Comic Book Review – Batman Vol. 7: Endgame (The New 52 – 2016)

batman vol7 endgame

The Batman\Joker ‘Endgame’ storyline that has been building over the space of the past few issues culminates in the 7th New 52 Batman trade. After a less-than stellar series of sidesteps in Vol.6, Vol.7 showcases Batman at his best. Scott Snyder has put together a nail-biter of a conclusion, bringing in the Court of Owls, along with a coterie of Batman’s long-term adversaries, and throwing them into the mix of a Gotham driven to the brink of destruction (again) by The Joker’s virus. It would be unfair to discuss how it all plays out, but things come to a head in a grand finale that will dramatically affect the Batman line for quite a few issues to come.

Highly recommended.

 

4 out of 5 stars.

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Comic Book Review – Batman Vol. 3: Death of the Family (The New 52 – 2014)

batman death of family

I’ve read some good Joker stories over the years, most notably ‘The Killing Joke’ one-shot by Alan Moore. This arc compares very favorably to that. After DC (and Marvel) rebooted most of their lines in 2011, Scott Snyder took over Batman. The first two volumes saw Batman battle a mysterious ancient cult for the control of Gotham.

This volume sees the return of the Joker. After an inexplicable absence of a year the Joker makes a dramatic return to a life of mayhem and chaos. He raids the GCPD to steal his face from an icebox and from there lures Batman into an elaborate trap by systematically and slowly reenacting his famous crimes from the past. Joker’s tactics and Batman’s response puts a severe strain on Batman’s relationship with his extended ‘family’, hence the title.

Snyder’s Batman series is dark, constrained and tense. He likes to put the Dark Knight in the most perilous situations to test his mettle and his morals. Capullo’s art is a good complement to this style. He keeps the panels crowded and cluttered and induces a real sense of claustrophobia and fear. Snyder has written the Joker just right, and in some parts he is incredibly creepy. The extent and scope of his crimes (which provides an unwanted glimpse into his twisted psyche) is downright terrifying. The conclusion is sort of bittersweet and a bit ambiguous. Readers will be left to wonder if the Joker really succeeded in his goals or not.

Years from now we will look back at this arc as one of the more memorable Batman stories. This deserves to be in the pantheon of great comic book arcs.

 

5 out of 5 stars

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Suicide Squad (2016) – Movie Review

suicide squad

First: 2015’s abominable Fantastic Four. Now: Suicide Squad, the latest in a slew of big-budget train wrecks, resulting in an acrid cocktail of the wrong directors being given too much agency coupled with boneheaded, contradictory studio hand-holding. Still, it’s hard to strictly call studio interference party foul here, as the film is so inherently muddy it’s hard to imagine any iteration successfully coughing itself to life. It’s hard to resist a spectral Queen chorus of “Is this the real life?” running through your head watching the shambolic mess unspool – Suicide Squad wants desperately to strut, but stumbles on every step, before toppling into the void of being utterly forgettable.

We can excuse the embarrassingly gratuitous Justice League tie-ins (hey – at least Ben Affleck’s Batman acts somewhat more like Batman, saving villains from certain death rather than branding them in the face). We can **sort of** excuse the flagrant piggybacking plagiarism of Guardians of the Galaxy, from the hyperactive prison montage antihero character bios to the soundtrack, nonsensically cobbled together like a caffeine-high teen with a gift card to the iTunes store (and no, you’re not mistaken – that Norman Greenbaum song is yanked straight out of the Guardians trailer. The theft is that blatant). We can even try to excuse director David Ayer’s uncomfortable balance between dopey, wannabe slick humour and self-important wannabe ‘darkness’, even if it mostly manifests in the film’s indiscernible, murky lighting (grossly counterbalanced by splotches of colour, like a toddler vomiting play-doh). Still – a film full of villains-turned-antiheroes must bring SOMETHING original to the table. Right…?

And this is what we can’t excuse: Suicide Squad is not only a bird’s nest of content and tone, but also a fundamentally trashy, soulless, redundantly small-minded film. It loudly parades some of the worst nonlinear editing and pacing seen in a recent Hollywood film, to the point where its gossamer-thin plot (literally a lazy, boiled down version of The Raid – the entire conflict can be reduced to ‘climb the building’) becomes almost incomprehensible at times when really nothing is happening. There’s so much daft flashiness (yes, including Ezra Miller), sense is thrown to the wind. But, lest we get confused, Ayer is sure to slop in massive exposition dumps every 10-15 minutes, which rudely bring the film to a screeching halt every time it starts to pick up steam. The tiny blips of action are so bland, they fade from consciousness and memory before they’ve even finished feebly sputtering on. Finally, the glut of action figures-sorry-characters is so unreasonably vast, several Squad members are given no introduction, and literally dispatched within minutes with no send-off. Several are so extraneous they could be trimmed without anyone even noticing (Katana, anyone?). Initially, there’s hope for the effectively creepy uber-villains, but, after memorable introductions, they spend the majority of the film sulking in puffs of CGI, waiting for Ayer to remember they exist. Even worse: even some of the most iconic secondary players – Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s iconic Killer Croc, for one – are so underused, they’re effectively there to snarl on command, and burp out unfunny “B.E.T.” punchlines. Ouch.

It’s even more of a shame, as Ayer does scatter nuggets of genuinely compelling material to grapple with. Peel aware its slathering of smarm and gloom, and Suicide Squad is a film about characters struggling with bad relationships. Smith’s Deadshot regrets his daughter being overly permissive of his career as an assassin. Jay Hernandez’s Diablo spends the rest of his life owning up to his superpowered tantrum gruesomely murdering his girlfriend and children (the sole flashback which actually works, infusing the film with tragedy, scope, and as sombre a cinematic allegory for domestic abuse as we’ve seen lately, and Hernandez is unexpectedly moving). And let’s not even start on whatever warped, emotionally abusive relationship the Joker and Harley Quinn share. These interludes may not propel the story, but when Ayer allows himself to linger in the darkness, he digs up the film’s only real illumination.

The film may have been transparently retrofitted to accommodate Will Smith, but he’s worth it. Arguably the film’s greatest asset, Smith warps his boundless, sassy charisma and badassery into the film’s uneasy moral compass, supplying (the film’s only) surprisingly compelling emotional arc. Margot Robbie, conversely, hits her marks with an unshakable sense of her performing Harley Quinn rather than getting under her skin. She’s oodles of fun, but her crazy is as wobbly and vaguely forced as her accent. Thankfully, Viola Davis is steely perfection as the Machiavellian Amanda Waller, and Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang is funnier and more unpredictable than he has any right to be as such a boorish bogan stereotype. Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flagg is one of the most infuriating military grunts in recent cinematic memory (and this is a generation that survived Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Godzilla…). And then there’s Jared Leto. Hoo boy. If ‘forced’ was already a shroud ensconcing the film, his blingy Joker is its bleating fog machine of artifice. He’s loud and irritating, but embarrassingly far-removed from appropriate levels of sinister or unhinged, no matter how many rings of knives he lies in or pools of toxic waste he dives into.

There’s a bit near the end of Suicide Squad where Kinnaman’s Flagg, suffering a change of heart, offers the Squad the chance to escape, and live their lives. Cliché dictates they will instead seek redemption, and stay to fight (yawn). Instead, Courtney’s Boomerang prances up, and, without a word, jackrabbits out of the room. It’s the film’s biggest laugh, partially for its unexpectedness, but partially for being the single most sensible move in the entire production. Suicide Squad is a sinking ship, and the fact that all involved didn’t follow Boomerang’s example (and even he idiotically crawls back – boo), makes the title exquisitely apt.

 

3 out of 5 stars

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The Dark Knight (2008) – Movie Review

dark knight

Christopher Nolan must be one of the most admired men in the film industry of late. Having been handed a superhero franchise crumbling under its own campiness and trusted with the task of revamping it, adding a firm undercurrent of complexity without sacrificing the inherent enjoyment associated with a man dressing as a bat battling the criminal underworld, Nolan thrived upon the challenge, his Batman Begins providing a new height in the genre and one of the most acclaimed films of the year. And as seemingly impossible as it may have seemed to top his first effort, Nolan appears to have tapped into even more film-making genius, his peerless imagination, courage and unwavering control over every facet of his production making The Dark Knight a seamless, dazzlingly complex sequel to an already essentially flawless first effort – it is near impossible to envision the film being any stronger.

Though the film embraces similar themes and plays to all the strengths of the genre, in the end the film proves a ‘comic book movie’ essentially in name only, as it feels as if Nolan has seamlessly melded several films into one, the tone varying from ultra realistic crime dramas (such as Nolan’s inspiration, Michael Mann’s Heat) to using the template of the traditional superhero/supervillain conflict as a parable of good, evil and the constant ambiguity and overlap between. In a particularly chilling passage, the Joker disturbingly dissects the effects of Batman and himself on Gotham city and how the friction between “an unstoppable force and an immovable object”, or Batman’s unwavering dedication to justice counterbalancing the Joker’s obsession with chaos and disarray simply leads to everlasting conflict. “I feel like we could do this forever”, the Joker wryly states, and with such chilling, exhilarating and fiendishly complex results, the possibility is mouth-watering indeed.

In fact, if one was to extract any form of complaint from such a complex marvel of a film it would be that through the film’s consistent breakneck pace and flurry of new plot points and story arcs, the audience is somewhat deprived of the chance to savour some of the film’s elements, to take a moment to drink in the all-around-mastery, from the quiet character moments to the jaw dropping stunts or flooring performances. But there can be little doubt that this is fully Nolan’s intent, as The Dark Knight proves an entirely different animal than its predecessor: less about characters (though their development in the simply superb screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan is near flawless) than broad statements, and the lack of quiet, reflective moments simply furthering the chaotic, uncertain feel of the story. However, despite the vast, epic array of content, it never feels like Nolan has bitten off more than he can chew, but rather the viewer is challenged to keep up with his immense vision.

However, those expecting a light-hearted, carefree action romp will find themselves somewhat taken aback, as the film is aptly titled, ‘dark’ being the operative word. Never before has a comic book film boasted a tone of such crushing realism and devastating, visceral wrenching of emotions. Yet despite the absence of outright bombastic fun, never does the question “why so serious?” emerge, as The Dark Knight could never have been anything but, yet never proves overly morose to the point of preventing entertainment. Similarly, those fearing the genre becoming overly cerebral need not fear the action frontier being sacrificed, as Nolan somehow manages to again up the ante on his first effort’s already breathless action sequences, providing enough explosions and brief but ferociously intense combat scenes to sate any action enthusiast without sacrificing an ounce of complexity. The sweeping, sumptuous cinematography and soaring score by two of modern cinema’s finest composers, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard completes the sublime package, making for a technically savoury masterpiece.

Christian Bale once again gives a remarkable performance, breathing consistently credible life into each of the title character’s dual identities, providing a wistful desperation for a Bruce Wayne tantalised by the prospect of abandoning Batman while his alter ego is needed more than ever by his crumbling city. However, despite Bale’s powerhouse lead there can be no doubt that the film’s primary selling point is the flat out terrifying yet mesmerizing performance by the tragically late Heath Ledger. His anarchistic Joker unquestionably steals the show (no easy feat), flipping between darkly hilarious and chilling while remaining a consistently fascinating and compelling creation – a frighteningly real antagonist for the ages, and easily one of the most visibly unsettling and powerful performances in decades. Aaron Eckhart is similarly superb as Harvey Dent, Gotham’s new tenaciously dedicated district attorney, and his inevitable fall from earnest grace is truly affecting, with Eckhart perfectly essaying the shift from charismatic to horrifying. Michael Caine offers a perfect dose of wry humour and inspiration as Wayne’s trusted butler Alfred, and Gary Oldman gives a rousingly sympathetic performance as fiercely honest cop Jim Gordon, with Oldman giving one of the most credible heroic performance in recent memory. Morgan Freeman remains pure class as Wayne’s CEO and Batman’s secret outfitter, and Maggie Gyllenhaal proves a far superior replacement to Katie Holmes, adding a witty spark to an otherwise standard love interest role.

Never once patronising its audience, The Dark Knight proves easily the most mature, staggeringly intelligent, insightful, breathless and pitch black comic book adaptation to grace the screen in recent memory, and arguably ever. Indeed, the Joker’s declaration of Batman’s effect on Gotham’s criminals proves prophetic and parallels the effect of the film itself on its medium – there can be little doubt that The Dark Knight has changed the face of what can be expected out of a comic book movie, dispelling critical scorn and rivalling any “serious film” in terms of complexity and film-making mastery. Never again will the face of comic book movies be the same – “there’s no going back”.

 

5 out of 5 stars

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Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014) – Movie Review

batman assault on arkham

The world of the “Batman: Arkham” video game is brought to vivid animated life with DC and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s “Batman: Assault on Arkham.” The Dark Knight takes a backseat to the bad guys in what is the comic book equivalent of a heist or search and rescue flick much like “Red,” “Ocean’s 11,” “Escape from New York,” and others. The movie takes place after the events in “Batman: Arkham Origins.” It’s an exciting and humorous romp that will thrill fans of the game franchise and “mature” enthusiasts of super heroes.

Amanda Waller puts together a team of super villains to infiltrate Arkham Asylum and complete an unfinished job. She wants the Riddler assassinated for secret knowledge he possesses. Black Spider, Captain Boomerang, Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Killer Frost, KGBeast, and King Shark are all forced to comply to her wishes thanks to an explosive planted in their necks which Waller can detonate if they won’t fulfill her demands.

One thing DC animated movie buffs will be happy about is the return of Kevin Conroy in the role of Batman. The rest of the voice cast is fine, but they’re overshadowed every time the Dark Knight appears on screen. Troy Baker does his best Mark Hamill impersonation as the Joker. I really thought it was Hamill until the credits rolled at the end.

A word of caution to parents out there with children who love super heroes. “Batman: Assault on Arkham” isn’t kid-friendly in any form or fashion. It’s rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content, and language. We’re not talking your typical comic book violence, either. Several heads are blown off for example. Harley Quinn shows quite a bit of skin and there’s a scene of Deadshot and her tumbling around in bed together. The language is on par with what you would get in any action movie released today starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liam Neeson, or Sylvester Stallone. However, the “F” word is never dropped.

“Batman: Assault on Arkham” will thrill fans of the video game franchise it’s based on. People unfamiliar with the “Arkham Asylum,” “Arkham City,” and “Arkham Origins” universe need not worry. I don’t play the games and had no problem jumping right in.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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