Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Nerdy Possessiveness

“Iron Man, he’s the one with the hammer, right?”

I grit my teeth. It’s become a regular occurrence, the discussion of nerdy topics in the office environment, but it has reached a fever pitch thanks to the unstoppable juggernaut that is Avengers Endgame. I have to suppress the urge to be “that guy” who leaps in unwanted and uninvited into someone else’s conversation in order to correct a discussion that is chock full of oh so many factual inaccuracies.

It’s an unpleasant urge and I’m not proud of it. In the grand scheme of things, people getting things wrong about Marvel comics (I think you’ll find that both Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson have been Captain America in the comics, I’ll have you know) is not the sort of thing it’s worth getting worked up about. After all, at the moment, there are far more worrying sources of disinformation about far more important topics for which energy and effort should be expended towards combating.

Shouldn't I also be pleased that the things that I enjoy are now mainstream and accessible and not something to be shamefully admitted to in the hope that the other person won't ridicule you? Having gone through the teenage times in the relative wilderness years of the nineties, when Star Wars was a memory, Doctor Who was that thing with the wobbly sets and comics were largely the province of a nerdy few, I should surely be celebrating the fact that TV and film is dominated by what once considered cult and open discussions about these sort of things are socially acceptable.

Instead, I’m slightly rubbing up against an unpleasant trait that all the truly obsessive have - that other people aren’t enjoying the thing that you love in exactly the same way as you. It’s a problem behaviour that, taken to its extreme, leads to a sense of entitlement within a fandom, an entitlement at the far end of the spectrum which can lead frankly obnoxious reactions - a sense of being owed by creators, a sense of wanting the thing you love to be exactly the way it’s always been without change; all those things that come to the fore in a lot of “toxic fandom” that’s been seen recently.

The fact of the matter is that other people won't necessarily enjoy things in the same way as me (and that includes the things that we like in common) and that’s the way it should be. Our enjoyments and obsessions are personal things, sometimes with a bit of pleasing overlap with other people, but always uniquely our own. It takes a while to accept that and for the most part I do although sometimes I struggle.

I mean, come on, we all know that Captain America’s the one with the hammer, right?

Monday, 29 April 2019

WatchSeeLookView - Avengers Endgame (SPOILERS)

(SPOILER WARNING:- Seriously, I’m going to make this clear, I will be discussing the film and, if you haven’t seen it and intend to, look away now. It really is best viewed without any preconceptions so stop reading this and come back to it later. Honestly. This is the internet, it’ll be here for ages. I can wait.

No, really. Don’t go any further if you have any intention to watch it.

Alright then, you really can't say that I didn't warn you…)

Avengers Endgame
Dir. Joe & Anthony Russo / Running Time. 181 mins

The culmination of nearly eleven years and twenty films-worth of characters and storylines. To say that there is a reasonable weight of expectation upon this one would be something of an understatement...

The Good:- Writing this the day after seeing on this on the big screen, there’s a lot to sift through. It’s a character piece and a big blockbuster-y spectacle. It’s rousing, it’s funny and it’s genuinely emotional at times (not something I ever really expected from a superhero movie*). It wisely decides to focus on a core group of the characters who we have come to know the most over the years but still manages to give everyone a moment of their own. And by everyone, I mean pretty much everyone - almost every supporting character from the previous twenty two films (and even one from one of the spin off shows) shows at some point. It's a move that should really be dreadful fan service but ends up being crowd pleasing. This is, after all, a film for those of us who have sat through most if not all of the previous films. It makes no concessions to the casual viewer and nor should it. That it manages to pull off this incredible achievement - a really fine balancing act between character, action and continuity - is nothing short of remarkable. There are some real stand out moments too - notable among them being Captain America taking up Thor’s hammer (which got a huge cheer at the cinema).  I also don’t think I’ve ever sat through a three hour film that whizzed past that quickly.

The Bad:- I’m a big fan of time travel type stuff and I’m not sure that all of this works out from a time travel perspective when you stop to think about it. Fortunately, the film points out the difficulty of getting time travel films to work in an extremely amusing way and, really, the intricacies of time travel are not the point here.** Also, I was surprised at how little Captain Marvel was utilised given the big build up in the film just beforehand but she’s clearly going to be one of the main players of the next phase.

The Cinema Experience:- A quick note here about watching this at the cinema. I honestly don’t remember the last time I was at a cinema where a film was accompanied by so many spontaneous rounds of applause, huge cheers and loud unashamed sobbing. Also, the first time that I can remember outside of a film festival that a film has got a big round of applause at the end. I definitely recommend seeing this one in a communal setting - there’s nothing quite like it.

The Verdict:- It won't convert anyone new to the Marvel cinematic experience but that was absolutely not the point. This was both a love letter and a victory lap to everyone who has been watching for the last ten or so years and it was delivered with style and grace. A fitting capstone to this chapter and a tough act to follow!

Small Sad Note:- This film marks the last cameo by the late Stan Lee - it seems fitting that he last appears in a film that ends the first saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

* “What about the Christopher Nolan Batman movies?” asks my imaginary-reader-deployed-as-a-literary-technique. They’re good solid superhero films and I enjoyed them (in the way that often seems to happen for me with superhero trilogies - first film given a pass in places for being the origin, second film really enjoyable, third film tails off a bit) but I in no way had anything approaching the same sort of emotional response to it.

** A Side Note About The Time Travel (OK, really spoilery here so really don't read this bit if you've not watched it; also this will be the really ultra-nerdy bit - warning completed):- It really doesn't add up though. They make a big deal about returning all the stones to the right point in time so as not to disrupt things.... but they kill Nebula and Thanos from the past before the snap happens so how does that work? Also, Captain America then goes back and lives a life with Peggy which he didn't do before  (you could say that they kept it secret but that doesn't tie up with the way Peggy behaves in the Agent Carter series or The Winter Soldier). Also, where does Loki go with the tesseract after The Avengers? And how do they give back the Soul Stone if Natasha died to get it? Sadly, this is the way my brain works when it comes to time travel stuff - I can't let it lie...

Friday, 19 April 2019

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today - Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Oh boy, let’s go down with the rabbit hole with this one, shall we?

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Was It Any Good? Seems like a simple question and, for pretty much any other film, it would be. When applied to this film, it comes with a surprising amount of other stuff to unpick (speaking for me personally, that is). As a child, like so many others of my generation, there were two sci-fi obsessions for me:- Doctor Who (which was still on the telly up until 1989, barring a brief hiatus) and Star Wars. Star Wars was a proper obsession too. Doctor Who never really had much in the way of merchandise other than the Target books and an Annual at Christmas. Star Wars, though… we had toys, comics, magazines, clothes, bedding (Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi duvet and pillow covers on careful rotation). Star Wars was written all throughout my childhood like Blackpool through a stick of rock. 

So when George Lucas announced that he was making a new trilogy of films, the long rumoured Episodes I-III, it’s had now to accurately convey the level of excitement around this. It would probably be a similar feeling to a child of the 60s being told that the Beatles were getting back together to record a new album*. I pored over any article about it, dissected any trailers and clips and eagerly bought merchandise in the hope that it would one day be priceless**. When it came out, I took the day off to go and see it (something that I have only have ever done for Star Wars films and, even then, only the prequels). I was genuinely transported to somewhere else when I sat in the cinema watching the new titles for a new Star Wars film scroll up the screen and I came out of the cinema convinced that I’d enjoyed it. I even went back and watched it at the cinema again and, of course, being a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars obsessive, I have owned it on VHS, DVD and BluRay.

Has It Dated? Time has not been kind to it and it had become fashionable within sci-fi fandom (and the wider critical world at large) to bash the prequels. Of the first six films, it’s the one that I really struggle to rewatch. The pod race and the climactic lightsaber duel/space battle are exciting pieces of cinema (and, let’s face it, Darth Maul is a cool-looking if underused villain)  but so much of what surrounds those two pieces is clunky and hard to watch (trade federations, midichlorians, weirdly racist-sounding accents).

Still Worth A Watch? If you’re a completist who wants to see the Star Wars story from start to finish as George Lucas envisioned it then you’ll have to watch it as it’s the first one. Your enjoyment of this film will depend largely on your own relationship to Star Wars - it’s a tough one for fans of the originals, it’s a source of enjoyment for those who grew up with it as their Star Wars and it’s most likely a curiosity piece to those coming into it today. So, in summary then, oof, tricky. (Hey, at least I made it all the way through without mentioning Jar Jar…. oh, bugger.)

* I realise that this wouldn't have happened in 1999 due to John Lennon having been dead for some time. It’s not a perfect analogy but I’m sticking with it.

** The Folly Of Merchandise Speculating is a whole other discussion for another time.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today - The Matrix

Our whistle stop tour of the year that was 1999 continues with a little known independent film about a man having an identity crisis.

The Matrix
Was It Any Good? It’s easy now in the light of the disappointing sequels to forget what an impact The Matrix had at the time. In terms of the impact on the look and feel of science fiction film making, it’s not exaggerating its importance to say that it had the same effect on cinematography that Blade Runner had back in the early 80s (the sort of effect that is a double edged sword as, for every film that was improved by attempting to be fresh like the Matrix, you ended up with ten that looked like poor knock offs). The washed out greeny filter, the revolutionary "bullet time" effects, the blending of martial arts movie sensibility with American sci-fi - these gave the Matrix a freshness that, at the time, was exciting. This was still in a time when the CGI special effects revolution was in progress so not everything was awash with computer imagery and there's still a lot of practical stunt work at play here. Keanu Reeves will never be the world’s greatest actor but, in the role of Neo where he largely has to look cool in a long coat, he’s a perfect fit. Plus Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus may well be one of the coolest sci-fi characters ever if only for the nonchalant way in which he first fights Neo. It’s a confident film from the Wachowskis too, especially given that this is only their second feature film as directors.

Has It Dated? Only in the way that a lot sci-fi dates - the technology of the “modern” world is obviously twenty years out of date but the film even has a way of protecting itself from that by stating that the machines have recreated life as it was at the end of the twentieth century.

Still Worth A Watch? Ignore the increasingly disappointing sequels (the second one is largely better than you remember it being, the third one… the third one is still not good) and give this another watch. It’s still a cracking sci-fi film that justifiably stands the test of time.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019


Now that I think about it, it is a funny sounding word when you look at it on its own and then start to say it repeatedly:- nuance, nuance, nuance…. I’ve distracted myself in the first sentence. Start again. 

Nuance is something that seems to be in short supply when it come to online debate (“online debate” feeling like somewhat of a mythical beast in itself). The brevity required by a status update on social media and the desire for ‘likes” on said platforms are, as we all know, not conducive to creating an atmosphere in which a healthy back and forth debate can be generated (after all, any thread on the internet is only two to three comments away from someone calling someone else a Nazi or a cunt or both). There is this strong feeling that every complex issue has to have a single definitive statement or viewpoint that boils everything down to a simple for or against which often comes with an assumption that, by stating one thing, you’re automatically excluding any other possibilities or even actively against those other options.

In my own naive and ham-fisted way, let’s take a look at some recent examples and give some opinions about them that can all be true without necessarily negating the others.

The Notre Dame Cathedral Fire
It is tragic that an historic building has been decimated by fire.
It is heartening that a wealthy benefactor has donated to restore it.
It is sickening that wealthy benefactors don’t donate to causes that could improve the lives of blighted by similar tragedies affecting non-historic buildings (for example, the Grenfell fire).
It is sickening that we live in a society where there exist a need for benefactors to step in to help people like that as the systems we have in place are failing them (for various reasons).
Organised religion has been responsible for many atrocious things throughout history.
Organised (and non-organised) religion provides comfort to many and it is understandable that a symbolic building’s ravaging would upset followers of faith (as well as those with no particular vested interest in that faith). 
Donald Trump is an idiot for suggesting dumping a huge amount of water on an historic burning building that would effectively completely destroy it.

Julian Assange’s Arrest
It is worrying that political asylum can't protect you from whistle blowing on potentially criminal practices within government.
It is worrying that political asylum can protect an accused rapist from facing prosecution.
He shouldn't be revoked asylum on political grounds. He should be revoked asylum to stand trial for sexual assault.
Donald Trump is a liar for saying that he’s never heard of WikiLeaks despite repeatedly praising them on the campaign trail.

It’s a fucking mess. I’m not touching that one with a bargepole.
Donald Trump should really keep his nose out of this one.

There you go. Some of those don't necessarily seem to sit together but it is possible to believe all of those things at once. That's one of the advantages of the human capacity for reasoning - it allows us to hold contradictory thoughts in our heads and (for the most part) not go insane. So in conclusion, it is possible to hold multiple views on the same subject without having to fly your flag for one particular facet of it. Unless, that is, you think that Donald Trump isn’t a lying, misogynistic racist in which case you ARE wrong.*

* It’s a weak and lazy attempt at satire, yes, but I’m going to stick with it as a punchline as I don't have another ending. Normal inconsequentially nerdy service will be resumed tomorrow.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today - Spaced

(OK, obviously I’m not using that title literally - the things I’m going to write about weren’t all released this week twenty years ago. I’m using “today” in the Beatles-style Sgt Pepper-y reference way to refer to these things being released in 1999 in general. Disclaimer disclaimed.)

Twenty years. Two decades. Hardly seems possible but it is true. Things that I think of as being still relatively recent are undeniably getting on a bit. So does that mean that these things are looked at through a lens of the 90s which is somewhat rose-tinted and maybe no longer holds up? Let’s get into it and find out, shall we?

So What Is It? A Channel 4 sitcom about two twenty-somethings who, having lied about being a couple in order to get a flat, get into pop-culture tinged situations with their misfit selection of friends.

Was It Any Good? If by some chance you haven’t seen this but are familiar with the films Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End then you should absolutely check this out as this is where Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright first made their mark. It’s slick ands stylish but not at the expense of character - Simon Pegg and Jessica Stephenson’s (as she’s credited back then - Jessica Hynes now) script puts the Tim and Daisy relationship front and centre. It’s also very funny with plenty of quotable lines (more than I few of which I’ve realised have found their way into my everyday speech) and a nice line in running gags (particularly the “story about an incident in Tim and Mike’s past" which keeps getting interrupted). The supporting cast are great too - in addition to Pegg and Stevenson/Hynes, Nick Frost, Mark Heap, Julia Deakin and Katy Carmichael are all excellent. Of the supporting cast, it’s only Katy Carmichael that I haven’t really seen much of since (largely because she moved into soaps and dramas which I wouldn't have been watching).

Has It Dated? Not too much, surprisingly. A couple of the references are contemporary and probably wouldn’t make much sense to a modern audience but a lot of the references are to classic pop culture film and TV that have already stood the test of time anyway.

Still Worth A Watch? Oh yes. Come get some.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

A Slice Of Television Gold

I’ve largely tried to position this blog as something that is focussed on the positive*, particularly when it comes to discussion of creative things. There are so many things to talk about when it comes to film, television, books, comics, theatre, comedy, the arts in general that I would rather focus on recommending stuff what I like in the hope that some of that enthusiasm might prompt someone to check it out and maybe also find something that they enjoy.

I’ve almost been hesitant when it came to discussing this programme. Not because I don’t like it - I absolutely love it. Not because it isn’t good - it’s one of the best TV shows in recent memory. No, I’ve actually hesitated talking about it because I don’t think I could I could bear it if I recommended it and someone else didn't enjoy it as much as me.


What Is It? A sitcom that follows the life of a woman who has a horrible feeling that she’s a “greedy perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can't even call herself a feminist” (a description that in no way even begins to do it justice).

Why’s It So Good? Just the little matter of writing and performance combined. Phoebe Waller-Bridge converts her own stage play into a sitcom and those stage roots pay off in spades for the first series, giving a storyline that pays off in a satisfying manner by the final episode. It’s also very funny - Waller-Bridge knows how to craft a good line and her asides, looks and glances to the camera throughout are superbly timed and delivered. It’s also one of those rare beasts in which the full cast pull their weight throughout from Sian Clifford as uptight sister Claire with Brett Gelman as gross brother-in-law Martin through to Bill Patterson and Olivia Colman on fine form as her ineffectual father and monstrous stepmother/godmother respectively. 
Having delivered a first series that tells a complete story, Waller-Bridge has pulled off the difficult trick of managing to deliver a second series that satisfies from a character point of view while still being funny and fresh.

A Note About What Sort Of Series This Is:- I’ve seen this described a few times a few times as sitcom noir, a description that I’m not fond of. It seems to imply that “regular” sitcom is incapable of going to darker places so a new description is needed. This is patently untrue as anyone who has been moved by the death of Coach in Cheers or of Henry in M*A*S*H* or the sacrifice of the main characters at the end of Blackadder Goes Forth can attest. It’s not actually the “sit” in sitcom that is the most important element; it’s the characters and the dynamics created between that make good sitcoms great and enable you to switch from comedy to tragedy. Phoebe Waller-Bridge understands this completely and deploys both when it best serves the show to do so.

Nice Little Touches:- It genuinely took me a few episodes to notice that, apart from Claire, Martin and best friend Boo (although that could be a nickname), no one has a character name. Just Fleabag, Dad, Godmother, Areshole Guy, Bus Rodent, etc…
Also, I’m a big fan of talking to camera as technique when it’s done well and here it is employed brilliantly (with some particular surprises in the second series).

So Should I Watch It? Like many great British TV shows, it’s only two series long and there will be no more so it won't take you long to watch. If you haven’t yet, unreservedly so, yes (although i will be upset if you’re not as into it as me, sorry) and if you have, ah, stick it on again. It’s a show that holds up to repeat viewings.

* Rants about the everyday fun of commuting excepted.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Henson Rarities - Tales From Muppetland

There are many, many corners of the Henson universe that I could spend blog post after blo post uncovering but no one likes a theme that outstays its welcome so let’s wrap it up with these three. I first came across these on rental VHS tapes back in the mid-80s at a time when I was hungry anything Muppet-related that I hadn’t seen before. These were “new” to me at the time even though, in actual fact, they pre-dated The Muppet Show by some time.

Hey, Cinderella!
The first of the Tales From Muppetland specials in which classic fairy tales were given the Henson once-over, this also features a number of firsts. It’s the first time that Kermit is recognisably the Kermit the Frog we know today. He’d been around in one form or another as a sort of lizard-y character since the 1955 series Sam And Friends (Henson’s first TV series) but this was the first time he had the collar, flippers and is definitively referred to as a frog. It also features the first full-bodied Muppet character, Splurge, a technique that they would go on to use many times in later shows. 

The Frog Prince
Another familiar fairy tale and a couple more classic characters make their debuts. Kermit’s nephew Robin appears for the first time here (and we’ve still never seen his parents - who are his mum and dad? Is it Kermit’s brother or sister? Are they dead? Is Kermit effectively his adoptive parent? Am I overthinking this?) as well as recurring full-bodied puppet Sweetums.

The Muppet Musicians Of Bremen
Fairy tale time once again but a slight departure in this one as, other than introductory and closing segments from Kermit, this one doesn’t feature any of the regular Muppet characters. In a way, this one probably more resembles as show like The Storyteller in format (in which John Hurt as The Storyteller framed and narrated retellings of European folk tales). It’s also similar in the the musicians of Bremen is a less well-known tale when compared to Cinderella or The Frog Prince.

These three specials a very much examples of some trying to flex their creative muscles and see what they can do. They’re worth watching to trace the evolution of the Muppets from early adverts and specials via Sesame Street through to The Muppet Show and beyond. There are plenty of other lesser known Henson works out there but let’s save some for another time...

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Henson Rarities - Time Piece

Jim Henson wasn’t just interested in puppetry. He was interested in the possibilities offered by television and film and in exploring the ways in which you could exploit them in new and interesting ways. He was obviously a keen and shrewd businessman with an eye for producing entertainment that would generate money. He was also someone with an artistic sensibility who liked to make things for the sheer joy offered by the process of creation.

As well as TV shows and films, Henson also made forays into the world of short films. His approach to live action short filmmaking was very much influenced by his fondness for jazz. They tend to be a combination of images and music, generally without any strict narrative, that use symbolism to convey meaning to the audience. While they have some of the freeform feel of some Muppet sketches, they’re very much a departure from what most people associate as a Henson product. Some of these efforts include Ripples, a selection of sound and images sparked off by an architect dropping a sugar cube in to his cup of tea and Wheels That Go starring a very young Brian Henson playing with his toy car.

The most striking of these shorts though is Time Piece, a surrealist film with a strong sense of time and music featuring some animation but nothing in the way of puppetry. At times, it calls to mind the similar playing around with film that Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan got up to with The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film. It was made over the course of about a year inbetween other projects and, after its release, was nominated for an Academy Award in the short film category.

Henson starts in the film and it shows a still playful but slightly different side to him. There are some slightly more adult themes than would appear in his more family friendly work* but the sense of humor is still recognisably silly. Below is a link to the film in full so you can judge for yourself…

* A brief side note on the Muppets and the notion of “being adult” - The most recent Muppet series (the one that had some of the mock documentary style of The Office) was pitched as being more adult than before. This creates the impression that The Muppet Show was a show for kids. It wasn’t. The Muppet Show was aimed at an adult audience but designed so that it could be watched by the whole family. It was a primetime comedy show that was kid-friendly, not a show for children that adults loved too. This was one of the reasons that the latest series didn’t quite work as it misunderstood that dynamic as well as some of the dynamics between the characters, notably Kermit and Miss Piggy (although it was improving as it went on so it’s a shame it got cancelled before it had a chance to grow into something else).

Monday, 8 April 2019

Henson Rarities - The Muppet Show Pilots

There are pop culture obsessions that run throughout the entirety of my life. Doctor Who and Star Wars have become obvious enough round these here parts but the other one that I mention on here less frequently is Mr Jim Henson. I cannot remember a time when I didn't love the Muppets. My dinner used to be served to me on a laminated Muppet placemat (a different one to The Brother’s to avoid arguments, naturally). My school lunches were carried around in my Muppet Show lunchbox with matching flask, complete with Kermit The Frog images. Muppet toys, Muppet albums (The Muppet Show Album and The Muppet Movie Soundtrack on vinyl - both still owned), Muppet books - they were just always there.

The love never died as I got older but the interest shifted to behind the scenes as much as in front of them - to the craft and artistry, the puppeteers who helped create these worlds out of felt and latex along with Jim Henson. Like any true obsessive with delusions of creativity, I sought out anything and everything Muppet related to be able to see the evolution from those initial thoughts, ideas and sketches into the fully fledged creations that they would later become.

So, we’re going to take a look at some of the lesser known corners of Jim Henson’s universes and see what else he tried (with varying degrees of success). 

The Muppet Show Pilots
Jim Henson tried a couple of times to get The Muppet Show off the ground. Given the success of Sesame Street as an entertainer and educator of children, the assumption was that he would create something else solely for children. Henson was keen not to get pigeonholed as “just for kids” and wanted to prove that puppetry could provide a prime-time family experience, not just something for the kids.

The Muppets Valentine Show
His first attempt was this show for ABC in 1974. The format isn’t there yet - there’s not Muppet Theatre (the special takes place in a house) and, while Kermit does appear, he’s not the host - that honour falls to a more humanoid host character called Wally who is struggling with writer’s block throughout the special. Elements that are recognisably Muppet Show-esque are the presence of a guest star throughout, the use of sketches to highlight different characters along with the guest and the presence of the main Muppet performers (Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt) albeit not necessarily playing their most famous creations yet.

The Muppet Show: Sex And Violence
With this pilot attempt (again for ABC but in 1975), Henson is getting closer to the format but it’s still not quite there. It’s set in a theatre and pings back and forth between backstage shenanigans and onstage lunacy but there’s still a vital ingredient missing. Once again, that missing ingredient is Kermit as the focal point holding it all together. Here we have Nigel (who would later feature in the titles of every episode as the conductor in the orchestra pit) but Nigel is wimpy and whiny without having that sense of just barely holding it all together under pressure that Kermit has.

Both are fascinating from an evolutionary perspective as you can see the beginnings of what was to be the behemoth that would become the Muppet Show (which would, by its later seasons, have Hollywood stars queueing up to appear on it) but the elements aren’t all there. It was Lord Lew Grade and ATV over here in the UK who finally took a chance on The Muppets and the rest is history...

Friday, 5 April 2019

Batman At 80 - Batman: The Animated Series

I was a teenager when this series started, arguably too old to be watching a cartoon on Saturday morning kids TV but, let’s face it, a) I was (and am) your geeky nerdy type who’s not going to miss out on comic-y stuff and 2) you’re never too old for cartoons. Let’s get straight into this one.

What’s Good About This One?
A logo fades into a pair of searchlights. The stylised silhouettes of criminals frame an exploding bank doorway. A hero’s vehicle springs into action. A similarly silhouetted rooftop battle ensues. The hero is victorious and stands framed against the night sky by lightning and thunder. No title is shown. You know who this is.

It’s without a doubt one of the greatest title sequences ever and is so confident that it doesn’t even need to display the programme's title. It sets the tone for the show to come, both in terms of mood and animation. It comes after the 80s when a lot of animation was farmed out to cheaper overseas animation houses with a generic look.

It redefines / introduces a number of Batman characters in ways that still linger to this day. Mr Freeze’s tragic backstory of the scientist transformed by an accident while desperately trying to find a cure for his dying wife was then retrofitted into the comics and the character of Harley Quinn (recently portrayed by Margot Robbie) was an original creation for the series who then found her way back into the comics*.

A whole universe spun out of the show in the form of Batman Beyond**, Superman The Animated Series and H=Justice League, all of which interlink. In fact, Justice League even has a “final” episode set after the end of Batman Beyond with a closing shot that mirrors the opening shot of the first Batman: The Animated Series episode (I say “final” because it got unexpectedly recommissioned for another series after that so it’s not actually the final episode even though it was intended as such).

It’s a high benchmark not just in superhero animation but in cartoon in general and, thanks to its retro-styled setting, it stands the test of time pretty well. The series has recently been remastered for BluRay and it looks pretty damn good.

So there you have it. A whistle stop tour to some of the Batman things I have enjoyed over the years. I’m sure that there are plenty of things I’ve left out but that’s a lot of Batman to cover.

Happy birthday, Bruce Wayne. Here’s to the next 80…

* Funnily enough, during the No Man’s land storyline mentioned yesterday.

** Bizarrely titled Batman Of The Future over here as we’re clearly too dense to comprehend the original title...

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Batman At 80 - Crossovers

Crossovers. The bane* of the comic book collector’s life. In non-cynical terms, it’s a storyline so epic that it needs to be played out across more than one character’s monthly title, giving you more story to sink your teeth into. In cynical terms, it’s an excuse for the comics companies to try and bump up sales on books that don’t sell as well as the main titles (“Oh, you can't just read it in Batman and Detective Comics. You also need to get Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Birds Of Prey and Ace The Bat-Hound.**”)

I can't help, though, I always had a soft spot for them. In large part prompted by the fact that, when I started collecting, a major Batman storyline was just kicking off.

What’s Good About This One?
There’s no denying that this storyline had a lasting impact on the world of Batman. It was the storyline that introduced Bane*** into the army of regular villains that keep cropping up over the years; a villain with enough of a presence to be featured in two of the live-action Batman films****. It was also notable for replacing Bruce Wayne as Batman for the best part of a year at around the same time that DC had killed off Superman (spoiler - he got better), generating a fair amount of publicity for both. It has its flaws and the Knightquest/psycho Batman replacement part of the storyline maybe goes on a little too long but it got me into the whole crossover storyline thing. 

No Man’s Land
What’s Good About This One?
This has to be my favourite of the long-form crossover storylines though. An earthquake (hitting a hitherto undiscovered fault line under Gotham) cripples Gotham City, leading to the US government to cut it off from the rest of the country, Gotham being so deprived and crime-ridden that it’s deemed not worth saving. The police, Batman allies, remaining citizens and escaped Batman villains then carve up the city into fiefdoms, battling for control of territory while trying to get the No Man’s Land decree overturned. It’s a great scenario and places the heroes and villains into previously unexplored areas and goes on long enough to make you feel like this could remain the new status quo (it doesn’t, of course - this is comics and everything resets to zero eventually).

If we’re talking my favourite incarnation / portrayal of Batman, though, we have to go back to the screen again...

* If you spotted that slightly foreshadowy pun, well done. You’re my kind of nerd.

** OK, the last one has never had his own monthly title but give it time…

*** “Ah right, that’s what you meant…” - Non-nerdy types

**** Yeah, I know that we said that we wouldn’t mention Batman And Robin but he is in that one many years before The Dark Knight Rises as a sort of weirdly reptilian mute wrestler. Makes about as much sense as anything else in that car crash.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Batman At 80 - The Killing Joke

So having been brought into the world of Batman by the Adam West and Tim Burton films, it was time to get into the world of comics. That entry into the comics realm was prompted by a stalwart of British comics publishing…

I’ve written before about my gateway into the world of comics collecting being 2000AD so it really should come as no surprise that my entry point into the world of Batman comics would be one created by an artist and a writer who both got their start working over here for the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic.

What’s Good About This One?
The mid-80s saw a shift in the American comics landscape. Year One and The Dark Knight Returns had redefined the sort of story that could be told in mainstream comics accompanied by Watchmen, a deconstruction of the traditional view of superheroes by English writer Alan Moore. This was the beginnings of a steady pilfering of comics talent nurtured in the pages of 2000AD before being poached to either work on traditional superhero comics or their own more adult oriented and eventually creator owned titles (the soon to be started up Vertigo line and Image comics pushing this forward).

Into this comes the afore-mentioned Alan Moore accompanied by former Judge Dredd and Nemesis The Warlock artist Brian Bolland with a modern reimagining of the Joker’s origin (as first presented back in 1951) - a tragic tale told in flashback about a struggling stand-up comedian who finds himself caught up in a robbery gone wrong combined with a modern era tale of the Joker’s torture of Commissioner and Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) in order to prove that it all it takes to be the Joker is one bad day. 

For me, this was a revelation. I didn't know that superhero comics could be like this and I was immediately hooked into the world of Batman comics (helped along by already being a fan of Bolland’s art on both Dredd and Nemesis). Curiously, my affection for this tale (which admittedly does feature some problematic treatment of Barbara Gordon) is not shared by the tale’s author, Alan Moore, who doesn’t rate it as a particularly good book.

From there, I was into the recognised classics of the time like Year One, The Dark Knight Returns and Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum and, before I knew it, was buying monthly books...

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Batman At 80 - The Tim Burton Years

Of course, if Batman is now 80, this makes the first of the Tim Burton Batman films thirty years old. Yep, Batman (1989) was released to coincide with the Dark Knight’s 50th birthday. 

What’s Good About This One?
If I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t completely bowled over by the first film. I liked the look and feel of it (especially the Batmobile design), I really liked Danny Elfman’s theme and I enjoyed Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker. There was something overall about it though that didn’t quite elevate it into the realm of one of my favourites. Sure, I liked it but it wasn’t going to hit the list of films that I endlessly and obsessively rewatched (mainly comedies but a fair few sci-fi/fantasy ones too).

Skip forward three years and Batman Returns comes out. This one clicked. There was something in this one that just came together for me in a way that the first one almost did but didn't quite. Yes, alright, on one level, it was Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman that was appealing to 16 year old me (as briefly mentioned yesterday) but it was more than that. Danny DeVito’s revolting portrayal of the Penguin, chomping on raw flesh and dribbling black bile; a supervillain team up between Catwoman and the Penguin; Christopher Walken as….well, let’s face it, Christopher Walken*. All of the elements this time round combined into something more than the sum of its parts and really worked.

Once this came out on VHS, it was repeatedly watched. Once Tim Burton left, however, but the franchise continued, my interest declined. Batman Forever was a film that I wanted to like more than I did (Jim Carrey at the time seemed fun but Tommy Lee Jones was playing a version of the character Two Face that seemed to have no bearing on the comics) and Batman And Robin is a misfire on every possible level that is best consigned to the rubbish bin of history. No, really, chuck it out and forget about it (worst film I’ve been to the cinema to see).

The other side effect of a definite liking for Batman Forever was that it finally kindled an interest in picking up the comics. And pick them up I did...

* It’s such a subjective thing. There are some actors who get away with just being versions of themselves and I find it endlessly watchable or delightful - Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, Jack Nicholson - and yet there are others who do it and I find it intensely irritating (sorry, Hugh Grant, I’m talking about you...with the possible exception of Paddington 2 and The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!)

Monday, 1 April 2019

Batman At 80 - Batman: The Movie (1966)

The billionaire playboy who dresses up in a lycra bodysuit and spends his evening punching baddies because he misses his mum and dad turned 80 years old last month and is looking pretty sprightly for an octogenarian. As with any fictional character that has spanned the decades, he’s been open to many and varied interpretations through the years so let’s take a whistle stop tour of some of the versions that have settled in to my general pop cultural mulch.

I always thought that an interest in Batman the character was something that developed in my early teenage years as that was when the Tim Burton films came out* and I began collecting the comics in earnest. In reality, Batman had been a core component of my pop cultural life long before that. The reason? A taped-off-the-telly VHS tape of the stone-cold classic Adam West-starring Batman: The Movie that was worn ragged by a six year old Baldy Fella (obviously not bald at that point).

What’s Good About This One?
The writing, style and direction all play their part in giving this version of Bruce Wayne such an enduring appeal but the reason this version is so iconic and still for a lot of people what they think of when you mention Batman is down to one person:- Adam West. His portrayal of the Caped Crusader is an absolute masterclass in playing it straight for laughs. He clearly knows this is a comedy but he treats it with a level of seriousness that enhances the comedy. It’s a similar technique to the ones that would be used by Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers for Police Squad! and Airplane! in the early 80s.

Like a lot of the best comedy, it works on multiple levels. As a six year old, I took the whole thing at face value and it was an exciting adventure about Batman going up against his greatest villains. As I grew older, I suddenly saw it with different eyes and could appreciate the sublime lunacy of Shark Repellent Bat-Spray and an inability to throw away a bomb due to inconveniently placed ducks and nuns. This is the secret of its enduring appeal  - it offers something for everyone, old and young. The only minor drawback? The main titles (stylish though they are and still composed by Neal Hefti) don’t feature the iconic Batman theme… and let’s face it, if we’re asked to think of a Batman theme, we all still think "dinner-dinner-dinner-dinner-dinner-dinner-dinner-dinner-Batman!"

So, whether I was conscious of it or not,  that started me down the path. What was the next stop on the Bat-path to Bat-fandom? Tune in next time, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel...

* It’s more than fair to say that the combination of teenage years plus Michelle Pfeiffer in a skintight catsuit certainly had an impact upon me...