100 Favourites II — The Top 10

And so I reach the pinnacle of my list — my most favourite films I’ve seen for the first time in the past ten years. (Well, if we’re being precise, in the past ten years and three months, but not counting anything from the last three months. But that’s less snappy.)

Over three previous posts I’ve counted down #100 to #11, but here’s the perfectly rounded number everyone loves for a list: the top ten.

#10
Dark City


4th from 2008
(previously 3rd | original review)

Before The Matrix there was Dark City, which tackles some of the same philosophical issues as the Wachowskis’ trilogy, only in a less opaque and verbose fashion — and, as I said, did so first. Of course, it lacks the groundbreaking action sequences that made The Matrix such a hit, but as a thoughtful piece of stylish sci-fi noir it probably bests its better-known thematic cousins. I also reckon it’s still a bit underrated… including by me, really, because it’s nine years since I first watched it and I still haven’t got round to seeing the Director’s Cut. (Note to self: fix that.)

#9
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn


1st from 2014
(previously 2nd | original review)

Calling on the same skill set that produced the Indiana Jones movies, Steven Spielberg created an adventure movie that perfectly balances plot, action, and humour. Despite the freedom afforded by crafting the entire thing in CGI (rendered with stunning realism by Weta), Spielberg knows when to hold back and maintain a level of realism, only to cut loose when warranted. The top end of this list definitely skews blockbustery-y — well, it is “favourite” rather than some kind of “objective best” (not that that’d be strictly possible anyway) — but, nonetheless, I think Tintin is a very fine and underrated example of the form.

#8
Kick-Ass


1st from 2010
(previously 1st | original review)

As Watchmen was to superhero comics, so Kick-Ass is to superhero films: taking familiar building blocks from other films and TV series, it deconstructs the genre through a “what if someone tried to be a superhero for real” storyline, asking questions about the glorification of violence and the sexualisation of its characters — all while being a funny and exciting action-comedy. Perhaps it’s having its cake and eating it, and that leads some people to miss the point (some by enjoying it a bit too much, some by thinking it has nothing to say), but I don’t think that stops it being one of the best and most thoughtful superhero movies yet made.

#7
Let the Right One In


1st from 2011
(previously 3rd | original review)

It’s felt like you can’t escape vampires in film and TV for the last couple of decades, but trust a European movie to give them a unique spin, right? So it’s both a coming-of-age-y arthouse-y movie about two 12-year-olds and first love, and a scary horror movie about violent supernatural creatures. It works by not shortchanging either aspect, instead combining them to transcend genre boundaries. So it’s a genuinely touching, emotional and relatable drama, as well as a creepy and horrific fantasy thriller.

#6
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation


1st from 2015
(previously 1st | original review)

There’s always been a bit of a ‘wannabe’ air to the Mission: Impossible films, like maybe someone thought it could fill the void left by Bond disappearing post-Dalton, only it took so long to make it to the screen that Bond himself got there first in the shape of Pierce Brosnan. Nonetheless, the series has trundled along… though I don’t want to sound like I’m doing it down too much because I’ve always enjoyed it — the second one made my first 100 Favourites list, even. But Rogue Nation is where M:I finally out-Bonds Bond. Mixing action thrills and a genuine sense of jeopardy with just-ahead-of-reality gadgets, a knowing sense of humour, and a cast full of likeable characters, it’s superb blockbuster entertainment.

#5
Seven Samurai


1st from 2013
(previously 1st | original review)

A phrase like “three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie” is going to conjure up a certain experience in the minds of most viewers. That experience is most probably nothing like Seven Samurai — although it is, of course, a three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie. On the surface it’s about a bunch of warriors protecting a small impoverished village that can’t defend itself, and it has a lengthy action-packed climax to deliver on such promise, but it rises above that thanks to its reflective attitude towards its characters and their very existence. No, wait, I said it’s not your typical three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie!

#4
Rashomon


3rd from 2008
(previously 5th | original review)

I’d wager most would rank Seven Samurai higher in the Akira Kurosawa canon, but I give Rashomon the edge because the form of its storytelling appeals to me. It retells the events surrounding a murder from the subjective viewpoint of each of the characters who were there, and of course their accounts differ. Its title has become a byword for such narratives, but there’s more here than just trendsetting plot construction — it’s a fantastically made film, exquisitely shot and magnificently performed.

#3
Zodiac


2nd from 2008
(previously 2nd | original review)

David Fincher’s meticulous true crime thriller may be his best movie — and when we’re talking about the man who made Se7en and Fight Club, that’s certainly saying a lot. It may look like it’s a murder thriller — it is about the hunt for a serial killer, after all — but in many respects it’s more about obsession and addiction, and how such things can come to take over your life. But if you don’t want to ponder that kind of thing, there’s always chills like the basement scene to keep you viscerally engaged. (The slightly-different Director’s Cut is the better version of the film and, if we’re being specific, would be my pick here; but I watched that a couple of years later, so it was the theatrical cut that figured in 2008’s top ten.)

#2
Skyfall


1st from 2012
(previously 1st | original review)

The James Bond films have always been action blockbusters, and more often than not immensely popular and successful ones. Skyfall changed the game though: by hiring Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes it was instantly booted into Prestige Picture territory — and still managed to deliver the most financially successful film in the series’ long history, the first billion-dollar Bond. But box office success is not why Skyfall is #2 on my list. It’s the beautiful cinematography; the way it adds thematic weight to the character without breaking the formula; the sense of Bond’s history without over-explicit reverence — and the way those aspects makes it both familiar and fresh at the same time. Plus it delivers on the action, larger-than-life villain, and one-liners just like a Bond film should. Its artistic success may be a case of the stars aligning and lightning striking (the lacking-by-comparison follow-up Spectre proved that), but Bond has rarely been better.

#1
The Dark Knight


1st from 2008
(previously 1st | original review)

Eight years and three months ago, when I named The Dark Knight my #1 film of 2008, I wrote that “I’m unashamedly one of those who believe The Dark Knight isn’t just one of the best films of 2008, it’s one of the best films ever.” It’s nice to be able to stand by such a brazen assertion. And, having thought long and hard about what I would declare as my most favouritest movie from the 1,283 new ones that I’ve seen in the last decade, I clearly do stand by it. I love superhero movies, I love crime thrillers, and I love epics, so it’s no surprise that a movie which combines all three — and does them all well — would top a list of my favourite movies.

Now: what’s a good list without some statistics?

Advertisements

100 Favourites II — The Penultimate 20

Week 3 of this list (the first two parts are here and here) sees us hurtling towards the top of the chart — the films that are among my very most favouritest that I’ve seen in the last decade.

I will say, there are more superhero movies than I expected…

#30
Deadpool

2nd from 2016 (previously 8th)
I feel like I should’ve matured out of finding Deadpool so entertaining, but it definitely appealed to my inner adolescent. It’s a riot. More…
#29
Super

5th from 2011 (previously 5th)
More superhero comedy, but Super’s low-budget grittiness and James Gunn-imbued barminess gives it an edge, even as its action climax is viscerally satisfying. More…
#28
Before Sunrise

4th from 2007 (previously unranked)
Richard Linklater distills the essence of twentysomething life and relationships into one night in the first (and best) of his decades-spanning Before trilogy. More…
#27
Citizen Kane

3rd from 2007 (previously 7th)
A film now overshadowed by its reputation, if you try to shed the baggage then Orson Welles’ debut still stands up very well in its own right. More…
#26
Watchmen: Director’s Cut

1st from 2009 (previously 3rd)
The most acclaimed superhero narrative ever penned became a film that is equally as complex and flawed, but also brilliant. More…
#25
Gravity

4th from 2014 (previously 1st)
Sandra Bullock is stranded in space and we’re right there alongside her in Alfonso Cuarón’s gripping and technically astonishing survival thriller. More…
#24
Sherlock Holmes

4th from 2010 (previously 8th)
Exciting, funny, with exceptional evocations of how it would feel to be the Great Detective. Not a traditional depiction, but surprisingly faithful. Plus: a proper mystery with a proper solution. More…
#23
Toy Story 3

3rd from 2010 (previously 2nd)
Lightning strikes thrice for Pixar’s studio-defining trilogy. Funny and moving, it tackles big emotional themes while still providing a kid-friendly adventure-comedy. More…
#22
United 93

2nd from 2007 (previously 1st)
Paul Greengrass’ 9/11 film almost feels like a documentary, with its naturalistic performances and handheld camerawork. That it was endorsed by the families is another stamp of approval. More…
#21
12 Angry Men

3rd from 2014 (previously 5th)
Twelve men talk to each other for an hour-and-a-half in this tense, gripping courtroom (without the courtroom) thriller. A directing masterclass from a debuting Sidney Lumet. More…
#20
Supermen of Malegaon

3rd from 2015 (previously 4th)
This little-seen documentary is an inspirational film about living your dreams even when the world won’t let you. Genuinely, I think it’s an absolute must-see for any lover of film. More…
#19
Requiem for a Dream

2nd from 2014 (previously 8th)
Darren Aronofsky’s addiction drama may ultimately be grim and without hope, but the verve of the filmmaking transcends expectations. More…
#18
Anatomy of a Murder

2nd from 2010 (previously 4th)
A precision-engineered procedural crime drama that refuses to deviate from the methodology of the case, but still finds room to deepen its array of characters. More…
#17
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

2nd from 2012 (previously 4th)
Boasting an original variation on Batman’s backstory, plus a fine turn from Mark Hamill’s arguably-definitive Joker, this animation is among the very best Bat-films. More…
#16
X-Men: First Class

4th from 2011 (previously 2nd)
The X-Men begin in this origin story that shows us another side to familiar characters, with a unique feel thanks to its ’60s setting and plot that riffs off Cold War spy-fi. More…
#15
The Raid 2

1st from 2016 (previously 2nd)
Bigger and grander than its predecessor, this is a sprawling crime epic that still has time for huge, elaborate fight sequences. One of the greatest action movies ever made. More…
#14
My Neighbour Totoro

3rd from 2011 (previously 7th)
Gorgeously animated with a beautiful soundtrack, Hayao Miyazaki lures you in to a world and tells you a thoroughly nice story with no enforced peril. Refreshingly lovely. More…
#13
The Guest

2nd from 2015 (previously 3rd)
This ’80s-inspired thriller (with a horror-influenced edge) offers a witty screenplay, engaging characters, stylish visuals, and a fab score. Dan Stevens can definitely be my guest. More…
#12
Brief Encounter

1st from 2007 (previously 6th)
A romantic affair of cups of tea, discussions of the weather, tea, trips to the cinema, tea, guilt, indecision, and more tea. All the repressed emotions make it truly British. That and the tea. More…
#11
The Social Network

2nd from 2011 (previously 1st)
Unlikeable brats sit at computers, writing websites and arguing, but with dialogue by Aaron Sorkin and direction from David Fincher that becomes engrossing and exciting. More…

Next Sunday: the top 10.

100 Films @ 10: Favourite Film Series

Once upon a time, sequels were very much a lesser thing, and making more of them only made things worse. Nowadays we’re almost at the opposite extreme: first movies are routinely designed as setup for the better sequel, and never-ending franchises are all the rage.

Today’s top ten ranks some of my favourite movie series that have been part of 100 Films. Here that means a series with four or more movies (three would just be a trilogy, wouldn’t it?) where I’ve watched at least a couple of them during 100 Films’ life, as well as having seen a significant proportion overall. For instance, I’ve seen the two most recent Planet of the Apes films but none of the original five, so I can’t really judge that as a series.

A big factor herein is acknowledging consistency — one or two great films and a bunch of duds should mean exclusion. For example, the Star Wars series has two unimpeachable classics, and at least two more pretty great movies… but that’s only 57% of the Saga, or just 44% if you count the two theatrically-released spin-offs. Considering the lowly quality of the prequels, how much do they drag down the series as a whole?

You may disagree. Let’s take a look…

10
Marvel Cinematic Universe

If we’re talking about consistency here then the MCU has it in spades: consistently underwhelming villains, consistently bland cinematography, consistently unmemorable music… Ah, but they also have consistently likeable heroes, a consistently light tone, and a consistent ability to be pretty entertaining. None of them are really bad (except the first Captain America, which has its fans anyway), a couple of them even push towards a certain degree of greatness, and overall they are — to paraphrase the description of The Avengers by its writer-director, Joss Whedon — not great movies, but they are each a great time.

Best film: Captain America: Civil War
Weak link: Captain America: The First Avenger
Other reviews: Iron Man | The Incredible Hulk | Iron Man 2 | Thor | Avengers Assemble | Iron Man 3 | Thor: The Dark World | Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Guardians of the Galaxy | Avengers: Age of Ultron | Ant-Man | Doctor Strange | + 5 Marvel One-Shots (take a look under ‘shorts’ on my reviews page) and various TV series, including Daredevil season two and Luke Cage season one


9
The Hunger Games

The shortest series in my top ten, this is very much a borderline on my rules — if they’d done the third book as one film, it wouldn’t count. That gives The Hunger Games a certain advantage over the other films here, in that it has one long story to tell across just a handful of movies, rather than trying to refresh itself in some way with each new film. About a group of young people fighting against an oppressive autocratic regime in a future version of America, it’s a future-history of, like, next week. For all the fun of its action theatrics, a series aimed at younger viewers with themes about the dangers of dictators and the potential benefits of and need for a resistance — what some might call “terrorism” — has rarely been more pertinent.

Best film: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Weak link: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
Other reviews: The Hunger Games | The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


8
The Thin Man

Ostensibly a series of murder mysteries, the reason the Thin Man series is such a joy is that the films are more concerned with the screwball-ish relationship between the leads, married detective duo Nick and Nora Charles, played with a certain rakish aplomb by William Powell and Myrna Loy. The mysteries themselves are Christie-esque parlour games and there’s a major role for the pair’s adorable dog. Mix all that together like one of the Charles’ favoured cocktails and they make for similarly splendid entertainment.

Best film: After the Thin Man
Weak link: The Thin Man Goes Home
Other reviews: The Thin Man | Another Thin Man | Shadow of the Thin Man | Song of the Thin Man


7
George A. Romero’s ‘Dead’ Films

With his low-budget horror film Night of the Living Dead, co-writer/director George A. Romero single-handedly created a whole sub-genre: the zombie movie. Although the form eventually degenerated into a miasma of excessive gore, what makes Romero’s films timeless is the way they use the zombies to reflect something else, whether it be basic humanity or wider sections of society. The first two movies (Night and Dawn) are genre-transcending classics, but if we’re talking consistency then I even have a fondness for the underrated fourth instalment, Land of the Dead, and the rush-produced but not meritless sixth, Survival of the Dead. Even the weakest, Diary of the Dead, has more of interest to say than many of its genre stablemates.

Best film: Night of the Living Dead
Weak link: Diary of the Dead
Other reviews: Dawn of the Dead | Day of the Dead | Land of the Dead | Survival of the Dead


6
Sherlock Holmes starring Basil Rathbone

Between 1939 and 1946 Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in 14 Sherlock Holmes films, cementing themselves as the definitive screen interpretation of Holmes and Watson for decades to come — some would say forever. Rather than faithful adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, these liberally remix the best bits into exciting new mysteries and adventures. If that sounds familiar from more modern times, it’s because Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are massive fans of the Rathbone/Bruce films, and have never been shy about admitting their influence on how Sherlock adapts the canon. Maybe not one for literary purists, then, but otherwise there’s barely a dud to be found in this entertaining series.

Best film: The Scarlet Claw
Weak link: Pursuit to Algiers
Other reviews: The Hound of the Baskervilles | The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror | Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon | Sherlock Holmes in Washington | Sherlock Holmes Faces Death | The Spider Woman | The Pearl of Death | The House of Fear | The Woman in Green | Terror by Night | Dressed to Kill


5
Batman

You could, not unreasonably, split the Batman movies into multiple sub-series at this point: the four movies from 1989 to 1997, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Batman’s role in the DCEU; plus the ’66 Batman, animated cinema release Mask of the Phantasm, and, now, the LEGO movies. This ranking encompasses them all… more or less. Certainly the live-action ones since ’89, anyway. Yes, that run of movies contains one of the poorest blockbusters of all time (Batman & Robin), but it’s counterbalanced by one of the greatest blockbusters of all time (The Dark Knight), and several others I’d place in the form’s upper echelons (Batman Returns, Batman Begins, maybe one or two more). I’m one of those people who likes Batman v Superman and sees promise in Justice League and The Batman, too, so long may it continue.

Best film: The Dark Knight
Weak link: Batman & Robin
Other reviews: Batman (1966) | Batman (1989) | Batman Returns | Batman Forever | Batman Begins | The Dark Knight Rises | Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (and its Ultimate Edition) | + 8 animated movie reviews (take a look under ‘B’ on my reviews page)


4
Harry Potter

I rarely classify myself as “a Harry Potter fan” because I know the full extent of obsessiveness you get from die-hard Potheads (as I like to call them. I don’t think anyone else does, but I think we should.) It’s no worse than any other dedicated fandom, I’m sure, but I’m not that extreme. Nonetheless, I’m of the right age to have read the books during my childhood (albeit right at the end of my childhood) and do have a fondness for them, as well as for the film adaptations. This is the perfect list for those, because I definitely feel like they’re more than the sum of their parts: each film is at least ‘good’, but few of them stray toward the territory of ‘really great’ — not individually, anyway. As a whole eight-film saga, though, I think they make for an impressive piece of work.

Best film: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Weak link: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Other reviews: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone | Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban | Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix | Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince | Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 | Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 | + an overview of the Harry Potter films of David Yates, and also fan edit Wizardhood


3
Mission: Impossible

It’s the second-shortest series on this list, making my following statement comparatively less of an achievement, but still: in my view, there are no bad Mission: Impossible films. They’ve sometimes been given a rough ride down the years, with the first two especially meeting with more than their fair share of criticism, but I’ve enjoyed every one. The most recent is the best, in my opinion, but I don’t think I’d begrudge anyone naming any of the others as their favourite.

Best film: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Weak link: Mission: Impossible III
Other reviews: Mission: Impossible II | Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol


2
X-Men

I feel like I’ve written plenty of introductory overviews to the X-Men at this point in my blogging career — about my near-lifelong love for the series; about its relevance to the modern superhero movie landscape; and so on. As with most of these series, not every entry is perfect, but very few of them are outright bad. Even the black sheep of the series, The Last Stand, isn’t all it could’ve been had director Bryan Singer stuck around, but it often gets an unfair rap — it’s not a bad piece of blockbuster entertainment. On the other end of the spectrum, I think the series’ high points are among the very best superhero movies. By the sounds of things the imminent third Wolverine movie, Logan, only continues that tradition.

Best film: X-Men: First Class
Weak link: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Other reviews: X-Men | X2 | The Wolverine | X-Men: Days of Future Past (and The Rogue Cut) | Deadpool | X-Men: Apocalypse


1
James Bond

With 24 films to date, produced across 53 years, the James Bond films are a series like no other (though, in terms of number of films, the MCU will likely surpass it within the next five years). If we’re talking consistency of quality, then there are probably more underachievers here than in any other series in this top ten… but then there are more films full-stop, so what do you expect? Conversely, there are probably more high points too, be it the era-defining action of the Connery films, the lightness of the better Moore movies, the grit of Dalton, the polished blockbusterdom of Brosnan, or the series’ reinvention as prestige pictures with Craig. Indeed, there’s pretty much a Bond movie for every taste (unless you fundamentally object to enjoying the adventures of a government-sponsored killer, of course). At this point the series seems to be inoculated against any obstacle — they are critic proof, box office proof, almost audience proof. Whatever else happens in this crazy, crazy world, you can be sure of one thing: James Bond will return.

Best film: Casino Royale
Weak link: A View to a Kill
Other reviews: Dr. No | From Russia with Love | Goldfinger | Thunderball | You Only Live Twice | On Her Majesty’s Secret Service | For Your Eyes Only | Octopussy | GoldenEye | Tomorrow Never Dies | Quantum of Solace | Skyfall | Spectre

Tomorrow: an elementary list.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)

2016 #174
Rick Morales | 78 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Batman: Return of the Caped CrusadersHoly nostalgia hit, Batman! This animated movie reunites the surviving stars of the enduringly popular ’60s Batman TV series (and spin-off movie) for a new adventure in the style of their classic ones — that is to say it’s funny and colourful, a world away from the Dark Knight version of Batman we’re so accustomed to these days.

In some respects, that’s all you need to know in terms of a critical review of this film. If you’ve never seen the ’60s originals, it’s not really ‘for’ you. I mean, it’s perfectly accessible, I think, but it’s loaded with winks and nods to its inspiration. I definitely missed some of those because I haven’t watched the series for a while (I really need to get stuck into the Blu-ray set they released a couple of years back), but, from what I can remember, it captures their tone well. That is to say: on the surface it’s pulp superhero derring-do, but underneath it’s laced with a knowing wit and an awareness of its own glorious ridiculousness. The animated medium is used to push beyond what would’ve been possible in live-action TV 50 years ago, but I won’t go into detail so as not to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen it yet (though it screened in cinemas last month and has been out on disc on both sides of the Atlantic for a bit now).

The voice cast is headlined by — of course — Adam West as Batman, along with Burt Ward as Robin and Julie Newmar as Catwoman. West is nearly 90 now and you can hear that in his voice, but he’s still got it. You soon forget the old-age huskiness and just revel in his consummate skill at delivering his Batman just so; that earnest delivery of humorous material that led some people to miss for decades that the series was actually, Vile villainous verminfundamentally, a comedy. Conversely, Ward still sounds pretty spry, and is gifted plenty of those “Holy [insert something here], Batman!” catchphrases that never cease to be fun. Unfortunately, Newmar also sounds her age, but doesn’t seem to quite have the liveliness that West retains. In the behind-the-scenes featurettes she seems a delightfully kooky old bird (at the recording she’s wearing cat ears, for one thing), so it’s hard to resent her, but the portrayal of Catwoman as slinky and sexy feels a little… odd. On the bright side, it means you don’t get the uncomfortableness of West flirting with a much younger actress, even in animated form.

The rest of the cast has to be rounded out by replacements by necessity. The most famous foes from that era of the Bat — namely, the Joker, the Riddler, and the Penguin — are all in on the action, and voice actors Jeff Bergman, Wally Wingert, and William Salyers do a bang-up job recreating their recognisable tics. However, I think the biggest respect is due to writers Michael Jelenic and James Tucker. They’ve managed to pen something that feels like a tribute without being set in aspic; that’s genuinely fresh and funny in its own right, while also evoking the beloved classic that inspired it, including plenty of in-jokes and nods at other screen iterations of Batman. I also particularly enjoyed the alliteration-addled dialogue, because I do love a bit (or a lot) of alliteration. I’m a man of simple pleasures sometimes.

Batty Batman's back!On the whole, Return of the Caped Crusaders is a resounding success. It’s a fun return to a beloved incarnation of arguably the most popular superhero; a version who’d been somewhat left out in the cold for a couple of decades by a world that grew up a bit too much, but is now being re-embraced and held in deserved esteem. And, even better, there’s already a follow-up in the works. Holy must-see sequel, Batman!

4 out of 5

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

2016 #129
Sam Liu | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Batman: The Killing JokeAlan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke is one of the seminal works of superhero comic books’ move into seriousness in the ’80s, sitting just behind the likes of Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: Year One in terms of significance. It’s also seen by many as the definitive story about Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, and has influenced the live-action interpretations of both Jack Nicholson & Tim Burton and Heath Ledger & Christopher Nolan. It is not without controversy, however, thanks in large part to its treatment of Barbara Gordon / Batgirl; and Moore has since semi-disowned it, saying it has no intrinsic value because it has nothing to say about real human beings, only commenting on the comic-book-y relationship between Batman and the Joker.

Now, it finally makes its way to our screens in animated form. What took so long? Well, it’s dark, and to do it justice the makers needed the potential to make it R-rated. Given permission to do so by Warner, they’ve done just that. So here we have a very faithful adaptation of the graphic novel… but it’s a bit short, so there’s a 28-minute prologue stuck on the front. Designed to ameliorate some of the issues people have with the original book, it’s actually only made things worse, containing brand-new controversial elements all of its own. Oh dear.

In this new segment, Batgirl (Tara Strong) and Batman (Kevin Conroy) find themselves on the trail of Paris Franz (say it aloud… or don’t), a young upstart who wants to take control of his uncle’s organised crime operation. Once that business is dealt with, we get to the familiar meat of the story, where the Joker (Mark Hamill) decides to prove a point — in a violent and twisted fashion, naturally.

To really discuss where this adaptation of The Killing Joke goes awry, I’m going to have to stop being coy about spoiling a 28-year-old comic book that had lasting ramifications for Barbara Gordon’s place in the DC universe. Also, spoilers for this new film, too. You have been warned.

So, for those not in the know or who would like a recap, the Joker’s plan is to prove we’re all just one bad day away from going insane like him. The target of his experiment is Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise), and he begins by shooting his daughter Barbara in the spine, paralysing her, then taking photos of her naked to torment the Commissioner with later. (The actual photo-taking isn’t depicted in the comic or this film, but the images are hinted at later on.) This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least Barbara’s lack of presence in the story as anything more than a pawn to torture her father.

The film’s solution is to begin with a standalone Batgirl adventure. Not an inherently bad idea — it could make her a more rounded character; someone we care about for herself, not just a minor victim in some other game. However, screenwriter Brian Azzarello (and, presumably, director Sam Liu and executive producer Bruce Timm) have tried to do this by making her horny for Batman, and have that infatuation actually consummated in an al fresco rooftop sex scene (not graphically shown, but the film is unequivocal about what happened). To say the least, this doesn’t seem like the best way to go about making her an independent, rounded human being — it comes off like fan service. No, worse: fan fiction. A scene earlier on where she explains her Bat-infatuation to her gay best friend is presumably meant to suggest a genuine motivation for the eventual sexy times, but it all comes across as a great big excuse.

To top it off, it in no way informs the adaptation of The Killing Joke that follows. It makes nods towards some of the thematic concerns of the main story, but, structurally, it’s not part of the same film at all — there’s a fade to black & fade back in that really signals the end of one production and the start of a new one; the end of an opening short film and the start of the feature presentation. Only the ‘feature’ is far too short (44 minutes before credits), so that ‘short’ is clearly there to bulk up the running time.

The titular adaptation that follows is arguably faithful to a fault. If you’re seeking to make it feature-length, would it not have been better to expand the story out and examine some of its points more fully, even if the points you illuminated were about plot logic rather than themes — the original comic is very short and arguably a little rushed in places, so I think there’s definite room for expansion. In fact, while it might make sense to expand the role of Barbara Gordon for reasons of taste and social mores that have (not wrongly) since been projected onto the comic, from a purely narrative point of view the character who needs expanding is Commissioner Gordon. In the comics he’s a regular cast member, so it can afford to take as read his status as an “ordinary man” — or perhaps even a paragon of virtue, which brings its own problems to the story. But while he is a familiar figure in the Batman mythology, and so by extension to anyone who’s likely to watch this film, it’s also a standalone movie, not part of a series, and so it would be beneficial to establish his character somewhat before the Joker’s plan for him gets underway.

Heck, the film’s own special features even feature a psychologist talking about how it’s Jim Gordon’s story! While the Joker and Batman are the same characters at the beginning and the end, it’s Gordon who goes through a terrible ordeal and then has a choice to make. Yet in spite of that he’s treated as the fourth lead, at best, with the Joker and Batman taking precedence in the main adaptation and Barbara gaining masses of focus thanks to her half-hour preamble. It’s probably the twin desires to put the graphic novel on screen as-is and to in some way justify Barbara Gordon’s role in it that have led to this point. A less literal adaptation — one prepared to expand and elucidate the story, rather than just tack on an extra part at the start — could have found room to deepen both the Gordons.

Still, I suppose the literal faithfulness of the story adaptation will please purists. And reuniting the key voice acting cast from Batman: The Animated Series, arguably the all-time definitive screen interpretations of Batman and the Joker, is always fan-pleasing. Hamill, in particular, is fantastic, even when having to deliver Alan Moore’s typically verbose dialogue. However, one of the reasons the graphic novel is so beloved is Brian Bolland’s detailed, realistic, dynamic artwork. His draftsmanship transcends the actual narrative of Moore’s writing so that, however distasteful the tale being told, it looks incredible. Naturally, this animated adaptation loses that entirely, employing the standard “Saturday morning cartoon +” aesthetic of these DC direct-to-video movies. There are sound budgetary reasons for that, but it means the focus falls even more squarely on the narrative rather than the images. (It’s somewhat ironic, then, that (as ever) Alan Moore doesn’t receive an onscreen credit while Bolland does.) There are a handful of effective visuals here (the Joker’s gleeful face as he turns on the amusement park, its lights twinkling in his eyes), but they’re the exception to work which is adequate — good for what it is, even — but unremarkable.

For such a long-awaited adaptation, it’s difficult to conclude The Killing Joke is anything other than a disappointment. It didn’t have to be that way: I thought Warner made a good hash of adapting Year One, and an even better one of The Dark Knight Returns. While this adaptation does allow some of the book’s inherent quality to carry through, The Killing Joke was always going to be more problematic due to its content, and the filmmakers’ clumsy attempts to fix that have only made it worse. Shame.

3 out of 5

Batman: The Killing Joke is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition (2016)

2016 #128
Zack Snyder | 183 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / R

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - Ultimate EditionThe Batman v Superman Ultimate Edition has been available via various means for a month or more now, but has only hit disc in the UK this past week (and I waited for it, because I’m a good boy). This extended cut adds half-an-hour of material, give or take (comparing the two Blu-rays tells me the difference is just under 31 minutes; Movie-Censorship.com says it’s just under 30 minutes) — material that is unlikely to completely transform anyone’s opinion of the movie, but at the same time definitely does improve it. That means two things: firstly, most of my original review still applies; but secondly, and crucially, some of it doesn’t.

If you hated the movie’s overall dark tone, or its depiction of either of its titular heroes, or the over-CGI’d climax, or the way it shoehorned in teases for DC’s future movies, this cut fixes none of that. I mean, of course it doesn’t — they didn’t remake the movie. If you thought the storyline wasn’t clearly explained, or that Superman’s half of the story needed more screen time, or that you’d really like to have to wait even longer before the title fight, then this is the cut for you.

As per Movie-Censorship.com, there are 99 changes. Yes, 99. That’s made up of 18 wholly new scenes and 60 extended ones, plus 19 scenes with alternate footage and two slight audio tweaks. The clearest effect of these additions is in filling out the events in Africa near the start of the film and Lois Lane’s subsequent investigation into them, as well as showing Clark actually investigating Batman, rather than just having Perry constantly tell him off for doing it. In the process, it massively clarifies who the overall villain is and what connects all the many disparate plot threads, so that it’s a logical reveal rather than an end-of-act-two declaration that some viewers completely missed. Let’s take each of those in turn.

You may have read that the photographer with Lois in Africa is Jimmy Olsen, identified in the credits but not on screen in the theatrical cut. In this version he is named on screen, but that’s not the important part. More is done to establish why Lois is in Africa, what she’s hoping to achieve, and lay the seeds for why it’s all going to go wrong. This is achieved in such a short space of time that it seems ludicrous it was cut out, leaving theatrical viewers playing catch-up when a couple of extra moments would’ve explained it clearly. (Of course, there may be an element of re-viewing bias in this: I already know what’s happening so of course I cottoned on to everything sooner.) When things do go south, more material makes it explicit what happened — what the bad guys do to frame Superman, essentially. It’s possible some of this material was cut to achieve the PG-13 rating, but in doing so they left out bits and pieces that are referenced later, heightening the sense of confusion for theatrical viewers — how are we meant to know a woman testifying to a congressional hearing about “burned bodies” is a reference to events we just witnessed if we don’t see anyone burning any bodies?

This kind of increased clarity follows throughout the film. The fleshing out of Lois’ investigations is what leads to us understanding the overall scheme better when it comes to a head. It’s also where you’ll find Jena Malone’s character. There was much speculation about who Malone was playing, especially after she was cut and director Zack Snyder claimed it was because her character was of greater significance to the DC movie universe than this movie in particular. Turns out she’s… some lab tech. That’s it. Now, her role seems disproportionately small considering the level of actress cast, so maybe she has some secret identity that will be revealed in Justice League; but on the BvS level, she actually helps explain some of the plot, and therefore is much more relevant to BvS itself than that awful Flash cameo or the terribly clunky scene with the meta-human files. If Snyder really wanted to ring-fence the universe-building into the Ultimate Edition, those are the scenes he should’ve excised from the theatrical cut.

Less vital to the overall plot, but which certainly contributes to the titular conflict, is that Clark’s investigation into the Batman is seriously beefed up. It makes Clark/Superman feel like more of a leading character in a film that was, at least as originally conceived, his sequel. In some respects this storyline is a more understandable excision, because Superman’s dislike for the Batman and his methods isn’t entirely unclear in the theatrical cut. Equally, it does flesh it out better and connect up some of the dots, like why he intervened when Batman was trying to steal the Kryptonite at the docks (essentially: a Bat-victim’s girlfriend said Batman needed stopping. Maybe not a great reason, but hey, it’s a reason). It’s a case in point of how this film simply has too much going on. To create a workable version it’s had to be three hours long — that’s the length of two movies, and it does feel like two movies’ worth of material. Not back-to-back movies — you couldn’t cut it in two at the middle and be left with two independent films — but two movies that occur concurrently; intercut. I mean, there are even two big action climaxes, back to back.

In my original review, I noted that there was an “almost-throwaway sliver of dialogue that indicates Lex put all of this together, [but] the way it’s presented in this cut makes it come a little out of nowhere.” I believe some viewers missed that reveal entirely. The primary achievement of the Ultimate Edition, then, is making this story clear. It’s still something of a reveal that Lex is behind everything, but we get there through investigations and deductions that the characters make, rather than arriving at the end and Lex simply declaring, “b-t-dubs, everything you’ve just seen? Totally planned it all.” Personally, I thought Lex’s plot was already fairly clear; not crystal, by any means, but you could get there. I mean, you had to pay attention — probably more attention than most people expect to have to pay in a Zack Snyder blockbuster — but it was there. So it’s tough for me to say exactly how much clearer the Ultimate Edition makes it. It does feel more streamlined, with obvious new bits that help clarify certain points. I don’t think it sinks to the level of spelling it all out slowly and carefully in case you missed it, but it does make it more explicit; and, as discussed, it does that by showing more of Lois’ investigation, so it feels like her role is more substantial too. She felt a little cursory in Man of Steel — “it’s a Superman movie, we have to put Lois Lane in” — whereas here she has a bigger role than her boyfriend… at least until the punchy-punchy climax, of course, when his superpowers win out.

Also in the Lex camp, his mystifying line to Batman about aliens coming (or something) is somewhat explained by a short scene (which was made available online after the theatrical release and is now cut into the film) where he’s shown in front of some kind of creature that disappears when troops turn up to arrest him. I say “somewhat explained” because that’s literally the extent of the scene — there’s not even the vaguest explanation of who the creature is, or what the creature is (another Kryptonian mutant? An alien entity? A man in a suit?), or how it got there, or why it got there, or what it’s doing with/to Lex… It’s just another vague tease, which non-fans must either shrug and ignore, or scurry online to find a forum thread or news article or tweet where knowledgeable fans can tell them what the hell they just witnessed and why it’ll be relevant next time.

That was one of the more sensible removals from the theatrical cut, then. Otherwise… well, I’m not the first to say this, but it’s really bizarre that Snyder seems to have consciously chosen to cut out scenes that actually explain the plot. As I’ve said, it was followable in the theatrical cut, so maybe he just got blinded by the fact he’d seen the movie a thousand times while editing and so it all still made sense to him? Nonetheless, watching the extended cut enhances the feeling (which is there in the theatrical if you know a longer version exists) that the methodology for shortening the movie by half-an-hour was to just select scenes at random and delete them. How else do you explain losing chunks of Lois’ and Clark’s respective investigations while that awkward scene of Perry wondering where Clark’s gone remains in both cuts?

One thing that is pretty apparent about Snyder’s intentions is that he really wanted to make a Batman movie, and I suspect Man of Steel was his way in to getting to do that. Despite launching out of the events of Man of Steel, and engaging with issues of what it means to be Superman (therefore continuing MoS’s theme of “what would it be like if Superman was real?”), and having Lex Luthor as the main antagonist, BvS feels like a Batman-driven movie more often than it does a Superman one. Personally, I get it — I’m more of a Batman fan than a Superman fan too, so that approach warrants little complaint from me — but I can see why Supes’ fans would be miffed.

Another Snyder-related point comes to mind thanks to the numbering system I use for this blog. Most extended cuts of films I’ve already seen don’t merit a new number — i.e. this would be #127a — because they’re usually not significantly different to the existing versions, just adding some character beats, bonus action moments, or extra gags. They’re not fundamental enough to consider it a “new movie”. To be honest, because the extended BvS mostly serves to clarify the plot that was present in the theatrical version, I might’ve just gone with my usual numbering if it weren’t for, (a) everyone else saying how different it is, and (b) the fact a 30-minute extension amounts to 20% more film — no one can call that an insignificant addition. Interestingly, one of the few other extended cuts I gave a new number to was the Watchmen Director’s Cut. And I never bothered to watch the theatrical version of Sucker Punch, but from everything I read I’m sure the extended cut is substantially different and substantially improved. When Snyder does an extended cut, he means it. It’s not just “here are ten minutes of scenes I had to delete but rather liked”, it’s a revised version of the film — and it’s always a better version.

Other, more minor changes in this cut include increased violence, though personally I barely noticed it. Some people seem adamant this should’ve upped it to a 15 certificate, but I think you can justify saying it stops just short of that. Quite what the MPAA saw that merited an R, I’m not entirely sure. More interesting to my weirdly-obsessed mind is that the film actually includes the “Ultimate Edition” title on screen, both during the opening credits and at the end (where it’s technically titled “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition” without any additional punctuation). How many other extended cuts actually change their title card to reflect that fact? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any.

As someone who genuinely enjoyed Batman v Superman’s theatrical cut, it’s hard to say how much better the Ultimate Edition is for viewers who were less convinced. However, I do think it’s a question of “how much better” rather than “is it better”, because this is certainly a superior version of the film — the fact it’s now over three hours long notwithstanding. The new cut won’t ‘fix’ the movie for viewers who object to the inherent tone and style of the piece, but if you’re open to that, this cut does improve the storytelling and character arcs for a smoother experience overall. I do understand some of the reasons people dislike this movie — the way it modifies characters from their traditional depictions; the overall serious and dark tone — but they’re not opinions I share. It’s certainly not a perfect movie, though: the climax descends into CGI-fuelled mayhem (though the reduced scale of a TV screen makes it more followable); the desire to counter accusations levelled at Man of Steel’s destructive climax gets old fast (the film is at pains to constantly tell us that such-and-such an area is deserted for this-and-that reason); the meta-human set-ups are clunky and distracting; and your mileage will vary on the revisionist versions of Superman and Lex Luthor (I didn’t love Eisenberg’s take on the character, but I don’t mind it either).

I gave the theatrical cut 4 stars, which doesn’t leave me much room for manoeuvre here. Is the Ultimate Edition a whole star better? Maybe it is. I enjoyed it enough that I’m almost kind of tempted to go for the full 5… but that would be pushing it. I’m not sure any movie is perfect, but even for someone who likes it Batman v Superman has enough niggles to discount it. Still, I think it’s an enjoyable, interesting movie, that provides a welcome tonal counterpoint to the efforts of the other superhero shared movie universe. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

4 out of 5

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition placed 10th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The next film in the DC Extended Universe, Suicide Squad, is in cinemas from today.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

2016 #65
Zack Snyder | 151 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

With Warner Bros’ universe-launching superhero epic now in its second weekend (unless you live in Myanmar or Poland, anyway), you’ve probably more than had your fill of spoilerphobic reviews. So allow me to provide a spoiler-filled one. (There are a fair few of those around too, of course, but not all reviews can be beautiful or unique snowflakes.)

Despite being a sequel to Man of Steel and featuring a Superman-heavy supporting cast (from Batman’s world we have Alfred; from Superman’s we have Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lex Luthor, Martha Kent, and (spoiler for something that was in the trailer) Doomsday), Batman v Superman is really a Batman movie. It begins with the latest recap of his origin story — pretty much a prerequisite for any new big-screen incarnation of the Dark Knight. But don’t give up on the film within the opening minutes, because BvS is actually going somewhere with this — the Bat’s backstory has a role to play in the climax. Anyway, after that we get a recap of the end of Man of Steel: as Zod and Supes turn Metropolis into rubble and slaughter untold thousands in the process, we see Bruce Wayne driving and running through the collapsing city streets, heading for a Wayne Financial building where he does superhero-y stuff like save a little girl’s life, and fix the flying Kryptonians with a glare that says, “you are my new enemies.” Central conflict, right there.

I say this is a Batman movie, but in many respects it’s actually a Bruce Wayne movie. Is there a difference? I suppose you could argue not, what with Bruce being the man inside the Batsuit, but I would say a “Batman movie” concentrates on what he gets up to in that suit — fighting crazy villains, essentially — while a “Bruce Wayne movie” would be more about the man, his decisions, his emotions. Now, I’m not about to claim BvS is big on its characters’ inner lives, but if it really taps into the thoughts and feelings of anyone, it’s Bruce. This is a Batman who has perhaps lost his way, scarred by too many tragedies in his life. There are unmissable references to his 20-year crimefighting career; to good people turning bad; the Joker-graffitied Robin suit… This isn’t fan-pleasing/teasing background detail, it speaks to Bruce’s mindset. He’s become the kind of person who believes lines like, “if there’s a 1% chance he’s our enemy, we must take it as an absolute certainty.” He’s a bit of a right-wing nut, basically. If you want to find a character or emotional throughline to the movie, it’s Bruce learning to be a better hero again.

Of course, this being a Zack Snyder film, it often does a muddled job of presenting this kind of material to us. There’s also a heavy vein of what it means to be a hero, with Superman under constant scrutiny for his actions, with questions being asked about what rights he has to act the way he does, and whether methods are needed to stop him. These are potentially interesting themes to tackle, provided you buy into the whole superhero genre in the first place — they don’t really have any real-life equivalent, if that’s what interests you in movies; they’re predicated in the thought process of, “if Superman was real, what would it be like?”

So assuming we consider these as valid things to dig into, it’s a shame the film does a muddled job of it. There’s some grandstanding and speechmaking, and some heavily portentous dialogue, but what is it really saying? Good luck finding out. Maybe repeat viewings and some proper consideration will reveal more depth tucked away there. Certainly, I’ve been a bit annoyed with some of the glib online criticism of the dialogue and the ideas presented through it; commentary that chooses to focus on one sentence that comes at the end of a discussion, so the clever-clever internet person can laugh at the silliness of that line’s question or observation, ignoring the fact that there was a whole range of dialogue before that one line, and in that dialogue the idea was more fully considered or explained. But no, it’s easier to take a soundbite and analyse it as, “lolz, shit dialogue, dude.” I’m not saying BvS has a script of Oscar-worthy, polished, believable, insightful dialogue, but it’s not that poor, either.

But if we are criticising the screenplay, let’s turn our attention to the story and its structure, which leaves something to be desired. This isn’t just the writers’ fault, of course, because myriad things affect a film once the screenplay is signed off. In the case of story structure, editing seems a likely culprit — not the actual cutting together of individual shots to craft a sequence or scene, which is as good here as in any action blockbuster, but in terms of storytelling. Frankly, that’s a bit of a mess. Or a lot of a mess, maybe. Whole scenes serve literally no purpose or are clearly in the wrong place — the bit where Perry wanders up to Clark Kent’s desk and wonders if he’s clicked his heels and disappeared back to Kansas, for example. What purpose does it serve? None. But where it might have a role is where it clearly belongs: a couple of minutes later, right before the scene where Superman is in Kansas, chatting to his mom. Why is it not right before that scene? It’s like someone accidentally dragged it out of place on their computer editing timeline and never noticed. Sure, this is a minor point in the grand scope of the film, but it belies a sloppiness to the entire storytelling.

That extends all over the place. Someone clearly thought the movie was short on action — it has a lot of plot to get through, and whereas once upon a time it would’ve just got on with that plot and happily let all the action sit at the end, that’s not allowed these days. So, unable to find a combat or chase within the real narrative, Bruce has visions of a possible future where Batman wears some kind of dusty trench-coat and battles Superman-symbol-emblazoned soldiers in a Mad Max-esque landscape. In itself it’s a neat, fanboy-pleasing “alternate world” idea, and it’s an exciting sequence with some excellent action choreography, and it certainly looked good in the trailers, but in the film it’s a total aside from anything.

The only purpose it might serve is teasing the future — what is the giant Omega symbol? What are those flying devil-creatures? DC fans know that’s all related to alien supervillain Darkseid, and late in the film Lex Luthor makes a veiled reference to imply that some such alien badass is on the way. Yep, it’s Marvel-style foreshadowing, where every film is just a stepping stone to the next. Except BvS does it even more heavy-handedly than Marvel. As I said, the dream/vision is utterly unnecessary; Lex’s line is nonsensical (how does he know?); and the way other members of the Justice League are teased… You know, I don’t even want to discuss it. It’s a bad Marvel post-credit scene shoehorned into the middle of the movie. It feels like someone accidentally cut a teaser trailer into the actual print of the film. It’s not even so bad it’s good, it’s just tacky. And, I have to say, though I’m not the biggest fan of The CW’s Flash TV show (I think it’s been massively overpraised by some of superhero fandom), Cheery TV Barry Allen seems a much more likeable, comics-accurate version of the character than the movies’ Hipster Beard Barry Allen. Maybe it’s just the beard, I don’t know; but even if it is just the beard, it’s a hipster beard, and it’s wrong.

For a movie that critics stuck it to*, there’s an awful lot to say about BvS — genuine stuff, not just facile observations on hipster beards. This is not a film that needs an extra 30 minutes in an Ultimate Edition. It does need scenes re-arranging; it does need focusing in on its various plots — because there is actually a throughline here; a story that connects all the disparate strands together. Some people will miss it because those strands are so varied and so haphazardly put together, but there is a character who has an overarching plan and has engineered a lot of what’s going on — and as this is a spoilersome review, I can say that character is Lex. It surprised me a little that there was method to the madness; that someone had been orchestrating all these disparate elements. Surprise is good; surprise that makes you rethink the film even better — but you’re meant to rethink to look for clues you missed, not rethink to see if that even fits with everything we’ve seen. That’s because even if you do latch on to the almost-throwaway sliver of dialogue that indicates Lex put all of this together, the way it’s presented in this cut makes it come a little out of nowhere. However, I believe it’s a plausible explanation of events (within the realms of the version of the genre these films are in), and would tie the whole thing together neatly, were it just a little clearer.

So, saying “there’s an awful lot to say about BvS” and then not saying it is a cop-out, but we’re 1500 words deep into this review and I haven’t mentioned: the role of Lois Lane; the role of Wonder Woman; the role of Alfred; how good Ben Affleck is; how wasted Henry Cavill is; Jesse Eisenberg’s performance, for good or ill; what, if anything, the film is saying about government oversight and/or domestic terrorism; the car chase (purely as an action sequence, I liked it); the presence of Doomsday; the battle with Doomsday; the death of Superman and its almost-immediate sort-of-retraction, and whether that was a good idea or not, or if it even matters; why the “Dawn of Justice” subtitle is an accurate addition to the title, but also a pain in the ass to the “Batman v Superman” part; heck, I’ve said nothing of that titular duel itself. When it comes, the fight is inspired by — but not completely adapted from — Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which should surprise precisely no one as, a) Snyder is an avowed Miller fan, and b) if you’re doing a Batman vs. Superman smackdown, that’s the one to do.

(I also wanted to write something about the film’s lack of attentiveness to cityscapes, because that’s something that interests me and I’ve not seen anyone else discuss it; but I’ve only remembered this after the entire review is finished, illustrated, and scheduled for posting, so it’s quite late at night to get my brain in gear and add it. But if anyone’s actually interested, there’s always the comments section.)

As to those other points… look, I don’t want to get too off-topic, but there’s a rant to be had about discussions of films stopping at opening weekend. “It was cool” / “it wasn’t cool”; “it was fun” / “it wasn’t fun”; “it was an irredeemable piece of crap and I hope it kills off the franchise” / “I can’t wait for Wonder Woman” — followed by, “done now, when’s Civil War out?” Hey, hang around for a minute! There’s stuff here. I know critics just want to barrel on to what’s next because they didn’t like it, but maybe if they stopped to discuss it they’d find there’s more to unpack than they’d like to think? Because yeah, you can see the movie as one long mess before Batman and Superman finally fight, at which point it degenerates into a mess of CGI and aural bombast (seriously, there’s too much noise during the climax), and ends with characters stood around having conversations where the pre-first-draft filler dialogue said, “Give audience an idea what future film(s) will be about while saying absolutely nothing concrete about what future film(s) will be about.” But in that mess (the mess I mentioned at the start of that last really long sentence, remember? OK,) there is stuff going on; there are ideas the filmmakers want to put across, possibly with the intention that they’ll actually be thought about.

And I know it’s just a superhero movie, and I know they’re just ideas about superheroes, and I know if you get into discussions of its representation of women or the legal/political system or any other real-world-connected points then you’re getting into a minefield that the film may not have fully-considered ideas about… but for all his faults as a filmmaker — for all his focus on visual Cool — Zack Snyder has now made at least three films where, buried beneath all that surface noise (both visual and aural), there are things to think about, but because that surface is so polished that it suggests the film must only be skin-deep, the ideas get ignored. The other two films, for what it’s worth, are Watchmen (where, yes, he’s given a leg-up by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ uncommonly thoughtful graphic novel) and Sucker Punch — a movie even more dismissed than BvS has been, but which I maintain has a lot going on.

I’ve even lost myself at this point, so I’ll call it a day. Batman v Superman is a long way from being a perfect movie, and anyone who likes the lightweight fun of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to be ill-served here. (Oh man, there’s a whole other semi-off-topic discussion. Ten to fifteen years ago, the only things that could be Cool were dark-and-moody, self-serious, po-faced, grim-and-gritty films/games/whatever; nowadays, you do that and you get lambasted for not being colourful and humorous. Back then, I was miffed that everything had to be the former and when anyone did the latter it got shat on, and now I’m miffed that everything has to be the latter and when anyone does the former it gets shat on. I’m not contrary, I just think we can have, can enjoy, and can accept, both.)

As I was saying: not a perfect movie, but one with a lot of material to provoke thought about both the inherent concepts of superheroes and, external to that, the genre itself, especially the way it’s presented in cinema. I’m not going to slag off the Marvel movies, because they are fun, but the entirety of the big-screen MCU** put together hasn’t given us even a fraction of as much stuff to consider, dissect, analyse, and process as this one bold, messy, controversial movie. I kinda love it for that.

4 out of 5

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is still on release everywhere. The 30-minutes-longer Ultimate Edition is scheduled to be part of the DVD/Blu-ray release, probably in July.


* I won’t trot them all out here, but there are interesting (if you’re into that kind of thing) stats about its critical drubbing vs. its box office performance — essentially, it’s far and away the worst-reviewed super-high-grossing movie ever, as if some omniscient power felt the point really needed ramming home that critics no longer matter to franchises that have what-they-call “pre-awareness”. ^

** “Big-screen” because, in fairness, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are a whole different kettle of fish. ^

Batman Returns (1992)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #9

The Bat
The Cat
The Penguin

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 126 minutes
BBFC: 12 (cut, 1992) | 15 (cut, 1992) | 15 (uncut, 2009)
MPAA: PG-13 for “brooding, dark violence”

Original Release: 19th June 1992 (USA)
UK Release: 10th July 1992
First Seen: VHS, c,1993

Stars
Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Birdman)
Danny DeVito (Twins, The Rainmaker)
Michelle Pfeiffer (Ladyhawke, Hairspray)
Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone, Seven Psychopaths)

Director
Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Dark Shadows)

Screenwriters
Daniel Waters (Heathers, Demolition Man)

Story by
Daniel Waters (see above)
Sam Hamm (Batman, Monkeybone)

Based on
Batman, a comic book superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

The Story
Batman has a lot on his hands when abandoned Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin, emerges from the shadows seeking acceptance by running for mayor, backed by corrupt businessman Max Shreck. Meanwhile, a newly-created Catwoman has an axe to grind with Shreck, and won’t let Batman stand in her way…

Our Hero
Nana-nana-nana-nana nana-nana-nana-nana Batman! But, y’know, with a kind of ’30s Gothic edge.

Our Villains
A triumvirate of terror! Danny DeVito is the Penguin, deformed, abandoned as a child, and out for revenge against the city. Michelle Pfeiffer is Catwoman, PVC-clad, kinky, and also out for revenge. Christopher Walken is Max Shreck, a morally corrupt businessman with political needs, who clashes with Bruce Wayne as much as Batman.

Best Supporting Character
The one significant constant through the four ’80s/’90s Bat-movies, Michael Gough is a near-peerless Alfred.

Memorable Quote
Batman: “Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.”
Catwoman: “But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.”

Memorable Scene
Batman and the Penguin are having an argument. Suddenly, a figure comes backflipping towards them — Catwoman. They stare. “Meow.” The building behind her explodes. It’s not actually her first appearance, but it’s quite an introduction.

Technical Wizardry
The whole design of the film, and Gotham City in particular, is fantastic; a kind of ’30s-but-also-modern art deco style. It’s all quite Burtonesque too, though not too much so for my taste.

Truly Special Effect
The Penguin’s army of penguins, an effective mix of real birds, animatronics, and actors in suits.

Making of
The first draft of the screenplay was intended to be more of a direct sequel to Batman: subplots included gift shops selling fragments of the destroyed Bat-Wing, revelations about the past of the Joker, and Bruce Wayne proposing to Vicki Vale by the end of the film. However, Tim Burton was uncomfortable with making a direct sequel, so the script was rewritten. Ah, the days when people wanted sequels to be less connected…

Previously on…
Tim Burton’s first Batman film brought the dark ‘n’ gritty ’70s/’80s evolution of the character from the comic books to the big screen for the first time. It was a huge success, though I think it feels notably more dated today than Returns does.

Next time…
Two semi-direct sequels — though with Burton and Keaton both abandoning the series, they took a distinct downward turn in quality. The 2005 reboot has so far led to three more Bat-movies, and now another new series dawns starring Ben Affleck.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Visual Effects, Makeup)
2 BAFTA nominations (Special Effects, Make Up Artist)
1 Saturn Award (Make-Up)
4 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Danny DeVito), Director, Costumes)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actor (Danny DeVito))
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Most Desirable Female (Michelle Pfeiffer))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“Burton couldn’t play it safe if he wanted to, and he doesn’t want to. Entrusted with one of the most valuable franchises in movie history, he’s made a moody, grotesque, perversely funny $50 million art film. […] Something about the filmmaker’s eccentric, surreal, childlike images seems to strike a deep chord in the mass psyche: he makes nightmares that taste like candy.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

Score: 80%

What the Public Say
“unmissable in Batman Returns, Burton tends to employ the film noir style in his movies. […] a visual sensation from start to finish, nearly all to the credit of Tim Burton, and all of the other elements of the film noir style come together quite brilliantly to reintroduce Batman, as flawed antihero, back into popular culture.” — Kate Bellmore, Reel Club

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before the release of The Dark Knight Rises I went back over all the live-action Bat-films of the ‘modern era’. Of Returns, I wrote that “Tim Burton’s first Batman film is great, no doubt, but Returns is a much better film in so many ways. The direction, writing, acting, action and effects are all slicker. They spent over twice as much money on it and it really shows.”

Verdict

Controversial on release — and since — but for me, Batman Returns holds up best out of the four ’80s/’90s Batman movies. Tim Burton brings his own stamp to the Bat-universe, crafting a darkly Gothic fantasy world that’s both striking and effective, populated by grotesques (in different senses) like the Penguin, Catwoman, Shreck, and perhaps even Batman himself. There’s chemistry between the entire cast, memorable scenes and set pieces, and the sense of an entire artistic vision that the Bat-series wouldn’t have again for over a decade.

#10 will be… a tale as old as time.

Batman Begins (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #8

Evil fears the knight.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English, Urdu & Mandarin
Runtime: 140 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 10th June 2005 (Russia)
US Release: 15th June 2005
UK Release: 16th June 2005
First Seen: cinema, June 2005

Stars
Christian Bale (American Psycho, The Fighter)
Michael Caine (Alfie, Harry Brown)
Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Taken)
Katie Holmes (Go, Woman in Gold)
Gary Oldman (Léon, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Director
Christopher Nolan (Memento, Interstellar)

Screenwriters
David S. Goyer (Blade, Man of Steel)
Christopher Nolan (The Prestige, Inception)

Based on
Batman, a comic book superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. In part inspired by Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli.

The Story
After Bruce Wayne’s philanthropic millionaire parents are murdered when he’s a kid, he dedicates his life to fighting crime, travelling the world to learn combat skills, then deciding the best way to scare the Mafia-esque scum of his home city is to dress as a bat. As you do.

Our Hero
Nana-nana-nana-nana nana-nana-nana-nana Batman! But, y’know, serious. Important crimefighting jobs include getting hold of cool gadgets your company developed, messing around in restaurant fountains with models, and perfecting a ludicrously gruff voice to use when in costume.

Our Villains
Batman really has his work cut out for him this time: there’s crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), mad scientist Dr Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), commander of a league of assassins Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), his subordinate — and Bruce’s one-time mentor — Ducard (Liam Neeson). That’s not to mention the bloke doing something dodgy with his family company (Rutger Hauer).

Best Supporting Character
It’s a toss up between two British thesps: there’s Michael Caine as the most involved and caring version of the Waynes’ butler Alfred that we’ve yet seen, and the ever-excellent Gary Oldman as Gotham’s only honourable cop, Jim Gordon. Both are a world away from previous screen incarnations of their characters.

Memorable Quote
“Well, a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.” — Bruce Wayne

Memorable Scene
Trapped in Arkham Asylum, surrounded by police and with SWAT officers storming the building, Batman activates a device on his boot for “backup”. Moments later, hundreds of bats flood the building, allowing him to make a dramatic escape.

Technical Wizardry
Previously, the Batmobile was a sleek and desirable supercar-type vehicle. Taking inspiration from some of the comics, Begins reinvents the vehicle entirely, rendering it essentially a road-ready tank. A massive change in the very concept, but one that now seems only natural.

Letting the Side Down
Hardly a major point for the viewer, but the design of the Bat-costume meant the actor in it couldn’t turn his neck — a problem also in the previous post-’89 Bat-films. Christian Bale’s frustration with this led to it being redesigned for the sequels (and explicitly referenced on screen, too).

Making of
According to some trivia on IMDb, before shooting began Nolan treated the crew to a private screening of Blade Runner, after which he told them, “this is how we’re going to make Batman.” For more on how exactly Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi thriller influenced Begins, check out these interview excerpts.

Previously on…
Batman’s big-screen popularity was kicked off by Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, but that goodwill was gradually squandered, ending with 1997’s Batman & Robin, which many regard as one of the worst films ever made. It killed a once-profitable franchise, therefore paving the way for an eventual reboot.

Next time…
The Bat-world shaped by Nolan and co reached its apotheosis in the first sequel, The Dark Knight. The trilogy-forming second sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, did that rarest of things: it gave a superhero a definitive, final ending.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Cinematography)
3 BAFTA nominations (Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actress (Katie Holmes))
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Christian Bale), Writing)
4 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actress (Katie Holmes), Director, Music, Costume, Special Effects)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.

What the Critics Said
“If there is one Batman film anyone should see, this is it. It’s a superhero film with a dark tone that’s very well-written with nothing but incredible actors involved. In a world where most movies these days are usually either remakes or films that are made as quickly as possible to cash in on the latest trend in Hollywood, a reboot that is not only worthy of your time but tends to make you forget about every other version that came before it says quite a bit.” — Chris Sawin, examiner.com

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“One of the best things about Nolan’s Batman is that he grasps the idea of the three personas of Bruce Wayne. There’s Bruce when he’s playing the billionaire playboy, Bruce when he’s alone in the cave or with Alfred, and Bruce when he’s wearing the cowl. This movie truly delved into this in a way that no Batman movie had before it and was performed flawlessly by Christian Bale — whether you like the voice or hate it, Bale did a great job at playing three distinct personas.” — Blue Fish Comics

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before the release of The Dark Knight Rises I went back over all the live-action Bat-films of the ‘modern era’, i.e. since Tim Burton’s Batman. Of Begins, I wrote that “Nolan’s first foray into Bat-world really is a stunning piece of work… The monumental achievement of The Dark Knight has come to overshadow Begins, which is now rendered as a functionary prequel to the next film’s majesty. Don’t let that reputation fool you: on its own merits, this is very much a film at the forefront of the action-adventure, blockbuster and superhero genres.”

Verdict

If there was one thing the Burton and Schumacher Batman films were collectively notorious for, it was focusing on their villains more than their hero (not least because they cast bigger name actors in the villain roles). Personally, I don’t think that’s wholly true, but there’s no doubting that Christopher Nolan’s much-needed reboot of the franchise focuses on Bruce Wayne, his reasoning and his psychology, more than ever before. In the process, Nolan and co made us believe a man might reasonably choose to fight crime and corruption by dressing up as a bat. No small feat, that.

For #9 Burton’s Bat’s back.

Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)

2015 #109
David Bullock | 72 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | NR* / PG-13

The second release in Warner Premiere’s series of direct-to-video DC Universe Animated Original Movies (which now stretches to 24 titles and counting) is adapted from writer and artist Darwyn Cooke’s acclaimed comic book miniseries DC: The New Frontier, which sees Golden Age heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) meeting Silver Age heroes (the Flash, Green Lantern) for the first time in the 1950s.

With so many characters (those are just the tip of the iceberg), Justice League: The New Frontier has a many-pronged narrative to squeeze into its brisk hour-and-ten-minutes running time. The connecting tissue is an unknown entity that has decided to destroy all life on Earth, which eventually will lead all of the various characters to come together to combat it. Other than that, I’m not even going to attempt to summarise the story because there’s so darn much going on. Uncommonly, it spends a lot of time focused on the likes of Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz) and the Martian Manhunter (Miguel Ferrer) rather than the usual big names.

Frankly, there are too many characters, and the film doesn’t always seem to know what to do with all of them. The array of cameos in minor roles is fine, and sure to please thoroughly-versed comic book readers, but it’s the main characters who are sometimes sidelined. In some cases, literally: Wonder Woman disappears off to her island after two scenes; the Flash retires early on; Superman gets sunk in the ocean at the start of the climax. The plot feels underdeveloped too. There are snippets of Batman investigating the entity, for instance, but before he can really learn anything the thing just attacks, so his storyline was needless. Maybe Cooke’s original graphic novel had more time for all of this. If some things have had to be sacrificed to streamline the tale into a 70-minute movie, then it wouldn’t be uncommon for these DC animations. I’ve not read the book so I don’t know. However, there are definitely bits that could’ve been sacrificed or abridged further (the Flash’s two early action sequences, for instance) to make more room to tell the story in full.

On the bright side, a period-set superhero movie makes a nice change; and it just gets on with it, rather than feeling the need to explain itself with alternate worlds or time travel or any such BS. It has the confidence to start with many of the heroes already in play, rather than worry about giving each one a full-blown origin story or something. At one point I thought it might manage to pull off something akin to Watchmen, but in the ’50s and with recognisable DC heroes. Such a comparison might be a kindness too far. There are some good concepts here, but the execution pootles out as it goes along. At times it feels a bit like a pilot episode, as if they were somehow expecting to spin a TV series out of it — for all I know maybe they were — but the problem with pilot episodes is that they are, by definition, unresolved. The New Frontier has a climax that wraps up the immediate threat, but it also feels like it was laying character and supporting cast groundwork for something longer-running.

On technical merits, the art design is… variable. At times it appears to have been inspired by Cooke’s awesome style, which is both pleasing in itself and marks a nice spot of variety from these animations’ norm, but at other points the style reverts to simplistic “Saturday morning cartoon” familiarity. Disappointingly, the actual animation is always of that level. Warner have definitely put out worse examples in this range (Superman vs The Elite), but they’ve also done much better (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns).

I really wanted to like The New Frontier, for all sorts of reasons. It does start well, with moments of promise sparkling here and there, but the longer it spends juggling so many balls, the fewer it can keep flying smoothly. (Do balls “fly” when juggled? Anyway, you get my point.) Considered as a whole, the overall result is fairly disappointing.

3 out of 5

* The New Frontier has never had a disc release in the UK (or a theatrical one, naturally), so has never been classified by the BBFC (I thought you needed that for streaming or download nowadays, but turns out it’s optional). Amazon choose to list it as a PG, but the US’s PG-13, aka a 12, seems nearer the mark (depending how much you care about cartoon violence and blood, anyway). ^