4-Color to 35-Millimeter: It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman!

It’s the summer, which means it’s time for the every-six-months revival of the great superhero movie rewatch! Before we dive into the new releases since last December, we’re gonna examine some twentieth-century films I missed on earlier go-rounds, starting with the 1975 TV-movie adaptation of the 1966 Broadway flop, It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman!

An excerpt:

I never saw Bob Holiday perform the role onstage, though I’ve seen some footage of him, and I gotta wonder why they didn’t cast him in 1975. He’d done the role as recently as four years earlier in a commercial for Aqua Velva. Based on the aforesaid footage, he actually took Collyer and Reeves as his inspiration for how to portray the Man of Steel.

Wilson, by contrast, seems to be using John Travolta’s portrayal of Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back, Kotter as his inspiration. Seriously, his Superman sounds less like the man of tomorrow and more like a goombah from Belmont or Bensonhurst.

from Patreon: Batman: Soul of the Dragon review

There’s a new Batman movie in theatres, and in honor of that, here’s my review of the DC animated movie that was released in January 2021, and which I simply adored. It’s a total 70s movie, and I’m here for it. This review appeared on my Patreon in January 2021, and for just $1/month, you can get monthly movie reviews — for the last few months, I’ve reviewed Moonstruck, In the Heights, Black Widow, The Suicide Squad, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Luca, Eternals, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Encanto, Ferry, Turning Red, Free Guy, A Goofy Movie, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And for more, you also get cat pictures, TV reviews, excerpts from my works in progress, vignettes featuring my original characters, and first looks at my first drafts! Check it out and please consider being my patron!

Denny O’Neil died last year. One of the best comics writers and one of the best comics editors in the business, one of Denny’s favorite tropes to play with as a writer was characters who trained in the martial arts. He created the character of Richard Dragon, first in the 1974 novel Dragon’s Fists, then adapted him to comics for DC. In the pages of Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter—published starting in 1975, which was the height of the kung fu craze following the rise of Bruce Lee’s popularity—O’Neil also created the characters of O-Sensei (the title character’s mentor), Lady Shiva, and Ben Turner (a.k.a. the Bronze Tiger).

O’Neil would later use both Dragon and Shiva extensively in his brilliant run on The Question. Shiva became a major player in the Batman titles after that, and the Bronze Tiger was a founding member of the modern incarnation of the Suicide Squad.

As a tribute to O’Neil, Warner Bros. Animation has done a Batman animated movie that explicitly takes place at the same time that Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter was published, and which features Batman teaming up with Dragon, Turner, Shiva, and O-Sensei. Jeremy Adams’s script shows an impressive facility for the time period, nailing the plot, the script, and the slang with impressive verve.

The movie is a pastiche of 70s horror comics, 70s kung fu movies, and 70s spy thrillers. The opening is straight-up James Bond, with Dragon on a covert mission to get some files from the safe of a mansion in the middle of a big party. It comes complete with spy tricks (getting someone’s fingerprints for a print-scanning lock), disguises, gambling, hand-to-hand combat, and a big explosion at the end.

The plot is pretty much an excuse to go from fight scene to fight scene, but there’s some characterization. In this tale, Batman is still a relatively new hero, with Bruce Wayne having trained under O-Sensei in Nanda Parbat. (That locale has been a remote site that has been a place to find enlightenment, gain badass martial arts skills, or both in various DC comics, TV shows, and movies over the decades.) Wayne trained alongside Dragon, Turner, Shiva, and two others, Jade Nguyen and Rip Jagger, who are versions of Cheshire and Judomaster from the comics. O-Sensei is training them to protect the Earth from Naga, a demon kept in check by a mystic gate that O-Sensei guards. But Jagger is secretly part of a cult that wishes to free Naga, and he kills Nguyen to open the gate, forcing O-Sensei to enter the gate and sacrifice himself to close it again.

Years later, Dragon finds out that the Kobra cult (to which Jagger belonged) has the gate now. He recruits Wayne, discovering that he’s Batman, and they then go to Shiva—now a crime boss, and possessor of the soul sword that is needed to open the gate. The bad guys take it, and then they recruit Turner, who it turns out knows that Kobra has a chosen one who was being raised from childhood to become the one who frees Naga. But Turner couldn’t kill an innocent kid. However, that innocent kid has grown up to be a psychopath (at one point, he kills a hooker with poisonous snakes after he pays her).

I honestly feel like Warner Bros. decided to make this movie with me in mind, because holy crap is this Keith catnip. I grew up in the 1970s, and still have massive amounts of affection for the popular culture of the era. I’m also a martial artist, a third-degree black belt in karate [note in 2022 when reposting: now a fourth-degree black belt….. —KRAD], and have always had an affinity for martial arts stories. And I’m also a massive fan of O’Neil’s work, and Adams channels O’Neil’s voice here beautifully, particularly with the title character.

One of the hallmarks of O’Neil’s writings of Batman over the years has been that he’s always been aware of Batman’s vulnerabilities. Most of the interpretations of Batman have him as a brilliant polymath who is always in control, or at the very least is always one step ahead of everyone, whether it’s to humorous effect (the 1950s comics, the 1960s TV show) or to be more serious (pretty much every iteration of the character after Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and “Year One” stories in the 1980s). But O’Neil always remembered that Batman was created in an alley where a little kid saw his parents gunned down. O’Neil also created Talia al-Ghul, the daughter of Ra’s al-Ghul, whose tragic love for Batman constantly proved a vulnerability to the dark knight detective.

Adams gives us a very young Batman. This isn’t the confident veteran hero that we’ve seen voiced by Kevin Conroy and Jason O’Mara and Jeremy Sisto and the like. David Giuntoli plays him as a younger man who’s still trying to get his anger and obsession under control.

He’s also a supporting player in his own movie, which I’m actually okay with, as Dragon, Shiva, and Turner are all more interesting characters. In fact, all three of them could have used a bit more fleshing out—how did Shiva become a crime boss? why don’t we see more of Turner’s life? why was Dragon in particular with O-Sensei so long? But Mark Dacascos as Dragon, Michael Jai White as Turner (he played the same role in live action on Arrow), and Kelly Hu as Shiva (she previously voiced the character in the Batman: Arkham Origins videogame) all do superb voice work, giving the characters more depth than the script really has time to grant them. O-Sensei, however, is given plenty of depth by the great James Hong, whom Adams writes with a mischievous wit that is a clichéd but still welcome variation on the sub-fortune-cookie nonsense we usually get from such characters (including the comics iteration all too often).

The story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it doesn’t really need to, and that’s honestly not the problem anyhow. The problem is the ending. The stupid fucking movie ends on a cliffhanger! Our heroes enter the gate, the door closes behind them, and I figure we’re about to get the climactic battle between the four protagonists and Naga. Instead, they pose as if ready to fight, and then the credits roll.

Now maybe they’re setting up for a sequel, but I have the feeling they just wanted to end it all open like that, and feh! I wanted the big-ass fight at the end!

However, up until the ending, this is a great movie. The music, the script, the design, all of it just nails the era being portrayed. If you’re looking for a story with Batman as the main character, you may be disappointed—Batman’s role is supporting, truly; the movie is written as if Dragon is the protagonist. But if you’re looking for a throwback to a time of fight scenes, satanic cults, and espionage, along with fashions that will make you say, “dig them crazy threads, baby,” this is definitely the movie for you.

Batman: Soul of the Dragon is available for sale on Prime and DVD and Blu-Ray. [note in 2022 when reposting: it’s also available for streaming on HBO Max —KRAD]

from the archives: my review of Syriana

Here’s a movie from 2005, Syriana, which had a superlative cast — George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Siddig, etc. — that I have no actual memory of sixteen years later. Here’s my review of it, originally presented on my LiveJournal in December 2005.

Adapted from the nonfiction book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism by Robert Baer, Syriana was scripted and directed by Stephen Gaghan. Gaghan previously adapted the German miniseries Traffik, which was renamed Traffic and directed by Steven Soderbergh. (Soderbergh served as executive producer of this one.)

The movie is an incredibly cynical one about the role of oil companies and how the need for oil practically warps reality in the Middle East, and in the U.S. There are several concurrent threads, involving energy consultants, an Iranian Emir and his two sons, two oil companies that are merging, the law firm representing those companies, the CIA, and the poor young men in the Middle East. What I particularly liked about this movie was that, even though it dealt with major global issues, the characters were all real people, whether it’s George Clooney’s battered-down CIA agent, Alexander Siddig’s idealistic prince, or Matt Damon’s snotty energy consultant. Little touches make it all work, from the young men playing soccer and arguing about spiders and Spider-Man, to Jeffrey Wright’s lawyer character’s dysfunctional relationship with the alcoholic father he despises. And the dialogue is excellent, with some great moments, from the Spider-Man reference to the exchange of snide witticisms between Damon and Siddig and so many more.

It’s also full of OTGs — “oh, that guy!” — from Robert Foxworth (Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, Enterprise) to Peter Gerety (Homicide, The Wire) to Jamey Sheridan (Law & Order: Criminal Intent).

There’s not a bad performance in the film, but of particular note is Clooney, who looks twenty years older with a thick beard, and brilliantly plays a man on whom life has mostly defecated rather thoroughly. The film is elegantly constructed, perfectly paced — and also incredibly cynical. This is not what you’d call a feel-good film.

I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a well-constructed, well-acted film, but don’t expect to come out of it thinking that we live in a happy world.

highlights from the periodic revivals of 4-Color to 35-Millimeter

Once “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” caught up to real time in January 2020, it went on hiatus, to be revived every six months or so to look back on the new live-action movies based on superhero comics. Here’s some highlights from the June 2020, December 2020, June 2021, and December 2021 revivals of the feature:

On Bloodshot:

One reason why the revelation that Garrison’s entire background is a lie concocted by Eric is such a dud is because said revelation changes absolutely nothing. Diesel’s one-note Garrison is the same guy throughout the entire movie. It’s hard to get too arsed about a character’s crisis of identity when it does nothing to change anything about that identity in the least.

On Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn):

I love every element of Christina Hodson’s superlative script (Quinn giving Lance a hair-tie in the midst of the fight! The sandwich! Cain having a cast, not because her arm is broken, but so she can be a better pickpocket! The sandwich! Bertinelli hating being called the crossbow killer! The sandwich! Quinn firing bean-bag rounds full of glitter! The fucking sandwich, which is so perfect!), but the thing I love best is that she leans into Quinn’s psychotherapy background. She’s constantly psychoanalyzing the people around her just kind of randomly. I particularly love when Sionis has her tied up and she tries to get him not to do the clichéd detailing of his master plan and she sums up his psychoses in about two seconds.

On Faust: Love of the Damned:

At least the rest of the cast is trying. They’re still terrible, because they have to speak the words this script gives them, but you can tell they’re at least putting in the effort. Jeffrey Combs and Andrew Divoff are always eminently watchable, and have both made careers out of taking badly written roles and making them compelling, as both are extremely skilled with facial expressions and both have fantastic voices. Isabel Brook and Mónica van Campen have even worse roles, but they also do their best, with Brook in particular being at least vaguely convincing in all the many modes De Camp is required to be in (compassionate shrink, rape victim, person desperately in lust with Jaspers for no obvious reason, and M’s mind slave), and van Campen is obviously having a grand ol’ time as the slinky seductress/sadist. Kudos also to Fermí Reixach as the police commissioner, who does a wonderful job in his epic rant at M right before he dies.

On The Old Guard:

Director Gina Prince-Blythewood deserves a ton of credit here, as the movie manages that perfect balance between strong character work and powerful action sequences that superhero movies rely on if they want to be any good. The fight choreography is also stellar. The four immortals fight like a well-oiled machine, and Freeman—a combat Marine—mixes in well with them. I particularly like how easy they all make it, and I particularly like how the immortals all fight with more aggression than their opponents, simply because they know they can’t be hurt permanently. (I also like that the filmmakers are aware that guns don’t have an infinite supply of ammunition and need to be regularly reloaded.)

The exception is Theron’s Andy, but not just because she becomes mortal partway through the movie—rather it’s because she’s really so much better than anyone else. It’s so effortless for her, she almost seems bored. I used to do karate with a high-ranking black belt—he’s since left our dojo to open his own dojo in a different discipline—and he is an amazing fighter. What blew me away watching him in sparring tournaments is that he barely moved and just made everything look so easy and effortless as he knocked people repeatedly to the ground and kicked them repeatedly in the head. Theron has that same style about her in her fight scenes.

On The New Mutants:

Occasionally, Boone remembers that he’s doing a movie about teens, like when Illyana spikes Reyes’s tea so they can play, or when they sneak up to the attic. But mostly it’s a horror piece, and to drive it home, Boone and Lee have changed every character’s origin just enough to add murder to it. Sam didn’t just blast out of a coal mine, he killed his father and several other miners while doing it. Roberto didn’t just manifest his powers (which now include extreme heat, unlike his comics counterpart) in front of a bunch of people, he killed his girlfriend while doing so. Rahne wasn’t just condemned by her priest, but she killed the priest, too. And the demon bear is apparently a manifestation of Dani’s fear, and it destroyed her home.

On Wonder Woman 1984:

But then we have the fact that Steve Trevor’s ghost takes over some random dude’s body and life and nobody ever comments on it! Diana’s wish has, for all intents and purposes ended this guy—who never even gets a name—and she never once expresses a micron of concern for him. This is, frankly, despicable behavior, especially given that Diana and Trevor sleep together, so she’s now also raped this person. The actions are appalling enough on their own terms, but to have it be this character in particular is a disastrous misreading of who Diana/Wonder Woman is not just in her previous movie, but in the rest of this one.

On Zack Snyder’s Justice League:

First off, there is absolutely no reason, none, why this movie had to be four hours. Every scene took about twice as long as it needed to, several scenes were utterly pointless and/or repetitive, and the movie is chock-full of unnecessary slow-motion scenes, usually accompanied by some dirge-y rock song or other. Mind you, there are also necessary slow-motion scenes, those being when the Flash is moving very fast, so the rest of the world is in slo-mo to show his perceptions. But the effect of that is severely diluted because half the fucking movie has been in slo-mo up to the point that Barry Allen first shows up.

On Black Widow:

In many ways, this is the perfect Black Widow movie. Most of the MCU movies have been superheroic twists on existing movie subgenres, and the only way to go with the Widow would be to do a spy thriller, à la James Bond or Jason Bourne.

And we very much get that in Black Widow, from the globe-hopping to the car chase in Budapest to the multiple scenes of hand-to-hand combat to the fancy-ass gadgets to the ridiculous bad-guy headquarters. We get a Black Widow Greatest Hits, with her feigning helplessness to get information (Avengers), kicking ass during a car chase (Age of Ultron), disguising herself with a face mask (Winter Soldier), and coming up with clever strategies to solve problems (Endgame). Oh, and her mad computer skillz (Iron Man 2).

Plus, we get a full accounting of her background, after all the hints dropped in Avengers, Age of Ultron, and Winter Soldier.

On The Suicide Squad:

As with the last movie, the performances are superb. Margot Robbie is perfection itself as Quinn, and her every scene is gold. The high point of the film is her post-coital murder of Presidente Luna, especially with her lengthy monologue on the subject of her complicated love life while Luna is bleeding out on the floor. Just an epic moment, the perfect Harley Quinn scene. Her escape from captivity, complete with explosions of rose petals behind her, is a close second.

Viola Davis remains great casting as Waller, even though she’s once again written as a psychopath and an incompetent, neither of which she should be portrayed as. This is a woman who got one over on Batman, for crying out loud (in Suicide Squad #10, one of my favorite Batman moments). One of the few women of color in comics, and one of the most complex and interesting characters as originally conceived and written by John Ostrander in the 1980s is reduced to a cardboard villain once again. It’s more misreading of the source material, as is killing off Captain Boomerang. While Jai Courtney is pretty nowhere in the role (Nick Taraby was so much better as Digger Harkness in Arrow), Boomerbutt has been one of the mainstays of this version of the Squad snice 1987, and to kill him off in the first fifteen minutes of the film is like doing an X-Men movie and killing off Wolverine, or a Fantastic Four movie and killing off the Thing.

On Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings:

I haven’t even mentioned the title character, and it’s kind of too bad that Simu Liu stands out so little from his own movie, but that’s mostly because they surrounded him with so many great actors in Awkwafina, Leung, Zhang, Yeoh, and Kingsley. But Liu provides Shang-Chi with a very straightforward heroism that fits with the character he’s based on perfectly. The original comics character was trying to redeem the sins of his father, as well as those he committed himself in his service, and I like the way Liu plays a person who’s trying very hard to run away from a life he doesn’t want. He’s in a boring job that nonetheless pays the bills, he has a good, fun life. But when he’s attacked on the bus, his first thoughts are to keep the other people on the bus safe, and when it’s over, his next thought is of his sister’s safety. When it matters, he antes up and kicks in, which is what heroes are supposed to do.

On Venom: Let There Be Carnage:

Kelly Marcel’s script is full of some great lines, most of them Venom’s (Kasady’s are mostly pretty bog-standard oh-look-how-cool-I-am serial killer nonsense, but Harrelson delivers them well). And there are so many great bits, from Venom making a disastrous breakfast while singing, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” to Venom at a rave, to Brock mentioning ice cream and Venom complaining that he gets brain-freeze, to Kasady’s plaintive, “That’s bad journalism!” while bitching about how Brock didn’t tell his side of the story.

On Eternals:

It’s funny, there are a lot of ways that this movie reminds me of Watchmen. The death of one of the main characters drives the plot, we get multiple flashbacks, one of the main characters turns out to be a bad guy, and there are way too may characters to fit in one movie.

Indeed, one of my issues with the Zack Snyder adaptation of Watchmen was that the story was badly served by whittling it down to a feature film’s running time, and the same holds true for this. For this to truly achieve the scope it needs to succeed, for the characters to actually have the space to be characters instead of plot movers, for the breadth and depth of the storyline to really get a chance to shine, this needed to be a six-episode series on Disney+.

4-Color to 35-Millimeter: Eternals

The MCU continues its trend toward spotlighting comics characters who aren’t exactly A-list, which worked particularly well with Guardians of the Galaxy. Unfortunately, translating Jack Kirby’s Eternals to the big screen doesn’t fly as well as it might due to cast bloat and a disappointing lack of heroism. The great superhero movie rewatch finishes off this run of movies with Eternals (on the very day it launches on Disney+ no less!).

An excerpt:

There are just too many characters here, and very few of them are well served. Most of the actors are doing the best they can, but there just isn’t space to give them room to breathe. The only characters who really work are Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos and Angelina Jolie’s Thena. The former’s eagerness to aid humanity in the flashbacks and his complete burnout in the present day is beautifully played by Henry, while Jolie invests you fully in Thena’s disturbed state.

Almost all the rest of them are either underused or are too busy serving plot functions to actually be interesting characters. Or both.

4-Color to 35-Millimeter: Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Well, it’s better than the first one, though it’s still pretty dumb, but it’s salvaged by some gleefully goofball immersive acting by Woody Harrelson, Michelle Williams, and especially Tom Hardy in the dual title role. The great superhero movie rewatch rings in the new year with Venom: Let There Be Carnage.

An excerpt:

Kelly Marcel’s script is full of some great lines, most of them Venom’s (Kasady’s are mostly pretty bog-standard oh-look-how-cool-I-am serial killer nonsense, but Harrelson delivers them well). And there are so many great bits, from Venom making a disastrous breakfast while singing, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” to Venom at a rave, to Brock mentioning ice cream and Venom complaining that he gets brain-freeze, to Kasady’s plaintive, “That’s bad journalism!” while bitching about how Brock didn’t tell his side of the story.

4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Suicide Squad

The DCEU takes a mulligan on the Suicide Squad, hoping that James Gunn can bring some Guardians of the Galaxy magic to Task Force X, and he mostly succeeds! The great superhero movie rewatch is much more impressed with The Suicide Squad.

An excerpt:

As with the last movie, the performances are superb. Margot Robbie is perfection itself as Quinn, and her every scene is gold. The high point of the film is her post-coital murder of Presidente Luna, especially with her lengthy monologue on the subject of her complicated love life while Luna is bleeding out on the floor. Just an epic moment, the perfect Harley Quinn scene. Her escape from captivity, complete with explosions of rose petals behind her, is a close second.

4-Color to 35-Millimeter: Black Widow

It’s too little too late in so many ways, but Scarlett Johansson finally gets the spotlight she deserved, a decade after she debuted her version of Natasha Romanoff. Appropriately, her solo film is a spy thriller, with great performances not just by her, but by Florence Pugh and David Harbour as her fake sister and fake father. The great superhero movie rewatch kicks off its year-end revival with Black Widow.

An excerpt:

The movie is tremendous fun, with the fast pace that you expect from a Marvel movie, but also with the strong, honest characterizations. Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh make a superlative double act, and their banter carries the movie. They talk like siblings, and Belova’s pointed commentary on Romanoff’s second life as a hero lands beautifully, as does Romanoff responding the same way she always does: not by talking about it, but by anteing up and kicking in and doing what’s right. The best, of course, is Belova teasing Romanoff about her “superhero landing” pose, which she’s used in pretty much every appearance going back to Iron Man 2, and it’s hilarious, particularly when Belova herself tries the pose. (“That was disgusting…”)

4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Old Guard

The great superhero movie rewatch is back to look at the live-action comic book adaptations from the last six months — all two of them. We start this week with The Old Guard, a superb Charlize Theron vehicle that adapts the equally superb comic book by Greg Rucka (who also wrote the screenplay).

An excerpt:

It’s fascinating to look at the changes made from the source material, especially because both had the same writer. Some changes are for the better: the movie adds that Copley’s wife died of ALS, a particularly brutal, debilitating disease, thus providing him with a more solid and more noble motive for betraying the team to Merrick. Others are not improvements: Freeman is a woman of many talents in the comic, but that’s toned down in the movie, going so far as to not make her fluent in Pashto as she was in the comic, instead relying on a translator. And others are neutral: in the comic, Andy is a drunk, smokes a ton, has a metric buttload of casual sex, and struggles with modern technology, where Theron’s Andy does none of those things.

The biggest change, though, is that Andy has become mortal, which did not happen in the comics. It certainly raises the stakes of the climactic fight, as Andy, unlike the others, can be hurt. I’m wondering if this was a trap door for Theron in case she didn’t want to keep playing the role once she got into her 50s (she turned 45 this year).

Q&A Wednesday about superhero movies!

From 2017-2020, I did a comprehensive rewatch of every live-action movie based on a superhero comic book.

This coming Wednesday, the 11th of November at 9pm Easter, I’ll be doing one of the Dragon Con American Sci-Fi Classics Track’s quarantine panels, specifically a Q&A about superhero movies. It’ll be live on the Classics Track’s YouTube channel (and also on Facebook and Streamyard).

If you have any questions about superhero movies you’re just dying to hear me answer, you can post it as a reply to this blog entry, or just come join the show Wednesday….