Guardians of the Galaxy – Quality, Fun Throwback Action

Grade: B+

When the first Guardians of the Galaxy trailer came out, I watched it on a loop. It had jokes, fun characters, and intensely visual action – all set to cool 70s music. To say that it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement – I had never read a GOTG comic, and had barely heard of the team before the movie was announced. Brett White is right on Twitter – the promotional campaign did sum up the movie almost perfectly, the movie is what you would expect from the trailer.

Of course, those elements do not necessarily make for a perfect movie. In terms of pound for pound enjoyment, however, Guardians of the Galaxy is hard to beat; even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was already characterised by the tone of joy and humour, few movies approach GOTG.

The opening sequence, set in 1988, is more somber than the rest of the movie, setting up the tragedy in Peter Quill’s past which ends up sending him into space. At the same time, it also hints at a reveal much later in the film which helps rationalise why, exactly, did this boy who’d grow up to be played by Chris Pratt, would be singled out to go into space and hang out with thieves. After that, however, the film launches directly into the plot, as 26 years later young Quill (who occasionally goes by Star Lord, to everyone’s amusement) is looking to steal a mysterious orb from an abandoned planet. It is difficult not to think of Indiana Jones as he deftly and joyfully infiltrates the location of the ancient artefact, only to have everything nearly go wrong when competitors try to take it away from him. It’s a great teaser for the rest of the movie – there is tension at times, to be sure, but it’s also handled with such genuine glee on the part of the filmmakers that it cannot but be infectious. This is the case even when there are glimpses of the fact that Quill is clearly a thief, and not the nicest guy in the Galaxy either despite ultimately wishing well. Han Solo comparisons are inevitable as well, and it’s ultimately rather nice that the movie is not being dragged down by a whiny Luke Skywalker archetype. He was, to be sure, necessary in Star Wars, and I am generally strongly in favour of more sincerity and less irony in cinema – but GOTG is unashamedly about a group of outlaws, and the tone of irreverence it strikes only serves the movie.

Of course, Peter Quill’s actions angers all the right humanoids. He comes on the radars of Rocket (the CGI raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel, the walking tree), who are looking to cash in on his bounty, and Gamora (assassin played by Zoe Saldana) who needs the orb he stole. The orb is evidently a highly sought-after item, and aside from complete coincidence, it is unclear how everyone became aware of it at once. The movie rather rightly does not concern itself too much with that, however. The four of them are captured and brought to prison, where they are joined by Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) to escape and, ideally, get rich in the process.

The character motivations for the group of misfits is arguably one of the faults of the movie. Conversely to most movies of its ilk, where everything seems to make sense until you think about it, I occasionally did not find the characters’ reasons for sticking together believable, and considered it a flaw until after the movie, where I actually can see why everyone behaved as they did, mostly. It’s clear that the filmmakers, in particular the writers James Gunn (who also directed) and Nicole Perlman thought about the motivations, and dropped in just enough clues to explain them. It’s just that (almost certainly due to the jam-packed nature of the movie), it often seemed like there wasn’t enough time to really get into them. And it’s a shame, really! In a movie where the characters are almost certainly the best part of the whole thing, the interaction is ultimately left sort of light and surface-level, despite there being hints of greater motivation. They each have larger-than-life backstories, but the pain only ever comes out briefly, enough to suggest that there is something there without getting to really examine it or live in the emotion. Gamora hates Thanos, and with VERY good reason, but the range rarely actually comes through, for all her general attitude. Drax is burning for revenge, and yet when he fails to achieve it towards the end of the second act, there is barely a beat of him recognising his failure. This stuff matters – and the drama, the opera-level emotions are arguably what separates superhero movies from other action.

The other weak spot is the general plot. The saving of the Galaxy is important, sure, and there are other reasons for characters to move the plot along, but I just can’t escape the fact that I’ve more or less seen that a few times now, and without the real involvement in the motivations the plot just sort loses relevance. It isn’t bad in the slightest, mind you. It’s just that it’s… sort of standard. Ronin the Accuser, played by Lee Pace, and Karen Gillan’s Nebula are both menacing and interesting, but ultimately sort of thinly drawn. Ronin’s motivation is, once again, “destroying stuff”, despite mention of some injustice committed in his past. The comic book fans will appreciate seeing more of Thanos, but at the end of the day, he just kind of sits there, on apparently the same asteroid he was seen on in Avengers. Surely, there must be something more to his life than sitting on his throne and making threats? He is evidently the most dangerous being in the Galaxy, and it would have been nice to see more of that.

Now, it may sound like I’m coming down on Guardians of the Galaxy hard, but I want to make it absolutely clear that I LOVED the general experience of watching the film. The reason for that is undoubtedly the humour and the genuinely fun characters. Whatever other complaints I have are simply there because without those flaws, the film would actually be the masterpiece of comic-book storytelling that many people online claim it is, and that I believe Avengers to have been. Absolutely every one of the Guardians deserves every moment on the screen. Peter Quill is funny, and for all his posturing heroism – sometimes kind of a loser, which makes him relatable (I can’t imagine how insufferable he’d be without that). Gamora is intense and bad-ass, even if she does require saving from a man at least once too often (though to be fair, they each rely on saving from each other more than once). Rocket and Groot are a great odd couple, both scrappy bounty-hunting weirdos. Drax takes himself far too seriously, which causes Bautista to be funnier than he, frankly, has any right being (him struggling to understand metaphor yields some of the biggest laughs). Most importantly, though, they’re a joy to have on the screen together, which really is what you want in a team superhero movie. Their interaction is consistently not only funny, but generally kind of sweet. Rocket crying when Groot seems to be dead is probably the only moment, aside from the opening, that really pulls at your heart strings, but other stuff is not a loss. Quill explaining the concept of dancing to Gamora plays nicely, and is then instantly undercut by a joke to keep it from going too serious. Their prison escape uses action to establish character (which should always be the case with action, really, but here it’s particularly poignant as they’re really working together for the first time), all the while twisting tropes of heists in movies. I cannot think that at least a part of it is because not only James Gunn, but everyone involved, seems to be ecstatic to get to do the things they’re doing, to play with the toys they just received.

Then, of course, there are the visuals, which are absolutely stunning. While the action can occasionally be a little too shaky for my taste, the general environment of the film is imbued with so much beautiful colour that as a general rule, it is a true pleasure to watch. This is lacking in superhero cinema, which tends to be over-serious in tone and dark and bland in visuals (presumably to distance themselves from Batman & Robin). The genre has proven itself, though, and while the general trend in cinema in the 2000s was blacks and greys, I could not be happier that we’re moving away from it. What digital film offers us is clarity, crispness, and intense colour. I am overjoyed to see filmmakers make use of it (I know I keep going on about it, but the new Mad Max: Fury Road trailer does a great job of it). James Gunn pulls out all the stops to wow us with his vision of space, and it is genuinely beautiful – even when it’s grimy.

Overall, I had a whole lot of fun with Guardians of the Galaxy, and while I do think there were things that could be improved, that would probably have had to come at a cost of other things, which Guardians does beautifully, such as enjoyable, humorous, character moments and their fun romp through space. For what it’s worth, I am almost certainly seeing it again next week – and having a better idea, now, of the character motivations may mean I’ll actually enjoy it at least as much this time around. I’m not advocating that every superhero movie take on its tone – a good contrast would be this year’s much more earnest Captain America: The Winter Soldier. For this corner of the Marvel Universe, though, it really worked wonderfully. And if a talking raccoon is not crazy enough for you, be sure to stick around for the end-credits scene, which has little to do with the overall plot and structure of the universe at large, but is a great little wink-wink, nudge-nudge moment for the Marvel fans.

DCAU 4: The New Batman Adventures

New Batman Adventures

Now, everything we love about the DCAU began with Batman: The Animated Series, that much is sure. The serious storylines, the dark animation style, the voice talent… It all began there. And, with the end of BTAS style, something of DCAU died, as well. The Art Deco Gotham city, something in the designs, will never be the same. Despite BTAS being the clearly superior cartoon to Superman: The Animated Series, the sleeker art designs of Superman actually won out. This was, no doubt, in no small part linked to the production costs, which must have been monumental for BTAS – after all, colorists had to wear gas masks to use aerosol paint to do the art for most of the original series. So there is a part of me that wishes Batman could forever be the same as in those first 85 episodes. That being said, storywise, The New Batman Adventures contained some of the most exciting Batman stories, at least for me personally – enough to make the claim that some of the legend of the greatness of BTAS owes a debt to the fantastic stories of The New Batman Adventures.

To realize how wonderfully deep the show was willing to go, one needs look no further than Growing Pains (written by Paul Dini and Robert Goodman), where Robin tries to take care of a little girl Annie, who has amnesia and is being stalked by a terrifying presence. Robin is now Tim Drake, replacing Dick Grayson who has become Nightwing in the gap between shows. While the wonderful Sins of the Father (Rich Fogel) set up Tim Drake’s motivation very confidently in its own right, I did not truly connect with the character until this episode, where his friendship with Annie takes him on a path to confronting Clayface, and a tragic realization about his friend. The twist towards the end, which I won’t spoil here, was a complete gut-punch to me, in that incredible way the DCAU seemingly specialized in.

You Scratch My Back (Hilary J. Bader) was not the first episode to introduce the older Dick Grayson, but it did feature Nightwing for the first time. Motivated by striking out on his own, being his own man, Dick Grayson establishes himself as a solo hero – and teams up with Catwoman. The pair bonds over Batman’s strictness, and Nightwing is established as a fun, capable hero. The sexual tension with Catwoman is fantastic, as is the dynamic between Dick and the rest of the bat-family. In the end, it’s revealed the schism between him and his mentor isn’t as deep as they’d put on, and while the twist isn’t as radically unexpected as Growing Pains, it’s just good-clean-superhero fun.

Legends of the Dark Knight (Robert Goodman and Bruce Timm) is told from the perspective of three children discussing Batman, and their different encounters with him or stories they’ve heard. The episode becomes an excuse to go through many of the most famous portrayals of Batman in the media, as well as the different ways he is perceived by the public. It ranges from him being a metahuman, a light version that is a nod to 40s and 50s version of the character, and Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” take. There is even a nod to the Schumacher Batman! In the end, after all the children have told of their version of Batman, they actually witness the true Batman in action – and once again, go away believing the same “truths” about the Caped Crusader they started with.

I would be remiss to not mention Mad Love (Paul Dini and Bruce Timm), the famous story that reveals the origin of Harley Quinn. I definitely like the episode, and it is a great characterization of both her and the Joker, but the Batman-light episode was not actually my favorite. That being said, its contribution of an important story, later adapted to the main Batman mythos is beyond question. I also really enjoyed Beware the Creeper (Steve Garber), a genuinely odd story with a very strange superhero. His origin mirrors that of the Joker, except this time the Clown Prince of Crime himself is responsible for the transformation – it should be no surprise, then, that the Creeper is both driven mad, and placed on a path of vengeance against the Joker. He makes another appearance in the Justice League cartoon, however, indicating that as teased at the end of the episode, his career as a superhero went beyond mere revenge.

Finally, my absolute favorite episode of the series (and one of my favorite Batman stories ever) is Over the Edge (Paul Dini). Throwing us into the action with Gordon and the police attacking the Bat-Cave and later flashing back to explain how we got there, it places the Commissioner on a war path against the Dark Knight. The story of the two friends turned against one another by a tragic death is awesomely believable and heart-wrenching. Typically, I would not be for a story that turns out to not be in-continuity, especially the way that is explained here… Except that here, it works completely. The trick allows the show’s creators to do something that so often provides the best superhero stories, but is generally not allowed due to their serialized nature – the end story. Or at least one possible end. One walks away from the episode realizing that this is entirely one that Batman’s story could end, that a single tragic move could put the entire Bat-family on an irreversible path. And that is not even the end of the episode, which ends with a fantastic character moment for both Jim and Barbara Gordon. It’s truly great superhero storytelling – and absolutely remarkably told in only 22 minutes. Anyone remotely interested in storytelling should study this episode simply for a lesson in economy.

DCAU_batsuits

Finally, of course, there are the character designs. The Batsuits on the right show the general progression of the costumes throughout the DCAU, and the TNBA version is the one labelled 1997-1998. While I love the the original version, I ultimately have to concede that the pure-black symbol and the darker grey suit works well, and I like the pouches better than the older style belt. The eyes on the costume were so very expressive in the original version, though… I would definitely say that aspect, at least, was and remains my favorite in the original version. I recognize why the white eyes cannot truly work in live-action, mostly because of the way they move, on the mask, in a way that is only available in cartoons, to match emotion in a completely unrealistic way… But I can’t help but be bummed they couldn’t figure out a way to do it in the new suit. Speaking of which… see the first color picture of the new cowl below!

Batfleck

DCAU 3: Superman: The Animated Series


STAS

There’s no way around it – Superman: The Animated Series is just not as good. It’s not even worse – it’s just that the subject matter, as cool as it is, is, ultimately lends itself far less easily to serious or emotional storytelling. I’m not saying Superman can’t be dramatic – he absolutely can be, and he actually sometimes is in the series. The scope in the series, however, is so wildly inconsistent – ranging from street crime to the cosmic, that I simply never really felt I got a grasp of the intended tone of the series, which left me floundering from one episode to the next.

Superman is somewhat de-powered here, which is actually a positive – his power level has always been variable, and this allowed some more tension when squaring off again an opponent. But the traditional problem of Superman being effectively unkillable and unstoppable remained, despite the fact that the writers came up with plenty of creative ways to provide credible threats to him, as well as inventive ways for Superman to get out of them. Not even because Superman is impossibly fast, but because we actually don’t know how fast he really is. In the first few episodes, when Clark discovers his powers, he’s seen as just a streak when he runs at top speed. There’s even an episode, Speed Demons (which coincidentally introduced the Flash to the DCAU) where he races Wally West around the earth 100 times. I was very surprised, therefore, to rarely see the effect used later in the series. He’s occasionally seen chasing cars, for example, and while he doesn’t necessarily have trouble with them, he does not just zoom down in the blink of an eye and stop them immediately, either. I can see, of course, why this is done, but it does hinder drama. Despite the fact that we know it’s  cartoon where the hero will ultimately prevail, it is more exciting to see Batman trying to make a jump, run fast enough, or hit hard enough. Not because the Man of Steel is super-powered, but because we can’t rely on hard limits for his powers. This inconsistency ended up being one of the major problems I had with the series, as a whole.

I also simply did not enjoy watching Superman fight very much in this series. I understand that Clark Kent is not any kind of martial artist, so the fact that his fighting style is very simply is justified in-world, but there are only so many haymakers I can watch him through before it gets simply boring. When he comes up against physical opponents, therefore, it rather quickly becomes a rather uninteresting episode – not to mention the fact that very few of them could even stand up against him before first softening him up with kryptonite (as is the case with Metallo).

This is not to say that I did not enjoy the series as a whole. I did love some of the multi-part episodes. I thought the first few, that established Superman’s origins, managed to bring a few new aspects to the story than I’d seen elsewhere, as well as being simply really genuinely exciting. In fact, even the existence of an origin story is a pretty major contrast to many of the other heroes in the DCAU – we do see origin stories for a few of them, but many of them (most notably Batman) are simply first shown as established crime-fighters. Even the first season also contains over-arching stories and buildup to the confrontation with Braniac, and the coming Darkseid in a way that was not at all present in many of the other shows on DCAU (Justice League Unlimited returned to a similar format a decade later).

 

Many of my favorite episodes were ones that had Superman team up with other superheroes, allowing him to work as part of a team. I cannot quite put my finger on why, but I really like him as part of a team, as is later seen in the Justice League shows. Something about him racing Flash, helping a young Green Lantern deal with his new powers (In Brightest Day…, DCAU’s only real appearance by Kyle Rayner), or leaving his comfort zone to confront magic with an unwilling Doctor Fate (The Hand of Fate) is simply consistently more enjoyable than having him be on his own. This is tripled by the multi-part World’s Finest episode, which featured great characterizations for both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent – the scene where the two recognize each other, through different means, is nothing short of fantastic.

The cosmic episodes typically worked well.  That side of the DCAU was only explored by STAS, and JL and JLU, and it really worked with Superman. While those episodes were also not consistently fantastic, the Apokalips-themed eps, such as Apokalips… Now!  and Legacy were generally very strong.

I also enjoyed the episodes that were more conceptual or had a twist on the usual storytelling. The Late Mr. Kent, for example not only featured a very touching funeral for the mild-mannered reporter, but one of the very first real dangers for Superman’s secret identity.

Generally my favorite aspects of the show, however, dealt with established parts of the character’s history and tropes, some of them rather surprisingly gleefully embracing inherent silliness of the concepts. A perfect example is Mxyzpixilated, which could have been unbearably boring and silly, and actually ended up really fun, in a classic fairy-tale sort of way. Bizarro episodes were similarly enjoyable, with sufficient pathos for the deformed villain.

Much of the voice-acting is really good, but the true stand-out for me is Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor, who brings real gravity to the character’s villainy. His range – from complete sophistication to growling hatred – is truly remarkable.

DCAU 2: Batman: The Animated Series

Batman: The Animated SeriesI was inspired to finally begin watching the show by Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast. While I was aware of the show’s reputation for greatness, I did not begin until I heard the show, the early episodes of which were filled with creative and voice talent behind the show. I always knew Kevin Smith to be a big fan, and largely trusted his opinion when it came to Batman, and when I heard his hyperboly-filled talk of the show’s virtues that I jumped in, initially becoming obsessed with the Batman: The Animated Series intro before even watching the show. While I initially only intended to watch that original series, it became quickly apparent that my completist nature would not allow that.

I was not instantly impressed. On Leather Wings, the first episode I watched had Man-Bat as the cool, yet not overly interesting or dramatic villain. The first few appearances by the Joker, initially in Christmas with the Joker, were definitely fun, and Mark Hamill is consistently fantastic, but it was not yet the psychopath you love to fear. I’d be curious to review those early episodes again at some point, with the love I have for that version of Bruce Wayne now. It’s tough to say now when I became completely convinced of the show’s worth. Episodes like Nothing to Fear (first appearance of the line “I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman!”) and The Forgotten (Bruce Wayne surviving without his suit, gadgets, or even memories) had glimpses of what was to come. So did fantastic villain origins – the Two-Face two-parter and Heart of Ice

The episode that made the show simply undeniable to me, however, came even later than that – though I was already thoroughly enjoying the it by that point. It was I Am the Night, written by Michael Reaves, which portrayed Batman in a dark depression, wondering whether he is doing any good. The amount of story that was told in those 22 minutes staggered me. Batman faces a villain, saves a kid from a life of crime, mourns his parents’ death, confronts the possibility that he is putting others around him in danger, and, of course, broods… All in the span of a standard cartoon episode. Here was animation that really went there. That was every bit as dark and complex as anything in the Nolan movies, if not more so for the added benefit of the remarkable sensitivity the show always had a knack for. The writers always knew just where to hit an audience member to produce a sudden burst of emotion, and nowhere in the show was that more apparent until that point than this episode. After it, I was hooked. I began watching the show with much more care, picking apart how the plots were constructed, and what these wizards were doing to transform me, a grown man, into someone who cries while watching a cartoon.

Also of special note were Robin’s Reckoning where Batman, enraged by the injustice done to his kid sidekick, goes darker and more brutal than I’d have ever thought possible in children’s animation. It also really showcased the special relationship that Bruce has with Dick – his desire to avenge Dick’s parents almost certainly reflects in no small part his need to avenge his own. In Trial, Batman is forced to face a court of criminals in Arkham Asylum, for being responsible for their turn to villainy. It puts to test the long-standing theory that he is indirectly responsible for the crimes he fights. I also enjoyed House & Garden, a truly creepy episode where Poison Ivy appears to have truly gone straight, despite crimes being committed that all lead to her. I don’t want to spoil it, but the moment of revelation of how Poison Ivy is doing it is chilling, to say the least.  Joker’s Favor is probably the scariest Joker story of the show – where a man incurs a debt to the Clown Prince of Crime, and is then forced to carry out crimes for him.

The Man Who Killed Batman has very little Batman in it, and while you know that he couldn’t possibly actually be dead, watching the poor loser who thinks he’s, quite accidentally, killed the Caped Crusader struggle with the other big names in Gotham crime is interesting for several reasons. First, it explores the relationship the villains have with Batman, and the jealousy they have over the coveted position of being known as the person who finally took out the Bat. More importantly, it gets across the idea that any stray bullet, a single false move could end it all for Batman – being the best isn’t enough, when you’re consistently fighting against the odds.

I’m certain there are other favourite moments and episodes that people have that I didn’t mention it (such as The Demon’s Quest), and I’m not getting into The New Batman Adventures in this article yet. What stood out to me, however, where always the episodes where a new, unseen or under-examined angle of a familiar character is exposed. This does not mean that the other episodes aren’t fantastic – the entire show is consistently great genre television. There are more serious noir episodes, some with sillier or more fun, legacy villains. Even a fantastic episode where Adam West’s voice makes an appearance to hint at the character’s past. Throughout, the wonderful writing staff, led by Paul Dini, along with Michael Reaves, Len Wein, Alan Burnett, Gerry Conway, and the others shined throughout.

What made the show fantastic was more than just the story, however. I already talked about the creation of the visual style in the previous article on DCAU, and nowhere is it more apparent, than in this fantastic series. The voice acting also brings so much more to the show than I would have otherwise thought. Kevin Conroy is the voice of Batman, not only for me but for entire generations of Bat-fans, as he’s still providing the voice to the Dark Knight in the current Arkham video games. When I read comics, I hear his voice. Mark Hamill is similarly iconic as the Joker, bringing an unprecedented range and character to his laughs, ranging from silly and genuinely joyful, to incredibly dark and unsettling. Other members of the cast are, sadly, now passed away. Michael Ansara, who brought life to the famous Mr. Freeze line “It would move me to tears, if I still had tears to shed,” died just last year. This year, we lost Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. whose Alfred managed to be even more formal and drily funny than any other seen on the screen. And finally, just this week, the voice of Commissioner Gordon himself, Bob Hastings, left us at the age of 89.

While the entire DCAU is a wonderful accomplishment, and many of my favourite Batman episodes were actually from the re-branded The New Batman Adventures, none of it would have happened without the fantastic work on display in this show.

DCAU 1: Thoughts After Finishing the DC Animated Universe

DC Animated UniverseJust like that, over a year and a half after first watching On Leather Wings, I am done watching the entire DC Animated Universe. Started on September 5th, 1992, the expansive series spanned 14 years, including 21 seasons of television, 4 animated features, a short, and 2 web-series (not including the various comics and video games, which I have not, for the most part, delved in yet). The collaboration between Bruce Timm and Paul Dini birthed a universe which was not only the best adaptation many of the DC characters will ever see, but brought about characters which were, since then, adapted into the main DC continuity – many of them women. Nora Fries, Harley Quinn, Renee Montoya, Livewire, and Mercy Graves all make the world of Batman and Superman richer to this day. Not to mention the heavyweight addition – Terry McGinnis, who has recently made his first New 52 appearance in Future’s End.

Bruce Timm and Paul Dini brought an unprecedented coherence to DC. While its continuity has always been scattered, through various crises and events, the universe beginning with Batman: The Animated Series and ending with Justice League Unlimited was not only generally consistent in its art style, but with its characters. While the tone of each show was definitely not the same, one could rely on the fact that Superman appearing in Justice League, Batman Beyond, or his own series, would generally fit within the confines of the same character. It allowed writers to take us through stories that are both reflections of classical tales, and completely modern takes on familiar characters (or even brand new characters) while streamlining origins and histories. Similarly to Marvel’s Ultimate line, this was a bottle universe – much more approachable, and much more streamlined in terms of vision.

Then, of course, there was the animation. A few notably terrible episodes aside (Superman’s Pal springs to mind, which was horrid, and by Bruce Timm’s own admission, the worst in the DCAU), the animation really was rather wonderful. This began, of course, with the style of Bruce Timm, and the wonderful pilot he created in 1991 to sell the series:

Overall, very little changed when it was picked up for series. You can instantly see the animation is fluid, and the designs are so wonderfully consistent that you don’t question any of the characters as being a part of the world for a second. Bruce Timm went for a art deco inspired look, where the cars, architecture, and clothing looks like something from the 40s. The modern technology combined with a retro style  (Timm was strongly inspired by the 1940s Fleischer cartoons) defined the DCAU throughout, despite the fact that unlike Gotham, other places in the world did not seem to share the fascination with the 40s look.

Another aspect was, of course, the decision that to portray the Dark Knight in a dark enough style, it would be painted on black paper. This did not remain to be the case throughout the production of the show (by The New Batman Adventures, the technique was abandoned entirely), but that was only when they figured out how to reproduce the look using regular paper. The paint they had to use to paint on black paper evidently was very toxic, and had to be sprayed.

What is wrong with them?

What is wrong with them?

I started watching the 90s X-Men: The Animated Series this week, after finishing the DCAU, and although that show and Batman: The Animated Series began at the same time, the difference in animation quality is incomparable – the movement is stiff. It seems, at times, to simply be poorly edited. Cyclops’ abs look like boobs affixed to his abdomen. I realised after a few episodes that the quality didn’t bother me when I watched the show as a kid – I’ve simply been spoiled, in no small part by the fantastic art in the DCAU.

As is always the case after finishing watching/reading/playing something huge and really great, the feeling at the end is disbelief. I always had more to watch, for the past year and a half, it’s really strange being done. And while the final episode was really cool, I was hoping for… I don’t know what. Something else. Bigger, more meaningful. In all honesty, and I’ll talk about this when I get to the Justice League Unlimited article, I wish it would have ended with something more like the end of season 2, Epilogue – quiet. Contained. Meaningful, character-driven, and emotional. The series were full of such moments, and they made the shows unique. As it stands, for something that ran for 14 years and produced the greatest superhero animation – or even greatest superhero fiction – of all time, a giant battle, satisfying as it was, did not cut it.

I watched the show primarily in production order, in full seasons, switching between shows when they were running concurrently. This was somewhat arbitrary, to be sure, but it allowed me to get the general idea of the franchise’s evolution while keeping it relatively simple, while not breaking the streaks of watching full seasons. I would throw in the feature films in between seasons where I saw fit. I generally tried to break it up so I wouldn’t have to watch two seasons of the same show in a row to break monotony. My viewing order will be at the bottom of the article.

I’ll do a series of articles on each of the shows in the DCAU, highlighting some of my favourite/odd moments. Some of the shows were definitely tougher to get through than others, but they all added something of value to the overall franchise. I’ll go through the shows and highlight moments that stood out as great, poor, or just interesting.

Batman: The Animated Series Season 1 (1992-1993)

Batman: Mask of Phantasm (1993)

Batman: The Animated Series Season 2 (The Adventures of Batman & Robin) (1994-1995)

Superman: The Animated Series Season 1 (1996-1997)

Superman: The Animated Series Season 2 (1997-1998)

The New Batman Adventures Season 1 (1997-1999)

Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)

Superman: The Animated Series Season 3 (1998-1999)

Batman Beyond Season 1 (1999)

Superman: The Animated Series Season 4 (1999-2000)

Batman Beyond Season 2 (1999-2000)

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)

Gotham Girls Season 1 (2000)

Lobo Season 1 (2000)

Static Shock Season 1 (2000-2001)

Batman Beyond Season 3 (2000-2001)

The Zeta Project Season 1 (2001)

Gotham Girls Season 2 (2001)

Justice League Season 1 (2001-2002)

Static Shock Season 2 (2002)

The Zeta Project Season 2 (2002)

Gotham Girls Season 3 (2002)

Batman: Mystery of Batwoman (2003)

Chase Me (2003)

Static Shock Season 3 (2003)

Justice League Season 2 (2003-2004)

Static Shock Season 4 (2004)

Justice League Unlimited Season 1 (2004-2005)

Justice League Unlimited Season 2 (2005)

Justice League Unlimited Season 3 (2005-2006)

Dune the HBO Series Pitch (What Game of Thrones Taught Us About Serialising Novels)

Concept art for an unproduced Dune game

Concept art for an unproduced Dune game

I recently re-read Dune, and am now making my way through the sequels, and all throughout I’m picturing how great it would be on television. I can’t help but think of similarities to Game of Thrones, of course, having just finished season 4 – but also how much cooler Dune would be if HBO had chosen it as its foray into fantasy.

In a way, Frank Herbert’s masterpiece suffered from being the first. The world at large did not know what to do with it. Frank Herbert couldn’t get it published, until he eventually persuaded Chilton Books, publishers of auto-repair manuals, to put it out in 1965. Adaptations of the book received a similar fate – a film version was in the works from the early 70s (a documentary is, I believe, now in theatres in some regions, about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempts to put one together – which, by all accounts, would either have been an unprecedented gem, or a complete disaster).

patrick stewart pugEventually, an adaptation was released in 1984. I hadn’t seen it for a long time, and while I recalled it being a poor adaptation, Directed by David Lynch, it is an absurd mess. Intense moments are played for laughs (Patrick Stewart carrying a pug into battle springs to mind). The villain is so horribly, cartoonishly evil and disgusting that I literally just found other things on the screen to stare at to avoid looking at him – but that did not make him menacing, or a serious threat. On the whole, the story is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read the novels – and even then, it’s jarring at best. Roughly the first hour is exactly like the novel – almost unnecessarily so, the overall film might have benefitted from less careful (though faithful and by far the most interesting part of the film) an introduction, to devote more time to a the second half, which is without a doubt supposed to be the meat of the story. “The weirding way” – a way to subtly manipulate people and events using zen awareness of surrounding and understanding of psychology and logic is reduced to a sonic weapon. What is left, then, is Paul Atreides coming to the desert, training the Fremen to use a new kind of weapon, and taking the power. Very little is made of the messianic elements of the character – the fact that Paul’s greatest strength was his ability to insinuate himself into a people’s myth as their promised, legendary leader Muad’Dib, to survive, then using them to take his revenge. This is not to mention the terrible special effects – which I normally would not hold against a film, especially one which is 30 years old, except that the budget was huge, and the movie came years after both Star Wars and Alien, both of which looks miles better.

The next adaptation was a step in the right direction. The majority of my gripes with it are just that – gripes, but the 2000 Sci Fi miniseries would still have benefitted from one major thing which makes HBO’s Game of Thrones a success – running time. Game of Thrones is a massive hit because the modern television’s capabilities to compete with cinema in terms of production value was met with the television’s ability to let stories breathe, give them proper time to develop complex narratives and character relationships. The politics were always Dune’s strength, and had the Dune series come now, I think it would be even better than Game of Thrones is. The miniseries that we got in 2000 got a lot right, but there were drawbacks. Paul’s reluctance as a hero made sense in the first half of the show, but ultimately Alec Newman could not pull off the hard man and vicious leader that Muad’Dib was to become. But more importantly, there was too little time for the intrigue to build. The opening was, once again, quite well executed. But while that strong beginning would make for a great first two or so episodes, the important thing would be to maintain the suspense, balancing the adventure with slow-burning drama and only rarely tipping into full-on action.

So, this would be my pitch. First priority – what would the show be about? At its heart, it should be about the dangers of following heroes. Frank Herbert has said it himself – “I am showing you the superhero syndrome and your own participation in it.” The prominence of super-heroes in our current pop-culture makes this particularly timely. Is there anything more contemporary than “Game of Thrones with corrupt super beings”? Paul Atreides is betrayed, his father is killed, and he becomes Muad’Dib to both survive and get his revenge. To do so, however, he plays into ancient prophecies (which may or may not truly be about him) to overthrow the regime that wronged his family. And while he is a reluctant hero, and his prescience allows him knowledge of the atrocities which may ultimately be committed in his name, he walks head-first into the one path which he knows will allow him to come out on top – survive, get his revenge, and put his family back into the prominence it once held. If Paul were merely interested in survival, he could have fled, but he chose to fight. It’s like Star Wars, if Luke became the new Emperor at the end – a pattern which is repeated, in various ways, by his heirs. There are no purely good characters – today’s charismatic hero of the people is tomorrow’s tyrant.

I would start each episode with a quote from the universe’s writings about the events, the way Herbert did with each chapter of the book. The quotes do a great job of both giving flavour of the world, and foreshadowing the chapter’s content. Imagine an episode beginning with an ominous refrain of “Yueh! Yueh! Yueh! A million deaths were not enough for Yueh!” It would also go a long way towards explaining the zen-like Bene Gesserit philosophy, which I find to be among the most interesting aspects of the books. The famous Litany Against Fear, which was shown only partially in the previous adaptations, should be used in its entirety – and once again, could be made full use of when time is not a constraint. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Finally, given adequate time, the ecology of Arrakis could be adequately explored – while that may sound boring, it is important that the spice Melange be the one truly magical aspect of the universe. All of the departures from our reality should be based on it – Muad’Dib’s prescience and Bene Gesserit use of Voice. The navigators which make faster than light space travel possible, and their mutation due to its extended use. The sandworms, which are inextricably tied to both the presence of spice and the difficulty in harvesting it. Slowly, but surely, the audience must be made familiar with the precepts of its use, so that when the time comes, the audience’s reaction will not be “oh, well I didn’t the spice could do that,” but rather “I never would have thought to use the spice like that, but it makes perfect sense!” Setting clear limits to what the spice can do, and then exploiting those limits in unexpected ways would be the essence of “magic”. Take, for example, the transformation Paul’s son undergoes towards the end of the third novel – which would here be the finale of the second season. The limiting of the believable aspects would also necessitate, in my opinion, the removal of the vile Baron Harkonnen’s ability to fly. I’d read the first novel before seeing any of the adaptations, and must have simply missed the part where it was made clear he hovers, because I was completely thrown by it. I realise it’s in the source material, but it just looks goofy – the floating fat man must go!

Finally, the casting – the important thing would be to find genuinely hard-looking people to play the Fremen. Actors that could believably be flourishing in the harshest conceivable climate, whose tough, leathery skin Frank Herbert described. The effect of the dry skin could certainly be accomplished through make-up, but I would caution against casting traditionally good-looking people. The Fremen would describe them as “water-fat” (the men, at least – there are plenty of malnourished-looking actresses around as it is). And surely, there must be a practical way to do the blue-on-blue Fremen eyes? They looked terrible in both adaptations, inconsistent in the intensity of the colour and seemingly glowing (Fremen’s eyes certainly do not glow in the dark).

So, this would be my idea for a modern adaptation of Dune. I have thought about it a fair amount, and really don’t see how a faithful film adaptation would be possible, simply due to the density of the novel. A Game of Thrones-type series would definitely be the way to go. Could it ever happen? I honestly don’t know – Game of Thrones has been on the air for four years now, and still no other show came close to doing high fantasy on television. The troubled history of Dune’s adaptations may also prevent it from ever getting off the ground – but in today’s reboot and franchise-heavy marketplace, Dune just might be the next big thing.

I’ll leave you with Paul Pope’s excellent one-page comic fable about Muad’Dib, which I believe does a great job of illustrating just what the entire series of books is really about.

Paul Pope’s interpretation of a passage from Children of Dune (1976)

 

An Answer to Someone Who Hated Aronofsky’s Noah

NoahI get it. Noah wasn’t your cup of tea. I didn’t intend to like either, I went purely out of curiosity for what Aronofsky could have possibly wanted with so ludicrous a picture. Surely, it wasn’t mere folly? No. No! Look, I insist. The man actually knows what he’s doing. I realise you think the premise is simply too ridiculous to bear, and I would agree, were it not for the fact that Aronofsky clearly figured out something of substance to do with it. I’m a firm non-theist agnostic, yet I was still brought to tears by the beauty and raw emotion in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (a film which made the Noah controversy seem completely trivial). Much in the same way, though to a much lesser extent, I appreciated the truth of the story on the screen completely separately from any expectation for it to either portray the literal reality I inhabit, or to serve as an accurate adaptation of a story I heard once. Is that why you don’t like the movie? If so, I suppose I get it, the movie certainly attempts to do neither. You’re missing out, though, by not being more open to what the movie does do!

I’ll admit that the beginning of the film had me worried. The actual opening, that sets up the background of the film’s pre-existing conflict, seems like an after-thought, complete with a Papyrus-like font that, frankly, they could simply have done better than. This then transitions to show a young Noah losing his father to the sneering, scenery-chewing Tubal Cain, played by Ray Winstone. I had to remind myself, in those moments, that this is essentially a fantasy movie, and the next hour or so supported that theory nicely. This allowed me not to take too much of what happened on-screen too seriously. So I get why you hated those sillier aspects, such as rock-giants, over-acting villainy, over-earnest heroes, and the general tone of the movie’s first half, but you’re wrong.

First of all, it all looks fantastic! I could have been shown this vision of a “land before time”, so to speak, at times desolate as the moon, at others as fantastically lush, for a good while longer before becoming bored. It quite frankly simply does not look like anything – I understand it was filmed in Iceland, and I can tell that a good amount of it may well have been shot on-location outside. That being said, I can’t help but think that a lot of the backgrounds were either painted or composited from two very drastically different landscapes. Aronofsky fully succeeds in creating something that looks fake in the most wonderful way conceivable, in the sense that it is truly outside of our previous experience entirely. Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, which, while depicting fantastic technology, largely relied on real-world locations. Noah, on the other hand, recalled in my mind the painted backgrounds of Georges Méliès’ films. Similarly, the rock giants, while clearly CGI, move in a way reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons – imbued with enough fluidity to not be an eyesore, and yet not perfect enough to be forgotten about, or to seem properly of this world. The shot where one of them chases a kid darting through his massive legs is at once adorable and visually pleasing in a way I cannot fully describe. God does not speak directly to Noah (a booming voice from the sky or Morgan Freeman would have been a tad much), but instead presents gloriously shot dream-like and appropriately apocalyptic visions. The director of Requiem for a Dream is a natural fit for these sequences. Then, of course, there is the creation scene which is, in a word, one of the best pieces of cinema you’ll see all year:

Secondly, I really understand that the first few acts are almost absurdly banal. Crowe’s Noah is a great guy (though perhaps overly devoted to his cause), and when he’s visited by visions he spends a little while questioning them, but ultimately really believes in both the existence and the beneficence of the creator, following his instructions as he understands them. He’s aware of the coming flood, builds an arc, all the while having to defend it from some evil humans (led by his father’s killer), with the help of some giants.

While that is an accurate representation, I would argue that the apparent simplicity of that plot is there to lure one into a sense of normalcy, of “I’ve seen this before!” before delivering the one-two gut punch at the midpoint (much like the fictional play “The King in Yellow” is said to do in Robert W. Chambers’ stories). Noah goes into town to procure wives for his sons (I love the preservation of the Bible-logic here), but receives another vision. He witnesses horrible decadence in the world of men, and ultimately witnesses a doppleganger of his partaking in it, deciding from this that he is not meant to be saving humanity at all. Instead, that he is meant to preside over its end. This is a chilling concept, and despite it occurring before the deceptively climactic battle, is the turning point for Noah’s character. Noah was a vegetarian before, and certainly demonstrated the belief that animal life was as precious as a person’s. It is here, however, that he makes the utilitarian calculation that humanity is fundamentally bad for the whole of the creation, and should be allowed to perish in the flood. This is not only a dramatic and interesting twist – it is actually the logical extrapolation of his mission statement. If humanity was bad for the world, its loss would result in a net positive. Noah does not do so out of misanthropy – he does not hate people on an individual basis, and is clearly capable of compassion. He only does as his conviction demands. This is merely setup, however. The true drama occurs after the arc is in the water.

Eventually, the storm comes, the battle for the arc happens towards its beginning, and the arc takes off, carrying Noah, his wife, two sons, adopted daughter/daughter-in-law Ila (Emma Watson), and unbeknownst to him, Tubal Cain. The film that was an epic fantasy before this becomes the last six people on earth stuck on a boat together, deciding the future of humanity. This is why the deceptively melodramatic and stereotypical first half of the film was necessary – the characters had to be archetypes, because they represent physical personifications of radically different viewpoints. Noah, of course, is the radical ecologist – humanity has clearly been bad for the world. It would be better off without us. His wife Naameh, Jennifer Connelly, on the other hand, is more compassionate – despite clearly seeing the damage, she cannot help but see the potential for good in people. Before the storm, she pleaded with Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) to do something, and he healed Ila of her infertility. Therefore, Ila is now pregnant, and poised to be the mother to all of mankind. Her boyfriend, naturally, is prepared to do anything to protect his unborn children. Noah declares that if the babies are born female, he will kill them instantly, preventing the future of humanity. Tubal Cain, having previously declared that he will do anything necessary to survive, resents Noah’s unique relationship with God. He is, ultimately, a humanist, despite also being a bloodthirsty, cruel tyrant. He refuses to submit to a higher good – and ultimately, is not the survival of us and ours not what we work for most of the time? Winstone’s snarling villain is the will to survive, to make the best of his situation. He is the human-centric viewpoint, the incessant presupposition by most people that we are above nature. I think it would be inaccurate to say that he is completely wrong, but he is the complete opposite of Noah’s viewpoint – the two are poised perfectly to clash.

The true conflict is within the family, however. Upon learning of Ila’s pregnancy, Noah becomes a villain in the eyes of the audience. At the beginning of the storm, he rebuffs his family’s requests to save the horribly screaming, drowning people just outside the arc. He is determined that the earth would be a better place without us. Crowe’s character definitely does not relish this task in the slightest, and despite his complete unwavering, it’s clear he would rather give in to his wife’s compassion. It is brought closer home, of course, when he’s confronted with the very real possibility that he may have to slay his grandchildren to keep his word. He is ostracised by his family, becomes the bald, weird creature in the depths of his arc, the religious zealot. He knows he’s right, and while his actions are without remorse, this does not mean it is lacking in the man himself. He does his best to carry out the act when Ila gives birth to twin girls… and ultimately cannot. Noah is reduced to weakness through compassion, and fails to deliver on his promise to end humanity.

This is not a fully happy ending. To start with, his inability to finish humanity off renders his previous acts of necessary cruelty unnecessary in retrospect. They could have saved the poor drowning souls, the screams of which tortured them. And ultimately, whereas it was an act of compassion that stayed Noah’s hand, the decision to go through with the plan may have been more so. The general note is that in the end, humanity will only screw up again, and have to be wiped out all over again. By killing two, he would have prevented the birth, and therefore suffering, of billions in the future. Methuselah warned Neelah against this – in the end, it will only come around to Noah’s way. Mankind will make the same mistakes again, and will be destroyed again through their hubris. Knowing the result of his actions, Noah is shown getting drunk in the first scene off the boat, trying to drown his awareness of Earth’s fate.

These are the reasons I appreciated Noah – a drama about the nature of humanity, and whether it deserves to continue, thinly disguised as a fantasy action movie. And yet when I look online, I largely see comments of either “OMG that’s not how it really happened” or “LOL that could never really happen.” I submit that both responses are equally ridiculous – this is a movie, that is intended as entertainment of one end of the spectrum, and allegory on the other. It is not meant to either be a faithful adaptation, or a statement of fact, but a beautifully conceived treatise on our responsibilities on this Earth – I suggest you try and take it to heart.