don’t have a fine polish to them to make them all that seamless or timeless.  They do entirely fit Tim Burton’s filmmaking style of the time, and they serve the film’s visual aesthetics greatly.  Still, anyone that’s first seeing this in the twenty-first century would likely not take to them too well.  Thankfully, this is not a visual effects heavy film, and with these elements mostly being integrated into the final act of the movie, it can allow a modern audience member to comfortably adjust to this film’s style by then.  For the late 1980s, these were still rather high quality opticals that gave Batman some admirable production quality on top of the marvelously designed sets.

Again, this movie was a phenomenon back in 1989.  Everywhere you looked, there was that Bat symbol.  Hell, you can see it in Times Square in Friday The 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and the music video for The Cult’s “Edie (Ciao Baby).”  You couldn’t avoid it if you wanted to, and in 1989, I’m sure this lived up to the hype and exceeded expectations.  In retrospect, it is still a very good movie, and a greatly admirable true theatrical debut for Batman.  It creates an engrossing mystique for the character in a dark, gothic industrial world where he blends in beautifully.  There are amazing performances throughout the cast, but there are a few creative decisions that the film could’ve easily done without.  And while Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger have nice chemistry, the Bruce Wayne / Vicky Vale relationship wasn’t all that stimulating or interesting.  Personally, I do prefer Batman Returns over Batman.  It has some stronger plotlines and better character dynamics to make a more entertaining and exciting movie, in my view.  Regardless, Tim Burton’s 1989 film will always stand as a bonafide, respected classic which cemented Batman in our modern popular culture.


Justice League: Doom (2012)

In recent months, I started buying comics again, and of course, one of the first I grabbed was Justice League.  With DC revamping their full line of books with 52 all new #1 issues, it was a perfect entry point.  I was a serious fan of the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series, and while this is not of the same continuity, all of the main voice actors were brought back for this outing.  So, that made this animated movie quite special for me.  What we have in Justice League: Doom is a very stellar story crafted by some amazing talents as DC Comics’ premiere superhero team battles with more than just villains, but a breach of trust within their own ranks.

Soon after thwarting an attempted robbery by the Royal Flush Gang, the Justice League of America comes under the attack of Vandal Savage’s Legion of Doom.  The immortal conqueror has assembled a team of villains to defeat Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter.  Concerned of the consequences should his fellow crime fighters ever turn their backs on humanity, Batman created a set of methods for which to immobilize Earth’s most powerful superheroes in the event of an emergency.  However, Vandal Savage breaches the Batcave’s security and obtains these files allowing for his team of villains to use them for lethal intent.  Now, joined by the young hero Cyborg, the JLA must overcome deep feelings of betrayal to defeat the diabolical Legion of Doom before Savage launches a missile that will destroy half the planet allowing for himself to be situated as ruler of all mankind.

While there is a lot of subject matter I will delve into, first and foremost, I want to say that this is a thoroughly enjoyable, fun, and exciting motion picture.  It is full of great action, excellent characterizations, and plenty of epic, heroic moments that will inevitable please any adventure-loving viewer.  There is plenty of levity throughout to counterweight to more dramatic storyline, and the balance between them is beautifully handled.  There is much to examine and highlight with this animated feature.

This was adapted from a 1990s story arc in the JLA comic book titled Tower of Babel, and a few changes were made.  The line-up of the team is different which originally included Aquaman and Plastic Man.  The roles of Green Lantern and the Flash were originally the relatively newer heroes of Kyle Rayner and Wally West, but are now the more classic Hal Jordan and Barry Allen.  Also, Cyborg is only a recent addition to the Justice League of the comics, but he is nicely integrated into this story.  His role shows a young hero earning his keep by stepping up in a chaotic situation, and using his unique skills to help resolve it.  The main villain was also changed from the endlessly fascinating Ras’ Al Ghul to the less dimensional Vandal Savage.  Using Ras’ made more logical sense since he is a Batman villain who has infiltrated the Bat-cave numerous times, and it is established that he knows Bruce Wayne is Batman.  Plus, his motives are usually more ideological in nature whereas Vandal Savage is usually just about conquering the world.  Still, they are both megalomaniacal in their own ways.  However, despite these peculiar changes, the story still works excellently adapting new motives and dynamics to these different characters.

Every superhero is handled with substantial depth and respect.  The story allows for an audience to see most of the JLA outside of their superhero personas.  You see Barry Allen attending to a crime scene as a police forensic investigator, Clark Kent at a press conference as a reporter, Martian Manhunter in his human guise as a police detective, and Bruce Wayne in his interactions with Alfred.  They are brief moments, but enough to show an audience that these people do live lives outside of their costumes.  In their lives, there are people who they personally care about, and those that care deeply for them.  I did especially like how Alfred was written being the rational voice to Batman’s more obsessive, workaholic mentality.  It shows that Alfred is still his keeper, and can exercise authority over him due to a long standing respect.  Batman wants to keep working, pushing through the pain and fatigue to resolve this new mystery, but Alfred reminds him that he is human and needs rest and mending.  Bruce could override Alfred’s mandate, but he would never disrespect Alfred’s better judgment.  The interactions of these characters display a history amongst them.  Little quips about how Ace “sucker punched” Superman before, or Hal and Batman talking about who is ahead in saving whose life really creates a long standing trust and camaraderie here.  This makes the impact of Batman’s secretive contingency plans a stronger blow because we can see how much they are friends on top of being teammates.  What is really great is what Batman reveals as his contingency plan for himself at the end, and it hit me as very telling of Batman’s true nature of trust.

I also enjoyed that the entire League is not unanimously opposed to Batman’s contingency plans.  They are all stunned by it, but subtle actions by some of them suggest a more open minded, fair viewpoint.  I can entirely see Hal Jordan being for it as, at least in the comics, he went completely insane and killed the Green Lantern Corps when infected by the fear entity Parallax.  He’s also seen someone like Sinestro, who was a Green Lantern, betray the Corps and become an enemy as well.  So, having counter-measures in place to neutralize a rogue member would be a wise precaution in his eyes.  However, most of the League would view this as a betrayal of trust, and no one is entirely wrong.  When Tower of Babel was written Batman was being made into an increasingly more paranoid character, and so, while his ideas might have been wise, his secrecy might be arguable.   However, Batman never takes time to brood about this, or feel regret over it.  He remains strong in his belief that what he did was a necessary precaution, and it’s only Savage’s twisting of their intent that made them potentially objectionable, in his eyes.  Being the sole non-super powered member of the team, he has a unique perspective to see how destructive their powers could be if mind control or a psychological break were to turn them to the side of evil.

Of course, the voice cast is excellent!  Having the same actors back who I loved in the old DC Animated Universe just added an extra special quality to the film.  Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly have been voicing Batman and Superman, respectively, for a long time, and have earned a respectable standing in the annals of these characters.  Conroy is the voice of Batman to me, forever and always.  He captures every psychological and emotional nuance of the character perfectly, and clearly enjoys voicing the Dark Knight.  Daly embodies the moral sensibilities and epic quality of Superman wonderfully.  Michael Rosenbaum is clearly a great actor, and he is able to adapt his voice acting nicely from Wally West to Barry Allen.  There’s still a playful aspect to his performance, but it’s more restrained, a little more mature now.  He clearly made a conscious effort to differentiate the two performances.  The only change-up here is the amazing Nathan Fillion as Hal Jordan reprising his role from the Green Lantern animated movies.  His performance truly transcends expectations meshing greatly with the animation direction to create strong emotional moments.  Fillion offers up great jovial quips, but also, deep emotional resonance for Hal.  He creates an interesting and fun character that holds a lot of weight.  Lastly, Phil Morris, who portrayed the Martian Manhunter on Smallville, takes on Vandal Savage, and does a thoroughly effective job at it.  He gives Savage a nice touch of majesty and culture wrapped in an imposing megalomaniacal package.  The remainder of the cast inhabit their characters superbly keeping things strong, vibrant, and powerful throughout, but it doesn’t end with just the voice acting.

I have really enjoyed the animation style of these animated movies.  I have seen Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, and Batman: Under The Red Hood (which I previously reviewed).  All of these have had some slightly different character models, but they have all raised the animation standards for this medium.  They are nicely detailed giving each character their own unique look, angles, and energy.  All of the heroes here seem a little younger than usual, but that’s exactly what DC Comics has done with their new continuity.  So, it did not throw me off at all.  The motion of the animation is very fluid making for some dynamic and exciting action sequences.  Those sequences are also smartly handled by never making them frivolous.  The heroes have to work hard for their victories, and each action scene furthers the story along.  The Royal Flush Gang tends to be a token, generic band of villains to battle, but here, they are made more formidable.  They have cunning, skill, power, and some cohesion.  As dialogue suggests, they have eluded the JLA before, and so, everyone steps up their game so to not repeat that loss.  The Justice League uses teamwork and smarts to ultimately triumph over them.

Scenes play out with a solid cinematic style aided by an excellent color scheme to bring out vibrancy and mood.  These enhance the subversive elements in the story creating a mysterious, foreboding atmosphere.  The creative design of locations is very cool.  I really loved the waterfall interior setting of the Bat-cave.  It offers up a different aesthetic than I’ve seen applied before.  I felt it was a little inspired by the one in Batman Begins due to the waterfall entrance in Christopher Nolan’s film.  Also, the Hall of Doom was a nice update from the old SuperFriends cartoon.  It still has all the classic design elements, but it reflects Vandal Savage’s personality with various pieces of elegant art that depict him only.

The story unfolds in a very tight fashion.  Pacing is consistent throughout.  As DC is keeping these hovering around the 75 minute mark, there’s hardly time to let the story lag anywhere, but it’s more a fact that there are no extraneous elements present.  It’s a very lean, meaty storytelling structure staying right on point with the plot elements and character dynamics.  Every plot element that is introduced has a purpose.  They all tie back into the story at some point, and grow organically from the conflicts or crises that develop.  They really took Tower of Babel as a template, an idea, and built a fresh story around it using a new set of character dynamics and relationships to create Justice League: Doom.  That is very smart screenwriting, and that was evidently the standard for the late Dwayne McDuffie.  Brilliant stories filled with well rounded, well realized characters and themes.  He surely hit every character squarely on the mark in this instance crafting their psychologies and histories around a very intelligent storyline.  When the Leaguers are taken down in the second act, there is such an epic and powerful weight given to it all.  It’s not handled like “just another villain victory.”  These are moments that could claim all of their lives, and it is no easy feat for them to bounce back from it.  Beyond just the physical toll, it becomes an emotional and personal injury that they need to overcome to move forward with stopping the Legion of Doom.  These moments are given their due time so that their epic weight can come crashing down upon the viewer.  It is an amazing sequence that gripped me tightly as it unfolded.

My only down comment is that, at the end, I would’ve preferred a more sound tactical approach in the villains and heroes pairing off.  When you have such equal opponents setup here, it would be more logical to change them up.  Have Flash take on Cheetah, Batman against Mirror Master, Superman against Bane, or Martian Manhunter battling Star Sapphire.  Throw the villains off guard by pitting an opponent against them they are not prepared for instead of each hero battling their common enemy.  I can understand the storytelling significance of having each hero take down the villain that defeated them earlier in the story, but this suggested approach also makes sound storytelling sense.  The Legion of Doom outsmarted them once.  Now, it should be the JLA’s turn to outsmart them instead of just throwing down like they’ve done countless times before with the same enemies.  This is especially so since there’s a missile ready to be launched that will destroy half the Earth.  No time for personal vendettas.  For me, it would’ve been more satisfying if they had taken a smarter approach by changing up the fight dynamics instead of trying to settle scores when the fate of half the world is at stake.  However, that is merely my own personal issue, but the climax of the film doesn’t end with a hero-villain fight.  The Justice League still has a crisis on their hands that requires each member to give it their all to avert disaster, and that only made for a far more intense and satisfying ending.

This is a very dramatic story that deals squarely with the characters on numerous levels.  It raises a very involved issue about trust amongst a group of people with secret identities and super powers.  Despite their own personal secrets, they have come to trust each other, but at some point, there must be an objective point of view questioning ‘what if.’  Beyond just the potential of mind control or magic manipulating them, anyone is capable of using their power to do something destructive through emotional or psychological turmoil.  When that day comes, someone has to be prepared to deal with it, and Batman surely felt it was his responsibility to prepare for that.  Batman, at his best, has always been about doing what’s needed, not what’s popular.  The film doesn’t address the complexities of the issue, but it does address how the characters deal with it.  That is what’s important, in the long run, and it would truly be intriguing to see a direct follow-up to this story to know how this team moves forward from here.

All of this simply results in an extremely well rounded animated movie.  The foundations of its success truly began with Dwayne McDuffie’s immense talent and brilliance as screenwriter.  I have not had a wide spread exposure to his work, but from what I have learned of it, Justice League: Doom exemplifies much of what he was admired for.  This is written with so much depth and knowledge of the characters that it works as an excellent entry point for anyone into the DC Universe.  The loss of all the stories McDuffie still could’ve given fans worldwide is hard to fathom, but it is clear that his talent will be forever missed.  However, he left behind a large catalog of work for us all to enjoy at our leisure.  So, I would say starting here would be a fine choice.  Justice League: Doom has thrilling action, great excitement, rock solid dramatic storytelling, wonderfully fun characters, and is an all around enjoyable watch.  It’s an attention grabber from beginning to end, and I know for me, it left me wanting more of this greatness.  As I know it does for the great guys at the Raging Bullets DC Comics fan podcast, whose own review helped me fuel mine, this movie makes me long for the return of a Justice League animated series.


Green Lantern (2011)

DC Comics have certainly languished behind Marvel Studios in bringing their popular characters to the big screen in the last decade.  At times, I had thought it was because Warner Bros. wanted to take their time to do things right, and make good movies instead of cheap, fast cash grabs.  Marvel has had plenty of those.  Of course, you need to have not just good talent, but the right talent behind a project to make it all it should be.  With Batman firmly established and a Superman reboot rigorously in the works, Green Lantern would’ve been the springboard for other DC Comics film adaptations, but its box office performance was not what was hoped for.

There have been many Green Lanterns throughout the decades, but Hal Jordan has been the most popular one for over fifty years.  I have some fond history with Hal Jordan originating back to the time of The Reign of the Supermen event which set him on a path from fallen hero to super villain to spirit of vengeance to redemption and resurrection.   I enjoyed this journey which took a whole decade to see fulfilled.  It has since made me a fan of Hal, and I became a supporter of having a Green Lantern movie made.  We finally got one, but it wasn’t all I had hoped for.  The resulting film has some serious flaws in it, but very satisfying elements do exist.  Let’s set the stage, first.

Billions of years ago, the Guardians of the Universe divided the universe into 3,600 sectors to be policed by their Green Lantern Corps, assembled from the most fearless beings throughout the universe to maintain order and justice.  When one of their finest, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) is attacked by the yellow fear-essence entity Parallax, he is mortally wounded, and crash lands on Earth.  He commands his ring to find a worthy successor here.  That person is the reckless and cocky aircraft test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) who is no stranger to fear.  As Jordan slowly learns to use his power ring when he is whisked off to the planet Oa, the home of the Green Lantern Corps.  Here, he is trained by the best Lanterns including Sinestro (Mark Strong) and Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan), but also has his failings and fears brought to light.  Meanwhile, Parallax creates death and destruction as it moves through the universe towards Oa.  The Corps’ attempts to thwart this enemy fail with more casualties, and they consider harnessing the yellow power to fight fear with fear.  On Earth, scientist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is summoned by his father Senator Robert Hammond (Tim Robbins) to do an autopsy on Abin Sur’s body at a secret government facility, and is infected by the yellow fear entity developing telepathic and telekinetic powers.  Hal returns home where he must combat Hector’s increasingly dangerous and villainous behavior, and confront his own insecurities before he can become a true Green Lantern.  Soon, the fate of Earth and the entire universe will be in the hands of Hal Jordan.

What I need to say first is that I do not believe Ryan Reynolds was miscast as Hal Jordan.  Yes, there could have been better choices, but Reynolds was not a bad choice.  I have seen him in dramatic roles such as in Buried where he portrays a man buried alive in a coffin in the middle east.  The raw, wide range of emotion he put on display in that film solidifies my faith in his acting abilities.  The problems in this film that diminish his effectiveness here were far beyond his control.

The main problem here is how unbalanced the film is, and I can entirely pinpoint all the aspects.  Fundamentally, the film is divided between the Earth-based scenes and the intergalactic ones.  They both follow different plotlines and carry different tones and scopes.  Everything involving the Green Lantern Corps on Oa or elsewhere in the universe has a serious urgency to it, and a vast wondrous visual landscape for an epic adventure to take place in.  The Earth scenes have a lighter tone with no such urgency to the storytelling process and a fairly contained scope.  Events in one setting do not have enough effect on those in another.  It can feel like two different films meshed together with Hal Jordan as the only linking thread between them.  There is no cohesion to bring the plotlines tightly together, and when they do converge at all, it’s done too late.  To boil it down simply, everything that didn’t take place on Earth happened to be the best parts of the movie.  Every time the film cuts away from the cosmic, intergalactic part of the story, I couldn’t wait to come back to it.  I had no such anticipation for the Earth-based scenes.

The story involving the Green Lantern Corps and Parallax is so compelling because it deals with a threat on a large, epic scale.  Billions could die, and so many have already perished in its wake.  Therefore, every action and decision the Corps makes has the weight of that menace bearing down upon it.  There are strong characters and fleshed out personalities in these extraterrestrials that easily dwarf those of the human characters.  Sinestro stands out as the strongest and most compelling character in the entire film for me.  I would’ve liked more time spent with him than anyone else to delve deeper into his psychology and emotions.  Knowing that Sinestro becomes an enemy of the Green Lanterns in the comics, he would’ve been a deeply fascinating character to explore in detail before he became that enemy.  Mark Strong does an amazing job with him reflecting many subtle nuances, and he does leave me wanting a hell of a lot more.  It’s a wasted opportunity that more wasn’t done with such an excellent actor in this strongly written role.  On the lighter side, I’m sure fans gained enjoyment from Kilowog, who is particularly entertaining.  Michael Clarke Duncan has a good amount of fun playing this character that he is so much a fan of.  The Guardians themselves have some gravitas to them because of their looming, stoic manner.  They are mysterious, but much can be read into them, as Hal does late in the movie.  They set a very ominous tone that is integral to building up the threat of Parallax.

The visual effects that create these alien landscapes are beyond gorgeous!  In those respects, I can see where all those millions of dollars went in this inflated budget.  They are breathtaking vistas filled with rich depth, color, and textures to create worlds that are enveloping.  Green Lantern is given a strong cosmic sense to it with a universe filled with millions of years of deep history.  The visuals offer a massive scope along with a perfect visual tone to compliment the story.  I have not often seen interstellar science fiction cinema with this amount of extraordinary, beautiful detail.  They surely put the CGI in the Star Wars prequels to shame, in most regards.  All of the CGI aliens in the Corps are fantastic looking!  They all have their own textures, body language, and unique character traits that give the film a wealth of visual personality.  Although, the motion capture animation can tend to appear lacking in realism, mostly in wider shots.  There is not enough weight (or mass) given to their movements in these instances is what I perceive.  However, it’s only in brief, sparse moments.  Conversely, when the shots get in close on Reynolds while wearing the energy suit, the effect is not very convincing.  It can look cheap at these moments, and since Hal Jordan is the main character with a generous amount of close-ups, these moments are frequent.

Over on the Earth based story, so much feels like throwaway content.  It might be necessary content to develop Hal’s character, in theory, but so much fails to have any worth.  The girlfriend is the girlfriend.  Carol Ferris provides the usual emotional support, and she has some amusing moments.  However, I failed to see much depth in the character.  She fulfills a role in the story, but there doesn’t appear to be much potential for her to be more than that.   She’s also the damsel in distress that the hero must save because she must be used as a hostage for the useless villain in Hector Hammond.  Peter Sarsgaard certainly does an excellent job with the quirky, bizarre, and twisted Hammond.  Everything he does is great and dead on the mark, but Hector really has no purpose in the story.  His sinister actions do add a certain dynamic to this part of the story as he slowly mutates into this whacked out super powered agent of Parallax.  It creates conflict amongst a few ancillary characters, but his inclusion gives way to a bunch of unnecessary elements that get in the way of the main plot.   There was no need for the covert organization Checkmate or Amanda Waller in this story.  They exist here only as a conduit for Hammond to become accidentally infected by the yellow fear entity via an autopsy on Abin Sur.  Waller herself is not presented well.  Angela Bassett has all the skills to bring Waller to powerful life, but she’s not given enough meat to sink her teeth into.  Pam Grier did a perfect job with Waller on Smallville, but Bassett could’ve given her an impeccable performance to rival.  Still, what matters here is that the story of Hal Jordan becoming a hero and defeating Parallax requires neither the presence of Hector Hammond, Amanda Waller, or Checkmate.  Hammond is there as a physical adversary for Hal to combat until Parallax actually arrives on Earth, but once that occurs, Hammond is disposed of promptly.  While he does a serve a purpose in attracting Parallax to Earth, a creative screenwriter could’ve easily reworked plot elements to achieve that same result if Hammond were excised from the film.  I feel it would’ve been wiser to save Hammond for a more focused story in a later sequel.  Frankly, all of these extraneous elements only serve to chop up the story, creating more fundamental problems.  There are too many subplots going on detracting from the potential streamlined flow of the main plot.

The unevenness of the movie is further attributed to the more lackadaisical pace of the Earth-based story.  While there is impending doom tearing through the universe, Hal Jordan returns to Earth to talk with his jokey friend, deal with his girlfriend, and have some fun being a superhero.  No dramatic pressure is put on Jordan until the final act when Parallax diverts to Earth because of its link to Hector Hammond calling him there.  This should’ve happened much sooner in the film.  If so, it would’ve put that needed pressure on Jordan to overcome his fears in face of an inevitable doom over a longer period of time, and thus, creating a correlating urgency with the rest of the film.  As it is, the fear element in Hal’s character evolution is not well executed, and the ending feels weak and rushed.

I can’t help but compare Green Lantern to Batman Begins due to this similar theme of fear.  Where Batman Begins explored the concept very thoroughly as both an internal conflict for Bruce Wayne to overcome, and then, an external element to be utilized and combated, Green Lantern just kind of talks about it over and over again.  Nothing is really explored or exploited.  You never see Hal actually be defeated by or struggle with fear.  It is something talked about.  He talks about being afraid, and others talk about him having the courage to overcome it.  You don’t see the struggle he has to face to actually triumph over those things.  It should have been a weakness that takes away his confidence while battling an enemy.  It would force him to face a crushing defeat that would motivate Hal to rise back up as a confident hero by the end, but it hardly happens.  There should be emotional conflict to punctuate this story element, considering it is fear.  Batman Begins showed us, in many ways, how Bruce Wayne confronted fear, overcame it, and was able to turn it back around as a weapon against his foes.  There is not enough adversity thrown at Hal Jordan either by his own internal struggles, or anything external to really build up dramatic suspense or tension in his ascension to superhero.

Breaking away from plot elements, I do want to credit the score by the always impressive James Newton Howard.  It truly gives the film the big, epic scale it demanded with some strong and mysterious themes.  Everything Howard seems to do is sure gold, and he truly reaches for the stars on this one.  Like all great film composers, he is able to adapt himself to the needs of the picture pulling on all his diverse musical skills to create a unique experience.  It is surely one constant throughout the film that did not falter.

Action sequences are nicely handled.  Martin Campbell has done two James Bond films before along with other rousing action pictures, and so, he has the skills to put together coherent action sequences.  Dion Beebe’s cinematography maintains an integrity throughout by not giving into clichés of the genre.  His cameras hold to the grand scope of the story by giving us shots with depth and patience.  This is a stark contrast to the work he did on the mostly handheld digital video-shot Michael Mann movies Collateral and Miami Vice.  As with Howard, it seems Beebe is able to adapt his style to the needs of the picture.

Making my final story related notes, there is a lot of repetitive dialogue reiterating exposition as if we didn’t get it the first or second time.  The script really could’ve been tighten up to make way for more poignant character or story elements to be fleshed out.  Not to mention, tightening the script could’ve balanced out the urgency of the plot.  The character stuff is very drawn out, and the plot elements are very short.  The good things were really good, but too much of the film is too light and clunky for the good elements to win out.  It was enjoyable, but it’s a little too forgettable.  I don’t think it has anything to do with Ryan Reynolds.  It’s all in the script and direction.  Reynolds can pull off the kind of performance this film needed, but he either just wasn’t pushed into it or the script didn’t call for it.  The movie needed more dramatic momentum to make itself work right.  Director Martin Campbell has had many excellent and successful films to his credit including GoldenEye, Casino Royale, & The Mask of Zorro.  Of course, he has the off-the-mark Mel Gibson revenge thriller Edge of Darkness more recently to his credit, but Green Lantern is even further from the mark.  It really is a combination of an unrefined screenplay, loose editing of the various plotlines, and his direction that leave the movie feeling lopsided and ineffective.

Green Lantern had the makings of a really good movie, but it didn’t go deep enough with the characters to make Hal Jordan’s ascension and success epic enough.  It had potential, but it was too uneven to succeed.  There are other bits and pieces I could criticize, but they are pretty inconsequential when there are such larger problems to address.