Monday, August 26, 2013

POBB: August 21, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
August 21, 2013
Ray Tate

This week we inject a double dose of the Trinity War with reviews of Justice League Dark and Pandora.  We also look at the first issue of the new Batman Beyond title as well as the latest from Supergirl and Wonder Woman.  

While I was happily writing the latest POBB, Warner Brothers decided to break the Internet.  Everybody and his uncle thinks I'm going to explode over the news. 

The Powers That Be chose Ben Affleck to portray Batman in the Superman/Batman movie.  Sorry, to disappoint.  The news just forced me to write some more.

Warner Brothers exhibits a long history of not putting together superhero movies that they previously announced as done deals.  For example, Ryan Reynolds was never meant to be the Green Lantern.  He was slated to be the Flash, in a movie promised but never filmed.  The WB hired Joss Whedon to script a Wonder Woman movie.  They then decided not to move a muscle.  Warner Brothers filmed a Wonder Woman television pilot and pulled it before it ever aired; a tactic that mirrors the proposed Aquaman television series Mercy Reef.  Even more pertinent, a Superman/Batman movie proposal isn't new.  Warner Brothers tapped Wolfgang Peterson to direct Superman vs. Batman, but that never happened.  

There will be at least two more Superman films with the principal cast intact.  Of that I have no doubt.  They will likely involve Lex Luthor and Brainiac, respectively, but I'm confident.  Batman won't be anywhere near these movies, and by the time Warner Brothers decides to reboot Batman, Ben Affleck will be otherwise engaged.  What with the success of Argo, I'm guessing he's a busy man.

The fact of the matter is that one man, Joel Schumacher, crippled the superhero movie industry, and it never really recovered as a phenomena equivalent to Tim Burton's and Michael Keaton's Batman and Batman Returns until Robert Downey Jr. wowed every living thing on the planet as Iron Man.  Don't get me wrong.  There were successes in between, but until Iron Man, nobody outside of comic book readers took these films seriously.

But let's say I'm wrong.  Let's say "the wind's in the right direction" and Warner Brothers actually pulls off Superman/Batman.  How would I feel about Ben Affleck as Batman.  The same way I feel about Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  Let's see some footage.  Then I'll decide.  

From what I glean from the Internet, the petitioners are judging Mr. Affleck by his other superhero movie.  You know what? Lay off the guy.  Daredevil wasn't entirely Ben Affleck's fault.  If you want to blame anybody for that mess, blame the writer, the director, the armorer.  Affleck made a good, believable Matt Murdock.  In fact I wanted to see more of him and his relationship with Elektra and less of Mr. Grumpy in the Red Suit.  Incidentally, he married Jennifer Garner.  So clearly I wasn't inferring the chemistry.

Something else should be kept in mind.  The fact is, I had to see Clean and Sober before I accepted Michael Keaton as a dramatic actor.  Until then, I only considered him an expert comedian.  Keaton in fact saw all the nay-saying as a challenge and delivered the best Batman ever.  He furthermore cemented his association with the character by not doing a third film.  He turned down a pile of money and refused to betray the character he evolved on screen.  He refused to kowtow to the real enemy of superhero films Joel Schumacher.  For that Mr. Keaton earned my undying admiration.  These are the reasons that Michael Keaton will be the quintessential Batman, no matter who dons the suit.  

Assuming this juggernaut is made, maybe Ben Affleck will follow in Keaton's footsteps.  Maybe he'll take the Internet's fury as a challenge.  Maybe he'll deliver a Batman that's at least second to Keaton's identification.  I'll tell you this.  He can't do any worse than Christian Bale with his Fat Albert imitation and lack of fighting prowess.

You'll want to read Justice League Dark before you read Pandora. Jeff Lemire returns to solo duty to solve the puzzle of how to deal with a Wonder Woman corrupted by Pandora's Box.

The story plays out as expected up to a point.  Then it goes topsy-turvy.  It turns out that only one protagonist can handle the Box without being corrupted by it, which is a surprise and not a surprise when the reader thinks a moment.

No, no.  It's not Batman, but artist Michael Janin can really render him and every other hero beautifully.

Back in the ruins of ARGUS, blown up by Plastique, the Justice Leagues act proactively.

Plump or lean, there's just no liking this officious bitch.

I must admit that I'm not entirely convinced that Waller's behind all this mayhem.  The so-called Secret Society may be exploiting her well-known hatred of the Justice League.  Whatever Waller's motives, the idea of her leading a group of superheroes established to counter the Justice League is over.  The League now knows about her group.  The members in the group have already expressed doubts over their mission, and nothing has gone according to her plan.

With that in mind the Trinity War is indeed going to affect the rest of the DCU, assuming Madame Xanadu's visions do not come true, which would be a rarity.  The aftermath will nevertheless have consequences.

Normally, these company wide crossovers feel like free-for-alls that either shortchange the faithful fan of the title where the chapter occurs or deprive the overall fan with less than meaty characterizations of the heroes.  I've called Trinity War the best crossover since Final Night, and it accomplishes this without undermining the starring cast.

Lemire and Janin while giving every participant, however small, a good line or a good moment also emphasizes that this is still Justice League Dark's book.  Constantine plays an important part in the story.  As mentioned, Xanadu returns to the pages, and Zatanna fans will not want to miss this issue.  Lemire escalates her power of character, and he does so without plaguing her history with failure like Morrison did in his Seven Soliders of Victory mini-series.  Instead, Lemire shows Zee working the magic, being decisive and facing the enemy.

Probably the strongest Zatanna has ever been

Pandora is a brand new title to the POBB, but I have encountered the character before in the final issue of Flashpoint and as the star in a back up story in Justice League.  Pandora is actually the mythological Pandora.  I'll assume everybody knows her myth.  How she opens a box that contain all the ills of mankind, while clamping the box shut to keep hope, the last thing inside, alive.

That myth is the scrubbed version.  The truth of the matter is that as far as we know Pandora was created by a poet named Hesiod.  Hesiod if not a misogynist was definitely a sexist.  According to Hesiod, Pandora was sculpted from the earth by Hephaestus and Aphrodite, under the orders of Zeus, to punish mankind for accepting fire from Prometheus, the Titan, not the crap film.

Pandora existed to bring pain and misery to man.  She toted around an urn filled with evil.  She knew what was in the urn, and she reveled in the destruction she caused.  Though let me emphasize that this wasn't big budget spectacle type of damage but sown seeds of psychological torture.  If you see parallels to Eve and the Serpent, you're not wrong, but if you're looking for a grain of truth, I'm guessing Hesiod just struck out all the time with the fairer sex and decided to put his frustration to iambic pentameter.

Over the years, artists and writers tweaked the myth of Pandora: adding hope at the bottom of the urn; changing the urn to to a box; sometimes absolving Pandora, turning her from malicious as Hesiod intended to an innocent; eliminating her ties to the gods and making her an ordinary woman tempted by curiosity.

The new 52 Pandora released the Seven Deadly Sins from Captain Marvel's adventures.  Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family of course debuted in the titles of Fawcett Comics, absorbed by DC.  During the opening years of the post-Crisis, creators made an effort to, barring the odd team-up, isolate the Marvel Family from the rest of the DCU.  It was a sound decision.  The Marvel Family as they were really do not gel with DC.

Merging the Captain Marvel history with the new character Pandora is however a very clever use of shared-universe continuity.  Like the myth, DC's Pandora released evil into the world, the Seven Sins.  Pandora also like the updated figure of lore felt guilt over her actions.  Because this is a superhero setting, DC takes advantage of the longevity of the folklore and makes Pandora an immortal battler of evil.  To this extent, Pandora bears a resemblance to the first masked female vigilante The Woman in Red.  As such, there's a double joke in this.  First woman of some Greek myths.  First female vigilante.

The story begins with Pandora in the thick of things.  She stands in the middle of the Trinity War, and unknown to the superheroes, the Seven Sins are feeding and fueling their actions.  Pandora cannot stop these creatures who refer to her as "mother," a clue to their defeat.  As she tries to combat these manifestations, she remembers her past.  A natural traveler, Pandora sought wise men and women to help her learn to fight the monsters she unleashed.

Writer Ray Fawkes establishes her character swiftly and strongly.  Whether in the past or present, Batgirl's Daniel Sampere and Vincente Cifuentes instill beauty and realism to the vignettes as well as aberration to the Seven Sins re-imagined in ways that differ from all other interpretations, especially the innocent original.

I don't know if Pandora is a mere mini-series or an ongoing, but the creative team behind her makes me want more.  The potential in this creation as a continuing protagonist is vast.  

Wonder Woman contends against the First Born's Hyena Men in London.  The First Born is exactly that.  He's the first son of Hera.  He's angry because Zeus did that old Dad magic on him and wants his rightful position on the throne.  Rather than wait for elections or a recall, since the sun god Apollo recently claimed Olympus, The First Born intends to wage a bloody coup.  He'll first though need to go through Ares, his mother Hera, Orion, Zola and Zeke in addition to Princess Diana of Paradise Island.

Writer Brian Azzarello guides Wonder Woman into new territory.  He employs some of the new 52 tweaks to her character that he introduced in previous issues and relies on the characterization he evolved for those past twenty three issues; this is actually issue 24 because of the zero issue.  If you've been reading the title from the start, some scenes will really surprise you just because a character behaves marvelously differently than you expect.  That's because the character hadn't reached a point of understanding in the beginning. 

Indeed, Azzarello breaks a long, long tradition in the climax of the story, and keeps Wonder Woman moving rather than maintaining a status quo.  

I've spoken about Wonder Woman's protean nature last week in the Smallville review.  Here again is an issue of her own title that exemplifies that Wonder Woman can play so many unusual roles throughout her long history--spy or space pirate for instance--and they all still stick.  I think this ability reflects an integral immortality introduced in the character from day one.  Wonder Woman is eternal, and while writers never really played with that aspect in terms of having her walk through time and watch the flow of history.  It's still there.

Azzarello appears to recognize it.  I said as much in the new 52 premiere where we encounter Wonder Woman in a hotel in London.  I remarked then that London would welcome a renowned Nazi fighter from history.  Azzarello hasn't explicitly suggested Diana's long life.  He instead hinted at Diana's resonance and detailed nuanced experience as a warrior through tutelage under Ares, perhaps other gods.  That comprehension leads to the startling finish to the story that once more changes Wonder Woman.

Supergirl this week rocks.  Michael Alan Nelson dusts off the hoary plot of a hero confronting his demons literally.  Because of the manifesting powers of the Big Bad--in this case Cyborg Superman II Electric Boogaloo--Supergirl battles imagoes of her memories.  

Normally writers present such phantasms as formidable creatures that tell uncomfortable truths about the hero or as powerful as the hero makes the foes.  Then the hero goes through a journey of self-discovery as he or she gets battered by the enemy for about three or four chapters before accepting his failings and either reabsorbing the demons or successfully banishing them somehow, usually peacefully.  Not in Supergirl.

These bouts are nothing like fair fights.  Supergirl totally denies anything her opponents say to psych her out, and she pretty much pastes each homunculus that dares to confront her.  

The truth is that Supergirl is actually a champion who is dying from kryptonite poisoning that she voluntarily accepted to save planet earth from H'el, a Kryptonian nutcase.  She fought the good fight.  She's dying because of self-sacrifice.  Anything the creations say are mere words.  Supergirl is all action.

Had Nelson simply gone through the motions with these things making Kara feel bad about herself, the story would have felt tired and dull.  Instead, watching Kara rip through these simulacrums and "hearing" the certainty in her voice as she reinforces the idea that she's actually valiant results in an invigorating experience, especially when wrapped in Diogenes Neves exciting illustration.  Neves takes delight in finding novel ways to impress with Supergirl's power.  Each battle reads fresh as a result.

Nelson isn't finished with the reader.  Supergirl still must face the Big Bad, the subject of Villains Month, the new Cyborg Superman.  The old one was just Hank Henshaw, a defacto Reed Richards that lost his good looks and his three friends to radiation.  No fantastic foursome here.  This Cyborg Superman isn't even human, and just knowing that fact isn't going to spoil the surprise at all.

Nightwing's Kyle Higgins takes over the writing duties for the Batman Beyond Universe.  Does his presence indicate an improvement? Possibly.  For one thing, Batman Beyond was never a bad book.  It's Joker King story went on way too long, but it benefited always from Norm Breyfogle's artwork.  The Justice League and Superman as back up features were frequently involving.  So what does Kyle Higgins do? He kills the Mayor in what appears to be a fairplay mystery.

If I'm right, all you really need to know to solve this puzzle occurs in a single panel.  Of course, this high profile murder draws in Commissioner Barbara Gordon and Terry McGuinness.

Terry really has grown into the role of Batman, and with Higgins' changes to the cast lineup, Terry's independence will continue to flourish.  Of course, that's only natural.  Terry was born to be Batman; do yourself a favor and rent or download "Epilogue" from Justice League Unlimited.

Artists Tony Silas and Andrew Elder mingle sensibilities of art nouveau and art deco for a decidedly attractive stretch in the animated stylishness of the Batman Beyond television series.  This allows for a wide range of expression and evocative action that includes Terry carrying out classic Batman tactics.

Christos Gage assumes the writing for side B starring the future Justice League.  In this one, somethings screws up Superman's powers royally.  This has happened before, but Superman's solution is a unique one, and it allows Gage to examine the man behind the S as well as Lois Lane who appears in a flashback.

Gage appears well versed in the brief continuity of the title and the television program.  For example, Barda replaced Wonder Woman on the League.  This was largely due to DC telling Bruce Timm he couldn't use Wonder Woman on the show; another bizarre move on the conglomerate's part.  The Flash, introduced in a past issue of Batman Beyond is somehow in communication with all the speedsters that were empowered by the Speed Force, and those who get a kick out of Superman's new guise as a firefighter will enjoy Gage's touch.

Iban Coello and Andrew Mayor contribute more traditional artwork, but this is not a drawback, especially when rendered with such skill.  Coello's illustration is remarkably fluid and imbues the illusion of individual movement.  The Flash moves differently than Barda, for example.  Both Coello and Mayor produce excellent visions of personality.  This is no more evident in a portrait of Lois and Clark.

I can't say that I'm ready to return Batman Beyond to my subscription list, but I am willing to try a few more issues to see what Higgins and Gage have in store for the future.

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