Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

2018 #105
Sam Liu | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

I was all up for this adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight when it was first announced — I’m a fan of the original book, as well as the sequel (which they’ve also used parts of); and, I thought, even if they chose to deviate from it then I like the basic concept of “Batman meets steampunk”. But then the last few DC animations I’ve seen have been subpar, and the trailer for this one looked rather bland, so I decided to opt for a rental instead of purchase. Well, I never got round to doing that, and then Amazon slashed the price of the Blu-ray, so I ended up buying it — it still cost more than a rental, but if I liked it I’d save money in the long run. Fortunately, that turned out to be the case.

If you’re not familiar with Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s original tale, it involves Batman battling Jack the Ripper in late 19th Century Gotham City. It’s regarded as the first Elseworlds story, which is DC’s branding for stories that take place in different times, places, or “what if” scenarios — “what if Superman had landed in Russia?”, for example. This animation is a rather loose adaptation, which takes the basic concept from Augustyn and Mignola’s work but otherwise almost completely rebuilds it, mixing in a lot of ‘Easter egg’ stuff (like appearances from many more well-known Bat-characters) and some elements of the sequel comic, Master of the Future.

Fisticuffs!

So anyone expecting a straight-up adaptation may be disappointed, but taken as a film in its own right, for the most part it works. Having all the different familiar characters pop up makes it feel like a proper Batman tale, rather than a Ripper story that happens to have a costumed vigilante in it. Most prominent is Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, although she isn’t really the latter here — Batman gets fully suited up, but the most Miss Kyle gets is a whip. The relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selina is one of the film’s best aspects, in fact, with the Elseworld setting seeming to allow a different focus than the usual antagonism that pairing has in screen adaptations — as one of the filmmakers says in the audio commentary, “it’s not a movie about Batman and Catwoman, it’s about Bruce and Selina.” Jim Krieg’s screenplay is good across the board, with several nice passages and scenes, even if at times it rests too heavily on exposition and speachifying.

The one change that didn’t work for me is that it glosses over the bit about Bruce have recently returned from Europe, his return to Gotham coinciding with the Ripper’s arrival, thus making Bruce Wayne a suspect. Perhaps this isn’t a major point, but it’s a grace note that helps sell the whole concept for me. This wasn’t an oversight, however: they consciously decided to make Jack the Ripper a Gotham serial killer in this universe, so his London crimes never happened. But surely the point of using Jack the Ripper is the crimes he’s famous for? I think everyone knows he was a London serial killer, but the film does nothing to dispel this prior knowledge, nothing to establish that this version emerged for the first time in Gotham.

The idea behind the change was to widen the suspect pool for the “whodunnit” element — if the Ripper had just come from London, his identity has to be someone who’s just arrived in Gotham. I can see where they’re coming from, but there are other ways round the problem — for example, the Gotham Ripper could’ve turned out to be a copycat, which would’ve added to the twist. As it stands, the identity of the Ripper (which has been changed from the book) is a huge twist, and, fair play to them, they pull it off. I’ll say no more because of spoilers, but I’m surprised it didn’t seem to cause outcry online. Maybe after the furore around The Killing Joke people just stopped paying attention.

Miss Selina Kyle

As with most of these DC animations, the quality of the visual is more TV than feature film, but they make the most of what they’ve got. There’s a squareness to the character designs, using few and simple lines, that is almost appealing. Perhaps it was inspired by Mignola’s artwork, though it does still feel sanitised compared to his exaggerated style. Also, a lot of effort is put into establishing this version of Gotham, with plenty of wide shots and scenes set in many different locations. Those were both deliberate choices to help make the city a major part of the film, and to give it life and texture as a Victorian metropolis. It’s an admirable effort considering the new era was a bit of a production headache: on their other movies, things like generic background characters and props can be recycled from film to film, but here every single element had to be designed and created from scratch.

Voice casting is mostly spot on. Again, effort was put into evoking the period without wanting to go overboard — they didn’t want the voices to sound modern, but they didn’t want everyone doing English accents or something either. Bruce Greenwood makes for a dependable Batman and Anthony Head is perfectly dry as Alfred, but the foremost performance is perhaps Jennifer Carpenter as Selina. She’s most famous for Dexter, where she’s such a tomboy, but here she conveys a kind of Victorian elegance, with a hefty dash of feminism, very well. Inspired casting. Just as good is Scott Patterson as Commissioner Gordon. Best known for his modern, working-class character in Gilmore Girls, I didn’t even realise it was him until the credits rolled. Well, partly this is a problem with billing — only Greenwood and Carpenter get it. They’re the leads, so of course they’d get top billing, but Head and Patterson have sizeable roles and are surely just as famous? I guess it doesn’t matter, but it was a bit of a surprise to hear a recognisable voice crop up when they hadn’t been announced (as it were) by the opening credits.

The Ripper approaches...

In other merits, there are some surprisingly decent action sequences — a mid-way one atop an airship is the highlight — plus a nice music score by Frederik Wiedmann, which was partly influenced by Hans Zimmer’s work on the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, but I swear I heard some overtones of Danny Elfman’s Batman in there also. In all the film is only an hour-and-a-quarter long, but it doesn’t feel like too much of a quickie — there’s enough incident here to fuel a ‘proper’ movie. I mean that in a positive way.

As I said at the start, I expected very little of Gotham by Gaslight, for various reasons. I came away pleasantly surprised. In the commentary they talk about how much they enjoyed making it — how everyone involved, from the executives down to the storyboarders, all thought it was a particularly special project — and how they’d like to make a sequel, and they’ve got an idea for one involving the Joker. I’ve no idea how this has performed commercially, but I hope they get the chance.

4 out of 5

Another Elseworlds-y Batman animation, Batman Ninja, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week, and will be reviewed in due course.

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The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)

2017 #84
Chris McKay | 104 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA & Denmark / English | U / PG

The LEGO Batman Movie

Following the somewhat surprising success of The Lego Movie, we’re to be treated to a whole slew of movies related to those little Danish bricks. The first to hit the screen was this, I guess because the eponymous hero was a standout character in the aforementioned franchise initiator, and because Batman movies are always popular (well, almost always).

The plot sees Batman (Will Arnett) have to tackle the latest nefarious scheme of the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), while also dealing with his personal issues about being a loner after he accidentally adopts teen Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). You might think the story is almost by the by, because the real point is the gags… and, fortunately, the movie is indeed consistently funny, with a Flash-like pace to keep things moving. It’s also a great one for Bat-fans, jam-packed with references to previous iterations of the hero — anyone wanting to catch them all in detail will require copious use of the pause button.

But don’t disregard the narrative out of hand, because it also summons up surprisingly effective character arcs. Who expected that, right? Well, I say “arcs”, but it’s more “arc”: this is all about Batman. He seems to enjoy his awesome crimefighting life and doesn’t mind being lonely at home — but he is lonely, so why? Can he actually connect to other people? He’ll discover there are benefits to having a family… And so on. The LEGO Batman Movie may primarily be a comedy for kids based on a toy licence, but the emotional side works with surprising effectiveness. It’s not even just that it’s well built within the itself: it illuminates Batman as a character. And I don’t mean LEGO Batman, but Batman of any incarnation.

A car built for one

The film also manages to deliver exciting action sequences, especially the big opener, that aren’t undermined by the freewheeling rebuild potential of the titular toy. These scenes look even better in 3D, the quality of which is great — the scale of the action, the depth to the locations, even elements of the characters, like the clear distance between Batman’s mask and his mouth. Does the extra visual dimension make it a better movie? Probably not… but I did watch some of the opening sequence in 2D afterwards and it felt less epic. That could just be me becoming more of a 3D convert, mind.

Another aspect the movie applies well is the LEGO licence, making neat use of its scope to rope in villains from all sorts of other franchises. That said, Batman has a notably extensive rogues gallery of his own, so one wonders if they shouldn’t’ve chosen to foreground some of his own foes rather than… well, saying who else pops up might be spoilersome. And if we’re talking about flaws that I won’t go into detail about, I wasn’t too sold on the third act, with the finale in particular not really working for me. In fact, that’s about the only thing holding me back from giving it a full five stars. Maybe I’ll mind less on a rewatch.

And there will be rewatches, because the rest is brilliant. It’s as fun as The Lego Movie, but mixed with being a surprisingly good version of Batman too. In a year overloaded with superhero movies, I’d wager this is one of the best.

4 out of 5

The LEGO Batman Movie is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Justice League (2017)

2017 #157
Zack Snyder | 120 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English, Russian & Icelandic | 12A / PG-13

Justice League

This review contains spoilers, but only for stuff everybody knows.

DC’s answer to Avengers Assemble begins with a doom-laden cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows (a Zack Snyder music choice if ever there was one), and there’s a lot that “everybody knows” about the troubled production of this long-awaited superhero team-up. Everybody knows that the so-called DCEU was deemed to be in need of a course-correction after Batman v Superman. Everybody knows that this was to take the form of making this film tonally lighter, something Snyder and co said was always the plan. Everybody knows Snyder eventually had to leave the project for personal reasons. Everybody knows Joss Whedon was brought in as his replacement. Everybody knows that meant reshoots and an attempt to lighten the tone further. Everybody knows that was a recipe for a conflicted movie…

For those who are thinking “I didn’t know any of that” and aren’t so familiar with superhero things on the whole anyhow, Justice League is set in the aftermath of Superman’s self-sacrifice at the end of Batman v Superman, which has given Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) a change of heart: he wants to make the world a better place. When he discovers than an alien invasion is imminent, he teams up with Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to put together a team of metahumans (read: people with superpowers) to fight it. That team includes Barry Allen aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher) — and, following an opportunity to revive his cold dead corpse, Clark Kent aka Superman (Henry Cavill).

The new trinity?

Justice League has certainly provoked a mixed reaction from critics and opening weekend audiences. It was always going to: Batman v Superman has been very divisive, with critics largely hating it but a dedicated fanbase to be found without too much digging. Justice League compounds that issue by trying to appease critics, risking alienating fans in the process. The end result inevitably falls somewhere between the two stools, which means there’s no predicting what any one person will make of it — following social media the past couple of days, I’ve seen every possible combination of people who loved, liked, hated, or were indifferent to previous DCEU films and now love, like, hate, or are indifferent to Justice League.

So, my personal reaction is that I enjoyed it. On the whole it’s not as thought-provoking as BvS, but is instead a fun time with some good character bits thrown in. From early reviews I feared the whole story would be choppily edited, and the opening act is indeed a bit disjointed and jumpy, but the closer it gets to the team being assembled the more it settles down. Once they’re together, it’s a fairly straightforward action-adventure movie, with the heroes in pursuit of the villain to stop his world-ending plan. Unlike BvS it’s not full of portentous (or, depending on your predilections, pretentious) themes to ponder, but it’s still a reasonably entertaining action movie.

Bruce and Diana

As for those character bits, it completes arcs for Bruce and Diana that have played out over their past couple of movies, both of them opening up to the world and their place in it. Moments that emphasise Bruce being old and tired and Diana stepping into the role of leader seem to have been added during reshoots, no doubt indicating the future direction the DCEU is now reported to go in — Affleck stepping away in the not-too-distant future; the popular Wonder Woman becoming central to the universe. (As a Batman fan, I hope this doesn’t kill off the raft of Bat-family films they’ve been planning. We’ll see.)

For the new team members, it does a solid job of introducing the Flash and making him likeable — he’s under-confident but good-hearted and funny. Fans of the currently-running TV show may find he’s “not their Flash”, and his costume is one of the worst ever designed, but I’ve never been that big a fan of the series and I can live with the costume. Cyborg gets a mini-arc that works well enough, considering he’s mainly there to be a walking talking plot resolution. Aquaman’s also OK, but a good chunk of his part feels like a tease for his solo film — which, by total coincidence, is the next DCEU movie. This all might’ve been more effective if DC had gone the Marvel route of introducing everyone in solo films first, but the film makes a fair fist of the hand it was dealt.

Flash! Ah-ah!

And as for Superman… well, that’s a whole kettle of fish. Firstly, it’s the worst-kept open secret in the history of movies. The final shot of BvS was a clear hint he’d return, so there’s that for starters. Then early promotional materials included him; behind-the-scenes photos referenced him; when reshoots rolled around, the fact they’d have to deal with Henry Cavill’s Mission: Impossible 6 moustache was big news. Despite all that, they left him off all the posters and out of every trailer. Would it have made a difference if they’d publicly acknowledged he was back? Who knows. Let’s judge what we were given.

In short, he’s not in it enough. The story of his resurrection is a decent idea, but the film has to rush and condense the arc of his return, presumably because Warner were pushing for a lighter tone and brisk running time. How his return affects him does complete the overall story that started in Man of Steel and continued through BvS — the story of how an ordinary young man with extraordinary abilities develops into the paragon of virtue that Superman is to many people. Honestly, I believe this was (more or less) Snyder and co’s plan all along, and those haters of Man of Steel and BvS who now say that “Justice League finally got Superman right” have perhaps misunderstood how something like character development works. (Should that entire character arc have been contained in the first movie? I think that’s a different argument — in our current franchise- and shared-universe-driven blockbuster era, character arcs are routinely designed to play out across a trilogy.)

There are no official photos of Superman from this movie, so here's a photo of Lois Lane looking at a photo of Superman
There are no official photos of Superman from this movie,
so here’s a photo of Lois Lane looking at a photo of Superman.

Much attention has also been focussed on the ridiculousness of the moustache removal — both how funny it always was, and how poor the end result is. Honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as you may’ve heard. I’d wager most people won’t even notice, especially if they’re not looking for it. It’s the kind of thing film buffs see because they’re looking and, yeah, sometimes it’s not great. Personally, I didn’t even think it was the worst computer-generated effect in the movie. Main villain Steppenwolf looks like a character from a mid-range video game, and has about as much personality as one too. There’s terribly obvious green screen all over the place, which is undoubtedly the result of reshoots — sometimes it crops up mid-scene for no obvious reason, other than because they’ve dropped in a new line. Other effects — stuff they’ve probably been working on since principal photography — looks fine.

Naturally the effects drive all of the action, for good or ill. Some have said these sequences are entirely forgettable, which I think is unfair. There’s nothing truly exceptional, but how many movies do manage that nowadays? I’d say what Snyder offers up is at least as memorable as your typical MCU movie, which is presumably what critics are negatively comparing this to. The everyone-on-Superman punch-up is probably the high-point, with an effective callback to “do you bleed?” and a striking moment when Superman looks at the Flash (that sounds completely underwhelming out of context…) I also thought the desperate escape with the Mother Box on Secret Lady Island was a strong sequence. The big tunnel fight has its moments, but needed more room to breathe and a clearer sense of geography. The climax is a great big CGI tumult, which clearly aims for epic but is mostly just noise — again, with one or two flourishes.

AQUAman

Another late-in-the-day replacement was Danny Elfman on music duties. It’s proven controversial — turns out there are a lot of fans of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s work on the previous Snyder DCEU films. Personally, I think Elfman’s score largely works — its numerous callbacks to classic themes are better than Zimmer’s musicless thrumming. There’s a massive thrill in hearing Elfman’s iconic Batman theme again, and John Williams’ even-more-iconic Superman theme. In his work on Man of Steel and BvS, Zimmer never produced anything even close to that memorable. Elfman’s style works other places too: an early scene where a bunch of criminals take a museum hostage immediately brought to mind the feel of Tim Burton’s Batman for me, mainly thanks to Elfman’s score. That’s no bad thing in my book.

The biggest point of discussion swirling around the film this weekend, in many circles at least, has been “which bits were Snyder and which were Whedon?” According to one of the producers, the final movie is 80-85% what Snyder shot during principal photographer, making 15-20% what Whedon added during reshoots. Not a huge amount, but also not inconsiderable. Personally, while I felt some Whedon additions were glaringly obvious, it also felt to me like a shot or line here and there rather than whole chunks of the movie. I think they’ve done a better job of integrating it than some have given them credit for. I put this down to some people thinking any humourous line must be a Whedon addition, but we know that isn’t the case — they were showing off lighter stuff during press set visits and in the initial footage previewed at conventions, both of which were long before Whedon became involved in re-writes, never mind reshoots. The lighter tone was intended from the off, Whedon just added even more of it.

Born 'borg

For those interested, someone who worked on the film has posted a very long list of changes, attributing various bits to Snyder and others to Whedon. There’s also this tweet, which says Snyder’s original cut went down badly with WB execs (hence why Whedon was sought out) and that the vast majority of Superman’s role was reshot to change it entirely — supposedly all that remains of Snyder’s Superman are his action beats (though Whedon added some more), the final scene with Bruce (“I bought the bank”), and maybe one or two other individual shots. This, then, would be Whedon’s biggest contribution to the film. Some love him for it, others not so much. There seems little doubt this is a lighter, more fun Superman. I liked him, though it can’t hurt that I have a bit of a soft spot for Henry Cavill.

Generally speaking I’m a fan of Whedon — I grew up with Buffy; I’m certainly a Browncoat — but I think his additions (assuming those accounts are accurate) are a mixed blessing. Most vital is all the character stuff he’s slotted in, some of which really adds to the movie — Batman’s pep talk to the Flash about “save just one person” was a highlight, I think. The jokey dialogue sometimes lands, sometimes feels forced — the obvious insert of Batman complaining “something’s definitely bleeding” feels incongruous. I’ve seen some complain that he added too many pervy shots of Diana’s ass in that short skirt or those tight trousers, but then whenever I noticed such shots they were in footage that’s been attributed to Snyder, so who knows.

Well if you wear a skirt that short what do you expect to happen?

Everything to do with the Russian family was certainly Whedon, which I’d rather suspected. I mean, there are civilians there to add stakes to the final battle, so that it’s not just the villain being villainous in the middle of nowhere, but why is it that just one family lives there? Because they were added during reshoots and there was probably neither time nor money for crowds of people, that’s why. Their subplot could’ve been integrated better (it felt like they kept just popping up for no reason), but I liked the eventual pay-off with the Flash and Superman saving them — the Flash saving one carload while Supes flies past with an entire building is the kind of humour I think works in this film.

Justice League is a different movie for Whedon’s involvement, that seems unquestionable. Is it better or worse? That’s partly a matter of personal taste. As my taste stretches to include both directors’ works, I can see positives and negatives every which way. My ideal cut of the movie would likely keep some of Whedon’s additions but lose others, as well as reinsert some Snyder stuff they cut. There’s no pleasing everyone, eh? (If you want to see some of what was definitely cut, there are various shots in the trailers, and someone’s leaked eight short clips from Snyder’s version — mostly of unfinished CGI, but one reveals what Iris West’s role was. (If those clips are even still there by the time you read this, of course…))

The Batman

Finally, the post credits scenes. It’s obvious that the first is a Whedon addition (confirmed by the above breakdown) — it’s just a little coda that doesn’t add anything other than some fun. The second scene, however, is an odd one, because it feels like it’s teasing a movie that’s been uncertain for a long time. If it’s setting up The Batman (because Deathstroke was meant to be that film’s villain), well, we know director Matt Reeves is massively reshaping whatever Affleck had planned, quite possibly ditching Deathstroke altogether. If it’s setting up Justice League 2 (because Lex Luthor’s back with a team-building plan of his own), well, who knows if that’s even happening anymore? It was originally planned this movie would be Justice League Part 1 and be closely followed by Justice League Part 2 — presumably that’s why Steppenwolf is the villain, because he was meant to lead into Darkseid (it’s long been reported that a cliffhanger ending to set up just that was cut by Whedon) — but I believe Part 2 has gone MIA from the schedule, and with Affleck now making definitive noises about wanting out of the franchise… Well, who knows what’ll happen.

Back in the present day, Justice League is set to underperform at the box office this weekend: predictions have been revised ever downwards over the past few days, to the point where it’s now at under $100 million — which is kinda funny because it feels like everyone’s talking about it. I guess that’s the difference between “film Twitter” and movie blogs compared to regular folks. Movie Nerds v Regular People: Box Office of Justice, or something. Funny thing is, for all the hatred these DC movies have attracted, they don’t half get people talking. As I saw someone point out on Twitter the other day, you may not’ve liked Batman v Superman, but it’s more than 18 months later and you’re still talking about it. I can’t even remember which Marvel movie was out 18 months ago without looking it up. This is no doubt a simplification — not everyone’s still arguing about BvS, and one of the reasons Marvel movies don’t stick so long is that they produce so darn many of them — but I do think Marvel films give you fun for a couple of hours, and you can call them to mind again if prompted, while DC films stick around, turning over in your mind, love it or hate it. At least for some of us, anyway.

All in

With Justice League, there’s the added complications of its multiple directors and fraught production. Should we judge a film for what it could have been or for what it is? The latter, surely. The former is definitely an intriguing proposition, but not what’s in front of us (and, as the likes of Blade Runner, Alien³, and Superman II have shown, maybe one day we’ll get a chance to judge that movie anyway). Nonetheless, how much should we take into account the behind-the-scenes issues? Should we just pretend they don’t exist? I guess for a lot of regular moviegoers this isn’t even an issue, but for many of us film-fan types it’s hard to put aside the knowledge that this movie was the product of two directors with very different styles and very different production timeframes.

I don’t have any easy answers, I’m afraid. All I know is that Justice League is far from perfect, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

4 out of 5

Justice League is in cinemas everywhere now.

Batman vs. Two-Face (2017)

2017 #153
Rick Morales | 72 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Batman vs. Two-Face

Last year the spirit of 1966 was revived when Adam West and Burt Ward returned to the roles of Batman and Robin (or their voices did, anyway) in Return of the Caped Crusaders, a fun comedy-adventure animation that paid tribute to the enduringly popular ’60s incarnation of the (not-so-)Dark Knight. Given the film’s success, it was no surprise a sequel was instantly in development. West completed work on it before his death earlier this year, meaning it now acts as a tribute. It’s unfortunate, then, that it’s not very good.

As the title makes clear, it sees West’s Batman come up against Two-Face — perhaps the most major member of Batman’s extensive Rogues Gallery to never appear in the TV show. Famed sci-fi author Harlan Ellison did actually write a treatment for a Two-Face episode, but the series was cancelled before it could be produced. It was adapted into a comic in 2015, and there was speculation it would form the basis for this animation too, but that isn’t the case. Maybe it should’ve been.

Things are weird from the off. The film begins by depicting a version of Two-Face’s origin — one that involves Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn, a character who wasn’t created until 25 years after the series this is based on. Anyway, it still sees DA Harvey Dent getting half his body fried and subsequently turning into a supervillain whose every decision is ruled by the flip of a coin. With this established in the pre-titles, there’s then a title sequence that shows plenty of Batman vs. Two-Face adventures. Is this a preview of what’s to come? No, because post-titles the story resumes with Harvey being cured. What a weird idea for a ‘first’ Two-Face story.

Why you two-faced...

Then Batman has to take on a variety of other foes, and you begin to wonder why the hell this is called Batman vs. Two-Face if he’s fighting everyone but Two-Face. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does come back around to the eponymous enemy, though Batman refuses to believe his involvement — Harvey has been cured, so is someone impersonating Two-Face? The Boy Wonder isn’t convinced, but Batman is determined to believe his old chum. Oh yes, that’s right — this guy who’s just turned up in the series is apparently Bruce Wayne’s oldest bestest buddy. No wonder Dick’s nose is out of joint.

At the core of this, once what’s going on is eventually unravelled, is a not-half-bad Two-Face story. Unfortunately, that’s not really a strong marriage for this version of Batman — we don’t want a serious Bat-adventure, we want something light, daft, and above all fun. Batman vs. Two-Face isn’t exactly a sombre affair, but it isn’t funny enough either, lacking the gadabout charm of Return of the Caped Crusaders. The tone is just wrong. The makers admit they were trying to mix “camp with noir”, but — as I think any of us could’ve told them — that’s an unnatural combination that just doesn’t work. None of this is helped by the fact the animation looks cheap, even by the standards of DC’s other direct-to-video movies.

Best buds, supposedly

Clint Eastwood was being lined up to take on the role of Two-Face back in the ’60s, but he’s a bit above this kind of fare nowadays. Instead, the villain is voiced by another megastar of ’60s genre TV: William Shatner. Known for his mannered, scenery-chewing acting and ability to send himself up, Shatner seems the perfect foil for West’s Batman. Sadly, the material doesn’t allow Shatner to ham it up like you expect him to. Two-Face’s side of the story is played pretty straight, allowing none of the excess you’d expect from Shatner in comedy mode. Instead, the erstwhile starship captain delivers a genuinely decent acting performance. His voice work creates a clear delineation between the characters of Harvey Dent and Two-Face, and he delivers a fine interpretation of a man held hostage by his own alter ego. But, again, such a straight portrayal is not what’s desired from a Batman ’66 movie.

I was surprised to discover that Batman vs. Two-Face comes from the exact same writers and director as Return of the Caped Crusaders. The previous film nailed what it needed to be so perfectly, yet this seems to miss the mark almost entirely. My score errs on the side of harshness — there is fun to be had here — but it reflects my feeling immediately after the credits rolled that, overall, this was a massive disappointment.

2 out of 5

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?

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.