Fox Fall part 1: Gotham

Gotham-TV-Show-Fox-LogoFox television groans with the weight of mythology. And you thought it was the audience.

It probably says something significant that the fall season premiered without so much as a by your leave, and I didn’t even notice. That may only be that I’m oblivious, but it may equally be that I’ve become jaded to the very idea of network television as being something worth watching. Still, I’ve been looking forward to the premiere of Gotham and the return of Sleepy Hollow. Get it right this time, Fox!

Gotham attempts to tell Batman’s story without actually having Batman present. Bruce Wayne is there. The origin story is addressed in the opening 5 minutes of the show, taking the mondo elephant in the room, pointing it one direction and giving a poke with sharp stick. As for the rest? I dunno. Some things stand out pretty quickly. Donal Logue delivers as Harvey Bullock. Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin promises to be the most entertaining villain of the piece. And this is going to be a show all about cameos from the Batman mythology.

In the premiere episode we are introduced to: young Bruce Wayne (Batman!), Alfred Pennyworth (valet and guardian), Jim Gordon (our hero), Harvey Bullock (burned out good cop), Renee Montoya (do-gooder cop who later becomes the Question), Crispus Allen (token black cop who later becomes the Spectre), Barbara Kean (Gordon’s first wife), Sarah Essen (Gordon’s Captain and second wife), along with a host of familiar villains in their civilian guises (Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Carmine Falcone). At least the script writers aren’t trying to anything more than wink and nod at the characters, patiently waiting for them to develop. If Fox gives the show the chance.

Gotham-castBut what kind of television is it? So far, it’s okay if not inspired. Episode one got the Wayne murder out of the way and demonstrated the system corruption of the city. Episode two starts to give the bit players a chance to depart from the shadow of the Bat. We got a villain of the week and some recurring plot lines. It all seems to be pretty standard fare for a crime drama, if a bit heavy on the drama and light on the crime for my taste; standard and not necessarily memorable.

It’s not really fair to judge something of this scope on just two episodes. The show is reaching for something pretty big. I’m afraid the show’s grasp is exceeding its reach. We’ve had two episodes to establish an overall premise for the series, or even a goal for the main characters. So far we’ve had nothing of the sort. Gotham looms over the whole of the story, an oppressive presence that cries out for someone to stand up for justice amidst the corruption. But if Gordon can do it, why would we ever need Batman? And if Gordon can’t do it, the show becomes a frustrating exercise in the depravity of the bad guys. There is so much history and so many characters connected with this mythology that trying to bring them all in – even tangentially – is a recipe for disaster. I would have liked to have seen Gotham without any of the Batman mythos; leave the super villains behind and give me a cops-and-gangsters show. As it is, I fear the show is headed for an insurmountable reef.

Still, there’s at least one high point for me. Donal Logue plays Bullock as a burned out cop mired in the scum of the city, perfectly willing to do bad things to bad people. It’s not quite the Bullock I’m familiar with, and Logue’s playing the “dirty cop” vibe pretty hard. But something about his interaction with Captain Essen and their insistence that Gordon “get with the program” has me hopeful that we’ll find them to be hard-nosed good cops putting Gordon to the test. But hope only goes so far, and I’ve got far too many other things clamoring for my attention. As long as the episodic format continues, I’ll continue watching.

Crisis on Two Earths

Alternate and parallel earths are a staple of modern science-fiction, due in no small part to the prevalence, or even dominance, of these stories in the pages of the DC comics titles all through the 60’s, 70’s and into the 80’s. Though the company departed from this convention during the late 80’s and 90’s, duplicate earth stories are back with a vengeance, in the comics, on the tv series, and finally in the movie-length releases.

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Perspective

Evil is never so clearly defined as in the presence of good, and the duplicate reality stories really bring this contrast to light in clear and interesting ways. Whether it is the antimatter universe of Grant Morrison’s “JLA Earth 2”, or the Justice Lords of the millennial Justice League animated series, I have always loved seeing the good guys triumph over their darkest failings brought to life. I was excited to see the teasers for this movie in front of Green Lantern: First Flight, and thrilled to hear that Dwayne McDuffie was the pen behind the script and story originally pitched for the animated series. With this kind of talent and creative team, standing in front of the movie aisle waiting for me to make up my mind, I made a judgment call and filched the price of the Blu-Ray from my Starbuck’s budget.

Background

The movie is not based on any specific Justice League story. Dwayne McDuffie pitched an original story for the millennial Justice League animated series; although it did not get picked up for the series, the script has been revised and is finally seeing the light of day. DC has a long tradition of “evil twin” universes, from Earth-3 of pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths to the antimatter universe of current continuity, and now endless variations of good and bad between 52 worlds of the multiverse. McDuffie is a veteran of comics and screen-writing both, and has a history of balancing the best of characterization and storytelling.

Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass

The lines between good and evil have never been so clearly drawn. Heroes and villains clash simply for the dictates of moral causitude. Evil is afoot, and those who stand against it must stand. The story of this movie is merely a vehicle for the twin pillars of world-shattering action and moral philosophizing. No plot twists, sudden revelations, or shades of moral gray mar the smooth purpose of this story. With a single exception, care is take so that the viewer is not jolted from his suspension of disbelief by contrived action, unbelievable coincidence, or inconsistent presentation. This story is about people who fight and why they do it.

Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass

If the motivations of good people seldom seem as interesting as those of the bad, here we are treated to flatly small-minded and extremely dislikable villains who at first glance seem only to desire evil for its own sake. As the movie progresses, we discover the truth of the matter. The Crime Syndicate is not a maniacal group of laughing super-villains; they’re merely thugs, gangers, and hoods with unparalleled might. There is no glamor, no humanizing and sympathetic code of honor. With the sole exception of Owl-Man, these characters are repulsive and despicable. Next to them, the sketchily drawn heroes positively shine.

Technical Merit (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Impeccable voice acting conveys perfectly the character of the principle leads. Spectacular action sequences take place in astounding environments. Music, foley effects, and dialog are perfectly mixed, and a treat to the ears. Awesome visual sequences combine modern and traditional effects seamlessly. Although this film never really presents innovative material, at no point does its arsenal of tried-and-true techniques fail.

Content (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Whether Owl-Man is calmly explaining the completely rational purpose behind destroying the universe, denying the presence of inherent good in humanity, or revealing heroes and villains alike as slaves to circumstance and determinism the lead villain (voiced by James Woods) wields the moral and philosophical substance of the movie like a scalpel. Add in some generally excellent bonus features in the way of four additional Justice Leage episodes (two complete stories) from the millennial series, a bonus short starring the Spectre, an analysis of DC comics post-crisis, sneak peeks, trailers, and the complete pilot episodes of Wonder Woman (70’s) and the unfortunately unaired Smallville spin-off Aquaman, and the Blu-Ray is an incredible value. Minus about three hours of content, the 2-disc DVD still rates a hearty second place.

Shelf Life (Pass/Fail) – Fail

Reluctantly, this offering fails to offer a compelling reason for repeat viewing. No audio commentary tracks are included. Even James Woods creepy and stirring performance only carries so much weight. The movie lacks the emotional punch needed to rate serious study, or the stand-out action to make it a background piece. Even the special features, once viewed, are unlikely to be called again for their own sake. The best value for money on this movie would be a weekend rental. It will reward dedicated viewing, for the sake of the subtext and content, but nothing in this film demands it.

“Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.”

Makes Me Crazy

Mistreatment of my favorite characters makes me crazy.  Unearned reputation makes me crazy.  Spending two and a half years on a comic book hoping against hope that it will turn out to be epic (or at least comprehensible) makes me crazy!  And when the Powers That Be decide to turn a waste of paper into a waste of film, shoot a trailer and promotional reel that looks freakin’ awesome, and then utterly fail to deliver the goods on a product that I really should have known better than to buy in the first place . . . well that really makes me crazy!

To mitigate my craziness, I invited my good friend Karate Drew over for a screening, in the hopes that I was simply cranky from heartburn.  To my horror and dismay, this movie still makes me crazy!  If you have read my review of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, you might be prepared for some of what is about to occur.  If not, brace yourself, as Drew and I pan the living daylights out of this utter waste of time and you get to hear what crazy sounds like as its happening.  Unfortunately, this podcast is not a riff-track, though I’m considering a combination drinking-game and riff-track for this feature.

I just don’t know if I want to sit through it again.

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Public Enemies

A tale of loyalty and unlikely friendship featuring two of the most famous super-heroes on the planet, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies pairs the Man of Steel with the Dark Knight.  The iconic heroes unite when President Lex Luthor accuses Superman of terrible crimes against humanity and assembles a top-secret team of powerhouse heroes to bring Superman in.  But the “World’s Finest” duo are determined to topple the corrupt president’s reign once and for all!

-from the ad copy on the back cover of the trade paperback edition

Perspective: I picked up issue one of the new series Superman/Batman with hope that the adoption of the Kids WB Superman/Batman logo from the Saturday morning adventure hour heralded the same kind of storyteling, glanced at the clean, manga-esque interior art by Ed McGuinness, and finally noticed Jeph Loeb’s name in the writer’s credit.  I put the book down and walked quickly away.  Loeb’s excellent thriller Batman: the Long Halloween had made enough of an impression in my mind that I also purchased the overly sentimental Superman For All Seasons by the same creative team.  After that disappoinment, Jim Lee’s astounding art coupled with the promise of another detective thriller lured me into the twelve-part Hush – densely packed with guest-stars, nonsensical plot device, and held together by author’s fiat.  It wasn’t until issue seven centered on Superboy and Robin that I reluctantly acquired the back-issues; at that I point I felt morally compelled to at least purchase the book until the story-arc had been completed.  Twenty-five issues later, I want my money back.

Surprisingly, when Green Lantern: First Flight included a teaser for this project, I couldn’t wait to see the translation to animation.  I expected a clean adaptation of Ed McGuinness’ spectacular and dynamic artwork accompanied by a team of editors to turn Loeb’s poorly plotted showcase of his partner’s artistic talent into a massive brawl wherein the World’s Finest take turns whuppin’ up on a parade of guest stars.  Time for popcorn.

Background: The “World’s Finest” team of Superman and Batman have appeared in one form or another as friends and allies in adventure since 1941.  The two characters share an iconic status in the pantheon of DC heroes, and it is this status rather than equality of ability that has them joined at the hip in graphic literature.  The so-called “contrasting characterization” is a relatively recent innovation, as the heroes shared virtually identical story structures even into the 1980’s: villain appears; villain confounds hero; hero uses deus ex machina to restore the status quo.  These characters have not been used consistently in this fashion, nor in any continuing shared publication, since DC reorganized their internal continuity of story in 1984.

Following the success of adapting Darwyn Cooke’s Justice League: the New Frontier from graphic novel to animation, the adaptation of other best-selling publications seemed only natural.  Superman/Batman: Public Enemies presented an opportunity to use multiple DC character properties without attaching the words “Crisis” or “Justice League” to the project.

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Pull and Hold

Following a technically challenged chat with the Snarky Avenger, I’m on about comic books.  We revisit Rann Thanagar Holy War, dog on Final Crisis a bit, and check on the status of my pull and hold file.  I’m reading Trinity, Booster Gold, and Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the Eighth Grade.  What are you reading?  What am I missing?  I need to know!

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Brave and the Batman

The gang is back in house, properly bribed with chili and cornbread.  We caught up on the latest episodes of the new Batman cartoon – Brave and the Bold – and then talked a bit about other animated Batman incarnations, along with other shows.  Plus, Curtis and Greg tell me about the new RPG from Palladium Books, “Dead Reign”.  Zombie hunters beware!

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