The Lego Batman Movie (2017, Chris McKay)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Joker is causing carnage in Gotham, while Batman is going through issues of loneliness…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne/Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is the hero of Gotham City (“I love you more than my kids!” says a member of the general public). However, new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) wants to put an end to his vigilantism. Meanwhile, Bruce is also feeling lonely in his millionaire’s mansion with just loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) for company. Later, the household gets an addition when Bruce accidentally agrees to adopt a young, enthusiastic orphan named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who joins Batman on his missions and eventually gets the name Robin. Superman (Channing Tatum) also has a couple of appearances.

Bad guys: The Joker (Zack Galifianakis) wants to blow up the city but he’s upset when he realises Batman doesn’t consider him to be his number-one enemy. There’s also a large gang of bad guys who initially support the Joker. They include the Riddler (Conan O’Brien), the Scarecrow (Jason Mantzoukas), Bane (Doug Benson), Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams), Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz), Clayface (Kate Micucci), Poison Ivy (Riki Lindhome), Mr Freeze (David Burrows), Penguin (John Venzon) and Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate). After the Joker surrenders to the cops he’s sent to the Phantom Zone (the mystical prison from the Superman movies), where he recruits lots of other bad guys from non-DC fictions. These include Sauron (Jermaine Clement), Lord Voldemort (Eddie Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong (Seth Green), Daleks (referred to as “British robots… Ask your nerd friends”), the shark from Jaws, Gremlins, the Wicked Witch of the West (Riki Lindhome) and the flying monkeys, Dracula, Medusa, Agent Smith from The Matrix and a velociraptor from Jurassic Park. The Joker brings them to Gotham to take his revenge on Batman. 

Best bits:
* The film starts with a black screen and Batman giving a meta voiceover about how all great films begin with a black screen. He then comments on the production-company logos.
* The opening scene features an aircraft from MacGuffin Airlines. The flight is also Flight 1138, which is a reference to two George Lucas movies.
* The first appearance of the Joker. He tries to intimidate an airline pilot, but the pilot just points out that all the Joker’s plans fail (“Like that time with the parade and the Prince music?”).
* In a gag that only becomes apparent during the end credits, Two-Face is voiced by Billy Dee Williams, who played the pre-villain character in the 1989 Batman film.
* When characters shoot guns, they vocalise the ‘Pwew-pwew-pe-pwew’ sound effects.
* The incidental music is great.
* Batman sings a song while he deals with the Joker: “In the darkest night/I make the bad guys fall/There’s a million heroes/But I’m the best of them all.”
* The Batmobile’s horn is the theme music from the 1960s TV series.
* The password to Batman’s secret lair is ‘Iron Man sucks’.
* Batman bored at home: microwaving lobster thermidor, struggling to find the right AV channel on his telly, and watching Jerry Maguire.
* The interior of Wayne Manor is reminiscent of Xanadu, Charles Foster Kane’s home in Citizen Kane.
* Alfred says that Bruce also had maudlin periods in “2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1995 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966.” As he mentions each year we get a flash of the relevant Batman movie (Lego reconstructions for the first eight, then a live-action clip for 1966).
* “My name’s Richard Grayson but all the kids at the orphanage call me Dick.” “Well, children can be cruel.”
* Barbara Gordon is announced as Gotham’s new police commissioner via an X Factor-style VT. It tells us she cleaned up a nearby crime-ridden city by using “statistics!!! And compassion!!!”
* When Barbara says they can manage without Batman, Bruce Wayne calmly asks a waiter for a drink, then gulps some of it so he can spit it out.
* The shark repellent: a neat call-back to the 1960s film.
* Batman asks if Dick is “110-per-cent expendable”. Dick: “I don’t know what that means, but okay!”
* Dick tries out some potential superhero costumes. Batman says the El Mariachi one is culturally insensitive.
* Batman has been keeping count of how many good ideas he’s had (5,678,482) and how many good ideas everyone else has had (none).
* Superman’s front-door bell at the Fortress of Solitude is the musical motif from Superman: The Movie.
* Batman’s nervous flirting with Barbara.
* When he reaches Gotham, Lord Voldemort turns police officers into fish, frogs and fish-frogs. “Sergeant Jackson,” says the police chief, “stop floppin’ around!”
* Barbara Gordon tells Batman she will let him out of prison if he agrees to team up with other people to fight crime. “Who am I working with? SEAL team six? Fox Force Five? Suicide Squad?”
* A cat gets engulfed by lava. “I’m okay!” you hear it say.
* Robin needs the loo. “Can you hold it in like a big boy?” asks Batman.
* Having joined the fight, Alfred says: “Bob’s your uncle, you ruddy duff cobblers!” He’s British, of course.
* Phyllis, the brick-shaped administrator of the Phantom Zone, calls Batman ‘Mr Batman’ and emphasises the first syllable, as if his name was Harman or something.
* Batman tells Robin they’re going to punch the bad guys so hard that “words describing the impact are gonna spontaneously materialise out of thin air.”
* The music over the end credits is “happy, poppy music, the kind that makes parents and studio executives happy.”

Review: This spin-off might not be quite as awesome as the original Lego Movie but it’s still enormous fun. It balances gags for kids with postmodern references, and lots of action with plenty of heart. As with The Lego Movie, the most impressive thing is the design work. The look of the film is astonishing. Although done with CG, the characters and their surroundings feel real and solid and three-dimensional. There’s smoke and water and lens flares. Scenes are shot inventively, with crash-zooms, whip-pans and circular tracks. Action is Michael Bay-huge and dramatic. And the movie’s colour scheme is vibrant and dynamic. The movie is also remorselessly funny, but if anything the assault of jokes and fun details is too relentless. You just can’t keep up and have to accept that on one viewing you’re going to miss a large proportion. (Not that repeat viewings would be a chore.) Nevertheless, a charming, smart and very enjoyable 100 minutes.

Eight snake clowns out of 10

Suicide Squad (2016, David Ayer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Due to the existence of powerful ‘meta-humans’, a team of reprobates is assembled to combat them if something goes wrong…

Good guys: Well, there aren’t any, really. The ‘heroes’ of the story are Task Force X, a ragbag team of prisoners who have committed a variety of crimes but are offered shorter sentences if they help the government. (We know they’re bad guys because they keep telling us they are.) Two of the group shine noticeably brighter than anyone else in the film: Deadshot and Harley Quinn. The former’s real name is Floyd Lawton and he’s played by Will Smith. An assassin with preternatural marksmanship, he also has an 11-year-old daughter (which manipulatively tells us that he can’t be entirely evil). Smith, as always, knows what he’s doing and the character has a fair amount of sarcasm and swagger. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn – real name Harleen Quinzel – is played by Margot Robbie. She’s a former psychiatrist who was turned loopy after sessions with master criminal The Joker. They fell in love and went on a crime spree, including murdering Batman’s friend Robin. Interestingly, rather than debuting in a comic book, Harley Quinn was created in the early 90s for the TV show Batman: The Animated Series. She’s a punky, crazy, flirtatious, immature, gleeful cheerleader type with peroxide hair, a crop top and a baseball bat. Robbie is ace, bringing bags of energy and danger. It’s no surprise that a solo movie for the character has been rumoured recently. (A more responsible blogger might also discuss the troubling subtext of an ostentatiously sexy character who talks and dresses like a little girl. But let’s ignore that and return to being sniffy about Suicide Squad…) Elsewhere, Task Force X’s other members are all desperately dull. Army Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the leader, though he himself has no super powers or anything. George ‘Digger’ Harkness aka Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is a tough, uncouth Australian who – wait for it – uses a boomerang to kill people. Chato Santana aka El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is a former gang member who can generate and withstand fire; he has lots of tats and, admittedly, a bit of a backstory. Waylon Jones aka Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a man who’s been mutated into a humanoid crocodile. He has no personality. Neither does Tatsu Yamashiro aka Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a martial-arts expert who has a big sword, nor Christopher Weiss aka Slipknot (Adam Beach), a guy who can climb anything. Both join the team later than everyone else with precious little fanfare or consequence. Slightly more interestingly, Ben Affleck reprises his Batman from the previous film in this series. He appears briefly in flashbacks but chooses not to take part in the potentially world-destroying main story. Does his jurisdiction only extend to the Gotham-and-Metropolis area? The Flash (Ezra Miller) also cameos from the previous film.

Bad guys: The antagonist of the story is the Enchantress, a 6,373-year-old, mystical, evil, extra-dimensional entity who has inhabited the body of archaeologist June Moon. Both characters are played by Cara Delevinge. It’s tempting to assume that her contributions were trimmed down in editing – the characters don’t appear much in the finished film and when they do it feels like we’re cutting around a weak actress (or at least a miscast one). The Enchantress wants revenge for something or other and plans to kill everyone or whatever. (If you think that last sentence was sloppy, it still tops how much thought the filmmakers put into the character.) A more heavily featured villain is Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the government official who assembles Task Force X yet has shadowy motives. Additionally, Jared Leto plays The Joker Who Inevitably Disappoints Because He’s The One Who Comes After Heath Ledger. The character has been repurposed as a gold-toothed, tattooed, hip-hop gangster, but he’s not especially interesting or important.

Best bits:
* The first 21 minutes of the movie form a whip-crack-fast opening act that introduces us to all the main characters, uses fun flashbacks, features cameos from Batman and the Flash, sets up the concept of the squad, and contains both humour and decent visual effects. The sequence rocks with energy, and it’s great fun. It’s like watching a hyper version of Hustle or Ocean’s Eleven. We get quickly cut montages, on-screen captions, treated footage, famous songs used as score, dislocating editing and trippy sound effects – there’s a flamboyance and a freedom. The rest of the film simply can’t compete.
* Deadshot pulls a gun on a prison guard. “If this man shoots me,” the guard tells a colleague, “I want you to kill him. And I want you to go clear my browser history.”
* Harley Quinn beating people up to the sound of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
* The montage of the squad tooling up for a mission is cut dead when Harley realises that every man close by is perving at her.
* A nice twist: the squad has been fighting to get to a room… then discover it contains their boss, Waller, who soon kills her co-workers so they don’t learn her nefarious plan. “I like her,” deadpans Killer Croc in his one moment of individuality in the whole film.
* The ending: the Joker breaking Harley out of prison. Hashtag sequel set-up
* A mid-credits scene that teases the forthcoming Justice League movie: Bruce Wayne getting some information from Waller.

Review: This film is a spin-off from the dreadful Man of Steel (2013) and the even more dreadfuller Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016); the series of movies is known as the DC Extended Universe. But as we start, there’s a nice surprise. It seems that Suicide Squad has turned its back on the dreary house style. Instead, the tone is fun and refreshingly dangerous. The opening 20 minutes are full of attitude, spikiness, threat and dark comedy. Even the studio logos that start the film are tinted in neon purples and greens. This pop-art sensibility reminds you of Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) or Gotham (2014 onwards), two theatrically styled TV shows also inspired by the same comics as Suicide Squad. Sadly, all that is quickly forgotten and the movie morphs into a drab, lifeless, voice-less franchise film. The longer it goes on, in fact, the worse it gets. Writer/director David Ayer reportedly wrote the script in six weeks and it has the tell-tale signs of being rushed. (Clearly a lot of work has gone into the set-up. The middle act and climax, though, reek of that’ll-do desperation.) The story descends into utter garbage and the second half of the film is really, really appalling. When you can follow what’s happening it’s impossible to care about any of it. Suicide Squad is also another case of the DC Extended Universe mechanically copying something the Marvel series of superhero films did first… yet failing to understand why it worked. This is DC’s equivalent of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – both films have an irreverent tone and feature a team of misfits. Guardians, however, also had wit, style and characterisation. This is just a mess. The story is confused, the characters ridiculous, the humour often terrible, the action boring. However, based on the strength of the opening 20 minutes and its general punky attitude, let’s give the film a generous score…

Five workplace romances out of 10

The Batman vs Dracula (2005, Michael Goguen)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Gotham City, the present day.

Faithful to the novel? No, it’s using the character of Dracula as a villain. This feature-length animated film was a straight-to-DVD spin-off from The Batman (2004-2008), a 65-episode cartoon series. In it, the coffin of Count Dracula (Peter Stormare) is found in a Gotham cemetery by the Penguin (Tom Kenny), who has recently escaped from Arkham Asylum and is looking for some lost loot. A drop of the Penguin’s blood inadvertently brings the vampire back to life. He initially appears haggard and corpse-like, but grows stronger and more human-looking as he feeds. We see flashbacks to him being staked years earlier in Transylvania; his body was then moved to Gotham for reasons unknown. We also learn that the count was once married to Carmilla Karnstein (from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella), who he now wants to resurrect. Dracula hypnotises the Penguin into being his acolyte (he’s this story’s Renfield), and also assembles a gang of followers by turning them (temporarily, as it turns out) into vampires. Meanwhile, millionaire Bruce Wayne (Rino Romano) is dating journalist Vicki Vale (Tara Strong). Dracula meets them both when he gatecrashes a party – using the alias Dr Alucard – and identifies Vicki as a means of helping Carmilla. When his battle of wits with Dracula gets underway, the Batman uses the infected Joker (Kevin Michael Richardson) to research a cure. But it’s by targeting a new solar-energy machine, which was clumsily seeded earlier in the story, that he’s finally able to defeat the vampire.

Best performance: Thomas Chase Jones’s music is superb, especially when using flashes of rock guitar.

Best bit: The Batman and Dracula’s first fight – staged on rooftops, Dracula has the upper hand with ease.

Review: The meeting of Batman and Dracula, two bat-related fictional icons who have had many incarnations, is an interesting one. The Count himself even draws the parallel in this film: “My legacy has been quite influential,” he says. And this animated special makes great play of the characters’ connection. Bruce Wayne even has a psychologically resonant dream in which the Batman and Dracula are merged into one creature. The plot might be simple, but the stylish animation and genuinely scary sequences mean this film is entertaining enough. Although superficially similar, it’s unrelated to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which I reviewed elsewhere on this site. It’s a new continuity and a new cast.

Seven lost ones out of 10

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Gotham City is terrorised by a maniac calling himself the Joker…

Good guys: Wayne Manor has been destroyed, so Bruce Wayne is now living in a penthouse and using a secret base underneath the docks for all his secret Batman stuff. Early on, he goes to Hong Kong to find a fleeing money launderer and delivers him to Gotham’s District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Bruce sees Dent as the new crime-fighting hope for the city, so also helps him by throwing a big fundraiser. But when the Joker begins his reign of terror, Batman faces a dilemma – reveal his real identity or risk more people being killed… So he destroys all evidence of his activities and prepares to ‘come out’, yet Harvey beats him to it and announces that *he’s* the Batman. It’s a trap to lure the Joker out, but he soon escapes and kills Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes. After capturing the Joker and saving Jim Gordon’s family from Dent (who’s gone loopy, murdered some people and is then killed himself), Batman falls a long way and is injured. In order to maintain Dent’s reputation as Gotham’s rallying-call hero, Batman chooses to take the blame for Dent’s actions and goes on the run… As in Batman Begins, Bruce has a trio of older men who help him out – Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius (Morgan Freeman) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Alfred offers sound advice, Lucius gets to go on the Hong Kong mission, while Gordon plays a big role in the plot: he’s stages his death to trick the Joker, then gets promoted to police commissioner.

Bad guys: The Joker (Heath Ledger) is a psycho-punk terrorist – he’s tellingly referred to by that word – with blurred clown make-up, facial scars and a charity-shop suit. He is “an agent of chaos” who revels in destruction. In a brilliant move that makes him more mythic, we never find out who he is or where he’s from, and he tells contradictory but always chilling stories about how he got his scars. As the story begins, the Joker is knocking off mob banks. He then goes to the gangsters and offers to kill Batman for half of their fortune. When he’s arrested, he arranges for Dent and Rachel to be kidnapped – Rachel is killed and Dent is severely injured. The Joker escapes by taunting a policeman into fighting him, then blowing up the station with a bomb smuggled in inside a prisoner’s stomach. He gets all the mob’s money back and burns his half because it’s mayhem and disorder he wants, not cash. He then puts explosives on two ferries – one carrying civilians, one carrying convicts – and gives each the detonator for the other boat’s bomb. It’s a morbid social experiment designed to test Gotham’s morality. The last we see of him, he’s hanging upside down from a rope – high above Gotham and laughing uncontrollably. Ledger *commands* the film whenever he’s on screen. It’s a thrilling performance – as mercurial as it is manic. He’s full of threat and danger and menace.

Other guys: Aaron Eckhart (very good) plays Harvey Dent, the charismatic new DA who’s dating Rachel Dawes. He shows his mettle early on by disarming a witness who pulls a gun on him in court, then complains when the guy is taken away: “But, your honour, I’m not done…” He impresses everyone with his dedication to bringing down the mob – but when Jim Gordon is ‘killed’ and Rachel identified as the Joker’s next target, Dent’s anger boils over and he kidnaps a henchman. He tosses a coin to see whether the guy should live or not… He then pretends to be Batman in order to draw the Joker out of hiding, but the Joker retaliates by tying him up next to some barrels of flammable liquid. When a bomb goes off while Batman’s saving him, half of Dent’s face is burnt away; elsewhere, Rachel is killed. Now fully off the deep end, Dent goes on a revenge spree – killing gangsters based on a coin-toss decisions and even kidnapping Jim Gordon’s family… The role of Rachel, meanwhile, has been recast since Batman Begins. Katie Holmes declined to return (no great loss), so we now have Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’s *much* better. She’s a stronger presence in the story, feels like a grown-up and is a lot more interesting. Also on show are: Anthony Michael Hall as a TV reporter; Nestor Carbonell (Richard from Lost) as the mayor; Eric Roberts as mob boss Sal Maroni; Chin Han as the money launderer Lau; and Cillian Murphy, who reprises the Scarecrow from Batman Begins in a fun cameo.

Best bits:

* The incidental music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It’s one of cinema’s great scores – often scratchy, unsettling, nightmarish, unbearably taut and foreboding, sometimes sweeping and bombastic.

* The opening image – a slow helicopter shot tracking in towards a skyscraper’s window, which then smashes open.

* The prologue. Clown-masked bad guys burst into a bank, each killing a colleague as his usefulness passes. The casting of William Fichtner as the bank manager is a deliberate nod to the 1995 film Heat, in which he featured and which was a massive influence on this movie. The sequence is capped by the Joker pulling off his mask to reveal his terrifying face: “Whatever doesn’t kill you,” he snarls, “makes you *stranger*.”

* Gotham City Police Department’s noticeboard of Batman suspects: Elvis, Abraham Lincoln and Bigfoot.

* The fake Batmans (Batmen?) in hockey pads.

* Bruce crashes Rachel’s date with Harvey Dent so he can see the new DA up close. When Harvey says the restaurant might not let them push two tables together, Bruce says, “Oh, they should. I own the place.”

* The Joker walks in on the gangster’s powwow.

* The Joker’s magic trick: making a pencil disappear.

* Oh, look: it’s Chucky Venn from EastEnders as a mob henchman.

* “Why so serious?!”

* While reeling off the multitudinous charges facing the mob – “Seven hundred and 12 counts of extortion, 849 counts of racketeering, 246 counts of fraud, 87 counts of conspiracy murder, 527 counts of obstruction of justice…” – the judge finds a joker player card amongst her papers. She ain’t long for this world, then.

* Harvey asks Alfred about Rachel: “Any psychotic ex-boyfriends I should know about?” “Oh, you have no idea…”

* The Joker terrorises the fundraiser.

* The Joker dangles Rachel out of a window. “Let her go!” order Batman. The Joker says, “Very poor choice of words…”

* The executive who figures out that Bruce Wayne is Batman and goes to Lucius Fox to extort him. Lucius says: “Let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands – and your plan is to blackmail this person?! Good luck.”

* Gordon is shot while protecting the mayor.

* Oh, look: it’s Sarah Jayne Dunn from Hollyoaks as Maroni’s bored girlfriend.

* The action scene with the armoured vans. It begins on urban city streets, then goes down to the claustrophobic lower levels. Batman starts in the familiar Tumbler Batmobile, but then detaches the front axle and it becomes his new Batpod motorbike. The Joker and his crew have an 18-wheel articulated lorry with a graffiti S added before its ‘Laughter is the best medicine’ logo. The chase is tense and visceral, and there’s a seamless blend of genuine stunt work, scale models and judicious CGI. The best moment is the lorry flipping over lengthways: an audacious stunt clearly done for real.

* The lights suddenly go on in the interrogation room and we see Batman stood behind the Joker.

* The mobile phone inside a guy’s stomach.

* The Joker hanging his head out of a car window like a dog.

* Harvey’s burnt face – a superb special effect.

* The Joker’s massive pile of money, which he then burns.

* The Joker dressed as a nurse – wig and all – but still with the same macabre make-up.

* The Joker blowing up a hospital. There’s a glorious shot of him walking towards camera as explosions go off in the background; they come to a stop, so he shakes his remote-control gizmo and pushes a button; this kicks off the collapse of the entire building – all done in one single take.

* The camera turning upside down so the Joker, hanging high above Gotham by his feet, appears the right way up.

* The final montage – Gordon trashing Batman’s reputation and praising Harvey Dent, all for the greater good.

Review: This film has such a pulse. A heartbeat. An unstoppable momentum. Director Christopher Nolan used IMAX cameras for key action sequences, which makes the whole thing feel absolutely enormous. It’s an epic story on a massive canvass, and has more wide, open spaces than any other Batman. You feel the city stretching out beyond the borders of every frame. A big influence is the Michael Mann crime thriller Heat (if you don’t know it, check it out: it’s wonderful). There are many similarities between the two: a sense of tension always bubbling away under the surface; a personality-driven conflict between the good guy and the bad guy; a tense bank raid that shows off the villain’s ruthless determination; and the use of a city as a character in its own right… Also, as in Heat, The Dark Knight’s two principle players – Batman and the Joker – are not a million miles apart. They’re both ‘freaks’ using force to impose their will. The Dark Knight starts off as a gangster plot. How can Batman and the cops bring down the mob? And it’s based on standard tropes of good guys and bad guys, mobsters and the police, law and order and courts and judges. Everyone knows where there are. But the injection of the Joker – a shot of spiked adrenalin – adds unpredictability and uncertainty to everything. The film soon becomes a post-9/11 story about terrorism, democracy vs fascism, and whether ends can justify means. How do you deal with or defeat someone who doesn’t play by your rules? How important are civil liberties and personal privacy when you’re trying to protect society? There are no easy answers. The Joker is entropy-in-action: a force of nature constantly chipping away at Gotham City’s structured society and revelling in the decay. He can’t be reasoned with and he can’t be intimidated – and that’s terrifying. Big, bold, complex, provocative and dangerous, this is the superhero genre’s equivalent of The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back. It’s monumental. Daunting. Impressive. Threatening. Challenging. Fascinating. *Ambitious*. It’s the best film so far this century. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with this review.

Ten school buses out of 10.

Next time: Mumble mumble Gotham’s reckoning! mumble mumble…

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993, Eric Radomski and Bruce W Timm)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

No, seriously. I’m going to spoil the ending.

When Gotham City’s gangsters are systematically killed by a bizarre being known as the Phantasm, Batman is wrongly blamed – and must also face dark secrets from his past…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne/Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) is a square-jawed hunk and, at first anyway, a commitment-phobic womaniser. We see extensive flashbacks to him as a young man and his early attempts at vigilantism (his costume is a basic all-black affair); after proposing to girlfriend Andrea, the pair are scared by some bats, which gives the young Bruce an idea. In the present day, Batman is falsely accused of the Phantasm’s crimes and is hounded by the police…

Bad guys: Weasel politician Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner, who was also in Supergirl) used to be an assistant of Andrea’s dad, Carl Beaumont, and is now in league with mobsters. The Joker turns him insane and he ends up laughing uncontrollably in a mental hospital. The maniacal yet dapper Joker doesn’t appear until about halfway through, voiced entertainingly and energetically by Mark Hamill. He’s taken over the ruins of a theme park and made it his lair. When he’s hired by a gangster to stop Batman, who the bad guys assume is the assassin, he quickly learns the Phantasm is actually to blame. At first, we’re led to believe that the Phantasm – a powerful, masked vigilante who appears, kills and disappears enveloped in smoke – is Carl Beaumont, out for revenge on the gangsters who ruined his life. The same actor voices both characters. However…

Other guys: Not properly fitting into either of the previous two categories is Andrea Beaumont. She’s voiced by Dana Delany, whose name sounds like a comic-book character. Andrea is a sharp-talking, sexy dame who had a relationship with Bruce years earlier. Her father was in hock to some gangsters, and just after Bruce has proposed to Andrea, she had to flee Gotham City with her dad. Returning in the present day, she soon figures out Bruce’s secret identity. She also drops enough hints – and then actually states – that her father is the Phantasm. However, the Joker has guessed the truth: it’s actually Andrea. When Bruce finds out, he calls her on her pointless vengeance. She rightly points out he’s a hypocrite. From the established Batman mythology, Alfred gets a few scenes with Bruce, while Commissioner Gordon won’t believe that Batman has turned evil.

Best bits:

* The first appearance of the Phantasm.

* Bruce surrounded by attractive women at a party. “Never mention the M word,” says one, meaning marriage.

* The flashbacks – like in Lost, the switch to the past is always smartly motivated by an emotional character beat.

* Andrea talking to her mother’s grave. “She doesn’t have much to say today,” she quips to Bruce.

* Bruce’s first attempt at crime-fighting – “Who’s this clown?” asks an incredulous bad guy – and the subsequent action sequence.

* The scene in the moonlight graveyard. The Phantasm kills a mobster by tricking him into an open grave and then pushing a huge tombstone on top of him.

* The Gotham World’s Fair, one of those futurist theme parks that predicted hover-cars and robotic domestic staff. There’s a gorgeous dieselpunk aesthetic to the whole thing. A similar sequence features in Captain America: The First Avenger.

* Bruce sees a sleek, retro-futuristic car at the fair: the same model as the future Batmobile.

* Bruce: “You think you know everything about me, don’t you?” Alfred: “I diapered your bottom. I bloody well ought to, sir.”

* Bruce puts his Batman mask on for the first time. We don’t see it, but Alfred looks terrified.

* Just before the first appearance of the Joker (played by Luke Skywalker, of course), we get a sound effect either copied or actually cribbed from The Empire Strikes Back – it’s the noise the Millennium Falcon makes when it breaks down.

* The Batwing.

* The running gag of Alfred walking in on Bruce and Andrea kissing then walking out again.

* The Phantasm pulls off its mask, revealing Andrea!

* Batman and the Joker fighting in the abandoned World’s Fair – their brawl takes place in a scale model of Gotham City, so they seem like giants. (It reminded me of similar gags in Hot Fuzz and Crank: High Voltage.)

Review: After a successful first season of Batman: The Animated Series, its producers set about making a feature-length, direct-to-video special. Impressed with the quality, however, the studio decided to give the film a cinema release. I’m no expert on the TV show and had never seen Mask of the Phantasm before, so I don’t know how representative it is. But it’s an enjoyable piece of storytelling. There’s a good structure, with plenty of plot development. The flashbacks – a nod to Citizen Kane, according to the producers – work really well in simultaneously fleshing out character and filling in back-story. And it also looks gorgeous, with some stylish animation which mixes up its eras to create a fun and interesting world. Enjoyable stuff.

Eight knife-wielding robots out of 10.

Next time: Riddle me this, Harvey Dent!

Batman (1989, Tim Burton)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In Gotham City, the Caped Crusader comes up against a maniacal master criminal called The Joker…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne – a multimillionaire philanthropist who has a secret crime-fighting alter ego – is played by Michael Keaton. It’s a quirky casting choice and is all the more interesting for it. Keaton can do both light and pensive. Early on in the story, Bruce meets photographer Vicki Vale and falls for her. After they sleep together, she wakes to find him hanging upside-down from a metal bar – it’s almost like he wants her to guess his secret identity. He’s tempted to just tell her, but she works it out before he plucks up the courage. Bruce is haunted by a childhood memory of his parents being killed in front of him. In a clever twist on the established Batman continuity, he soon works out the Joker was the murderer. We see Batman in action a fair amount, usually with ingenious gadgets and cool vehicles. Vicki, meanwhile, is played by Kim Basinger. (Sean Young was originally cast, but was injured early into filming and couldn’t continue.) We first see her legs, propped up on a desk as she reads a copy of the Gotham Globe. She’s come to the city to investigate the rumours about the Batman and teams up with a journalist called Knox, who ticks the friend-who-fancies-the-girl-but-isn’t-a-serious-option-for-romance box. Vicki meets Bruce Wayne at a benefit party and, after an initially awkward date, they spend the night together. The Joker develops an obsession with Vicki and she’s often in danger.

Bad guys: Jack Napier, aka the Joker, is played by Jack Nicholson, who gets top billing and was paid tens of millions of dollars. He’s fantastic. “Wait until they get a load of me!” Jack boasts at one point: he’s off-the-chart mental, unpredictable, dangerous and dominates the frame. When we meet Napier, he’s a gangster who’s sleeping with his boss’s girlfriend and bribing cops. After he’s set up to be killed by his angry boss, he falls into a vat of corrosive chemicals. He survives, but with a reconstructed face now stuck in a rictus grin and his skin burnt white. Driven insane by his experience, he kills his boss, reinvents himself as the Joker, and takes over the mob business. His diabolical plan involves flooding the consumer market with toxic beauty and health products. (In the flashback scene to Jack as a young man, he’s played by Hugo Blick, who went on to write TV shows Operation Good Guys, Marion & Geoff, The Shadow Line and The Honourable Woman.)

Other guys: Michael Gough plays Bruce’s butler, father figure and general confidant, Alfred. Pat Hingle appears as Commissioner Gordon. Jack Palance plays mob lord Grissom. Billy Dee Williams cameos as District Attorney Harvey Dent, a character deliberately being seeded for a larger role in a sequel (when, in the event, he was recast). Robert Wuhl plays journalist Knox and Jerry Hall plays the Joker’s moll, Alicia.

Best bits:

* Danny Elfman’s macabre incidental music.

* The title sequence: sweeping camera moves across an ornate Batman logo, which I learnt last week my friend Fraser’s housemate helped build.

* The realisation of Gotham City. It’s an Art Deco/Gothic/retro/futuristic/industrial masterpiece, an equal of Blade Runner’s LA in terms of how darkly beautiful it is. It’s fascinating, textured, detailed and strange. The film’s art direction won an Oscar.

* Oh, look: it’s Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter from Star Wars) playing a bloke struggling to find a taxi. I met Hagon once and pestered him with questions about Star Wars.

* Batman glides silently into view in the background as two muggers divide their loot.

* “What are you?!” “I’m Batman!”

* Jack admires himself in the mirror. His girlfriend says, “You look fine.” He glares at her: “I didn’t ask.”

* Oh, look: it’s Denis Lill playing a newspaper hack.

* Our first sight of Vicki Vale. Wowzers.

* Vicki and Knox ridiculing Bruce Wayne as he listens behind them.

* Jack’s acid-burnt hand reaching out of the water.

* Bruce and Vicki having dinner while sitting at a different ends of a ridiculously long table. When Vicki asks if he likes eating in this room, Bruce admits he’s never been in it before.

* Jack at the back-street plastic surgeon. When he sees his rebuilt face, he wanders off laughing uncontrollably.

* The reveal of the Joker as he gleefully shoots Grissom dead.

* Jerry Hall’s faint when she sees that Jack’s not dead.

* The Joker shaking a colleague’s hand and electrocuting him to a crisp. (“I got a live one here!”)

* Oh, look: it’s Red Dwarf’s Mac MacDonald as one of the Joker’s henchmen.

* The Joker throws a tantrum: “Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed as a bat gets all my publicity?!”

* Oh, look: it’s Trinity Wells from Doctor Who as a TV director.

* The scene at the museum/restaurant. Vicki thinks she’s meeting Bruce, but a waiter brings a box to her table. In it is a gas mask and note that reads: “Put this on right now.” Smoke fills the room, knocking everyone out (or killing them?), then the Joker and his goons burst in. They hit play on a ghetto blaster and, to the sound of a Prince song, delight in defacing the museum’s artwork.

* Vicki throws water in the Joker’s face and he acts like he’s in agony, then turns to her and says, “Boo!”

* The Batmobile.

* Bruce’s ham-fisted attempt to tell Vicki who he really is.

* Bruce confronts the Joker in Vicki’s flat. The Joker simply doesn’t know what to make of him.

* The flashback to Bruce’s parents being murdered – and the revelation that Jack Napier was the shooter.

* Vicki turns up in the Batcave.

* The Joker refers to Batman as the ‘junior birdman’. Apt, given Keaton’s most recent film.

* The Joker dancing away to a Prince track on the carnival float.

* The Batwing.

* Forcing Vicki to dance with him, the Joker says into her ear: “It’s as though we were made for each other. Beauty and the Beast. Course, if anyone else calls you Beast, I’ll rip their lungs out.”

* Trying to distract the Joker, Vicki pretends to flirt with him and even ducks down towards his trouser department. The Joker has an expression of serene expectation… until Batman punches him in the mouth.

Review: Nineteen-eighty-nine was a busy year for geek cinema. There were new adventures for Indiana Jones, Marty McFly, James Bond, the crew of the Enterprise, the Karate Kid, Riggs & Murtaugh and the Ghostbusters: manna from heaven for a 10-year-old fanboy like me. But Batman still stood out and felt like an *enormous* event. There was a smart advertising campaign built around an ubiquitous logo and a tie-in album from Prince. There was talk of a dark, serious take on a character I only knew as campy and cartoony. And there was a sense of danger from the fact the film was one of the first to get the new ‘12’ certificate. Well, over a quarter of a century later (Jesus, really?), it absolutely stands the test of time. It sweeps you along right from the start. The dialogue’s crisp and the story’s never dull. It’s an origin story, but done economically with flashbacks and illusions rather than a drawn-out opening act. It’s dark, but also has a huge sense of fun. What especially impresses me is the film’s sense of timelessness. It partly looks like the past – men wear 1950s suits, coats and hats; there are newspaper hacks in busy, vibrant offices; and the cars look retro. But it’s all mixed in with 1980s glamour, technology and TV news crews. It’s also mostly a black-and-white world, so any splashes of colour – especially when connected to the Joker – pop out. Director Tim Burton may have been coasting lately (last great film? Sleepy Hollow?), but he used to be something special. And this is one of his best.

Ten wonderful toys out of 10.

Next time: Miaow!

Batman: The Movie (1966, Leslie H Martinson)

Batman-1966

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Four of Gotham City’s most notorious criminal masterminds team up to take over the world – only caped crusader Batman and trusty sidekick Robin stand in their way…

Good guys: Adam West and Burt Ward star as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Dick Grayson/Robin respectively. When this movie was made, the pair had already been in the roles for months – the film was produced as a tool to promote Batman the TV series overseas. The first time we see the superhero alter egos is after just three minutes when Bruce and Dick slide down the Batpoles to the Batcave and Bruce flicks the ‘Instant costume change lever’ on the way down. We then get a James Bond-style opening action scene, which shows off the Dynamic Duo, their outlandish vehicles and ingenious gadgets. It’s 33 minutes into the movie before they return to their everyday personas. Both characters are illogically intelligent, astonishingly naive, hilariously sincere and incorruptibly noble.

Bad guys: Four of the most popular villains from the TV show have joined forces to form the United Underworld criminal organisation. ‘Today Gotham City, tomorrow the world,’ reads their logo. Seemingly in charge is the Catwoman (Lee Meriwether, who took over the role when the TV show’s Julie Newmar was busy on another project). Posing as Russian journalist Kitka – aka Comrade Kitanya Irenya Tatanya Karensha Alisoff from the Moscow Bugle – she seduces Bruce Wayne, who falls for her big time. As did the actor: in an interview featured on the DVD, Adam West tells us: “Favourite villain? I would have to say Catwoman. And you guys know what I mean.” Right there with you, pal… The Joker (Cesar Romero) gets lots of laughing to do and his face, including his moustache, is covered in white make-up. The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) runs things when the gang are aboard their submarine. “On land you command, on the sea it’s me,” he quips. He bought the sub from the US Navy by using a fake name: P.N. Gwynne. And finally, the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) fires a Polaris missile into the air, which writes two riddles totaling 22 words in the sky with its trail smoke.

Other guys: Batman has a few allies: stoic Commissioner Gordon, Irish police chief O’Hara and loyal butler Alfred, the last of which is the only person in on Bruce’s secret. We see the US President at one point, but his face is hidden from us; he has a dog by his side. Commodore Schmidlapp is taken hostage by United Underworld, but doesn’t seem to notice: he thinks he’s still aboard his yacht because goons are faking the view out of his landlocked cell’s window.

Best bits:

* The title sequence – our two leads and the four bad guys picked out by colour-tinted spotlights.

* Robin accidentally lowers Batman into the sea – when he pulls him out, Batman has a shark clamped round his leg. “Hand me down the shark-repellent Batspray!” he says.

* Batman, Robin, Gordon and O’Hara watch a video report of which ‘super criminals’ are currently at large in Gotham and give pithy summaries as each face appears on screen.

* “How did it go, Catwoman?” “Purr-fectly…”

* We cut to dopey navy bigwig Admiral Fangschliester and he’s playing tiddlywinks with his *very* cute female subordinate.

* Due to the convention of no one recognising superheroes or master criminals when they’re not in costume, the bad guys hold Bruce Wayne hostage in the hope that Batman will come to rescue him… and Bruce pleads with Catwoman to let him talk to Kitka, who he thinks they’re also holding.

* The Riddler asks for the ‘five guinea pigs’ – five lackeys walk in, each wearing ‘GP#1’, ‘GP#2’, etc, on their sweaters.

* The old walking-up-the-side-of-a-building/camera-at-90-degrees trick.

* Batman running around a dock trying desperately to dispose of a bomb with its fuse lit. He encounters a pub full of people, nuns, a woman with a pram, a kissing couple, a marching band and a flock of ducks before he finds somewhere safe to throw it. (The fuse burns for two minutes and 26 seconds!)

* The Riddler shoots down the Batcopter… which spins out of control… and lands on a huge pile of foam rubber… placed near a sign reading ‘Foam Rubber Wholesalers Convention’.

* The climactic fight on top of the surfaced submarine, which is the only time in the movie we get the famous single-word captions accompanying punches and leaps – Pow! Whap! Thwack! Biff! Bap! Bap! Zwapp! Splosh! Klonk! Urkk! Swoosh! Swa-a-p! Eee-yow! Ouch! Kapow! Ker-sploosh! Spla-a-t! Plop! Urkkk! Blurp!

Review: Just like the parent TV show, this is a cartoon come to life. It’s incredibly silly and deliciously surreal. It’s also pure pop art, with bold colours, Dutched camera angles and deliberately arch props (Batman’s ladder has ‘Bat ladder’ written on it). The joy comes from how seemingly earnest the whole thing is. There’s some terrifically awful dialogue – “The sum of the angles of that rectangle is too monstrous to contemplate!” – but it’s delivered with tongues places charmingly in cheeks. It’s all good fun, even if the film is essentially one gag stretched out over 100 minutes. The fact that none of the actors nor the director ever break the illusion and wink to the audience makes it even funnier. You’ve really got to admire everyone’s total commitment.

Seven days when you just can’t get rid of a bomb out of 10.

Next time: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!