Marvel Vs. DC: In Comics and in Movies

Jan-29-09

I know that things have been quiet around here. The beginning of this week was extremely busy for both Jason and I. Jason is still piled under work, while I have managed to clean my desk off, at least to some extent. Jason won’t be back until next week, and rather than allow the blog to continue to sit without any new content, I thought that I’d throw out something I’ve been thinking about lately. Sadly, you’ll just get an essay from me, rather than our usual back and forth, although perhaps, when Jason returns, he’ll want to throw some of his ideas on this topic onto my essay. In any case, I hope to post something tomorrow as well, and failing that, we should be back on track next week.

It’s Oscar time of year, and if you are someone who follows the Oscars at all, then you’ve no doubt been inundated with the talk about the possibilities of The Dark Knight being nominated for a best picture (which didn’t happen) and Heath Ledger being nominated for his performance as the Joker (which did happen). Many critics have posted The Dark Knight on their lists of the best movies of the year, and it was the top money-maker of the year in movies. Most comics fans have nothing but praise for the movie, and indeed, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and am thrilled that it seems to have given comic book movies the respect and mainstream recognition that they deserved.

The movie with the second largest box office take this year was Iron Man, which didn’t receive anything more than a smattering of technical Oscar nominations. While it did receive glowing reviews when it was released in May, it has not made many Best Of lists from the ranks of the critical elite. While it was undeniably popular, it wasn’t seen as a breakthrough movie, nor was it heralded by many as ushering in a new era of serious comic films. It invariably gets ranked behind The Dark Knight in most discussions of favorite movies of the year. Most discussions, except for mine, that is, as I will unequivocally say that I found Iron Man to be much more enjoyable than The Dark Knight. This actually makes perfect sense, since to me, 2008 became the year when DC and Marvel movies truly reflected the comics companies themselves.

Let’s start with the movies first. I saw both movies on opening weekend, although I was vacationing in Vermont when Iron Man opened, and didn’t get to see it with my normal, geek-culture savvy friends. Instead, I saw Iron Man with someone who doesn’t read comics, knows next to nothing about pop culture, and has no interest in superheroes. And he loved it. From beginning to end, he was absorbed, he was transported, and most of all, he was entertained. We both were, as was the entire theater, judging from the reactions of the crowd. As a movie, Iron Man is simply fun. The script is smart, the acting is engaging, and the pace is brisk. There are no egregious plot holes, and I don’t believe actions seemed forced. Characters behave logically, and the movie stays faithful to the spirit of the comic while making the necessary changes to appeal to a mass audience. Robert Downey Jr. gives a wonderful performance, one full of life and energy as the titular hero, and he’s quite ably supported by his fellow thespians (Jeff Bridges deserves special mention for simply disappearing into the role of Stane; I wouldn’t have realized it was him had I not recognized the voice after a short while).

I also enjoyed The Dark Knight when I saw it. It’s a great movie. I think the actors are all exceptional, although I am not sure that Ledger deserves an Oscar nomination. I believe his performance would have generated some heat in any circumstances, but his tragic death (and make no mistake; I do view his death as a tragedy. Ledger was phenomenally gifted, and while I may not be on the “Joker-Love Bus” that surrounds his performance in this movie, I’ve enjoyed him in every movie of his I’ve seen) has lifted a good performance far above its merits in the eyes of many people. To be honest, by the end of the movie, Ledger’s unique verbal style was beginning to seriously irritate me, and had he been without reach, I’d have been mightily tempted to smack him. Had I chosen the actor to be most rewarded for his work in the film, I may have singled out Gary Oldman, a supremely skilled actor who so often gets thrust into the role of villain (a role he performs remarkably well to be sure) that it becomes incredibly refreshing to see him here in the guise of a hero. If only we could see that more often.

I believe there are a few reasons that I didn’t enjoy The Dark Knight as much as many people. The first is its length; I’m a firm believer that most movies could stand editing, and The Dark Knight stretches out for 152 minutes, which I thought was a little long. Iron Man, for its part, is almost 30 minutes shorter, making for a more tightly paced experience. I also was very disappointed that Aaron Eckhart, who did a fantastic job as Harvey Dent, had his character’s entire arc told in this film. Harvey Dent is too interesting and complex to be completely explored in the space of one film, especially when he is not the main focus of the picture. They could have cut thirty minutes from the film, and had an excellent villain for the next picture, but not dealing with the Two-Face character in The Dark Knight. They could have allowed Eckhart to develop Dent fully in this film, turning him into a character that the audience truly cared for and was invested in, and then his fall in the next movie would have been that much more heartbreaking.

Again, I enjoyed The Dark Knight. But I realized that these movies reflected the way I read comics. I’ve always been more of a Marvel fan than a DC fan. There was a short time in my life when I read move DC than Marvel, but for almost my entire comics reading life, I’ve always enjoyed Marvel more. I believe that these movies are very reflective of the companies from which their characters sprang. Dark Knight is serious, dark and packed full of detail. It’s smart, and it knows it, and it prides itself on that. In the end, it takes itself a little too seriously. That is how I saw DC comics of the 60’s through the 80’s, and to an extent, I still think it’s true today. The comics, like the movie, are gorgeous, and they’re good, but there’s almost a clinical detachment to them.

Marvel, and Iron Man, on the other hand, are bright, colorful feasts for the eyes and imagination. Things happen fast and furiously and there is a light touch to the material; the movie (and comics) know that the events they’re depicting are larger than life, and they play it as real as possible, but they wink at their audience to let the audience know that the creators are indeed, in on the joke. There’s a life and energy in Marvel’s comics, again particularly zeroing in on those from the 60s to the 80s, but still continuing to today, that DC simply can’t match. I believe that the Iron Man movie captures that energy perfectly.

In the end, it’s not about trashing one movie to elevate another. Dark Knight is a wonderful piece of cinema, and everyone attached to it should be proud of their achievement. My point is simply that, in 2008, Marvel and DC finally managed to shine their unique brand onto the silver screen, and in that instant, my old comics buying habits came roaring back to me. I’m glad to have both types of movies available, just as glad as I was to have both types of comics to buy. I just know, in the end, where my true fondness lies.

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Batman’s Bad Men (And Women)!

Jun-23-08

We’ve threatened to do it before and this time we’re following through on it. It’s DC time at “Meanwhile…Comics!” After realizing that the Young Justice post we did a while back has remained our most popular item (which is interesting in itself, since it’s the only post that didn’t offer any true solutions to the questions it raised, but I digress) and seeing that the new Batman film will hit the streets in less than four weeks, we’re dedicating all of our posts until then to the Dark Knight himself.

Today’s entry is similar in scope to the YJ post in that it’s just going to give an overview, mention some discrepancies, and most likely just kind of fizzle out at the end without a resolution or even a feasible recap. That’s the way we roll, playa. We’re award-nominated now. We have to keep it real.

So bring on the bad guys!

Of all the popular comic book characters in modern times, none has a more recognizable rogues gallery than Batman. Sure, the Spider-Man movies have shone the spotlight on a few of Spidey’s most popular foes, but no one outside of the nine circles of fandom would know The Jackal or be able to identify The Chameleon in a lineup (even trickier considering his abilities). Batman’s villains owe a lot to the media…from toys to films to television to lunchboxes to cartoons to party favors…in making them as everyday as they are. I don’t know a single person who couldn’t name these four ne’er-do-wells:

Bif. Bam. Pow. Sigh.

Let’s just jump into this from left to right, then we’ll hit some of the second-tier baddies.

The Penguin: A dude with trick umbrellas and henchmen with bird-based nicknames. Intriguing. I always thought that Penguin was pretty lame and he was made even worse by Tim Burton who turned him into a flippered weirdo who looked like Danny DeVito. Oh, wait, that was Danny DeVito, wasn’t it? Blah. Anyway, steps have been taken on the comics side of things to turn Mr. Oswald Cobblepot into a serious businessman/nightclub owner/smuggler. That makes a lot more sense to me. No one’s going to take a tiny fat guy with an umbrella and an avian fixation seriously as a “dangerous” villain, but he can pull off the criminal mastermind role quite well.

The Riddler: Most of my exposure to this clown comes from various cartoon series and revolves around his incessant need to not-so-cryptically telegraph his evil plans to Batman right before he tries to pull them off. Plus he dresses in a bright green, question mark-covered leotard, which is not a good thing. In the comics, he has “gone straight” and become a sort of detective in his own capacity. Again, a good turn as far as I’m concerned. There are enough horrible villains out there whose only goal is to get captured again and again. At least the Riddler keeps things interesting by making you think he’s trying to help you.

Catwoman: Never my favorite threat, she works much better as someone who travels in the gray areas of the system. Nowadays, she’s more or less on the hero side of things anyway.

The Joker: Wow. The most overused villain in all of comics. The fact that he has done so much over the years and yet has gotten no true punishment out of it just seems to reinforce the limits on superheroes in the public eye. I get it. He’s crazy. Big deal. Batman should just slit his throat and dump him in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Who’s going to miss this loser? Writers have pigeonholed him so badly that there’s no way to identify with him anymore. There’s no inner conflict, no rationality, no pathos for the bad guy. He just does stuff with no rhyme or reason…intermittently a purely crazy, bloodthirsty bastard and then a goofy sad sack who can’t seem to catch a break. I care less about The Joker than I do about Hypno-Hustler (well, that’s not really fair since I really like Hypno-Hustler even though I shouldn’t).

So, the Big Four are easily identifiable, but are they archenemy-worthy? I don’t think so. I think they’ve been used too much to have any relevance anymore. But that is up for discussion, as always.

Next, I’m going to give a short rundown of the other nuisances in Batman’s sphere of influence:

Mr. Freeze: A frozen guy who’s ticked off because he caused his own wife’s death.

Ra’s Al Ghul: Leader of the League of Assassins who can regenerate himself

Scarecrow: He dresses in hay and burlap and uses fear toxin to creep people out.

Bane: A walking stack of steroids who once broke Batman’s back.

Two-Face: Horribly scarred (physically and mentally) former district attorney with an odd sense of ethics.

Mad Hatter: A quite insane scientist who can mesmerize people with various hats (what is it with hypnotic headgear in comic books?).

Poison Ivy: Can control plants and manipulate toxins to help control others (what is it with weird forms of mind control in comic books?).

Harley Quinn: Joker’s most famous sidekick and Poison Ivy’s best buddy.

Clayface: A big pile of…uh…clay that can change his appearance

Calendar Man: A semi-retarded dude who commits crimes based on various dates. Why?

Black Mask: The first truly interesting Batman villain in years, he is a Gotham City crime boss with an eye towards total domination of the city.

Hush: Lame villain created just to throw everyone off during what was quickly becoming a horrible storyline.

Killer Croc: A giant reptile/human hybrid who lives in the sewer and likes to eat people.

Man-Bat: Right. He’s a man who can become a giant bat for reasons never truly understandable.

Ventriloquist and Scarface: A timid man with a tiny wooden puppet who thinks he’s a gangster.

Calculator: Used to wear a costume with a giant keypad on the front of it. When no one would stop laughing, he decided to become a villainous information broker, the yin to Oracle’s yang.

Ah, some of these losers make me yearn for the heady, campy TV days of Egghead, King Tut and Lola Lasagne. Let’s all dance the Batusi and talk about the good and the bad in Batman’s rogues gallery, shall we?

There is no doubt in my mind that Batman has the richest cast of characters in all of comicdom. There’s the plethora of villains that populate Gotham City (and really, who can blame the occassional psychologist or author who extends the theory that there are so many whackos in Gotham City because of Batman himself….no other city has this many freaks running around in it!), and there’s also his good guy friends (who shan’t be discussed until another post). I also think you touched upon something very important; Batman’s cast has probably seen more public exposure through various forms of media than any other comic character I can name. Even more interesting is how often the movie, cartoon or television version will begin to overwrite the original comics version. A lot of these characters have evolved considerably thanks to the fine work of some talented individuals in non-comics media (I am particularly looking at everyone involved in Batman: The Animated Series, which was one of the best super-hero portrayals anywhere, anytime, anyhow).

I think that the Big Four that you mentioned all deserve their own posts. Goodness knows the Joker does. I’d like to take a stand here on the Joker and say this for public consumption. I. HATE. THE. JOKER. He used to be an interesting character, but, as you said, he has been horribly overused, and his continued existence snaps my extension of disbelief faster than Tobias Whale sitting on wicker furniture. The fact that Gordon or one of the Gotham City cops didn’t pop a cap in his ass after No Man’s Land is one of the stupidest….at least Harvey Bullock would have……grrraaarrgh! This will be a post closer to the movie. Count on it.

As for some of the other villains you mention, they’re an interesting bunch. At least, they can be. Mr. Freeze is undoubtedly my favorite….when he’s being written for the aforementioned Animated Series. Somehow, he never translates as well into the comics. I think one of the problems with Mr. Freeze is that he’s powerful. If you look at Batman’s Rogues Gallery, these are not very powerful villains; they’re mostly normal humans with a couple of gimmicks. Perhaps the most physically powerful of them, Killer Croc, is also an idiot, and that balances out. But Freeze is powerful and smart and I think that makes him stand out amongst the other rogues. He should be the star of the galaxy, but he’s not. And why is that his power’s fault? Well, it seems that many writers delve further into the psyches of the non-powerful Rogues, probably because the hideously scarred psyche is what makes Batman’s foes interesting. With Freeze, they have this cool power they can play with, and that seems to be what they focus on. Perhaps, without that power, they’d focus a little more on the tragic nature of the character. Of all Batman’s foes, I think Freeze may ultimately be the saddest and the one that the reader can empathize with the most; Freeze wasn’t evil, but he saw someone he loved die and was himself horribly injured in an accident, and that’s pushed him to the edge.

I don’t want to spend too much time on any one villain, and I just talked about Freeze more than I probably should, but let me hit a few other baddies real quick. I think that Batman’s main foe should be Two-Face. He has the most interesting backstory, the fact that he was both Batman’s and Gordon’s friend is unique to him as a villain, and the fact that there is some good in him also brings him to the forefront. Too many people want to write Two-Face stories where they forget about the fact that he was once very close to Batman and Gordon. For a time, he was closer to them than anyone else. He must have knowledge about them he could use against them; why hasn’t he used it? Like Freeze, he’s also a tragic character, and that doesn’t get played up enough; this was a man who had a good life, and it was stripped away from him because of an evil man. I’d play with that a little more.

Harley Quinn is wonderful, and I love seeing her, especially be herself. Keep her away from the Joker! (Have I mentioned my hatred of that character?) She doesn’t need the Joker to be interesting, and is actually much more fascinating when she’s got her own plans and is calling the shots her own way, rather than when she is playing sycophant to the most overused villain in comics. Ugh.

Clayface is another one I’d like to talk about. Batman tends to veer toward horror stories (or, at the very least, grisly, moody and spooky noir stories) and Clayface would be perfect there. Again, however, he seems to be a victim of his power, as everyone wants to write about the guy who can change his shape. Whoopdee-doo. Let’s go back to the original Clayface, Basil Karlo, a horror film actor who goes insane. You could do some very spooky stories with him; the shape changing could be a nice complement, rather than the star of the show. Scarecrow is another character that would fit well in the moodier stories, but they kind of need to figure out how to use him. He was very well done in the No Man’s Land stories (and really, savor those words, as I will likely never type them again), being used as what he is; a student of psychology, who knows how to twist people mentally to do what he wants. Then, Jeph Loeb used him in Hush and he was some crazy nursery rhyme spouting schmoe. What the hell? Scarecrow is a brilliant college professor, and can be quite spooky. Let’s give the guy his due.

Finally, one more quick note….I find the Ventriloquist both fascinating, very cool, and utterly ridiculous. I really like the idea of someone with a split personality finding an outlet for that personality through a ventriloquist’s dummy. That’s great! What a neat idea….that never seems to work. Seriously, this character always hits me as being silly and I find it difficult to believe any serious criminal would work for this man. I know most of the Bat-foes are crazy, but he takes the cake! Could there be potential here….just maybe..

So, do we break these characters down into separate posts, because I think we could do most of them justice, or do we lump them together in a few posts? Or do we just discuss them all right here, because there’s plenty of potential with these crazies!

Interesting…I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Freeze from the cartoons too. And the Snow storyline from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight retold his origin in a clear and clean way (with amazing art from the late, great Seth Fisher). I agree that, aside from B:TAS, no one has really paid attention to the anguish in his life.

I like Scarecrow too, but I prefer Mad Hatter. I think he was used brilliantly by Gail Simone in her Secret Six run. Plus, he’s quite freakin’ insane…more so than the Joker, I think. There’s a certain level of creepiness to his ramblings and random crimes (not to mention the subtle notes of pedophilia). He reaches for the unexpected immediately and I find that completely readable.

I don’t know much about Clayface in the comics. Harley Quinn is a phenomenon in her own right by the fact that the animated series made her the character she is today. You don’t often see that kind of transition. And Two-Face has his moments, but it’s hard for me to get the ridiculous Tommy Lee Jones take out of my head.

If you have nothing else to say in this intro post, I believe we can start breaking some of these villains out in their own entries and see what we can do with them. I’d like to tackle Mad Hatter. You’re free to start with Clayface, Two-Face, Ventriloquist, Scarecrow or Mr. Freeze. Then, together we can spout our hatred for The Joker. That’s seven villains ripe for revamps…and you know how I love the number seven!