Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Batman Beyond (Warners, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a bit of the Batman Beyond DVD. This was released in 1999 and was apparently pieced together from a TV mini-series on the Batman legend — done in two-dimensional animation and projecting the Batman mythos into the future. It opens with a fifty-something Batman (Kevin Conroy) feeling his age as he tries to rescue a kidnapped debutante from the clutches of corporate raider Derek Powers (Sherman Howard) and his assistant and hit-man Mr. Fixx (George Takei): he manages to keep alive and get the girl out but only by grabbing one of the bad guys’ guns and holding it on Powers. Since part of the Batman ethic was never to use firearms, he takes this as a sign that he’s no longer physically robust enough to continue the Batman gig and he retires, becoming a recluse at Wayne Manor in his Bruce Wayne identity.

Twenty years pass and Gotham City turns into a Metropolis-style stratified city in which long freeway ramps snake through ultra-tall buildings and Derek Powers, who mounted a hostile takeover of Wayne Enterprises and has dictatorial control via his economic clout and sway over the city’s nominally democratic government, is using the facilities of his high-tech empire to develop a biological weapon consisting of a virus that alters, and quickly destroys, DNA. He proposes to sell this to the head of Kaznia, one of the successor states to the Soviet Union, who likes how it would be useful in getting rid of all the hostile armies on his border. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are being terrorized by a gang called The Jokerz — yes, in this version there’s not just one Joker, there’s a whole gang of them, riding motorcycles, robbing people on subways (which seems a surprisingly unambitious crime for such a fabled character) and going around causing people mayhem.

It seems the one person who can stand up to these people and get away with it is high-school student Terry McGinniss (Will Friedle), who beats up the Jokerz and saves seventy-something Bruce Wayne from a mugging at their hands. Wayne invites McGinniss into his home, and McGinniss stumbles on the secret entrance to the Batcave — which Wayne had sealed up and turned into a museum housing all the Batman relics — and McGinniss steals one of the Batsuits (Wayne’s last, high-tech model, equipped with flight and anti-gravity capabilities and also functioning as lightweight but super-strong body armor) and starts going out at night as Batman. As revenge, the Jokerz kill McGinniss’s father, so now that he and the original Batman have something in common — both having got into the superhero biz when their parents were offed by crooks — Wayne decides to start mentoring him and monitoring his use of the Batsuit. McGinniss uncovers the bioweapon plot and seizes the hovercraft that was supposed to fly it to its destination; Derek Powers is exposed to the bioweapon (depicted as a green fog) and saved in time, but not before the radiation his doctors deliberately aim at him to kill the mutagenic viruses turns him into a glowing skeleton-like creature named “Blight.”

This whole story was written by Alan Burnett — a more prestigious writer than we usually associate with Batman — and it’s quite a good thriller, modestly anti-corporate in its political message (one can’t expect a film produced by a major corporate-media outlet like Time Warner to be too anti-corporate!) in a way that actually resonates more now that the economy is in the toilet thanks largely to the maneuverings of Derek Powers’ real-life equivalents than it probably did at the height of the Internet tech boom in 1999. I’m a bit uncomfortable with the high-tech refinements built into the Batsuit (the whole appeal of Batman originally was that he was an ordinary human being who had willed himself into superhero-dom and his powers were those of a normal person, albeit an exceptionally well trained and skilled athlete, rather than being amplified by alien origins, magic words, radioactive spider bites, cosmic rays or high-tech appliances) and the obvious steering of the Batmythos into Spider-manic directions — especially making Batman 2.0 a high-school student and giving him some of the sexual and status anxieties usually associated with movie teenagerhood — but overall Batman Beyond is a legitimate extension of the Batmyth and to my mind quite more appealing than the deathly dull and overwrought Christopher Nolan movies Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I had been confused and put off by the sheer length listed for this film on imdb.com — 132 minutes — but I hadn’t realized until we started watching it that this was really an assemblage of five episodes of a Batman TV-miniseries, the so-called “movie” that was really a 42-minute introductory episode and four others, “Golem,” “The Winning Edge,” “Dead Man’s Hand” and “Meltdown,” that were designed to fit half-hour time slots.

We watched the “movie” and also “Golem,” which was a worm-turning episode about high-school nerd Willie Watt (Scott McAfee) — he’s even given glasses that make him look like a young, tow-headed version of Woody Allen — who’s tired of getting stomped on by big-man-on-campus Nelson Nash (Seth Green) and done out of the hot platinum-haired girl he’s lusting after … though, upset at the way Nelson seems to care more about his hot red sports car than her, she agrees to go to the big school dance with Willie after all. Watt’s dad Frank (Bill Smitrovich) owns a company that rents out robots for big mechanical and industrial jobs, and of course he’s a macho proletarian type who tears into Willie for weaseling his way out of a fight with Nelson instead of “hitting him where it hurts” — so Willie responds to his dad’s disapproval by stealing his company’s star robot, Galvanic Lifter Machine (GLM), almost inevitably referred to as “Golem,” who’s about twice the size of a normal human, whose head is fastened directly on to the torso without the intervention of a neck in between, and which has one eye in the center of its huge head and the super-strength needed to pick up Nelson’s prize car with pincer-like hands and crumple it the way you or I would crumple a piece of paper.

It’s a bit hard to get excited about this episode because one tends to feel sorry for the villain (and indeed at the end it’s explained that he gets only three years in prison — though one could imagine a decidedly non-G-rated sequel in which he’s regularly “turned out” behind bars and returns a hardened criminal, a high-tech wizard and a Gay man), but it was a nice bit of superhero fiction, burdened by the relative crudity of the animation (two-dimensional animation is one art form in which standards have actually deteriorated over the years; no cartoons being made today even come close to the visual beauty and smoothness of motion of the classics from Disney and Warners in the 1930’s and 1940’s) but still well done and worth watching, and far more fun than most of the leaden, pretentious live-action superhero movies burdening the multiplexes of today! — 8/23/10


Charles and I didn’t have much time for movie-watching last night but we did have a chance to watch another episode of the Batman Beyond cycle on DVD, “The Winning Edge,” a legitimately chilling tale of future drug use in which Hamilton Hill High School star athlete Mason Forrest (Ian Ziering) — star of the school’s team in a futuristic sport that’s a sort of jai-alai played in an anti-gravity tube so the players can float in mid-air — gets the titular (and unfair) “winning edge” from “slappers,” a cutaneous drug that’s literally slapped onto the skin and administers an advanced compound of several steroids called “Venom.” Venom was invented by Blade (Melissa Disney — it seems as if director Yukio Suzuki and Warners’ casting department pulled James Whale’s trick from The Old Dark House and cast a woman to voice the character of an ancient, decrepit man), an ex-convict Batman arrested 20 years earlier and kept track of — only Blade has become wizened and prematurely old from his own Venom addiction and has had to teach the formula for the stuff to his doctor, who’s decided to turn it into a commercially available illegal drug and has got Mason “hooked” with the usual indicia of movie addiction — he slumps against the shadowy black low-slung sports car waiting for the dealer inside to give him his stuff, and he even starts committing robberies to sustain his addiction financially … until Batman starts interfering, of course.

I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen of this series so far — maybe the casting of the new Batman as high-school student Terry McGinniss (Will Friedle) brings it a bit too close to the Spider-Man mythos (the super-hero who also has to worry about homework, girls and getting grounded) but the series episodes we’ve seen so far are well written and quite powerfully visualized within the limitations of TV animation. Certainly this seems to me a far more successful revivification of the Batman franchise than the dreary one Christopher Nolan came up with in Batman Begins and the horrendously overrated The Dark Knight, and I suspect only the expense of building the elaborate sets for films set about 30 or 40 years in the future kept Warners and its DC subsidiary from going for a live-action version of this Batman incarnation instead of the dull one we got saddled with instead! — 8/29/10


I ran Charles another one of the Batman Beyond episodes, “Dead Man’s Hand.” Written by Dan Riba and directed by Stan Berkowitz, this dealt with a mysterious group of criminals called the Royal Flush Gang who fly around on flat craft that look like playing cards, are dressed in costumes based on playing-card motifs (though they seemed mostly black-and-white and didn’t use the other main color of playing cards, red) and commit crimes with some connection with playing cards. They’re also an actual family that has been going for several generations and recruited new members from their younger relatives after the older ones retire, get caught or die. Riba melds this plot line to one in which Our Hero, Terry McGinniss (Will Friedle), and his girlfriend Dana Tan (Lauren Tom) break up because she’s predictably upset that his after-school job for Bruce Wayne is continually making him late for their dates. (Naturally, he can’t tell her that his after-school gig is being the new-generation Batman, but the plot gimmick recalls Mad magazine’s satire of the 1960’s Batman TV series in which Robin laments, “This ‘Boy Wonderful’ bit is really killing my love life!’”) He gets picked up by a sexually aggressive young blonde named Melanie Wilson who alludes to having to move just about every three weeks — which, she explains, is why she can’t afford to waste time on a long (or even not-so-long) courtship.

Needless to say, we immediately catch on that she’s a junior member of the Royal Flush Gang, but it seems like director Berkowitz expected the actual revelation of her status (as “Ten”) in the gang would be far more of a surprise than it probably was even to the pre-pubescents that are the usual target audience for TV superhero cartoons. This episode was similar to the others we’ve seen — some dazzling graphic design (undercut a bit by the obvious cheapness of the animation, though no one today is going to spend the bucks and take the trouble needed to do old-style Disney full animation on a project like this), especially when the Royal Flush Gang is in action and Batman is trying to take them on despite being outnumbered five-to-one (and one of the Royal Flushers is a huge man who doesn’t even respond when Batman tries to punch him) — and an interesting ending in which, lamenting the fact that his latest girlfriend turned out to be a crook, the new Batman asks Bruce Wayne if anything like that ever happened to him, and Bruce says, “Let me tell you about someone named Selina Kyle” — which, as any Batmaven would know, was the real identity of the Catwoman. — 9/4/10


The first item was the final episode in the Batman Beyond package, “Meltdown,” directed by Curt Geda from a script by Alan Burnett (also the author of the intriguing Green Lantern: First Flight) based on a story by Hillary J. Bader that re-introduced the character of Derek Powers (Sherman Howard) from the first episode; in that one, you’ll recall, he was exposed to a nerve agent he’d wanted to sell to terrorists and it mutated his DNA to the point that he became a grinning green skeleton. This one kicked off with the new young Batman (Will Friedle) breaking up a gang stealing nuclear materials — at the behest of Powers, since he can get relief from his “glowing” status through exposure to radioactivity but only for about a day or two — and, naturally, he’s screaming at his research staff for not being able to keep it that way longer. A woman scientist on his staff named Stephanie Lake (Linda Hamilton, from the Beauty and the Beast TV series and the Terminator movies) figures out a way to rebuild his body by sampling his DNA and eliminating the mutation, then cloning him, then re-introducing all his consciousness and memory into the new shell — but first she wants to try this out on someone else who’s had his DNA permanently mutated.

The someone she picks for her guinea pig is Victor Fries (Michael Ansara), who used to be the Batman villain Mr. Freeze but now is a disembodied head being kept alive artificially. Needless to say, when she grows him a new body and inserts his consciousness into it (“this may cause a little discomfort,” she says in a perfect duplication of a doctor’s unctuous tone before plunging him into the depths of searing pain), he rebels and Batman — both of them: Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) back in the cave and Terry McGinniss (Friedle) out front doing the Batlegwork — now has two super-villains on his hands. This was a nicely done episode, marvelously sinister and the best in the sequence since the extended “movie” that opened the series. — 9/7/10