Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Batman: Tales of the Demon review

*Major Spoilers*
  Oh boy, is this collection a primer on how overrated some creative teams and characters can get. This isn't a "best of" collection showcasing Ras Al Ghul, but his first appearances. Al Ghul was odd in that he was fairly subtly introduced through a name drop and then made cameos over various issues before taking center stage as a major villain. This gives the collection a disjointed feel at times (Batman says at one point that he’s tangled with Al Ghul many times even though all the previous times they’d met it was as uneasy friends), but it was unique for its day because it was an ongoing serial.

The first story, with Batman in Asia on the trail of a criminal named Dr. Darrk and his encounter with Al Ghul's daughter Fah-Lo-See Talia, has a great pulp atmosphere, so too does the first appearance of Al Ghul himself in the second, which is justly celebrated as a classic. Well-plotted, beautifully drawn, building up layer and layer of intrigue about Ras Al Ghul and his daughter, and best of all, giving Batman an actual chance to act as a detective, this one's a keeper. Only problem is, it's a bit too good, so good that its humorous ending seems abrupt and unsatisfying.
 Al Ghul and Talia continued to appear as wild card supporting characters that may or may not be evil. Ultimately, writer Denny O' Neil appeared to lose interest in developing the characters, and their characterization becomes spotty, with Batman unarguably considering the Al Ghul's allies at times, then treating them curtly at others and attacking members of their organization even though they fight for the same cause.
  As a result of this, when Batman finally becomes aware of their villainy, it comes across as extremely unconvincing since it’s treated as a big shock for Batman, even though it’s clear that he’s never been too comfortable with them in the first place. Batman seemingly has no trouble with the shady and sinister actions the two have taken, many for frivolous purposes, such as seeing whether Batman is a suitable boyfriend for Talia by kidnapping Robin and threatening to expose Batman's secret identity, and he surprisingly doesn't seem too dissatisfied with either of them killing people.

 So what finally alerts him to Ra's villainy? Ras harvests a murder victim’s brain so he can probe it for information. Okay, that is pretty disturbing, but it's only to obtain essential information for solving a case. Batman blows a gasket over this, and immediately decides that Ras is power-hungry and must be destroyed. Now, probing dead brains isn't exactly something you see good guys doing, but look at some of the things Batman himself has done to interrogate criminals! To be fair, the brain is depicted in agony, and Batman puts it out of its misery, but just because someone is inhumane doesn't automatically make them "a modern-day Hitler" (a term used repeatedly to describe Al Ghul). Possibly Batman concluded that Al Ghul had committed the murder to obtain the brain himself, but we never actually see him make that conclusion or learn if that's the case. Like I said, Batman’s seemingly been okay with these people committing cold-blooded murder and threatening his friends and identity, but keeping a guy’s disembodied brain alive is where he draws the line?

 Maybe he just had bad memories of this old adventure:

 Batman also misconstrues a line Ras delivers about making the world a better place to mean he intends to conquer it and forge it into a utopia, without any proof Ras means such a thing (Although to be fair, his assumptions were correct in this case). Yeah, we're expected to believe that Batman has never made a similar statement or heard it from one of his superhero buddies, but when the creepy foreign dude makes it, he's a megalomaniac that has to be put down at all costs (Batman actually fakes Bruce Wayne’s death). So basically Batman's entire reason for concluding Al Ghul is an evil monster who has supplanted the Joker and Adolf Hitler is based off of jumping to a conclusion. We later learn that Ras intends to make the earth beautiful once again by purging it of all humans save for a select few, so that it can resemble the barren deserts and snowy mountains he feels at home in. If that had been what Ras had said, it would have made more sense for Batman to conclude he’s a monster.
You're none of those things Ras, you're an errand boy...collecting slutty outfits for your daughter
So what does Batman do to take down these sinister, inhumane, untrustworthy former allies of his? He recruits….sinister, inhumane, untrustworthy people as allies......fuck it, makes sense to me!

 Batman's team is made up of a whiny, reluctant professor named Blaine who pretty much proves useless until the very end, a gangster named "Matches" Malone who shoots himself accidentally and whom Batman impersonates from thereon (Becoming a lasting aspect of the Batman mythos), a member of Ras Al Ghul's own cult named Lo Ling who Batman recruits with absolutely no reason to believe he's trustworthy and who spends the rest of the storyline attempting to either back out or kill him even after swearing loyalty to Batman for saving his life (The next issue begins with a five-page fight between Batman and Ling where Ling attempts to stab him), and a ski champion named Molly who wanders into all this and also just coincidentally happens to be hunting Al Ghul herself because her boyfriend became an alcoholic after an encounter with him (Seriously!!!). Perhaps I’m being too hard on her though, for a character that makes her debut late in the storyline, she actually comes off as pretty likeable. So does Matches Malone too, or at least, Batman’s impersonation of him. Good thing Bats didn’t try and pull a Weekend at Bernie’s stunt with the corpse, although that could have been amusing.
The very likeable and useful (Not) Dr. Blaine
 Still the question remains, why would Batman recruit these untrustworthy, squabbling fools? If Ras is such a potential threat, why not ask his Justice League buddies for help? Okay, that would seem too obvious or too anticlimactic. So why not recruit some obscure heroes like the Creeper? Or since O' Neil apparently wanted to make Batman's team interesting and edgy, why not recruit some of his more sympathetic villains? Nope.

  So anyway, Batman and his team arrive at Ras’s stronghold only to find out that….he’s dead. (Never is it explained how he supposedly died) only for him to be revived by his Lazarus Pit.

 By the way, on the subject of the Lazarus Pit, in its first appearance, it is depicted as a technological device inside a sterile, metal laboratory rather than a supernatural one in a cave, as has become the common depiction. It’s also shown in one of Ras’s earlier “good-guy” appearances that he has other methods of reviving himself, such as Frankenstein-like electrodes. He also specifically says that there’s a limit to how often he can use the pit, and that sooner or later, it won’t work on him. Now there’s a detail that modern writers have ignored.
  The storyline devolves from there into a pursuit story (Although for the record, it’s a pretty fun one), then into a slugfest, although Batman's sword-fight (and sucker punch) with Ras at the conclusion of the 'saga" is one of the best art jobs of Neal Adam's career, and probably the main reason this whole storyline became regarded as a classic. It aims for a sort of Bond-flavor, but comes off more like a Saturday Matinee serial.
Best two panels of Neal Adam's career, brought to you by me with the magic of MSpaint!

 The rest of the book's contents feature Ras’s other appearances, the best of which is a one-issue story illustrated by Michael Golden where Ras marries off Talia to Batman while he loots the city (and which may have inspired aspects of Batman Begins such as Ras unleashing gas on the populace). It works as a frivolous adventure, nothing more. It’s then followed by a three issue ‘epic’, which once again treats Ras and Talia as unstable allies of Batman, although they only make minor appearances and their involvement is treated as something of a surprise (Which makes the decision to include it in here sort of weird).

  All in all, while I appreciate the obvious pulpish influences that went into the concept of Ras, making him equal parts Fu Manchu, John Sunlight and the Hammer films version of Dracula, and while the character has been used to much greater effect by other writers, here in these original stories (up until that marriage story), we never get a sense or even confirmation of Ras being much of a grand-scale threat, and certainly not worthy of usurping the Joker as Batman's archfoe. Little use is made of the relationship between Batman and Talia to give these stories emotional conflict (Again, until the ‘marriage’ story, although there’s a nice ‘quite’ moment at the conclusion of the three-parter at the end), and Ras becomes the most menacing, oddly enough (Despite his reputation as a mastermind whose mind is his greatest weapon), when he’s duking it out with Batman after he goes temporarily insane following exposure to his Lazarus pit.
 At best this "saga" comes off as an occasionally entertaining story about Batman misjudging a man and turning out to be right by the dumbest of coincidences. At worst, it comes off as an attempt to create a great villain that tries waaaay too hard at times, and waaaay too little at others. And while it sounds like I'm being too harsh on Batman's characterization, really, if he was real it's his own damn fault for trusting a guy whose name translates as "The Demon's Head" then finally realizing the guy is bad news because he has a Donovan’s Brain tank. Still, get this collection for the artwork alone: Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Michael Golden and Don Newton. How could you go wrong?

 By the way, there’s also an introduction by Sam Hamm, writer of the 1989 Batman movie, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the best ever dissection of the divide between people who prefer the Adam West show and those who prefer a darker Batman; a debate that long-time readers of mine know is dear to my heart:
  Tales of The Demon is worth snatching up for some great art, a handful of stories which are enjoyable as one-offs, and some fairly amusing moments throughout. Still, I can’t say it really deserves more than a 2 ½ out of 5. It does read very quickly though.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

How it Got Burned: The Making of Iron Man 3

Sometime in 2012: Marvel/Disney Studios Backlot:
All right gang, we’re making Iron Man 3 now, but there’s one problem. We don’t have a villain!
 I say we use Madame Masque. I’ve wanted to see her for a long time, and I know just the person to play her: Eva Longoria.
 That actually doesn’t sound like bad casting based on what I just pulled up on an image search.
Hee Hee. Yes.
 I had no idea you were such a comics fan.
 Huh? Comics fan? I only knew about her from some article in Wizard back in 2005 which said Eva Longoria should play Madame Masque.
 Why do you care so much then?
 Because *I* want to see if she *ahem* measures up for the part…in my office….
 That’s all you ever think about isn’t it? Sexist pig.
 Huh Huh. Yeah…
 Anyway, Madame Masque is a sexist outdated character who is based on stereotypes of women being vain and concerned with their looks, and as the chief of Hollywood’s PC police, I feel such an offensive character should never be used, because I respect women. I wouldn’t want my daughter to see a movie featuring such a character. I want her to have the best childhood and--
 Daddy please---all I want is five bucks so I can buy a new blankie at the dollar store, it’s cold down there in the cellar and my blankie has holes in it because of the rats…please…

Anyway, as I was saying. We need a new villain.
 How about this Fin Fang Foom thing? He was referenced briefly in the last Iron Man movie, and all that dragon-fantasy crap is popular with kids these days. How about it?
NO!!! Fin Fang Foom wears purple trunks! Purple has become a gay pride symbol, and Fin Fang Foom is depicted as a monster! Don’t you see how problematic that is? Don’t you feel any sympathy for important minority groups?
 Well, we could just change the color of his trunks, or get rid of them. Why does a dragon even need trunks?
 Huh? I don’t care about the trunks, I just care about not offending minorities…like Dragon-Otherkin. They are a valuable part of our society, just think of how they would be offended if they were portrayed as monsters---and gay!

 Check your non-Dragon Otherkin privilege, you cis-specied asshole. claim to care about minorities but consider not offending otherkin more important than not offending gay people?
 Goddammit Mr. Common Sense! Why do you always have to intervene?
 Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Calm yourselves. Anyway, since Masque and Foom are outta the picture, it looks like there’s only one villain left to use….The Mandarin.
 Well, Mandarin has been being built up to be the series’ eventual main villain since the first film with the Ten Rings terrorist group, and he is Iron Man’s greatest enemy.
 The Mandarin is a very outdated character……..he was created in the 60’s, and everything created in the 60’s sucks!!!!
 Like Iron Man himself?
No way, that’s Black Sabbath’s best song.
 We’re talking about the character Iron Man, and that song was created in the 60’s too!
……Dude, you’re making me think….I hate that…that's why I hire lawyers to think for me...
 The reasons we cannot use Mandarin is because Mandarin would offend Asians, and none of us wants to do that, right folks?
 Nope. Especially the schoolgirls *Drooooool*
 Yeah, I don’t want to offend Asians either.
 See? The Mandarin is unusable because he might offend Asian audiences, both domestic and overseas. And we would not want that…..otherwise we might not make any money off of them!

 Comics are one thing. Movies are another, since they’re meant to appeal to everyone, kids too, and we don’t want to look like we’re indoctrinating youth with Yellow Peril stereotypes. Indoctrination always begins early.
 So why do you include Mandarin in the Iron Man: Armored Adventures cartoon and in children’s picture books? Remember, indoctrination begins early…
Uhhhhh….who wants to order some Subway?
 Oooh! I have an idea, we could just reveal that Mandarin isn’t even real! He’s just a decoy created by the real villain (who is white) as part of a false flag scheme! The 9/11 truthers would all love it, look at how much money they throw at the people who make those Tom Clancy-type movies!
 Hmmmm, revealing that a brilliant minority character is just an illusion masterminded by a white dude? Hmmm, I don’t see any unfortunate implications in that! I approve! Totally original and brilliant idea!
 Actually, the same twist happened more or less in Agents of Atlas where it was revealed that Yellow Claw was just testing Jimmy Woo all these years…

 And revealing Mandarin to be a fictional character also happened in the Ultimate Iron Man comics.
And heck, the same thing happened to an extent in Batman Begins with Ken Wantanabe being a decoy for Neeson.

 Who cares, send the proposal to Shane Black so he can take all the blame for it if it fails.

*Some months later*

Well, whaddya know? It actually paid off!
 Yeah, from now on, let’s have a villain twist like that in EVERY superhero movie!
 Nooo! Look, Mandarin is a problematic character, but the film was still successful because Iron Man isn’t as known for his villains as other heroes, and plenty were still pissed off by the twist, especially since an Oscar winner’s talents were wasted! If you start applying the same twist to universally beloved villains who don’t have any stigma, think of how many fans you’ll alienate and---
SECURITY! Get Mr. Common Sense out of here!!! Common Sense has no business in Hollywood!
Okay, so how do we ‘Mandarin Twist’ The Green Goblin in any upcoming Spider-Man movies?
How about this? It turns out that Norman Osborn is just a powerless company figurehead and that the 'goblin' itself is just a logo. The real villain is Mendel Stromm, who made Osborn out to be the villain so as to prey on America's fears of rich corporate businessmen. Stromm then rips his shirt off, revealing himself to be covered in bat tattoos and says to Spider-Man: "You want the Goblin? Well, I AM THE GOBLIN!".

He then begins vomiting up pumpkin pie that melts through Spidey's webs like acid.
 And Magneto and the Brotherhood?
 Magneto is just a drunken human actor whose reputation was ruined because he starred in a comedy about the Holocaust, and all the other members of the Brotherhood are just out-of-work actors in makeup from a Star Trek rip-off pilot that was to be broadcast on the SyFy channel but was never picked up. Senator Kelly paid them to act in videos in order to make mutants look like terrorists. The only one of them who is an actual criminal is Mystique, who is a Chameleon-style secret agent who disguises herself as different people, and wears very heavy blue eye shadow when not disguised.

Kelly has a lot of magnets on his desk though, and throws one at Wolverine, and it gets stuck to one of his claws, mildly inconveniencing him for one scene. One of Kelly's campaign managers is also shown playing a video game called "Asteroid M".
 Brilliant! Now do Thanos…
 Let’s see….OOH! I know! Thanos turns out to just be a boss character from the cut-scenes of a video game developed by Justin Hammer's company that was never released due to glitches, and Hammer then sent the footage to S.H.I.E.L.D so that Fury would send the Avengers on a wild goose chase in space.
 With the Avengers gone, Hammer decides he can now rule the world and forms the Masters of Evil....which features Glen Talbot (who is comatose, burned and paralyzed), one of the locals from Thor who hates Thor because he accidentally destroyed his hardware store while fighting the Destroyer, and a senile and incontinent Arnim Zola who is in his hundreds, who communicates via Skype (As a reference to him appearing as nothing but a TV on a robot body in the comics).

  Hammer did all of this just to impress some Goth chick who calls herself 'Death' who turned him down at the prom 20 years ago. She tells him to bug off and Hammer then goes and pouts, then goes on a wild bender with his Masters of Evil at Hooters before the Avengers get back from space and kick his ass in the last 5 minutes.

Oh, and Hammer wears a glove for some reason that goes unexplained, as a reference to the Infinity Gauntlet.
 And I will defend this stupid plot twist by explaining that it's all a deep, thoughtful commentary on how online gamers treat women, or some crap.

Ha Ha! We cannot lose!
*Several years later*