Saturday, 25 August 2012

Great Fictional Villains: The Law

It’s impossible not to have a little love for the Law. The real star of Video Game High School is this triumphant archetype, every cinematic bully in history mashed into one smirking, swaggering, implausibly awesome package. While the Law’s personal brand of egotistical malice and his relentless, disproportionate persecution of dweeby Brian D would be heinous in real life, but in the glossy setting of VGHS, the sheer flamboyancy of the Law’s high school super-villainy makes it impossible not to chuckle at his antics.

  Law is the product of a near-future civilization which has foolishly elevated the most skilled video-game players to the status of rock gods, like some globe-girdling South Korea. Unfortunately, this effectively means that That One Guy (the guy who is so much better at FPS’ than anyone else) is now a beloved and dreaded Master of the Universe, tearing through super-immersive virtual battle-fields and terrorising plucky high-school twitchers.  Law’s rampant megalomania is so hilariously overblown, his shooting skills so preternaturally precise (WALLHACKZ) and his feud with Brian D such a typhoon of high school movie clich├ęs (with a post-Xbox generation twist) that you can’t hate the man, even as you root for his downfall. Anyone who has ever longed to see That One Guy brought low in his game of choice by the sweaty-thumbed noobs of this world can identify with the perpetually put-upon Brian D's struggle to wipe the cocky grin off Law’s beaming face, but that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate this trigger-happy narcissist's sauntering showmanship.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Twenty Years of D.C. Animation: Batman '92

  The D.C. Animated Universe was a highly popular family of shows kicked off by the beloved, game-changing Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. The show’s creative team spun off related shows for the likes of Superman, the Justice League and, er, Static Shock, building a sizeable continuity that managed to be both accessible to new viewers and rewarding to long-time fans. At a time when the mainstream comics these cartoons were based on were languishing in the infamous Dark Age, for many 90s kids the DCAU was their main touchstone for the iconic properties of the 20th century.

  The Batman cartoon that started it all began as an ambitious attempt to piggyback off the success of Tim Burton’s lucratively dark Batman movie, even borrowing the iconic opening theme. Ironically, Danny Elfman’s epic chords would ultimately become far more closely associated with the plucky little kid’s show than with the bombastic blockbuster. It was quickly established that this show was no lazy cash-in, but a hugely audacious attempt to batter down the walls of the animation ghetto, while still providing non-patronising entertainment for its young demographic.

  Even on their best day, Marvel’s contemporary animated output was simply outclassed, hamstrung by dopey censorship. While Spiderman and the X-Men featured cops and gangsters armed  with  laser pistols instead of pistol-pistols, and voice actors required to force out the most contorted sentences to avoid acknowledging the existence of death, Kevin Conroy’s Batman was snarling threats at 1940s-themed mobsters with tommy guns and explosives in intense confrontations. Not only did Conroy’s brooding voice represent the definitive Batman for a generation of comic fans, but also B: TAS turned out to be one of the most effective attempts at juggling the conflicting elements of the character’s world. Schumacher might turn the whole thing into a winking, smirking joke, and Nolan’s version might trumpet its po-faced darkness while awkwardly holding its fantastic conspiracies and outlandish characters at arm’s length, but a creative team headed up by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm used the opportunities of the animated medium to successfully mesh both the gothic grimness and the clownish absurdity of the Batman mythos.

  Though there was a fair amount of dud episodes, questionable writing decisions and, in the early days at least, inconsistent animation, at its best Batman was a brilliant, famously non-condescending gateway into a world of all-ages fun that frequently outstripped the Dark Knight’s big-budget live-action incarnations for entertainment value. This Batman was fierce and driven, every line delivered with a very adult sense of steely conviction that showed up the exaggerated bleating of many of his cartoon contemporaries. He was motivated by angst and grief, but it was pitched to make him appear sympathetic rather than suffocatingly self-indulgent. He was a clear-cut hero, chivalrous and fearless and organically cool, rather than some bizarre, posturing anti-hero showing off a forced edginess. His supporting cast were also well-executed; Alfred, Robin, and Commissioner Gordon did their jobs of providing better-adjusted, more human presences to offset Batman’s intensity, and the Rogue’s Gallery managed to come across as fairy-tale monsters and horribly damaged people at the same time. The villain origin stories provided some of the show’s most memorable moments, showing genuinely terrifying breakdowns and descents into criminal madness that added a tragic flavour to the ensuing brawls.

  With the show’s popularity soaring, an unprecedented step was taken; a feature length movie based on the show was made. Amazingly, it would actually have a theatrical release, bringing a generation’s Batman to the silver screen for the first and only time.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Serenity Mini-Retrospective

Serenity is a strange beast, being the big-screen continuation of a famously promising, infamously cancelled cult TV show. As such, it is perhaps best appreciated by Firefly fans; they get a degree of resolution to compensate them for the original show’s messy death. Unfortunately, this means that character issues obviously intended for drawn-out development over many episodes have to be awkwardly and prematurely wrapped up. Some controversial deaths also add to the sense of sad finality, of a setting and a cast who were meant to sprawl luxuriously across many seasons being shoehorned into a two-hour running time.

 Yet for all that, director Joss Whedon does everything in his power to give his intriguing universe, with its thematically fascinating tension between roguish pioneers and spit-polished quasi-fascists, a fitting send-off. There are plenty of the mandatory thrills and spills, as the ruling Alliance close the net on the crew of the good ship Serenity, and the volatile psychic they shelter, River Tam. There is some awkward dialogue, but it is swamped by all the pleasing lines and character beats. There is a dark conspiracy (ironically centred on a world that is unnervingly brightly lit), bringing in some stakes-upping future-horror without smothering the sense of humour, fun and adventure. Last but not least, there is a memorable antagonist in the poised, deadly, dangerously reasonable form of the Operative, a slick anti-villain for the ages. All in all, despite the script’s underdeveloped stabs at profundity, Serenity is enough of a rousing mini-epic to satisfy as the tale brooding Captain Malcolm’s Reynold’s long-delayed redemption, even though it highlights the unfairness of Firefly’s fate, and reminds fans of what could have been.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Long Overdue Men in Black 3 Review

  The long-belated second sequel to one of the most memorable blockbusters of the 90s arrives to understandably low expectations. Everything about the build-up to Men in Black 3 screams of marketing cynicism, and well-publicised problems with production indicates the likelihood of an unsatisfying mess. While MIB 3 certainly has problems, it also pleasantly surprises, with performances far stronger than they could have been, and a genuinely affecting emotional core.

  The original film brought the audience into a dark, eerie, comedic, fascinating world, with serious potential for expanding its universe into a thriving franchise. This potential was then promptly squandered with a lazy and witless sequel. There is little chance that any attempt to recapture the magic a decade later will completely reverse the franchise’s woes, but number three at least makes a decent attempt.

  After some awkward early scenes, the writers wisely stop trying to re-kindle the long-faded onscreen chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and instead send Smith back through time to the 1960s, where he must team up with Agent K’s relatively less grouchy younger self, played with spot-on accuracy by Josh Brolin, who mixes K’s trademark laconic competence with understated warmth. They have to foil a new alien antagonist, a time-travelling genocidal thug played by Jermaine Clement, who, shockingly, manages to make his one-note retread of the first film’s Edgar into a genuinely menacing figure in its own right. A truly intimidating roar, backed up by some lethally unpleasant biology, isn’t enough to make Clement’s Boris the Animal into a villain for the ages, but it more than does the job for this movie.

  Predictably, the plot is rickety and the holes are agape, but the charisma of the stars elevates the better scenes and makes the damp squibs (like the Men In Universe’s sadly unfunny take on Andy Warhol) at least bearable. The film also has a secret weapon, in the form of Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin, a benevolent alien with the ability to see multiple possible futures. Introduced as little more than a cryptic plot facilitator, Griffin could so easily have been unbearably cutesy and sentimental character, with his anorak, his puppy dog eyes and his unworldly rambling. However, he manages to be adorably sweet rather than sickly sweet, with some touching meditations on the wonders of probability in human history (there is some excellent dialogue during a quiet scene in an empty baseball stadium) that gives the film an engaging humanity that raises it above its un-promising origins.