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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.


The Avengers (2012)

Marvel Studios has spent a lot of careful time and resources into building their cinematic universe.  For the record, these films include Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger.  They have all been excellent films that I have highly enjoyed, and found a lot of depth and strength in.  After many studios licensing the rights to their characters, and coming up with very mixed results, Marvel finally took it upon themselves to do it right.  Its ultimate culmination is The Avengers, and while it is a highly enjoyable and entertaining film, there is an emotional depth that it lacks which its predecessors were quite rich with.  These are great characters realized exceptionally well by a stellar cast, and balanced well by a filmmaker who specializes in ensemble casts.  Still, there is plenty to discuss on both the positive and negative side here.

When the Asgardian enemy Loki (Tom Hiddelston) arrives on Earth to utilize a cosmic power to unleash the alien force the Chitauri to destroy humanity, the director of the covert agency S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), proceeds to unite a mismatched team of superheroes as the Avengers.  There is the charismatic billionaire industrialist and scientific genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), aka Iron Man.  Loki’s brother, the Asgardian god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth).  The super soldier and World War II hero Captain America (Chris Evans), a man out of his time and era after being frozen in the arctic for decades.  There is also the brilliant scientist Dr. Bruce Banner who becomes the monstrous Hulk when provoked.  And the two master assassins Clint “HawkEye” Barden (Jeremy Renner), and the Black Widow, Natasha Romanov (Scarlet Johansson).  This immensely powerful collection of extraordinary people must learn to function as a team in order to save the world.

There are some mixed qualities here, and I can’t help but just get the negative off my chest.  First off, the invading aliens, the Chitauri, come off as a completely generic and disposable force.  They are given no build up or personality in the film.  They could be anything or anyone, it doesn’t make a difference.  No threat is built into who they are, just that they are a hostile force invading our planet.  These days, we get numerous alien invasion movies per year – such as Battle: Los Angeles, Battleship, Skyline, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon – and so, this is a well treaded concept that requires more effort behind it to make it fresh, unique, and better than the rest.  Not to mention, the design of the Chitauri ships and technology is very evocative of Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  So, it feels even more tired and generic.  Ultimately, they never seem to be more than the heroes can handle.  They are easily dispatched with to the point where it seems like the Chitauri are the ones hopelessly outmatched.  The filmmakers throw in a mild moment where the Chitauri gain an upper hand, but it’s not enough to sell the epic resonance of the battle.  While I am not fanatic for or against Michael Bay, I do have to say that, in this area of filmmaking, Joss Whedon is no Michael Bay.  Everything that was done in the climax of The Avengers was done on an exponentially more cinematically epic scale by Michael Bay in the last Transformers movie.  It simply had more scope, more dire consequences, and bigger stakes.

Also, for the life of me, I cannot understand why Whedon shot this in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.  All the other Marvel films have been filmed in the far more cinematic format of 2.40:1, my personal favorite.  These days, almost all major studio films are shot in 2.40:1, the widest film format in current use.  The use of the standard 16×9 format you see on most any current television show just takes something away from the visual potential of this film.  When it’s meant to be the epic culmination of this franchise to date, you’d think they’d go the extra mile to boost the visual format.  Of course, this is all a personal irritant of mine.  Most people won’t even pick up on it, let alone have it affect their experience of the film.  The cinematography of Seamus McGarvey is generally good with a couple of impressive shots, but I just feel like some of the composition would’ve been tighter and stronger with that wider format.

Now, let me shift into the positive for a while to better reflect my mixed feelings on the movie.  While we already know from the previous Marvel Studios films that the cast is fantastic, the question is how well are their characters handled and realized?  Quite well.  The good thing about bringing in Joss Whedon is that he does done nothing but work with ensemble casts for the last fifteen years.  All of his shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, & Dollhouse – have been as such, and he always did a remarkable job balancing out the various personalities of those characters.  In The Avengers, everyone has their fair time to establish themselves and make an impression.  However, it seems mostly focused on Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo as Tony Stark and Dr. Banner, respectively.  One might’ve expected a more prominent role for Captain America since he’s really the true leader of the team in the comics, or at least, co-leader with Stark.  However, his forefront time is really in the heat of battle, but still, there seems to be an emotional resonance that is missing with him.  I would’ve expected some substantive material with him coming to grips with being a man out of time as a symbol of an era long past.  I’d like to see Steve Rogers trying to care about and save a world he doesn’t fit into anymore.  I’m sure they are saving that for his proper solo sequel, but it feels heavily glossed over here.

Now, everyone that’s taken on the role of Dr. Bruce Banner has had their own style to it.  I recently caught some of Ang Lee’s Hulk on cable, and man, is that an atrocious film.  Beyond the stylistic gripes I have with it, Eric Bana didn’t strike me as much to be interested in, but in such a overbloated film, it’s tough to really care.  Edward Norton was far superior in the role, and I really liked The Incredible Hulk film from 2008.  His Banner was very Bill Bixby-esque, but still with its own identity and drive fueled by Norton’s creativity and talent.  Mark Ruffalo’s performance is distinctly different than Norton’s, but still quite good and interesting.  His Banner is a bit more awkward, and less socially comfortable.  So, he’s a bit of an eccentric genius, and while the development is never detailed, Banner has evolved from his struggles in The Incredible Hulk.  Yes, while the role was re-cast, that film is still part of continuity.  Ruffalo makes Banner quite interesting as both a sympathetic and admirable person whose initial purose in the film is scientific until circumstances require the green beast to be unleashed.  Generally, it comes down to taste in how you prefer Banner to be portrayed if you like Ruffalo in the role or not, but I found his interpretation quite satisfying.

Downey remains hard to compete with.  The charisma and charm of his Tony Stark can be scene stealing, but it remains in line with the character’s ego and personality.  He and Ruffalo share a lot of screentime, and they have good chemistry.  When it’s just them, the Stark charisma is toned down a little as he seems to enjoy having another brilliant mind to connect with.  Tony appears to admire Dr. Banner, but constantly prods him about unleashing the Hulk, as if it’s a joke.  It’s just like Tony Stark to dance with some danger.

I still love Chris Hemsworth as Thor.  He just brings a powerful presence and majesty with him.  I reviewed Thor here some months back, and I gave it glowing praise.  I think of all the upcoming Marvel Studios sequels it will be Thor 2 that I most anticipate.  The vast possibilities with the character just excite me.  Hemsworth continues to be an excellent choice for this character able to bring solid acting talent along with great physical ability and a strong presence worthy of a god.  He has a lot of formidable acting talents around him, and he stands tall amongst them.

What the filmmakers did with Jeremy Renner’s HawkEye changed my mind about the character.  Before, I couldn’t grasp what an arrow slinging marksman and a gun toting lady spy could contribute to combating an alien invasion when they are surrounded by such super powered and technology enhanced heroes.  I loved how Clint Barton helped with spotting strategy in the battle, giving tips to Iron Man on how to out-maneuver the Chitauri’s aircraft.  Plus, I loved his arrowhead selector.  Different arrowheads for different purposes, and with a touch of a button, he could have the arrow mechanically shift to another selection.  Explosive arrowheads really inflicted some damage.  Black Widow did well in the combat with the foot soldiers using some of their tech against them.  Both Renner and Johansson are given their time to show a connection between their characters and some depth.  It’s a very nice touch to make sure neither gets lost amongst the larger than life characters.

Tom Hiddelston as Loki remains a fun, menacing, and treacherous villain.  He’s an excellent actor who fills the role well, and conveys Loki’s ideals and intentions with exceptional vigor.  However, the problem is not the performance, it’s the threat level.  Loki himself gets beat up on by almost the entire team throughout the movie – Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk all give him a beat down.  In combat, he’s not formidable.  Only through his use of magically empowered manipulation does he become problematic.  He uses his skills of trickery and deceit to attempt to forge a wedge between the heroes, to get them at each other’s throats, but that is only a small cog in his plan, not his endgame.  This ties back into my initial negative mark against the film.  In the end, there is no sense of a perceived insurmountable threat here.  Loki can’t hold his own in battle, and his invading force is terribly generic with no sense of what true destructive power they possess.  This is only one of a few failings of the film.

Since the film has to spend so much time dealing with the character dynamics of a reluctantly formed team, there’s no time to really build up an emotional resonance in the main plot.  Because the enemy is so nonspecific no one has a real, direct personal and emotional conflict to resolve.  Emotion is ultimately what makes a story epic.  Explosions and flashy action sequences might have visual scope, but they alone don’t make the story epic.  You need emotional stakes.  The Avengers are fighting to save the planet, but there are no ideals they are fighting for, no thematic elements in the story for them to grapple with that will make them more than what they were at the start.  All the other Marvel Studios films have had these elements to varying degrees.  In their respective solo films, Thor had to evolve from a impulsive, thick-headed warrior to a noble, more wiser leader.  Tony Stark had to stop being a self-centered merchant of war to becoming a selfless hero intent on stopping war.  Captain America had to learn to take his weakness and turn into his strength, to push himself to becoming the hero he knew he could be, despite everyone else’s doubts.  Bruce Banner had to struggle with the monster inside him.  If he could not be rid of him, he had to find a way to control him.  In The Avengers, there is no substantive emotional or character development.  They just learn to work as a team, which is important, but that just leaves the film feeling flat.  Again, the threat level is never build up enough to draw out emotional strain.  While it’s certainly not as shallow as a Michael Bay film, to turn the earlier comparison around, it definitely doesn’t add up to its predecessors.  The only moment where the filmmakers try to milk some emotional poignancy feels clichéd and contrived.  It’s just there as a cheap heartstrings manipulation which evaporates within a matter of minutes.  It has no real lasting impact.

“A special effect is just a tool, a means of telling a story.  People have a tendency to confuse them as an ends unto themselves.  A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”  That was said by George Lucas, circa 1983, and is the filmmaker quote that has held the most weight and relevance with me through the years.  Why I’m mentioning it here is that while this film has very good visual effects, none of them left a real impression on me because the story was so weak and thin.  It’s not a bad story or that there’s a lack of one, it’s just not very meaty.  Action scenes don’t hold much weight unless the story has enough substance.  While the visual effects are generally good, the one CGI fall off for me was with the Hulk.  Ang Lee’s CGI Hulk was just down right bad on so many levels, and was done by Industrial Light & Magic,  Digital effects house Rhythm & Hues got it perfect with Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk.  They made the Hulk visceral, textured, and raw.  He had realistic qualities in his muscular structure, and the weight in his movements.  In The Avengers, the digital effects have gone back to ILM, and the Hulk goes back to not looking very good.  He seems almost flabby with too much flesh jiggling around instead of the tight physique he had in the Edward Norton film.  He looks partly cartoonish, and that is not good at all.  I was also disappointed that there wasn’t one good dramatic transformation from Banner into the Hulk.  Having grown up with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, getting that good transformation has always been a necessary element to my satisfaction of the character.  The two transformations we get are not impressive.  The first is all in shadows, showing us next to nothing.  The latter is far too smooth, and done in slow motion.  It doesn’t reflect the rage-filled metamorphosis of the Hulk.

The action scenes are impressively well handled.  They are all exciting and unique with their own rallying moments.  Each hero is given the time to shine.  Everything really gets going when Captain America is sent to capture Loki in Germany.  Cap’ gets a ‘standing tall’ moment with a solid, yet succinct speech after saving a man’s life.  As the fight goes on, Iron Man joins in, and then, Thor makes his first appearance looking to retrieve his mischievous brother so to bring him back to Asgard.  Then, Iron Man and Thor throw down themselves, and it’s just great stuff.  Later on, as Loki manipulates the team to force his plan forward on board the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, Banner Hulks out under Loki’s subtle influence and fights with Thor.  That is one excellent fight sequence as you’ve got to know how they match up, strength wise, and seeing Hulk fighting to pick up Thor’s hammer, yet not being able to (since he is not worthy of the power), is also a stellar touch.  Many of the action scenes in the early half of the film help to evolve the team dynamic.  Showing Captain American and Iron Man working together to trying to get the hellicarrier’s engine operational again was good.  The Captain doesn’t know jack about modern technology, let alone any of Stark’s scientific talk, but they make it work.  Trust is slowly built up as they shake loose their individual trepidations about teaming up.

All in all, the character interactions are well balanced and greatly played by the cast, and they are the richness that makes the film enjoyable and entertaining while wrapped up in some exciting action sequences.  There are plenty of light-hearted beats and flourishes of humor that give it levity.  It opens up the characters further than before to be even more accessible and entertaining.  This is sort of the superhero equilivent of Ocean’s Eleven.  An ensemble cast rich with talent and chemistry that know how to share the spotlight and maintain the right tone throughout.

Leading up to this film I was not enticed by the marketing campaign.  It was just big explosions, action scenes, and a few comical quips from Downey.  It was not giving me what I wanted to see.  It was only a little word of mouth that gave me some hope for The Avengers.  So, while the film was not as bad as I feared it would be, it certainly wasn’t as good as many people have said it would be.  There is a lot of good action with good effects work and solid character realization and execution, but the plot just doesn’t have much substance.  I don’t get excited over spectacle alone.  I need a strong plot and story to make the action mean something.  The film could have been more than it was with more attention to thematic material and emotional depth.  Some fluff action or comical scenes could’ve been excised to make room for more character building segments.  Personally, I just ask for more than this from a superhero film with a lineage of strong, well-rounded outings like Superman, The Crow, Blade, Iron Man, Captain America, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight.  So, it’s sad for me to say that The Avengers is the least of the Marvel Studios films when it should have been the best.  Regardless, it is still a mass audience crowd pleaser, and for many, that is all they desire.  I just know that the filmmakers should’ve strived for more than that as others have before them.


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.