Category Archives: Batman

RIP Yvonne Craig

  
Sad news. 

Yvonne Craig has passed away after a two-year battle with cancer. She was 78.

Craig was a bright and bubbly actress who broke out in the 1960s with roles in movies and TV series like “Star Trek.” 

To me, she’ll always be Barbara Gordon, who slipped into a cape and cowl and became Batgirl on the 1960s “Batman” series.

She’s already missed.

‘Justice League Unlimited: The Return’

JLU the return amazo GLs

I’ve had so many favorite TV series over the years, from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “Star Trek” to “Justified.” But as surprising as it may sound, it just might be “Justice League Unlimited” – right up there with another animated series, “Jonny Quest” – that ranks at the top of the list.

“JLU,” as I’m going to refer to it here, ran for 39 episodes over two or three seasons – who could tell, really, the way “Cartoon Network” abused the show with its scheduling? – from 2004 to 2006. The animated series, featuring the work of true artists like Bruce Timm and Dwayne McDuffie, was a continuation of the two-season “Justice League” series, which ran from 2001 to 2004, which itself was a continuation of “Batman” and “Superman” animated series that dated back as far as 1992.

“Justice League” was a fun series, giving us our first “real” look at characters beloved for decades, in personas and performances that defined them for a generation. When I see DC/Warners trying to bring those characters to the screen now in the inadequate “Man of Steel” and unpromising “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” I just wish they had given the reins to the people – including voice director Andrea Romano – who brought the characters to life in animation.

I’m rewatching “Justice League Unlimited” now and I might share some thoughts on other episodes with you here. But after watching it today, I have to talk about “The Return.”

JLU cast

If you’ve seen the series – or even if you haven’t – you don’t need me to go into the plot in great detail. But a little context: In “JLU,” Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the other core members of the Justice League decide to expand the roster of the league as seen in the first two seasons. They do so for practical reasons – Superman explains a greater number of heroes can put out more fires, literally and figuratively – but for storytelling purposes, this opens up a wealth of possibilities.

Even though “Justice League” episodes had brought in characters like Dr. Fate and Aquaman, “JLU” not only brought DC A-listers into the fold but B, C and D-listers. Ever want to see Bwana Beast in action? The Creeper? Maybe best of all, The Question? Here’s your first, and probably only, chance. I can’t imagine The Elongated Man is going to show up in one of the big-screen movies.

The first few episodes of “JLU” were intent on showcasing characters other than the core, founding members of the League. The opener, which included Batman and Superman, focused on an emergency response team consisting of Green Lantern, Supergirl, Captain Atom and a reluctant Green Arrow responding to a rampage of a nuclear monster in an Asian country that is less than welcoming to the heroes. Other early episodes featured Wonder Woman teamed with Hawk and Dove, for example.

But it wasn’t until “The Return, an episode that aired in September 2004, that “JLU” hit its stride.

Amazo, an advanced robot that had figured into a “Justice League” episode, is returning to Earth, ostensibly on a mission to kill Lex Luthor, who had betrayed the robot and his creator, Professor Ivo.

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This meant the League has to protect Luthor from the unstoppable creature, which decimates first the Green Lantern Corps at their home planet Oa, then blasts through a defensive line in space that includes Superman and Green Lantern, then wipes out an airborne troupe that includes Supergirl and Red Tornado – who meets a startling fate – and finally trounces a ground-level line of defenders that include Wonder Woman and Flash.

Finally, it’s down to the Atom – voiced in great fashion by John McGinley – who is locked in an underground lab with Luthor – to come up with a solution.

And he fails.

JLU the return fate amazo

But just as the regrouped Green Lantern Corps arrives to blast Amazo … Dr. Fate shows up with a better solution.

It’s an ending as satisfying as it is unexpected and shows the depth of this series. A little-known DC hero could show up for a cameo, a funny in-joke – or a feat that saves the world.

“Justice League Unlimited” had many great episodes and I might touch on some of those here as I rewatch. But “The Return” showed what the series was capable of.

The ‘Batman’ script, Warner Bros and me

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Last time I tried to write about Sam Hamm’s legendary script for Tim Burton’s “Batman” movie, I got a cease-and-desist note from Warner Bros.

We’ll see what happens this time.

It was the late 1980s and there was a lot of anticipation for Tim Burton’s “Batman” movie, planned for 1989 release. This was pre-Internet, remember, but the letters columns of genre magazines and newspapers devoted to the movie were full of opinions, pro and con, about the movie and Burton’s choice of Michael Keaton – an actor best known for comedy movies and, shall we say, not having the strong chin of a comic-book-movie actor – had set people on fire.

This was just a couple of decades after the Adam West-starring TV series. A decade earlier, the Richard Donner-directed, Christopher Reeve-starring “Superman” was a huge hit and Warner Bros. seemed to want to follow the same formula with Burton’s “Batman.” In other words, an unknown or unlikely choice as the hero bolstered by a big star as the villain.

Burton had those elements firmly in place with Keaton – who would go on to surprise many with his performance and presence – and Jack Nicholson as the Joker (the movie’s equivalent of “Superman” and its two big stars, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman).

What was crucial and a total unknown at the time was the tone of the “Batman” movie. The Adam West series, beloved more today than at the time, was still fresh in people’s minds. Would Burton and Keaton and Nicholson turn their “Batman” into a spoof?

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(That didn’t happen, of course. I still vividly remember seeing the movie on its opening weekend in 1989 on a trip to visit friends in Los Angeles. We stood outside the Chinese Theatre in a line that extended around the block and then waited only-a-little-impatiently for the movie to begin. The Chinese Theatre had a Bat Signal fired up and projected Batman’s chest symbol on the curtains before the movie began. We were not disappointed once we saw the movie.)

But at some point during all the anticipation and the aftermath, I came across a copy of a Batman script, written by Sam Hamm and noted, “Third Draft, February 29, 1988.” And yes, there was a February 29 that year.

I bought the screenplay at a sci-fi and comic-book convention within a few weeks of the movie’s release. As far as I knew then and know now, it was a legit Sam Hamm draft, one of several, done before the final script credited to Hamm and Warren Skarren.

Some of you might remember that there was a huge market for movie and TV scripts at the time. Today, you can do a Google search and find drafts of Hamm’s scripts online, in their entirety, going back to 1986. But back then, of course, you got your hands on a copy either through the mail order or at a comic book or sci-fi convention.

(There was a third source back then. During my regular tips to LA, I paid a lot of visits to a Hollywood Boulevard book store that sold scripts and movie stills. Most of the scripts, no doubt, came from studio functionaries or crew members who knew they could make a few bucks and clean off their desks by selling them to be resold.)

I got the Hamm script at a convention, though, although I honestly don’t recall now if it was in LA or here in the Midwest.

I really enjoyed the script and upon re-reading it today, I’m glad to see that it has held up nicely. There are some important differences between the script and the completed movie. One big difference is the late-in-the-movie introduction of Dick Grayson, who would go on to be Robin to Bruce Wayne’s Batman. Dick is out for vengeance after the Joker deliberately kills his parents – trapeze artists the Flying Graysons – when a chase with Batman encounters the Gotham City birthday parade familiar from the movie.

By the end of the script, Dick is under Bruce Wayne’s care and close to taking the first steps to becoming Robin.

The Bruce Wayne and Joker characters are different in Hamm’s script and I have to say I preferred them to the movie versions.

Joker – Jack Napier, underling to mobster Carl Grissom just like in the movie – is edgier, a dapper 30-something rather than Nicholson’s dapper 50-something. My biggest complaint with Burton’s “Batman” has always been that Nicholson was too old and simply not spry enough to be a credible physical match for Batman.

Bruce Wayne in the script isn’t the distracted billionaire he was in the movie either. Actually, the character is much more like the character as portrayed in the “Batman” animated series and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy starring Christian Bale. He’s edgier and more dynamic. There’s a notable scene in the script – following the one in the movie where Joker and Bruce Wayne face off at Vicki Vale’s apartment – in which Wayne, clad in a suit and utility belt with a black stocking over his face – pursues the Joker across Gotham, stopping only to don the Batsuit after rendezvousing with Alfred along the chase route.

Batman is different too. He’s more tortured, if that’s possible, realizing that he played a role in creating the Joker in the first place. In the climactic struggle between Batman and the Joker in the belfry of Gotham Cathedral, Hamm implies that Batman considers the idea of ending his own life.

In a moment that surely inspired a similar scene in the Nolan movies, Bruce activates a sound-generating device that drives the bats in the cathedral into a frenzy. The bats ultimately make the Joker fall to his death.

Batman has also started the countdown on an explosive device on his utility belt and I swear Hamm makes it seem as if Bruce is considering ending it all.

The Joker has already plunged to his death by this point, disoriented by the bats and unable to reach his getaway helicopter.

“Six seconds remain. There is still time if he makes his choice now,” the script says about Batman.

“Surrounded by the flapping of leathery wings, his body working on pure adrenaline, he unbuckles the belt and HEAVES IT out into the darkness.”

The belt and bomb take out Joker’s helicopter.

But did you notice that part about Batman’s “choice?”

Much of the script is familiar from the movie. There’s the scene of Batman terrorizing street punks on a rooftop. There’s the charity benefit at Bruce Wayne’s house. Characters like Jim Gordon and reporter Alexander Knox are on hand, even though Knox briefly tries to blackmail Bruce Wayne – he knows Batman’s identity, just as Vicki Vale does – and is driven to do so by jealousy over Vale and her attraction to Wayne. Knox redeems himself by the end, however.

So at the time I first read Hamm’s script, I was settling into my newspaper career but still writing some freelance for other publications. I was a longtime admirer of Cinefantastique, the slick and intellectual magazine, founded in 1970, that covered the world of fantastic movies and TV. (It’s online only now, but I still have almost every issue in storage.)

I thought that a review of the original Hamm “Batman” script might be a good way to break into writing for Cinefantastique, so I wrote up a review and mailed it to them, along with my contact information.

Not long afterward, I got first a phone call and then a letter from a legal representative of Warner Bros.

How did I get a copy of the Sam Hamm script? Did I remember the name of the convention vendor that I bought it from (for something like $15)? Was I aware that, even though it wasn’t the version that was produced, it was still the property of Warner Bros? (Yes to the latter; it says “Property of Warner Bros” right on the title page.)

At the same time it seemed like overkill – remember, I was this about-30-year-old writer and longtime genre fan in Muncie. Indiana, who just wanted to get an article published in a national genre magazine – and I found it incredibly disappointing that Cinefantastique called Warner Bros. on me the minute they got my unsolicited article in the mail. I’m guessing they had their own copy of the script – if I could get one at a convention, anybody could – but chose not to write about it. At any rate, it was disappointing and I never looked at the magazine the same way after that.

I respected Warner’s demand that I not write about the script, however, and I haven’t – until today. I’m guessing the studio’s sensitivity about that particular script must have lessened nowadays when, thanks to the Internet, a half-dozen versions of the script are there for perusal.

Well, I’m guessing, anyway. I’ll let you know if I get another call from some lawyer in California.

Batman’s Joker: Reinvention is nothing new

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There was a lot of discussion online the other day when Jared Leto’s look as the Joker from the upcoming movie “Suicide Squad” released.

My personal feeling is that this is an attempt to re-invent the character for a new generation. Young moviegoers would not be satisfied with the look of the Tim Burton/Jack Nicholson Joker. I wasn’t sold on that interpretation myself.

I’m not sure about the Leto look. “Trying too hard” is one phrase that comes to mind.

What’s important, of course, is how Leto plays the character and how the part is written.

But reinvention has been a constant for the character, who first appeared in the comic book Batman 1, 75 years ago this month.

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There’s the unacknowledged inspiration for the “look” of the Joker, taken from actor Conrad Veidt’s appearance in the 1928 movie “The Man Who Laughs.”

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There was the classic Joker, of course, “created” by Bob Kane but really created by Kane and Jerry Robinson and Bill Finger.

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For kids coming of age in the 1960s, Cesar Romero’s Joker in the “Batman” TV series – painted-over mustache and all – is the most familiar look for the character.

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At the time the world thought of “Batman” as camp, comics readers knew the Joker as a madman and real threat to the Dark Knight detective. The Joker’s look in the comics was refined in the art of Neal Adams.

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Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” movie needed a big name to play the Joker. Nicholson was cast and brought the right amount of menace to the character, but he wasn’t physically right.

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The “Batman” animated series did wonders with a simple Joker design and Mark Hamill’s great voice performance.

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Artist Alex Ross made the Joker believable and frightening at the same time.

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It’s hard to imagine it was as recently as 2008 when Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” took the Joker in a whole new direction in terms of look and physicality. And Heath Ledger was outstanding in what was considered as unconventional a look as Leto’s appearance is now.

Will Leto’s look be a Joker for the ages?

Comic Con: Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

wonder woman gal godot batman v superman

Warner Bros. released a pic a while back of Henry Cavill as Superman (wonder if that name will be uttered) and they’ve released a couple of pics of Ben Affleck as Batman from “Batman vs Superman: This Time It’s Personal.”

Today, at San Diego Comic Con, it’s Wonder Woman’s turn.

Above, Gal Gadot as the Amazonian Princess.

When I showed my wife, a Wonder Woman fan from way back, she said: “Very Xena.”

Comic Con: Ben Affleck close-up as Batman

ben affleck batman comic con

Along with a display of the Batman suit from “Batman vs. Superman: Bright Sky of Goodness,” Warner Bros/DC released a close-up of Ben Affleck as Batman.

Like the first shot, of Batman next to the Batmobile, there’s a lot of gray here.

Batman seems more like a black and white kind of guy to me.