Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000) Review

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000) Director: Curt Geda

“The last sound you’ll hear will be our laughter.”

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Coinciding with the animated show Batman Beyond, a 52-episode futuristic series which features an aging Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) and a new teenager named Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle) who dons a Batman suit. It’s a fascinating world for a new Batman story. However, the real star of this show is Mark Hamill as the Joker who has mysteriously returned with his clownish “Jokerz” gang. In a flashback from four decades ago, as explained by new Commissioner Barbara Gordon, the Joker had kidnapped Robin and subjected him to torture, brainwashing, and chemicals which have transformed him into “Joker Jr.”, a horribly disfigured miniature Joker. During his rescue by Batman and Batgirl, Robin/Tim Drake turns on the Joker which kills the Joker, forces Robin to suffer a maniacal fit and nervous breakdown, and causes Harley Quinn to fall down into a dark pit.

Following the clues, Terry and Bruce trace a satellite technology to Robin/Tim Drake. He has apparently gone insane, and the fight leads to an abandoned candy store. As it turns out, the Joker had used Drake’s body for experimental cutting-edge genetic technology –a microchip with the Joker’s DNA. It’s a bit of a strange, contrived turn of events if you ask me. Needless to say, with such dark, twisted themes, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker was heavily edited, especially in light of the recent school shooting at Columbine. In the end, Terry successfully destroys the Joker once and for all.     

While many Batman fans seem to praise this film, I simply do not care for this interpretation of Batman rife with heavy metal music and futuristic motifs –personally, I prefer the classic Batman in The Animated Series, but I can see some of its merits. Perhaps I will give it another try in the future.  

Man of Steel (2013) Review

Man of Steel (2013) Director: Zack Snyder

“You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Building on the successes of Christopher Nolan’s celebrated Dark Knight trilogy, Warner Bros was eager to launch a parallel Superman film series (partially written by Nolan himself). They hired Zack Snyder, director of 300 and Watchmen, to introduce a morally grey Superman, a begrudging anti-hero for an exasperated American audience beset by the War on Terror, rising xenophobia, and an expansive military surveillance state. The legacy of a post-9/11 world looms large over the film. In Zack Snyder’s dark and brooding interpretation of Superman, Man of Steel begins with the birth of Kal-El on the planet Krypton. His parents are played by none other than Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer, while General Zod (Michael Shannon) orchestrates a coup d’état against the ruling council. In this version of the origin story, Krypton is different from the oblong crystalline planet as featured in the Richard Donner film. Now, the entirety of Krypton is wall-to-wall CGI. There are artificial mechanical devices, flying dragon-esque creatures, and an underwater chamber wherein Jor-El must retrieve a special “codex.” Young Kal-El is actually the first live birth on the planet in centuries, and so being a prized child, he is sent to earth, while the General Zod rebellion is ended and they are banished from Krypton in suspiciously phallic objects (a scene which has since become the butt of a great many internet jokes).  

Meanwhile, we are given a renewed backstory for Superman on earth. He struggles with whether or not to help people by using his powers, as his adoptive father Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) discourage him from exposing his supernatural gifts to the world. As a young boy growing up in the grey and bleak Midwest town of Smallville, Kansas, Clark Kent rescues a busload of drowning children but he is prevented from saving his father Jonathan during a tornado –I thought this was a particularly silly scene. In adulthood, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) attempts to track down a mystery man who saved her from near-certain death in the arctic while investigating a strange event triggered by Clark when he discovers an ancient ship from Krypton. Her boss Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) punishes Lois when she tries to publish a story about this mystery man with strange unearthly powers.

Then suddenly one day, an alien ship appears in lunar orbit around the moon, and a newly escaped General Zod from the “phantom zone” sends a message demanding that Kal-El turn himself over. Harry Lennix plays a ranking general in the United States Army, and Christopher Meloni plays an FBI agent –both representatives of an excessively confident bureaucracy. They are little more than ancillary figures when put up against the power of the Kryptonians. Superman and Lois are transported aboard Zod’s ship where Superman is interrogated but Lois uses a key which awakens a partially living hologram Superman’s father, Jor-El, who helps Superman and Lois escape while Zod continues to hunt for the codex which was delivered with baby Kal-El to earth –in fact, the information in the codex is actually embedded in Superman’s bodily cells. In the end, he manages to prevent Zod’s minions from destroying earth vi their “World Engine” machine, and he kills Zod by… snapping his neck?

In an epilogue, the U.S. military is still wary of trusting Superman but he pledges his loyalty to humanity. Throughout the film, he has been a reluctant hero, mostly encouraged not to save anybody. He then takes up a job as Clark Kent at the Daily Planet –in this situation, Lois is the only person who knows his true identity, and the film ends.             

This long, droning saga is just sad in my view. It represents a violent, sarcastic, sepia tone, apocalyptic interpretation of the “Man of Steel,” complete with endless scenes of shaky hand-held cameras, and a general sense of dismay and hopelessness –not exactly the image we typically associate with Superman. Gone are the days of John Williams’ triumphant score and Christopher Reeve’s charming portrayal of the character. Although, I admittedly chuckled to myself at the blatant corporate advertising littered throughout this film, with brands like iHop and Sears frequently appearing onscreen. At least on the plus side, there are some fascinating bits of science fiction lore included this film –unlike in Superman II there is a necessity for helmets worn by the Kryptonians, and a rare piece of Kryptonite terraforming technology is a compelling idea.     

Aquaman (2018) Review

Aquaman (2018) Director: James Wan

“I am a son of the land, a king of the seas. I am the protector of the deep. I am… Aquaman.”

Rating: 2 out of 5.

For the longest time, Aquaman was a bit of a silly character in the DC universe. He was known as a campy, half-fish Saturday morning cartoon taking place under the sea. With a big screen interpretation of the character, James Wan (of the Saw, Insidious, and Conjuring franchises), presents us with a winking, self-aware, CGI-infused interpretation of Aquaman. And somehow it managed to find praise among moviegoers.

Jason Momoa plays the titular character, Arthur (named after both a hurricane and the legendary King Arthur). He is the son of a humble lighthouse keeper named Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison), and Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman). While still a child, Atlanna is captured and taken back to the sea. Arthur is raised among the “surface-dwellers,” hailing from a gruff, beer-swilling, working-class fishing village. After being bullied as a child at the Boston Aquarium, his unique abilities to communicate with marine life are placed on full display. He is able to breathe both on land, as well as underwater, and his body possess godlike strength and invincibility.

Years later, a submarine is hijacked by pirates in the middle of the ocean until Arthur suddenly arrives and rescues all the innocents onboard, all the while fending off machine gun-wielding henchmen. Aquaman is apparently impervious to most forms of human attack. This sets up a revenge plot wherein the lead pirate’s son (under the name “Black Manta”) wants vengeance upon Arthur for refusing to save his father.

Next, we are given a glimpse into the politics of Atlantis –including a debate over whether or not to unite the kingdoms and launch an invasion of the “surface-dwellers” whose violent submarines are wreaking havoc upon the Atlanteans. According to Atlantis, the humans who live on land have been poisoning the oceans with trash and warming the world’s waters, while also bringing war to the sea. Arthur’s half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), seeks to become ruler of the oceans, however there are a few recalcitrant rebels like Princess Mera (Amber Heard) and Vulko (Willem Dafoe). They beg Arthur to reclaim a sacred trident (the lost trident of Atlan, crafted by Poseidon for Atlan, the first ruler of Atlantis) and then claim his kingship over Atlantis. After a submarine conveniently attacks Atlantis, the feuding factions are united within Atlantis, and Orm responds by sending giant seawalls against the human coastline.

An attack on humanity inspires Arthur to finally focus on Atlantis. Before he can search for the sacred trident, Arthur is placed under arrest by the newly crowned King Orm. After a brief battle in which Orm is nearly proved victorious, Mera rescues Arthur and they escape to follow clues from Atlantis to the Sahara to Italy and the remote “kingdom of the Trench” where they find Arthur’s mother who has been living alone for some twenty years. Arthur battles the mythical Karathen creature and claims the sacred trident. Along the way, a forced, contrived romance blooms between Mera and Arthur, though it is every bit hollow and unbelievable. In the end, Arthur defeats his half-brother with the sacred trident and reclaims his throne of Atlantis, though he spares his brother’s life, and Arthur’s mother finally reunites with his father Thomas.   

All the cheesy one-liners in Aquaman are at least complemented by some complex Atlantean technology, like water suits for walking on land and submersible explosives –there are at least some intriguing science fiction ideas. However, these larger than life, world-ending superhero movies are just not really to my taste, but I think I understand why Aquaman was such a surprise box office hit. The DC universe is at its best when it is self-aware and comedic (i.e. not reaching much higher than a campy superhero flick). There is a ton of mythological exposition and video game-styled colorful graphics —Aquaman is, after all, a cornball epic superhero movie, filled with winking 1980s pop culture allusions, and yet it has its surprisingly fun moments. At the very least it resists the inclination toward a darker, hellish atmosphere as found in Zack Snyder’s vision for the Justice League.

Wonder Woman (2017) Review

Wonder Woman (2017) Director: Patty Jenkins

“I will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”

Rating: 2 out of 5.

In spite of being a kitschy superhero movie, Wonder Woman is a surprisingly fun and optimistic take on the hero genre –a change of pace from the bleak weight of Justice League. At least Wonder Woman doesn’t fall into the relatively predictable traps laid by so many other big budget movies out there. According to popular consensus, Wonder Woman is a rare bright spot in the DC cinematic universe, and since I recently took an interest in exploring some parts of the DC world, I figured I would give it a shot.

Gal Gadot gives a spot-on performance as the demigod Diana (or “Wonder Woman”), daughter of Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons (Connie Nielsen). The film is told in a flashback as Diana (later referred to as “Diana Prince”) is given a photograph of herself standing next to several men in World War I. The photograph is given to her by Wayne Enterprises, thus connecting this narrative to others in the DC universe. Diana is raised on the secret secluded island of Themyscira where her mother Queen Hippolyta allows her to be trained as a warrior by Antiope (Robin Wright). One day (the context is during World War I), a plane crashes in the waters around Themyscira –it turns out to be an American pilot and spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who is working undercover against the Germans. He has recently escaped from Germany with a secret notebook belonging to Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), a sadistic chemist working on a poison gas formula which can cause widespread devastation. Diana decides to go against the received wisdom of her people, and she travels with Steve to London where she hopes to help end the war by killing Ares, the god of war. Along the way, there is a not-so-subtle sexual tension between them both as they stumble into all sorts of hijinks due to the fact that Diana is unfamiliar with this strange new world.

At any rate, they encounter an amusing cast of characters and head straight for the trench warfare along the frontlines. Diana quickly marches straight into no man’s land and sends the Germans fleeing as she deflects machine gun bullets. After rescuing a nearby village, Diana and Steve travel behind enemy lines to infiltrate the German army. At first, Diana battles a German General named Ludendorff (Danny Huston) whom she believes to be the embodiment of Ares, but after killing him, the war continues. Until Ares revels himself to be Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), a proponent for peace in the British Government. It is an odd contradiction for his character. In the end, Sir Patrick/Ares and Diana/Wonder Woman fight to the death while Steve sacrifices himself to destroy the poison gas while flying in a plane up into the atmosphere. Diana spares Dr. Maru and decides to help humanity despite its many failings. As the film closes, Diana sends an email to Bruce Wayne thanking him for the photograph of her standing next to Steve during World War I.      

While this type of movie is not my usual cup-of-tea, I can still appreciate what Patty Jenkins accomplished here –an optimistic, a-divisive, historically-inspired superhero epic. With expectations so low for film like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, at least they weren’t terrible. These are not amazing works of art, but you can find a lot worse in the superhero genre than Wonder Woman or Aquaman.