Category Archives: DC Comics movies

RIP Darwyn Cooke


This is the worst. Darwyn Cooke is gone. 

The artist and writer, whose work was somehow nostalgic and innovative at the same time, has passed away after a battle with cancer.

Cooke wrote and drew comics and covers for characters like Catwoman and the Spirit, but my favorite of his work was “New Frontier,” his “retelling” of the origin of the Justice League in the 1940s and 1950s. 

He was a huge talent and is greatly missed.

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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?

The faces of Supergirl

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Supergirl is a character with a history in comics that’s too confusing, too often retconned, to go into here. Suffice it to say that there’s been a surprising number of versions of Superman’s cousin in both comics, movies and TV.

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So it’s kind of fun to look at the live-action treatments of the character, especially with the new CBS series featuring Melissa Benoist coming this fall.

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Of course, Helen Slater was the physical embodiment of the character in the 1984 movie. Awful movie, but Slater looked perfect. Cute and wholesome.

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Then there’s the “Smallville” version, with Lara Vandervoort playing Clark’s cousin in a few 2010 episodes.

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Benoist looks like she’ll be modeled after the cute and wholesome Supergirl rather than the bare-midriff Kryptonian sex bomb that’s been seen in the comics at times. And that’s okay.

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Welcome to the low-rent universe

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It’s news to no one that shared universes are the big thing in movies right now

Marvel began building its shared cinematic universe in 2008 with “Iron Man” and has announced plans to continue it through at least 2020. Not to mention Marvel’s TV entries in that shared universe, like “Agents of SHIELD,” “Agent Carter” and “Daredevil,” the latter debuting on Netflix in April as the first in a series of “street-level” hero shows that will culminate in a “Defenders” series.

Of course, DC/Warner Bros. are trying to get their superhero universe going; Sony wants a “Spider-Man” universe but I’ll believe it when I see it.

And Universal has announced a shared universe of remakes of its 1930s and 1940s monster films featuring Frankenstein, Dracula and other creatures. I’m still pondering that one for another entry here.

So the other day, a movie company that I’ve never heard of, Cinedigm, announced plans to create, of all things, a shared movie universe. But using what classic cinematic tales?

The 1950s and 1960s exploitation movies of American International Pictures.

Specifically, 10 films: “Girls in Prison,” “Viking Women and The Sea Serpent,” “The Brain Eaters,” “She-Creature,” “Teenage Caveman,” “Reform School Girl,” “The Undead,” “War of the Colossal Beast,” “The Cool and the Crazy” and “The Day the World Ended.”

Strangely enough, I like this idea.

Marvel has this kind of thing perfected, down to an art and a science. I’m not sure DC’s superheroes will ever really come together on the big screen because of, I believe, a wrong-headed approach that seems more like Warner Bros. is ashamed of comic books.

But the AIP films, some of which were originally directed by low-budget auteur Roger Corman?

That’s genius.

Not because the company says it intends to shoot all 10 movies back-to-back from recently-completed scripts. Not because remaking these old AIP classics for cable TV a while back worked so well.

Because these dimly-remembered movies are perfect fodder for the remake machine.

Somebody once said that if you were going to remake a movie, don’t remake a classic. How could a remake of “Psycho” possibly work? (It didn’t.)

But with the AIP flicks, most people won’t be comparing them and, unless the remakes are horrible, they won’t be comparing them unfavorably.

And the idea of a universe shared by the monstrous, mutated “Colossal Beast” and the juvenile delinquents of “The Cool and the Crazy?” How can that possibly work?

The producers say the movies will share “a recurring cast of antiheroes, monsters and bad girls.” I can’t say that’s a bad idea and I base that on what Marvel has done with its movies.

Really, consider how improbable it might have looked, 10 years ago, to propose a shared universe that would include a bone-crunching political thriller, a good-natured space opera, a Nordic fantasy world and a rampaging monster movie. Yet “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the “Thor” movies and the Hulk’s appearances all worked.

Who’s to say those juvenile delinquents won’t end up fighting alien invaders to big box-office returns?

Stranger things have happened.

Classic TV: ‘Superman on Earth’

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It’s hard to overstate just what an impact “The Adventures of Superman” had on America in the 1950s.

Kids were comic-book crazy back then and comics had sold millions of copies a year for more than a decade. Superman was one of the most popular and when the DC Comics superhero hit TV, a generations-long love affair with the Man of Steel became as solid as steel bars, breakable only by Superman himself.

A great deal of the credit for the impact of the series goes to “Superman on Earth,” a lean and sturdy telling of Superman’s origin directed by veteran helmer Tommy Carr. The series – which started in black and white, as befits a show that revolved around gangsters, hoods and other film noir staples more than science fiction – sparked millions of Superman toys, Halloween costumes and, eventually, more movies and TV shows over the course of six seasons beginning in the fall of 1952.

The debut episode hews surprisingly closely to the Superman mythos as they’d been created and fleshed out in the comics and radio show.

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The story opens on Krypton, as scientist Jor-El tries to tell the Kryptonian ruling council about the eminent destruction of the planet. They scoff at his forecast as well as his plan to build rocketships to transport the population to the planet Earth.

Before Jor-El can complete a rocket to take him, Lara and baby Kal-El to Earth, Krypton begins to tear itself apart. Jor-El and Lara wrap little Kal in a blanket and place him in the rocket.

in these first 10 minutes or so, the show plays like a “Flash Gordon”-style space opera – complete with, legend says, “Flash Gordon” leftover costumes.

After the rocket gets to Earth, it’s the heartfelt but hokey Smallville portion of the story, with Eben and Sarah Kent finding the rocket from Krypton and deciding to keep the baby. Flash forward to Clark at age 12, asking Ma why he’s different from the other boys. Then flash forward to Clark’s 25th “birthday” and Pa’s heart attack. As is familiar from so many iterations of the story, Clark decides to leave Smallville and go to Metropolis.

There’s a funny shot of George Reeves as Clark, “walking” down the sidewalks of Metropolis, putting on glasses as a disguise and deciding to become a reporter because newspapers were where the action is and Superman would know immediately when trouble broke out.

One of the strengths of the series was that Clark was a sharp guy who leveraged his powers as Superman in his everyday life. After gruff Daily Planet editor Perry White brushes him off – even after Clark shows initiative by entering his office through the window, 28 floors up – Clark hears Lois tell Perry about a man hanging from a dirigible out at the airport. Clark bargains with Perry: If he can get the man’s exclusive story, he’ll get a reporter job.

Superman shows up, rescues the man – played by Dabbs Greer, later memorable as the minister in “Little House on the Prairie,” and gets his story – frustrating Lois and winning the job.

The show wraps up with a customary joke by Clark – “Maybe I’m Superman” he taunts Lois – and bang, in less than a half hour, the show has introduced America to the the world’s greatest superhero.

Comic Con: Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

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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.”