Posts Tagged ‘Jay Oliva’

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It occurs to me that I probably should have written a review for 2013’s direct-to-DVD/Blu-Ray/Digital Download animated feature Justice League : The Flashpoint Paradox before the one I wrote yesterday for Justice League : War given that events in this one directly lead to the creation of the “New 52” universe that film takes place in, but oh well, I’ve never been one to follow convention (or, let’s face it, logic) too closely —so here we are, better late than never, I guess.

Based on the comic book “event” mini-series Flashpoint by Geoff Johns (again) and Andy Kubert, this is the story that re-booted the DCU into its new form, and while the end result of said re-boot hasn’t, by and large, been to my liking, this adventure has a suitably “epic” feel to it and generally delivers the goods. Plus, let’s face it, we owe the original comic a debt of gratitude for, at the very least, putting an end to the “one-Crisis-after-another” treadmill that DC had been stuck on for so long. It was getting to be well past time for the former National Periodical Publications to put its collective houses in order, and while I may have numerous bones to pick with how they chose to do so, the core idea certainly seemed sensible enough at the time.

Let’s get one thing straight, though : this really isn’t a Justice League story at all. It’s a Flash story.

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Which isn’t to say that the other League members don’t have their part to play in the proceedings here — they surely do,  but they’re largely consigned to the margins while the Scarlet Speedster (voiced by Justin Chambers) takes center stage. And why not? He’s the one who gets trapped in an alternate reality, after all. And while that may seem like a “narrowing down” of the story’s scope, it actually helps to have one central point of audience identification for a series of events this earth-(okay, universe-) shattering.

So, yeah. Flash is trapped in a dimension not of his own making (not that he made the one he inhabits, either, but I digress) — one where, among other things, Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas (Kevin McKidd) is Batman. There are plenty of other window-dressing details that serve to differentiate this reality from DC’s “main” one, of course, and these differences are assaulting Flash’s consciousness and replacing his “actual” memories with ones that he knows he didn’t have previously. It’s all so very confusing for our fleet-footed protagonist.

Meanwhile, events on Flash’s native Earth are spiraling out of control as a war between Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall)’s amazons and Aquaman (Cary Elwes)’s undersea kingdom of Atlantis draws ever nearer. The shit’s about to hit the fan in a big way, and all the efforts of fellow heroes Superman (Sam Daly), Green Lantern (fan-favorite Nathan Fillion), Captain Atom (Lex Lang), Batman (Kevin Conroy), and Cyborg (Michael B. Jordan),  as well as the members of their various supporting casts like Lois Lane (Dana Delany),  can’t seem to stem the tide of inevitable conflict that’s quickly crashing in.

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How is all of this connected? What do villains like Lex Luthor (Steve Blum, who also lends his vocal talents to a new character called Captain Thunder) and Deathstroke (the always-awesome Ron Perlman) have to do with anything? How and why is Jack Kirby’s seminal (and criminally under-utilized) Etrigan, The Demon (Dee Bradley Baker) involved, albeit at the margins?  What’s the deal with “alternate” Flash-type character Professor Zoom (C. Thomas Howell)? Ah — that would be giving too much away, my friends. Suffice to say that, fortunately for us all, Justice League : The Flashpoint Paradox  does, at the very least, provide reasonably satisfying answers to damn near all of the questions it raises.

The big one, though, is how Flash is going to reconcile  the titular paradox at the center of our story and restore the trans-dimensional balance that’s been tipped, for while characters like Aquaman and Wonder Woman have bit more to do here than usual, at the end of the day the fate of the universe(s) really does rest more or less entirely on Barry Allen’s admittedly broad (all the heroes in this flick look like they gobble ‘roids for breakfast) shoulders.

Old hand Jay Oliva is back on board to direct things here, and while the overall pace does, in fact,  lag a bit here and there in spots, on the whole he keeps events moving along pretty briskly and manages the delicate task of keeping audiences interested in resolving the continuity problems that make up the heart of his plot without dwelling too intently on minutiae. Sure, anybody wish a vested interest in any and/or all of these characters is going to be more intrigued in seeing how this all plays out than viewers who are coming to this stuff for the first time, but things never get so dense as to become impenetrable to all save for the previously-initiated.

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Please don’t get me wrong — it’s not like Justice League : The Flashpoint Paradox is by any means a perfect animated super-hero feature. A few members of the voice cast seem to be mailing things in by and large, and some of the differences between realities seem a bit superficial and contrived.  All in all,  though, it’s a brisk, fun ride that performs its table-clearing task in an efficient, engaging manner. It’s just a shame that DC hasn’t put as much creativity or effort into creating their new universe as they put into destroying their old one.

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It’s been a good six months or so since we took a side-step into the world of straight-to-video animation around these parts, so we might as well do a brief “course correction” on that and take a look at the latest offering from DC Comics/Warner Brothers Animation, the recently-released onto Blu-Ray, DVD and digital download Justice League : War.

This release marks something of a departure for the range itself in that it’s the first animated feature to take place in the “New 52” universe, so gone is the old “DC Universe” logo we’re used to seeing on these things and we’re back to a world where super-heroes are a new phenomenon and the public at large is just coming to grips with what  a massive shake-up to humanity’s status quo this all means. That’s cool and I can definitely get behind the whole idea of fresh “world building” to re-introduce these characters for a new generation of readers and viewers.

Unfortunately, what I can’t get behind is pretty much everything that’s been done with the whole “New 52” since then, and the numerous weaknesses inherent in DC’s printed-page universe are on full display here, as well. In short, the problem is that most (with a few notable exceptions) “New 52” product — and it is product, and a thoroughly homogenized, corporatized, personality-free, and ultimately soulless product at that — isn’t designed to engage the imaginations of younger readers, but to standardize the formerly-unique look and feel that manyof DC’s individual titles used to possess and give the company’s ever-aging (DC co-publisher Dan DiDio has even stated publicly that his target market is 45-year-old males with no kids and lots of disposable income) and ever-dwindling readership a universe that is consistent in both tone and style.

In that respect, it’s achieved its goal, the problem is that most “New 52” books are consistently bad and this newly-rebooted universe is a dire, hollow, humorless place. Apart from Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s always-excellent Batman book, I honestly can’t think of any DC titles currently on the shelves that are worth picking up on a monthly basis. Most of these comics read and look like mid-’90s Wildstorm books (perhaps no surprise given that former WS head honcho Jim Lee is DC’s other co-publisher) that just happen to feature more established characters.

Still, it’s what we’ve been stuck with for just over two years now, and it was only a matter of time before the relaunched universe playing out on the printed page made the leap onto home video, as well. So here we are.

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Based on the graphic novel Justice League : Origin by DC chief “creative” officer Geoff Johns and the aforementioned Mr. Lee, and directed by old-hat veteran of these things Jay Oliva, Justice League : War is about as bland as its title would suggest, with the characters all essentially functioning as one-note ciphers : Batman (voiced by Jason O’Mara) is an overly-serious prick, Green Lantern (Justin Kirk) is an obnoxious hothead, The Flash (Christopher Gorham) is a CSI-type forensic cop who just so happens to be able to run really fast, Superman (Alan Tudyk) is a misunderstood alien feared by the very public that he’s sworn to protect because he’s such a swell guy at heart, Wonder Woman (Michelle Monaghan) is a tough-as-nails warrior who’s trying her best to crack her “ice princess” Amazon breeding, Cyborg (Shemar Moore) is a troubled teen trapped in a half-machine body who just wants his father’s approval, and Shazam (Sean Astin) is a quintessential “good egg” type, unless he’s in his civilian identity of Billy Batson (Zach Callison), in which case he’s a snot-nosed little juvenile delinquent. They all sport subtly redesigned costumes (I guess the powers that be at DC decided the look of every single one of their heroes needed “updating”) than those we’re traditionally used to seeing, and in the timeline this story takes place none of ’em have ever met before until they all reluctantly end up pooling resources in order to ward off an invasion of  Para-Demon hordes commanded by the dastardly Darkseid (Steve Blum) from his home base on the hell-planet of Apokolips.

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That’s about all you really need to know since the outcome of this battle is obviously pre-ordained, but worthy of special mention/condemnation for old-school Jack Kirby fans like myself is how wretchedly stereotypical all of jack’s “Fourth World” creations that are utilized in this story have become in the hands of far less skilled creators. From Darkseid to Desaad to the Para-Demons to the Mother Boxes, all have been uniformly stripped of the uniquely personal elements that the King Of Comics imbued them with and are every bit as “dumbed-down” as the heroes themselves are. Sigh.

Oliva does a nice job keeping the pace appropriately breakneck (having time to stop and think about the proceedings here would only make things worse), and the voice cast all hit the nail on the head reasonably well (apart from O’Mara who never really “connects” as Batman), but they’re being tasked with the impossible here — to try and make a bog-standard, personality-free story somehow interesting. Needless to say, it’s just not gonna happen.

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There’s a rumor going around various online circles these days that an editorial dictate from on high at DC to the various “New 52” creators — many of whom the company has been exposed as treating like so many interchangeable parts in their machine in the years since the relaunch was initiated — stated that the overall tone of of their books should hue as closely as possible to so-called “fan fiction,” and many of those “fanfic”-type excesses that have come to pass, like Superman and Wonder Woman becoming romantically involved, can be seen in their early stages here, so it’s a pretty fair bet that all that crap will be making the leap from the printed page to the TV (or computer) screen in relatively short order, as well. Be ready.

The events portrayed in Justice League : War may take place a few years in the past as far as comic book continuity goes, but make no mistake : this is the shape of things to come. And it definitely ain’t pretty.

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Okay, this one’s probably going to be something of a “quickie” given that we’ve already covered all the relevant background info and what have you in our (alright, fair enough, my) review of the first film in this series — suffice to say that if you enjoyed Batman : The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 you’re absolutely gonna love part two (released in January of this year), because this is the one  where the shit really hits the fan.

Fresh out of a self-imposed 10-year retirement, and having already taken down both Two-Face and the leader of the vicious Mutant gang, a newly-reinvigorated Batman (Peter Weller), together with the latest version of teen sidekick Robin, an all-heart-but-no-training adolescent girl named Carrie Kelley (Ariel Winter),  find themselves tangling this time around not only with a crazier-than-ever Joker (fantastically voiced by Michael Emerson), but in the crosshairs of none other than Superman himself (Mark Valley), who has been dispatched by the highest powers imaginable to put a stop to his one-time friend’s self-decla vigilante war on crime in Gotham City.

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Things start out on a fairly absurd note as The Joker is invited onto the Letterman-in-all-but-last-name “David Endochrine Show” (Endochrine himself being voiced by none other than Conan O’Brien), but quickly turn quite deadly when he kills the entire studio audience and has his final, and decidedly gruesome, confrontation with Batman at, appropriately enough, a carnival. All this is realized at a thoroughly fun, breakneck pace by director Jay Oliva, but for my money it’s when the inevitable Batman/Superman confrontation occurs that this story really kicks into another gear, as the story invites us to take a hard look at the philosophical and attitudinal discrepancies that have always made for an uneasy-at-best alliance between DC’s two “flagship” characters. When the thin strand of mutual (perhaps) aims between the two finally breaks, it makes for one of the more thought-provoking and multi-textured psychological analyses ever presented in a mainstream superhero comic (or, by extension, a mainstream direct-to-video superhero animated flick).

Fans of Frank Miller’s original work will be pleased to see that Batman : The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 doesn’t shy away from the book’s rather disturbing, even quasi-fascistic portrayal of the Caped Crusader, but likewise it isn’t afraid to ultimately portray him as a hero, either — a complex, deeply flawed hero, to be sure, but far from the heartless basket-case that so many subsequent writers have too easily pigeonholed him as. And in Miller’s world Superman is far from perfect, as well, so that’s a relief.

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Don’t let all my talk of the subtexts inherent in this movie’s source material scare you off, though, because above all this is a piece of fun, kick-ass entertainment — just one that has the added bonus of being open to a deeper and more considered reading should you choose to give it one. On the surface, it’s one well-realized action sequence after another, and that can be a plenty good time in and of itself. Old friends (David Selby’s Commissioner Gordon) exit the scene while other old friends (Robin Atkin Downes’ Oliver Queen/Green Arrow) enter it, every old score is finally settled, and by the time the end credits roll a thoroughly satisfying, heartfelt, and respectful conclusion ends things on, believe it or not, a note of optimism that the sunny-out-of-nowhere wrap-up to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy could learn a lot from.

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On the minus side, pretty much all of my criticisms from part one — the guys look like they’ve been gobbling ‘roids for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; Miller’s idiosyncratic, free-form art style is replaced by a more typical “house” animation look; Selby’s take on Gordon just doesn’t ring true; the script adaptation can be a bit too hyper-condensed at times; etc. — all hold here, but that’s all small potatoes compared to the number of things Oliva and his cohorts get resoundingly, joyously right here. A genuine treat for long-time fans of the book while being immediately accessible to those unfamiliar with it, Batman : The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 is pretty much everything you could ever hope for in an animated superhero flick, and I guarantee it’s one you’ll enjoy again and again over the years should you go ahead and give it a purchase.

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Speaking of which — I went the cheap route again and opted to pick this up on DVD rather than Blu-Ray, given that I can’t see what the hell difference there’s gonna be in image quality for an animated feature between the two formats, and while the widescreen picture and 5.1 sound are plenty great (at least to my mind) on DVD, it is, once again, free of extras apart from promotional preview material for other titles in the “DC Universe” animated line. The Blu-Ray disc, on the other hand, does have a smattering of pretty cool bonus features from what I understand, but not having seen them I can’t fairly critique, or even summarize, them here, so I guess that’s a wrap as far as the technical specs are concerned.

Still, whatever format you choose to go with, the point remains — get out  there and buy, or at the very least rent or steal (whoops, did I just say that? ) this thing now. Too few “legendary” comic stories live up to their status on either the printed page or the screen (if they make it that far), but this is one that does. If you’re unsure as to what all the fuss is about, you owe it to yourself to find out, and if you’re already familiar with the work, you’ll be pleased as punch to see it translated into a new format with so much care and respect.

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Quick, what was the best Batman flick of 2012?

If you’re like most, your answer to that is simple : “what are you talking about, dumbass? There was only one Batman flick in 2012, it was called The Dark Knight Rises, and even if you didn’t like it much, it wins ‘best’ of the year award by default!”

If you’re a hard-core comic geek, though, you know that’s just not true, because there was another Bat-movie that came out last year. It was an animated, straight-to-video feature called Batman : The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1, part of Warner Brothers Animation’s “DC Universe” line, and it was a hell of a lot better than The Dark Knight Rises.

Or should I say — it was a hell of a lot better than The Dark Knight Rises provided you’re part of the admittedly-much-smaller audience it was aimed at. Not that “newbies” to this won’t find it a pretty sold thrill-ride, as well, but we’ll get to all that in due course.

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For those of you who don’t already have at least a passing knowledge of comic- nerd legend and lore, here’s a brief (and very specific) history lesson : in the mid-1980s, the tired old super-hero archetype was getting a bit stale, and a small handful of creators figured the time was right to do something about it by injecting a bit more realism and psychological complexity into the proceedings. For a brief moment there, these “revisionist” super-hero works became all the rage, even garnering the medium as a whole the kind of semi-respectable “mainstream” press attention that the art form’s partisans had always longed for given that, hard is may seem to believe now, up until that point comics weren’t even considered “cool,” much less potential springboards for billion-dollar Hollywood special effects boondoggles — err, epics.

Truth be told, this new “darker,” “more mature” take on crimefighters in tights got pretty old pretty fast, but that’s neither here nor there. The simple fact is that two standout works emerged from this revisionist craze that have pretty much hung over the superhero comics medium like a Sword of Damocles ever since : Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, or, as it was more commonly referred to until a movie of the same title came along, simply The Dark Knight. Nearly three decades down the line, these works have been constantly imitated, but frankly still never equaled.

Watchmen and its various  cinematic adaptations, comic prequels, etc. is old hat by now for long-time or even casual readers of this blog, so we’ll just pass right over that and talk Dark Knight, shall we? Again with the history lesson for those not in the know : essentially, this is the story of an aging and bored Bruce Wayne, who decided to hang up the cowl when his teenage sidekick, Robin, was killed (an event that was later mimicked in the “proper” DC Universe itself a few years down the road — except for the retirement part — and has just taken place again in DC’s current “New 52” line, continuing their less-than-proud track record of having no new ideas whatsoever since their much-hyped relaunch).  As you’d no doubt expect, Brucie-Boy has a tough time adjusting  to “civilian” life,  and  eventually a city-wide crime wave perpetrated by a street gang known as “The Mutants,” coupled with a plastic-surgically-altered Harvey “Two-Face” Dent reverting to his former outlaw ways, prompts Wayne to get his costume out of mothballs and take to the streets again. He vanquishes foes both old and new, picks up a new, female Robin in the form of teenager Carrie Kelley, finally settles his long-standing score with The Joker, and eventually comes to blows with the Man of Steel himself, who is sent to put Batman down by no less than then-President Ronald Reagan himself.

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It’s all pretty heady, exciting stuff, and for those who were sick to death of comics being metaphorically ghetto-ized basically ever since their inception, it was a watershed moment. Here, we figured, was finally proof that our beloved medium wasn’t just stupid kids’ stuff. This was a story that was so damn good you could show it to anyone and they’d have to agree that comics had come a long way.

Little did we realize the far-reaching implications this book would have — in fact, it’s fair to say that Miller’s take on the Caped Crusader has informed everything that’s been done with him since. There certainly would have been no Tim Burton Batman film without it, and without Burton there would have been no Nolan reboot, etc., but concurrent with the ever-darker Dark Knight of the movies has been an increasingly more somber and humorless take on the character in the comics — a trend that still continues to this day. I generally enjoy the work of current “lead” Bat-writer Scott Snyder, for instance, but let’s face it — Batman’s such a far-gone, morose, obsessive head-case now that once in awhile it’s nice to watch a few reruns of the old Adam West series just to relieve the pressure from what’s now a quarter-century-old parade of grimness.

I’m not sure that’s the end result Miller necessarily had in mind for the character once his book was finished, but that’s what we’ve gotten, and because of that — because this was the point at which “the change” began — it’s sometimes easy to forget just how much fun this comic itself actually was. Sure, this is a a wracked-with-guilt, consumed-by-anger iteration of Batman we’re talking about here, but it’s also a story in which punks in multi-colored visors speak their own goofy lingo and The Joker gets invited onto a Letterman-esque late-night talk show.

Granted, he kills everyone in the audience, but still —

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Fortunately, this new two-part animated feature (we’ll take a look at the second installment either later today or tomorrow, time permitting) is here to remind us, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, what with the unrelentingly bleak Nolan film series having just wrapped up and the tragedy in Aurora still weighing heavily on the public consciousness. It’s a good time, in short, to make the Batman property as a whole fun again, and sometimes you gotta look backwards to move forwards.

Yeah, okay — Batman as voiced by Peter Weller is pretty gruff and humorless, David Selby doesn’t strike me as the most effective vocal choice for Commissioner Gordon, all the male characters in the film are drawn like steroid-enhanced freaks, and Frank Miller’s distinctive, immediate, and sometimes very raw art style has been replaced with a more typically “clean” animated look, so the film has its flaws (perhaps the most notable of which is the fact that for long-time fans of the book the script  essentially comes off as  a Cliff Notes version of the story we know so well), but it’s still hard not to be taken in by director Jay Oliva’s fast-paced, dynamic take on things, Ariel Winter’s spot-on work as Carrie Kelley, and the genuine reverence for the material that more or less everyone who had a hand in this project seems to bring to the table. This was the “dream job” for a number of the principles involved on the DC side of things, and it shows.

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I’m not sure how well the obviously-to-be-continued non-ending will play with a non-comics audience, this being a pretty literal interpretation of the first two parts of Miller’s four-issue series, centering on Batman’s conflicts with Two-Face and The Mutants, and it probably would have played out better to just do the whole thing  in one take, but comics fans are used to being fleeced at every turn by the “Big Two” publishers, so the decision to divvy it up into two parts is hardly surprising, and is more than made up for by the out-and-out coolness of seeing so many of the comic’s most iconic moments come to life on the screen (although am I the only one who’s a little bummed that we never get to hear Weller say “in my gut the creature writhes and snarls and tells me what I need? “) in a way that even folks who are not familiar with the story will find terrifically exciting and entertaining.

A lot of nerd-gasms were had when this project was first announced, and I’m pleased to say that it by and large delivers on all that we had been hoping for, while at the same time being a highly accessible work for newcomers to the material.  I wish the DVD had a few more extras than it does (essentially just promo spots for other “DC Universe” stuff), but the widescreen picture and 5.1 sound are both superb and anyway, I understand the Blu-Ray has more by way of bonus features for those interested. Personally, I can’t see shelling out an extra five or six bucks for an animated movie on Blu (and one barely over 70 minutes long at that), but maybe that’s just me.

I’ve watched Batman : The Dark Knight Returns at least a dozen times since it came out last September, and it leaves me smiling from ear to ear each time. Best Batman flick of 2012? That’s a no-brainer.