Wicked good

phantasm1More vigilante posting? Yes!

RON CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP

In the 90s, you were able to do good stuff only when no one was looking. And for “good stuff,” you can’t do much better than Batman: The Animated Series, 1992-1994.  Its primary creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski bootstrapped themselves into deserved fame with its absolutely clear vision, their neat amalgamation of the several selves Batman had become at that point, an uncompromising love affair with inky-black visuals, and the personalities to hold their own against network TV corporates (who wanted a funny light kids’ show) and DC corporates (who wanted movie tie-ins only and ever) alike. And because the frequent writer and character designer Paul Dini is my soulmate (cough) knew exactly what to do with the villains, this is pretty much the only Batman I like.

Pardon me while I just … watch this a few times …

[I’m not doing Batman Beyond or the later JLA or Superman shows, which I haven’t seen, and I’m sure they’re very good, just not to the current point.]

I will simply gesture with solemn gratitude to voice actor Kevin Conroy and the direction and writing which permitted him to give us a Bruce Wayne worth knowing.

Timm and Dini were masters of the Marvel villain and as I see it, literally saved the Batman franchise from itself by redefining the tired old morons from the 50s and 60s into pure Stan Lee form, beginning with Two-Face. They created a lovely taxonomy from neurotic needy guy, to total asshole, to stone cold psycho, never forgetting that each one of them is the hero of his or her own story. The series starring a classic “masked vigilante” works specifically through humanizing rather than the standard dehumanizing of the out-and-out villains. To those seeking to write and draw bad-ass scary edgy vigilante heroes, take note! If you present your growling shadowy “over the line? what line?” hero only with foes who deserve it and in fact every bit of it, then you just lost the vigilante edginess whole. It’s Bruce’s desire to help Harvey, rather than to beat Two-Face, that sets the theme for the entire show.

Then there’s Mask of the Phantasm, the only Batman movie I like (at all), and quite likely the best animated superhero rendition I can think of. The love story is beautiful, simply beautiful, script and visuals and all. Batman is sufficiently mean in his fight scenes to raise the question of whether he’s gone a bit too far down a dark road. The scene where Bruce begs his parents’ grave to release him from his vow is grade A psychological horror, the more so when it answers him. You can see his soul get scrubbed away almost but not quite – and see what it looks like for another character for whom it’s gone just a little farther. Mark Hamill is brilliant throughout the whole run of the show, but here he’s sublime. Cartoon or not, this Joker is more frighteningly grounded in real-world actual crime than any other version of the character ever. “Awww … mi Cosa Nostra is su Cosa Nostra!”

Now for the second point, the edgy violent vigilante part, which is all that keeps this post from being a straightforward gushy mess. How much of an anti-hero is Batman, anyway? Well … he talks the talk, but the walk manages to elude him. The TV Tropes guys have a great term for this: Badbutt. Sure, he smokes, swears insofar as the rating permits, glares about, threatens mayhem, and may not shave. He may even wave a gun around. But somehow, no one dies, the alleged ruthlessness never actually goes ruthless on anyone, coincidence lands the punk pushed over a ledge into a river or a softly-filled garbage bin … Batman in toto is a glaring example of frequent Badbutt, but miraculously, Timm’s desire to see Dahrrk Kniiiight rrrr in bull goose loony glory meshed so badly with network TV kids’ programming that it actually produced a watchable and working compromise in which Badbutt is reasonably compelling after all.

Timm did push it as far as he could – notable moments in the series include Bruce’s hallucinations of a huge gun lifting from the rubble of Gotham City, spewing blood, and a nice bit where we find that Batman’s carry-around gear includes a nasty-looking hunting knife. But the basic point which completely outweighs the explicit violence issue is that Batman punches punks and catches weirdo supervillains so that the cops can arrest them. Think about that. First, we simply take it as read that when the cops find Lenny and Curtis tied to a lamppost and clearly emotionally scarred from getting assaulted by a giant bat, that’s A-OK as probable cause for taking them in and presumably for seeing them eventually convicted. Second, it means that Bats really is cleaning up the joint by taking them down, legally and morally, in that if he does it, it must be OK. Wait … where’s the vigilantism here? Anywhere?

The movie touches on it a bit differently, to show that Batman is always a short step away from societal censure, necessarily diminishing Gordon’s role considerably. Arthur Reeves’ “Batman’s a menace” neatly synthesizes J. Jonah Jameson’s smearing of Spider-Man with the SWAT-vs.-Batman scene from Batman: Year One (a couple of scenes draw on other parts of the latter story too, as well as Year Two). It also admirably avoids Mary Sue-ing him, as the cops really do almost get him and conceivably, if they kept the pressure on, his costumed career would soon be cut short.

The movie is also – to tie it all together and to start in on the gushing again – the one to show us the real vigilante in the house, one of the best, most exciting, and most sympathetic first-degree murderers I can think of:

I’m not saying it’s right or even sane, but it’s all I have left, so either help me or get out of the way!

Please watch the film to find out who.

STEVE?

For the most part I can only say: what Ron said!

I love Mask Of The Phantasm just as much as you (and I heartily agree: only good Batman film), but I have one major complaint: they should have just adapted Batman: Year Two, with its marvelous villain the Reaper. The stories are practically identical in many ways, and every time I watch MotP I can only think that some rights-related issue prevented them from doing a direct adaptation. The Reaper (who I’ll discuss further in an upcoming column) is, in my eyes at least, so cool, and such a great villain, that he makes the Phantasm look pale and uninteresting in comparison.

Another thing I want to call out, sort of as a follow-up to a comment we made about Hub City in the Question column, is how much Timm & Co. make Gotham City itself a character. They give it, and its inhabitants, a distinctive aesthetic that’s nothing like anything ever shown in the comics, much less in real life, but somehow it works. You’ve got modern computers alongside zeppelins, and gangsters using tommy guns, but no one questions the silliness of it because it’s so Jazz Age-meets-Digital Age cool. To paraphrase Chris Cloutier (author of Golden Age Champions), it’s a setting where no technology ever completely becomes obsolete, gangsters dress like gangsters rather than sports fans, and cars don’t look like used bars of soap.

Let’s not get started on the legalities of arresting and convicting Lenny and Curtis, or we’ll be here until they ret-con our series and we have to start over at #1. As a (recovering) attorney I’ve written plenty about how the law might work in a world where superheroes exist. While it’s an utterly fascinating rabbit hole, it’s still a rabbit hole, and let’s not dive down it — at least not until Alice arrives with some tea. (Plug alert!) Check out my book Stronghold for my most recent take on the subject, if’n you’re interested.

RON IS PUZZLED

Wait – Bruce has sex with a guy named Reaper? There is certainly a wide target audience for this, but I’m gonna have to review Year Two ’cause I don’t remember that part.

Regarding the law: I’m not talking about simulating or re-casting the in-fiction legal system with “what if there were superheroes” in mind. I’m doing the reverse: what dubious presumptions are being tacitly laid into place in order for the superheroes we’re looking at to function as depicted? I don’t think that’s a rabbit hole, it’s an answerable question concerning a given piece of fiction.

For example, I just read holy-cow-all-of-it Moon Knight in prep for some more vigilante posting, and in an important issue, his old enemy Bushman has appeared in New York to run crime. Apparently for some unknown reason the police have not arrested him. Yet when MK leaves him unconscious and bleeding on the floor of his sex-and-gambling-and-heroin emporium, cops come in to finish up the job, explicitly there to arrest him now. The only thing that seems to have changed is that Moon Knight beat him up. Ergo, if Moon Knight beats you up, you are now arrestable and likely convictable. I’m not saying anything universe-wise about “how law works in Marvel New York,” I’m saying instead, see what obviously has to be borked into absurdity in order for these plots and characters to work. And to ask, can such characters work without doing that? I’m not being rhetorical. It’s a good question and a creative challenge.

Links: The best take on Batman kicked the origin story habit

Next: And the horse you rode in on

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on February 7, 2016, in Filmtalk, Lesser is still great, The great ultravillains and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. So one of the things about the “Badbutt” issue: according to a number of pretty serious Batman fans, Batman does not kill. Period, full stop. Anymore than Superman would. Without the threat of legally-unsanctioned lethal force, I’m not really sure you have a vigilante worth talking about.

    (Granted, DKR *appeared* to blur that line, but in fact did not; and the two Keaton Batman films probably crossed it at a few points.)

    For me, the deal with a vigilante is that he’s–to use the cliche–judge, jury, and executioner. Presumably on the grounds that the police-courts-politicians can’t be trusted. Like, I can understand why GCPD is institutionally embarrassed that some chiroptera-philic loon is a better detective than they are, and their annoyance that he’s committing serious assaults on suspects. But the police are seldom the antagonists, or even cats-paws. If you’re socially sanctioned, even tacitly, I don’t think you get to be a vigilante the way the Punisher is.

    This series had awesome villains, and the idea of adding Harley Quinn to the Joker’s supporting cast is inspired. There’s a great episode, based on a brief graphic novel, where she pretty easily out-performs him as a villain and he’s understandably and wonderfully annoyed: she missed the WHOLE. DAMN. POINT. Harley is simply a wonderful villain and deserves her own post, maybe in the “lesser is still great” category.

    I have not seen Mask of the Phantasm–I thought Year Two was such a let-down after Year One (which is some true vigilante shit with the cops on your ass the whole damn time) that I haven’t read it in … 25 years or more. But I will try to give it a go.

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    • 1. Mask of the Phantasm isn’t based on Year Two. They share a single visual trope in completely different contexts, and that’s all.

      2. As usual, I am completely uninterested in what Batman “does” or “is.” He does and is whatever we see in a given story, for that story, is my position, and I think attempts to synthesize or to perceive a gestalt among these presentations (not even “variants!”) are fanwank. That same desire is also strong medicine as a creative challenge, and the whole animated series is a good example of meeting that challenge – it can, of course, also be failed and I suggest The Dark Knight Returns does exactly that.

      3. I see the lethality issue as its own variable – a significant one, but not the single defining one. One can posit a “judge-and-jury” vigilante who does not kill; I suspect the Vigilante himself is a pretty good example, especially since he’s a district attorney. The Question is another, as often his mere presence causes the bad guy to question himself and thus cease his activities one way or another.

      4. These discussions definitely require a creator-industry context, in this case, the role of Denny O’Neil and some other people who entered DC as fiery youngsters at the same time he did. There’s a post about that happening soon.

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  2. Also! While it may not be the definitive take on the character, “Batman: The Brave & the Bold” is required viewing for any comics-loving parent with kids. It’s a show that (1) gallantly insisted that 1950’s Silver Age Batman is charming and great, (2) on a team-up show flat-out *refused* to team Batman up with Superman or Wonder Woman no matter how much DC or the networks screamed about it, (3) gave us the best version of Aquaman of all time.

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  3. I’ve often, when gaming, had to really emphasize to the characters that in order for us to do our Broody Gotham City Vigilantes or Whiny Mutant Adventurers, to a certain extent you have to just agree among ourselves that the enterprise works. i.e. if a random police officer comes across organized crime in Gotham City they probably are going to just keep walking. “Cops got better things to do than get killed!” – Big Trouble In Little China.

    But if they come across one that’s been terrified and whooped, the “few good ones” can leap into action in the opportunity that’s created by their concussion and terrified confessions. As you say, this isn’t an explanation, but without the justification there’s really no reason to play the game. Similarly with the X-Men. It kind of doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that being a youthful paramilitary gang of adventurers fighting, I don’t know, aliens or dinosaurs or whatever they’re doing this year, would move the needle on human-mutant relations or the political climate even a little, but in order to make an X-Men game work you have to posit that it does.

    In my last X-verse game (yes, there have been many) I had PCs come across a pro-mutant lawyer paid by ‘The Westchester Foundation’ to sue on behalf of mutants excluded from housing or jobs, etc. They liked her and it was a big deal when she got attacked by mutant terrorists mad that she had gotten them into the military which promptly started experimenting on them.

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    • Thanks Jason! This is a big deal. Certainly accepting the basics of the whole context is necessary, as it is for any story. The next question is whether this context makes the heroic activity more relevant to my own real-world self’s commitment to the text (whether it’s “entertaining” if you like) rather than less.

      That’s a neat thing in itself right there. That, for example, fantastifying the societal context can actually make the reader emotion/thought/relevance stronger; that insisting upon and obsessing about how realistic it all is, is not necessarily the route toward that end. I think it’s clear that this is a matter of components being tweaked one way or the other, such that their combination yields the context you’re talking about.

      I find, taking this context as a whole and without reference to which components are fantastic and which realistic, the line gets crossed for me when the logic ultimately becomes, “if the heroes do it, then it’s OK.” That removes my engagement and validation entirely; I stop caring and cannot even continue to read or watch. (Note I don’t say “suspension of disbelief” because I think that is definitely not the relevant concept at work.) I submit that all the titles we’re talking about have been known to stray into this zone, and that it’s a worthy topic for discussion.

      For vigilantism specifically, and as Steve and I keep encountering especially at the level of our crosstalk, this context turns out to be more and more important. Instead of insisting on the “right” or “realistic” one, I at least find that there’s value in asking “what is this context” in any given case, and to see whether the answer illuminates either the text or my response to it. Although this show, and the film, do manage to work very well for me, I also find that Batman’s “deputized” role in society tends to diminish my interest in him as a character.

      The more I think about it, one of main reasons I like this film so much is that – in isolation, as this story on its own – Batman’s effectiveness, positive societal contribution if you will – is successfully validated but is not treated as a complete given. It’s even called out as his most pressing ongoing crisis, and left as such rather than comfortably resolved

      Bruce at his parents’ grave: “I can give more money to the city! They can hire more cops!”

      Alfred at the end: “You walk the edge of that abyss every night and I thank God you haven’t fallen in.”

      [both quotes are inexact, I’m paraphrasing without checking]

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