Sketches – Disney’s Rocket Raccoon

by Danny Wall I was hoping to have a bit more time at the end of the week to through some color on this, but I have to juggle a bit more Life Stuff than usual, so here you go:

Who’s to say that Rocket won’t be the new mascot of the Disney/Marvel collaboration, especially once The Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters this summer?


Spectacular Fantastic Four – Animated

I’m a hoarder, at least when it comes to my digital files. Every so often, I have to go through my folders and try to figure out what exactly I was thinking to collect, arrange, and/or throw around all my virtual “stuff.”  Case in point– all this errant artwork that I suddenly stumble on and go “Oh, yeah!”

PLUS, many of my writing projects are a bit more long-term at this point, which will need to be balanced sometime soon with more “sketchbook” kind of short short stories.

In the meantime, enjoy some of the other kind of sketches I’ve stumbled upon. It’s inspired by Sean Galloway and the TV show Spectacular Spider-Man but features different Marvel heroes:

specfourspecfour 2 specfourcolor

Movie Review– Son of Batman (2014)

sonofbatmanlogoWith SPOILERS, naturally!


Digital download available on iTunes from April 22nd
Digital rental available from May 6th
Home Entertainment pack available on DVD/Blu Ray from May 6th

First of all, let’s be clear: this movie is primarily for comic fans. If you are merely a casual Batman acquaintance, a primarily animated-Batman fan, or just a general animation aficionado, you will find this a nice looking film with some interesting sequences, especially the fight choreography, naturally. Of course, you will also find a lot of superficial character interaction that ventures confusingly close to melodrama, as well as a plot that doesn’t really care to do much more than rely on the high concept already summarized by the film’s title.

OK, so if it’s for comic fans, will THEY enjoy it? Will they enjoy seeing the characters they’ve followed for years distilled into underdeveloped, cliche, 74-minutes versions of themselves? I hope so. But then again, in doing so, aren’t you really just watching it to see a watered-down visualization of something you’ve already read? Does this film really just become like a frat boy with one in-joke in his repertoire, one which he loudly proclaims to his own amusement and to others’ bewilderment? “HA! The *SON* of BATMAN!” he chortles, and everyone else arches an eyebrow and says, “yeah? ‘AND…?!'”

META-COMMENTARY: Please note, I AM indeed aware of the comicbooks that serve as source material for the film, but I am trying here to judge the film as a work in and of itself; the film should try to be its own entity and rise or fall by its own identity, right? After all, this film is being praised by Mary Ellen Thomas, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Vice President of Family & Animation and Partner Brands Marketing, who says in an official press release that the company is “proud to release this title as the 20th DC Universe Animated Original Movie.” It’s also an important piece of the company’s “Batman 75” promotion, which aims to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Batman’s creation.

So, spoilers, in case you watch the movie and somehow failed to read the title– Batman/Bruce Wayne has a son. Obviously, the movie centers around this premise, providing a lot of set-up until Batman and Damian, his son, meet for the first time, and then it continues with what is essentially Damian’s story, as he becomes Robin in seeking revenge on Deathstroke for his attempts to kill his family and take over their legacy, the League of Assassins.

It’s a pretty straightforward story, and one that allows action to naturally be at the forefront– Damian is introduced when a seemingly peaceful Asian monastery (nonetheless called the League of Assassins) is attacked by armed mercenaries of some kind; Later, Batman is introduced by taking down a crazed villain; in this case, Killer Croc. In the former, watch for Talia (who doesn’t get the moniker “Mother of Son of Batman”) using a pump-action shotgun to mow down rows of soldiers, as well as firing a Gatling gun that shoots hundreds of arrows at a time. In the same scene, Ra’s al Ghul (at first just called “grandfather”) single-handedly faces a cascade of bullets from close-range fire, all by deflecting them with his sword.

Clearly the film doesn’t forget this is a superhero action flick, and superheroic action is peppered throughout. The fight scenes are often quite visceral (earning a PG-13 rating) and all have several well-choreographed moves. There’s nothing too groundbreaking, perhaps, except in the sense that Damian/Robin is a kid and can have a different range and timing when fighting adults. The final showdown between Robin and Deathstroke is perhaps the most visceral of all, and the location of scene on a burning scaffolding allows for some genuine tension. Notice a subtle touch here– Damian’s finishing move has more than a little parallel with Batman’s previous move when finishing off the Man-Bats earlier in the movie.

While action is certainly the film’s strong point, the development of plot points themselves are clearly very weak. There are way too many instances of key elements that appear in a line of dialogue, but are never explored or developed nor are their implications considered. As I said above, for newcomers to Batman’s world, this is very confusing, whereas comic fans will certainly accept this without a problem.

One glaring example is in the first meeting of Talia and Batman in the film. Talia recaps their relationship for the viewer’s benefit, which basically amounts to a thinly-veiled description of Batman being date raped. There’s no reaction from Batman beyond agreeing that “it wasn’t all bad.” Comicbook fans will no doubt appreciate the significance of the relationship between the two, but out of context, the viewers can only assume something much more limited, and therefore unsatisfying. Maybe in this universe, Talia and Batman had one tryst about eight years ago and for some reason Batman never took down an organization calling itself the League of Assassins in the intervening time. Afterward, Talia leaves the two together, sailing away without comment and won’t be seen again in the film for quite some time.

Really, the movie is supposed to be about Damian himself. Batman and Talia and Nightwing (the previous Robin) are regulated into supporting roles for Damian going through the standard tropes of the Hero’s Journey. It is he who has the Call to Adventure, and his is the Thresholds, the Mentor (in Batman), the Gifts (of the Robin suit), and the Temptation (of revenge) and Return (accepting his role as Robin.) Pretty much every story beat is Damain’s, but what’s weird is that it’s all from the perspective of Batman. How dare the Title Hero get in the way of this Batman movie!

Case in point– Damain breaks into Wayne Enterprises and confronts Bruce in his executive office. Story-wise, it shows off Damain’s ninja-skills. Thematically, it’s a way to parallel Damian’s place in the League with a place in Wayne Enterprises. Hero Journey-ly, it’s part of “Atonement with Father” trope. However, the whole scene is done from the point of view of Bruce Wayne, who ushers all his assistants out of the way and never bothers to explain to anyone why he’s trying to secretly hide a young boy in his office. Add a laugh track and what could be a dramatic journey for Damian is merely a punchline in the Wacky Misadventures of Bruce Wayne.

It shouldn’t make for an unbalanced tone overall, but it does. Is the film trying to be a comedy? an adventure? a character piece? Damian fulfills his heroic journey, but he spends the majority of it being snarky, petulant, and pretty much unlikeable until his last-minute change of heart appears, without very little build-up. And how does the story change the other characters, such as Batman? Not much. Should we consider that he appears to accept Damian in a new role as Robin? Well, he kind of did that already from the very beginning, didn’t he?

Also? Damian apparently hasn’t seen this pic:


While I can’t say Batman does (or even should) change in this story, I give credit to the writers for helping establish Batman’s motivation, when he explains why heroes do what they do (and perhaps why he doesn’t use guns, doesn’t just kill the Joker, etc.) “You can’t fight crime by becoming a criminal.” Great line.

All of this discussion so far and I haven’t talked about the villain– which is perhaps appropriate because the film doesn’t really do that, either. He’s pretty much there for some generic might-makes-right kind of motivation, with some generic “force the scientist to make my soldiers into monsters,” and, I suppose, because Deathstroke is popular in the comics and TV nowadays. In a couple of places, the dialogue sets up Deathstroke to be a kind of foil for both Batman and Damain, but nothing much more is done with that, so I can’t tell if I’m reading too much into it or if it’s genuinely supposed to be subtext.

The real problem is with Deathstroke’s voice (Thomas Gibson), which feels completely wrong. There are too many hints of “being unhinged” or “playfulness” (i.e. “Joker”?) that does not match the way the character is portrayed at all, both in his story’s purpose and also his costume design. This could be a feature of the actual words in the dialogue, which are either generic villain-rants or over-the-top villain-glee.

Overall, however, the voice acting is perfect for Damian (Stuart Allen) and most of the supporting characters. Batman’s (Jason O’Mara, reprising the role from Justice League: War) fits much better in this film than in the previous; this could be due to O’Mara growing in the vocal performance or it could be that it blends well into the overall tone of Gotham City. However, there are times when the voice starts to crack a bit, showing that the graveling Batman-in-costume voice does not allow for much emotional range.

You can’t fault the art design for the film. The characters are well-depicted, with just a little touch of classic, “4-color” sensibility appropriate for capes and tights. In this respect, it’s pretty spot-on from the source material. (Deathstroke overdoes it with the modern-day penchant for shoulder pads and pinstriped body armor.) I would prefer a bit more classically American-style animation, with more of a sense of weight from the characters, more squash/stretch and follow through, but the Warner Bros./DC Animation unit’s aesthetic for this and their Justice League film seems to echo the more “serious” Japanese anime influence, complete with slightly stilted movement from pose to pose.

Once again, however, this “seriousness” that shows up in the animation, color palette, principal voice acting, heroic journey, and more, seems at odds with some inherently amusing and often downright melodramatic situations. The film must balance these realities, but it’s a wobbly balance. As I said, some comic fans will likely accept these wobbly bits without a problem, as it’s probably nothing they haven’t seen or considered already. The film thus may exist for them as a validation of some disbelief that has already long been suspended. As a work of art on its own, however, it’s only giving the bare basics, gleefully carrying its story along while ignoring those skeptical calls of “wait a minute…” along the way.

I’d like to give the film a “Yay!”, at least for the effort and for clearly taking itself seriously. And it sure deserves more than just a “Blech!”, but the final mark is appropriately just a short, clipped *tt…*



(PS. You can read more thoughts after my first viewing here.)

Movie Discussion: Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014) with SPOILERS

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014) Madhouse studios, Directed by Kenichi Shimizu; Screenplay by Mitsutaka Hirota; Story by Marjorie Liu

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014) Madhouse studios, Directed by Kenichi Shimizu; Screenplay by Mitsutaka Hirota; Story by Marjorie Liu

For some specific critiques, I’ll have to drop some spoilage. Just sayin’.

There are some neat nods to Marvel Comics here. For example, although the locations range from Slovenia to Istanbul to Hong Kong, the main throwdown is, of course, in Madripoor. Not that the place is much different visually from Hong Kong as presented in the film, but still. And there are several cameos by characters that let a geek like me, well, geek out a bit, such as having the Avengers cavalry include War Machine and Captain Marvel (who, coincidentally I think, were shown to be dating in recent Captain Marvel pages.) Not that these characters got any lines or much more than a couple of sequences, but still.

There’s a much bigger role for a character I REALLY grew to love but has dropped out of Marvel’s favor, apparently, and that’s Amadeus Cho. In this film, he’s “one of SHIELD’s greatest scientists” with no mention of his unique powerset, but still. There’s even Kirby the coyote cub! And for being one of SHIELD’s greatest scientists, he doesn’t really do all that much but work on some computers for our title heroes and provide some comedy relief for joining in on the Avengers cavalry at the end for some reason. But still. Oh, and his personality and character isn’t much more than geeky young ADHD kid with a crush on Black Widow, but sti– oh, forget it. It’s nice to have him here, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense if he’s basically interchangeable with the Tinkerer or Forge or some other minor, one-note Marvel character who could have done the same thing. Oh, Cho!

But really, I just couldn’t wait to write this review, specifically this paragraph right here. It’s because of one moment that made me laugh out loud and non-stop for a couple minutes. There is one character which I DID NOT SEE COMING at all. You see, it turns out that one of the Bads in the film (not the Big Bad, but one of the mini-Bosses) is…
in fact…
wait for it…
are you ready?
It is, none other than …
Elihas Starr!

If you are like my viewing-buddy who still don’t understand why I’d be cracking up, here’s the picture I had to stop the movie to show him:


Yes, that’s right. Elihas Starr, a.k.a. Egghead. Former archenemy of none other than Ant-Man, in this film he not only was “one of SHIELD’s brightest scientists” at some point (are all of their scientists this by now?), he was in fact the Black Widow’s love interest. In fact, his love interest is what fuels his descent into super-villainy so that he can prove himself worthy of her, as she’s always galavanting off into adventures instead of paying attention to him. In fairness, here’s what he looks like according to Madhouse studios:


So anyway, his mad scientist love is revealed at the end of Act II, as I said, which surprises everyone out of the blue, including, it seems, the Black Widow herself, and thus it all comes out as kind of pathetic. After waiting through more exposition and being introduced to the MacGuffin, you almost think that the Widow will use some super-spy skills to ingratiate herself to the organization (and you almost sympathize with Starr’s anti-SHIELD rhetoric), but no, it’s really just a big fight between them, because Starr has, like any good mad scientist, experimented on himself, and the Widow has to escape with help from the Punisher.

I’ll admit it– the film had me on the edge of my seat. But not for the reasons the filmmakers hoped, I think. I kept waiting for Starr to actually transform into Egghead with, you know, an actual egg-shaped head, but no, sorry. More strangely, in Act V, the Black Widow suddenly starts interacting with Starr as if she’s been in love with him all along! Wa-waaah! There was no reason for him to join with the bad guy terrorist organization or experiment on yourself anyway! As if that’s not tropey enough, Widow gets to hold him in her arms as he lays dying from trying to save her from the Big Bad, named Orion, in the final showdown. (Is it giving them too much credit that the villains are named Starr and Orion?) The villain is taken down in one final blow, of course, by the Punisher with a stab in the eye, so Widow and Starr can share those last moments of his death together.

As you can see, if you care about Women’s Studies critiques, this is not the film for you. The Black Widow appears like a capable character, but in fact does very little on her own. Although she can go toe-to-toe in a fight against the Punisher or even against Starr or Orion, these fights are actually taken over and triumphed by a male character instead. The first one? Her fight against the Punisher is interrupted by Nick Fury. The second one? Her fight against the Punisher is stopped when Amadeus destroys the plot device. Against Starr? Starr actually beats her several times graphically in the stomach to send her flying over some rails, “luckily” being caught by the Punisher. Against Orion? Tropey McTropeson, I mean, Starr sacrifices himself by standing in the way of the fatal blow.

At this point, I’m wondering why she’s even in the film at all. She only holds off the Punisher until SHIELD captures him, but when the plot needs to go forward, she has to break him *out* of SHIELD in order to get to the next level. (Even though it’s been clearly demonstrated that the Punisher is brainwashed and can be triggered by the very people she is bringing them to.) She gets Amadeus motivated by promising him a kiss, I guess? That’s agency of plot, right? Moreover, her character isn’t notable in any way, as she only gives exposition or commentary, often in the form of a flippant remark. What is her basic character in this film, anyway? She just kind of does what she’s told, either directly from a character or meta-directly because of the dictates of the formulaic plot.

Oh, right. I know what purpose she serves. Remember that tracking shot I talked about in the pre-credits sequence? The one that started by focusing on her boobs and moving to her face? Yeah, that happens a lot in the film. There’s also more than a few times when the camera angle is shifted, such as in a low angle, but the foreground is some portion of the Widow’s lower anatomy. If we’re going to have to listen to some exposition focused on the Punisher, we better do it by looking past a butt-shot!

Which is a shame, because there are *hints* of things that could make a better story for a strong female hero. Heck, just switch Starr’s name for the Widow’s actual husband from the comics, Alexei Shostakov, the Red Guardian, who (basically) was a soldier and a hero but turned villain/antagonist. The guy was even a former Russian agent, which is what the terrorist organization in the film was comprised of! It’s a natural fit and actually amps up the pathos in a more natural way, while putting the Widow for some soul-searching as she questions her entire history. And why not have that guy be the Big Bad after all, allowing the Widow greater stakes in the final battle? All very simple fixes that keeps the already-basic structure of the film in place.

Of course, I could ask why the Punisher is even here as well. Like I said, it’s not like he really changes in the course of the story. The Widow tries to get him to go “easy” on the cannon-fodder, as they were once innocent “like his family” once was. In the denouement, however, the Punisher tracks down the one arms dealer that almost got away, clearly returning to his original modus operandi. These token attempts to compare/contrast the two don’t go anywhere beyond superficial sentences here or there.

Oh, right. I know what purpose he serves. Guns are pretty cool, so we might as well explore violence vicariously through gratuitous bullet-firing and knife-stabbing. Take that, bad guys!

Movie Review: Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014)

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014) Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014) Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan

One is a sassy superspy with high-flying kicks and the full weight of an international agency behind her!
The other is a grim vigilante gunning down all criminals with singleminded purpose for his personal agenda!
Together, they fight crime!

Marvel Entertainment has released a new direct-to-DVD animated feature with help from Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan. I had no idea this was even a thing, so imagine my surprise when I stumbled onto in and found it available in iTunes. You know me and superhero animated movies! Let’s see how it holds up!

No spoilers here, necessarily, but you never know. I’ll make a second post tomorrow with some things that I really want to talk about that HAVE to include some pretty significant spoilers. I’m putting the head’s up here so you can, you know, actually watch the film untainted, like I did. You’ll be surprised about some of the cameos from Marvel Comics’ larger universe and, I’ll just say at this point that yes, the Avengers (minus Captain America) do show up for the big battle at the end.

But first up, the pre-credits sequence. Right away there are two things that send my Critical-Viewer Senses tingling. The first? A news report as way of giving exposition. Lazy, lazy, lazy, and all too common. Second? The boob shot of Black Widow. The first glimpse we see of the title hero is her buxom upper body, then the camera pans up to the lower part of her face as she reacts to the news. Now, the entire pre-credit sequence never shows EITHER of the title characters in full, so Ooo-kay, maybe the filmmakers are trying to keep the identity of the characters a secret to the viewers? (Well, I’ll give you a hint: Their names are ALREADY IN THE TITLE and they’re probably the WHOLE REASON you downloaded the movie in the first place!)

What follows is a heavy-beat generic up-tempo number with dramatic poses and key-framed moves from our players over the credits. It was clear I should quickly shift my expectations for this film to “80s Anime” mode. Throughout the film, I laughed at myself in the realization that I have not seen an anime in a long, long time. (Hey, I did try the first few episodes of Attack on Titan— Geek Cred name drop!) But this was clearly anime in the Cliche-80s’ style. You know the aesthetic– a mixture of stock poses with a split-second beat before the dialogue, which is (understandably) dubbed over the lip movements. Watch also for those neat tricks when you DON’T have to animate lip movements– a slow pan across the scene, the character’s back to the camera, or a close-up of some unrelated element during the dialogue. I love those anime grunts, that seem to come from nowhere while a character’s face is on the screen. Embrace the cliches, and you’ll have a fine time. (Isn’t there a drinking game about this somewhere?)

So maybe talk about the production here? The film was made by Madhouse, a Japanese animation studio, whose credits include Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, and Death Note. So by that token, Avengers Confidential fits their house style quite nicely, even with a quite noticeable lack of gratuitous blood during the quite violent fight scenes. Apparently, this wasn’t the first collaboration between Marvel/Sony and Madhouse; they also produced a series of series with different Marvel characters in Japan (Iron Man, Wolverine, X-Men, Blade) during 2010 – 2012.

Back to the film. When there is action, the scenes are pretty lively, of course. Black Widow and Punisher are given the opportunity to fight each other three times, and fight alongside each other twice, which is perhaps the appropriate ratio for a Marvel story. The Widow gets a number of interesting moves, but it looks like the animators quickly run out of tricks when her fighting style is basically flips and kicks and shooting sparkly needles. The Punisher does more firefights than straight-up fights, aptly enough, and they’re usually covered with sound effects and lighting tricks to amp the excitement of a man just standing there firing guns. To compete in the drinking game, watch for those cliches of a character running with his hands pointed straight to the ground, the slo-in/slo-outs whenever a character does a different, more dramatic move, and the quick feints accompanied by grunts and zip-pans. It’s all slickly done and with high production value, but pretty standard stuff all around.

The plot follows that “pretty standard stuff,” model, too. It’s exposition, then travel to a new location for a fight; more exposition, more travel to a fight; lather, rinse, repeat. It’s kind of a video game model, where the characters move steadily closer to the Boss Level for the final showdown. And the exposition parts feel LONG. Along the way, there’s a kind of love-story for Black Widow that feels forced because it only starts at the end of Act Two, but the pathos is only ratcheted up in Act Four. There’s no truly surprising reveal or twist, nor any true conflict or change in the characters. Maybe that’s why the love-story for the Widow feels pretty hollow– there’s nothing to really develop so ultimately it’s all kind of meaningless. The Punisher is still the grim, single-minded vigilante he started as, and the Black Widow is still… uhm, working for SHIELD?

There are a few moments when there’s a hint at conflict between the two. The Punisher’s mission is cast in a pretty selfish light, after all, at least when the Widow is cast as a “company person” following SHIELD’s mission parameters. As you might expect from every movie trope ever, the Widow has to break from the company line and come over to the Punisher’s side in order to see the mission through. However, there is never a big deal made about this, either by the character herself or even from her boss who pretty much seems to sanction it all anyway, so the script is really just going through the checklist on its video-game model of storytelling.

The climactic battle is fun to watch, of course, and the studios break out a bit of computer-assisted scene building to help make the scale as large as possible. The Avengers (with some interesting cameos!) are brought in to assist, and by that I mean, participate in some background action so that the title characters can have a dedicated toe-to-toe with the Boss Level. It’s enough to keep any attention-deficit viewer engaged, but on reflection, again, we don’t really see anything very creative in the battle– it’s either shooting or punching. The Cameo-Avengers are given a couple of spotlighted sequences, but ultimately don’t do much, and don’t even have any lines, letting Iron Man make all the Tony Snark that you’d expect, which really isn’t that funny anymore.

Overall, on the scale of Nay, Meh, or Yay, this is decidedly a Meh. I enjoyed the film mildly, mostly in an ironic way, and yes, you wouldn’t be the first to call me hipster. Others with less tolerance for 80s-style anime and/or story tropes will not enjoy this at all, while anime enthusiasts will find this a comfortable warm blanket.

Story Meeting– Ka-Zar and the Beast Brood

Ka-Zar and the Beast Brood

Brace yourself; here it is: “Mutants versus Dinosaurs with Hi-Tech Superhero Adventures in a Secret Jungle.” Brilliant! Am I right or am I right or am I right?

Yes, everyone wants an idea that’s going to diversify the product line and apply a brand identity and blah blah blah executive meeting buzzwords blah.  Forget all of that and ask yourself: is it COOL

Because, let’s face it, Marvel Comics’ Savage Land is pretty cool– a land that time may have forgot, but aliens and mutant masterminds have not! The only person who can unite its peoples to fight back against the forces of darkness is the lost Kevin Plunder, a.k.a. Ka-Zar, the Son of the Tiger. 

You got ACTION!

Together with Shanna the She-Devil, Ka-Zar must risk daily life among the dinosaurs, while saving the day from such threats as his brother Lord Plunder, Garrokk the Petrified Man, and Terminus– the Alien that Walks Like a Mountain! But all is not so bleak! The evil High Evolutionary’s terrible experiments may have created the Savage Land Mutates, but a heroic few have broken free to help fight the good fight as the Beast Brood! It’s like a mixture of He-Man & the Masters of the Universe, Thundarr the Barbarian, and Land of the Lost. (So, so 80s.)

You got PATHOS!

Ka-Zar, a feral boy raised by saber-toothed tigers, must grow in his realization of what the Savage Land is all about, making the “real world” seem like the one that is a mythological paradise. Shanna, herself not a native to the Savage Land, is always searching for an escape, despite all the while falling in love with Ka-Zar, who himself doesn’t understand the longing for this “real world.” Ka-Zar becomes a bit Peter Pan-like, with Shanna the Wendy character and the Beast Brood as the Lost Boys. The Brood are also a source of pathos (since they are, after all, mutates!) but also of comedy. Their personalities don’t have to be too complex, but it’s all about their interactions. Brainchild is the egotistical and nerdy one. Amphibius is the bouncy and enthusiastic one. Barbarus is the silent, slow but strong one. These three would be the central characters (animation does have a budget, you know!) although you could rotate any number of them in and out of focus depending on the episode. Make Lorelei the lazy Lotus-Eater one, Lupo the intense and ADHD one, and Worm the know-it-all, world-weary one (or is that too Caterpillar-Alice-in-Wonderland?)

and you got … TOYS!

Because, Zabu. The coolness really all comes from Zabu.

Available where all fine toys are sold

Available where all fine toys are sold

Some items sold separately.

Comics are Not Animated Movies

Look, animation and comic books (let’s be honest and say “superhero comics”) have a great relationship. We’re talking years and years of great relationship, as far back as the Fleischer Superman animated serials of the 1940s. And, arguably, the two have become inexorably blended thanks to the wonderful synergy between Warner Bros./DC Comics, as far back as the seminal Batman: The Animated Series of the 1990s.

So when Comic Book Resources posted an article titled “DC COMICS STORIES TAILOR-MADE FOR ANIMATED FEATURES” I had to take notice. Particularly due to the all-caps. That’s some virtual enthusiasm right there, FOR SURE!

Unfortunately, while by and large I agree with the author Marc Buxton and would LOVE to see each and every one of his suggestions made into animated films, I think there are some key points that are not taken into account. And the most basic of these points? That animated films are not comic books. In fact, there are things that you can do in comics that you simply cannot do in animation. In other words, just because both mediums are a mix of visuals and “text,” it does not mean that one can be tailor-made for the other.

I couldn’t help but notice that 90% of the article’s suggestions basically boil down to “hey, this was a great story in the comics, so it would be a great story as a film.” Here’s most of the reasons he offers for films to be adapted into animation:

  • “intense heroic dramas”, “some great character work” (Justice League: A New Beginning)
  • “do a modern version of the reality-hopping story” (Crisis on Earth-One)
  • “the definitive origins of Robin and Batgirl” (Robin/Batgirl: Year One)
  • “telling a modern story of heroism and courage”, “multi-layered thematic study of the ‘Shazam’ concept” (Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil)
  • “greatest human adventures and remains a touchstone in comic history” (Hard Traveling Heroes)
  • “memorable stories”, “story … like a Greek Tragedy”, “potential character depth” (Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia)
  • “great little brother/big brother dynamic”, “groundbreaking storyline” (Batman and Robin)
  • “adapt one of the most intense Superman comic stories” (Superman: Last Son)
  • “one of the most tightly plotted, action-packed stories of the early ’90s” (Superman: Panic in the Sky)
  • “one of the most stunningly original “Batman” stories ever told” (Batman: Court of Owls)
  • “one of the most popular stories of the ’90s” (Batman: Knightfall)
  • “scope and emotional resonance of the story”, “a tribute to the “Green Lantern” mythos” (Sinestro Corps War)
  • “the purest Batman story” (Batman: The Long Halloween)
  • “this darkest of stories” (Arkham Asylum)
  • “the ultimate modern Joker story” (Batman: Death of the Family)
  • “This story of the true meaning of heroism” (Kingdom Come)
  • “the first, true epic crossover event; the story that transitioned the DC Universe” (Crisis on Infinite Earths)

Now, OF COURSE a great story should be the driving reason for a film. But because it’s so “of course,” this “reason” should be taken as a given, and in and of itself, this does not mean it’s tailored-made to adapt to other media. In fact, why not make the argument that these comics are tailor-made for a live-action film? Or an HBO original series? Or a novelization? All in all, what is really being sold as a reason here? A great story told well? That’s been done already, because it’s in the comic itself!

So what’s left besides “story” as a reason? Well, there’s always “character.” However, while the article points out some opportunity for character-as-exploration-of-human-themes (such as how Kingdom Come “differentiates [DC’s Trinity — Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman], what their great failings are, and most importantly, what makes them heroes” and how Batman: Death of the Family explores the “perfect symbiotic relationship of chaos and order symbolized by Batman and the Joker”), the majority of the article simple name-drops the characters as if they are figures on a shelf that could be placed on a different shelf. Instead, some reasons for animation are simply “seeing the beloved Blue and Gold team of Beetle and Booster in animated form” (Justice League: A New Beginning) and “the first official meeting between the Justice League of Earth 1 and Justice Society of Earth 2 is an event many DC fans have longed to see come to life” (Crisis on Earth-One). I love these characters, too, but when you’re argument boils down to “it would be cool to see these characters move and talk,” it’s not really convincing as proof that animation must happen.

That kind of thinking too easily translates into something else very prevalent in this article. And I’m guilty of this sometimes, too– when you stop playing armchair movie director and become armchair movie executive. In other words, just because this character is a property, doesn’t mean it’s “tailor-made” to be leveraged for the sake of being a property. This “reason” is given to justify many of the author’s points, saying “with New Gods, DC and WB have their own potential ‘Star Wars’ franchise just waiting to be exploited,” and Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil might allow Captain Marvel/Shazam to “deserve his chance” to try again to be “the most commercially viable DC property.” This kind of stuff is an oversimplification of what “characters” really are, and glosses over what you’re really talking about, which is stuff like graphic design, cultural zeitgeist/consumer mentality, trademark and branding, or even just basic story theory. We should all take a step back and check if we really are talking about art forms or talking about business.

To be fair, the author does point out several aesthetic/artistic reasons for a story to be adapted into animation. The best example of this is his offer of Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. He rightly talks about how “an animated gothic horror . . . inspired by the art of Mike Mignola” gives opportunity for story (“mash-up of modern day super heroics with archetypes of the Victorian era”) and character (Batman as an “enduring character”) and, more importantly, tone (“moody, atmospheric alternate future.”) This is entirely appropriate, of course, as this recent Justice League: War director Jay Olivia has gone on record saying he wants to do this as an actual film. (It’s also been developed, although abandoned, as a video game). Another brilliant point is in the offer of Batman: Court of Owls. He says that “Greg Capullo’s take on Batman fighting the Talons over Gotham’s rooftops seems like a perfect fit for animation,” and THAT’s the point. An animated film has its own advantages as a unique medium, and these strengths should highlight or enhance a comic book story. In this case, a scene full of tone, movement, character, and dramatic tension.

It’s a bit more tricky when you read about the New Gods as “an animated Kirby tribute, crackling with the power only the King could muster.” I suppose on one hand it’s identifying that there is a unique combination of characters, concepts, tone/style, and, yes, plot, but at the same time, it boils down to “it’s cool and I want to see such coolness in another medium.” What is it about animation that would enhance this “power” and unique combination of stuff? In this case, I would argue that the graphic design of Kirby’s elements are such that it would not translate well into a live-action medium; the stark and simplified nature of the design elements of both character, backgrounds, and special effects would not be same, visually, if made live (or even, I’d argue, if made 3D.) It’s no wonder that these elements were a huge influence to 1996’s Superman: The Animated Series. However, I’d further make a distinction by this same token, and say that this story could not be an animated DVD or television release; if you are going for something to capture grandeur and otherworldly majesty, then a cinematic scope and aspect ratio of an animated theatrical film is the way to go.

Finally, I’d like to point out that just because something can be drawn on paper, does not mean that it automatically can be drawn for animation. Because what you are really asking for is something that was drawn once (for one splash page in a comic) to be drawn multiple times (usually for 12 frames per one second of film, sometimes more depending on the quality.) That page may have taken an artist six to eight hours to draw. Those 12 frames might take a week, with multiple artists involved in layout, key frames, in-betweens, or more. So you have to realize the extreme oversimplification of the claim that “it might be a struggle for WB’s animators to cram as many characters into every frame as Perez did in every panel of [Crisis on Infinite Earths.]” It may be so unrealistic to the point of being impossible. And also, the advantage is when your eyes can linger over these panels and their compositions. These are lost when film has a different language altogether to compose scenes and frames, to guide the viewer’s eyes. So, for the article to say that “Kirby built a world in every panel he drew” might be a fair point, but to mean that it is also “a world that is ripe for life in other media” does not necessarily follow. It’s a strength of the comic that does not have an equivalent in animation. So perhaps it’s appropriate then, that in the previous paragraph I said that the New Gods suggestion would be better served as an animated theatrical film– this only furthers the point because only that kind of film would have the budget and staffing appropriate for that expression. But I’d still think a direct translation of Crisis is impossible. Bottom line, some of the “tailor-made” reasons offered by the article were that these stories had a scale (see also the reasons for Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night), but that is precisely why they *shouldn’t* be made into animated movies, I’d argue.

So, beyond my echo of The New Gods (as an animated theatrical release), I’d also affirm the author’s choices of Batman: Gotham By Gaslight, Batman: Court of Owls, and Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil. And here, I’d add my own “Top 10” stories to the list I’d like to see:

  • Green Lantern: New Guardians (2011)
  • Shadowpact (2006)
  • Stanley and his Monster (1993)
  • Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth (1972)
  • Metamorpho (The Brave and the Bold, 1965)
  • Klarion the Witch Boy (Seven Soldiers of Victory, 2005)
  • The Metal Men (Wednesday Comics, 2009)
  • Doom Patrol (The Brotherhood of Dada, 1989)
  • Dial H (2012)
  • Plastic Man (Jack Cole, 1941 or Kyle Baker, 2004)

But this list is entirely made with my own rationales, which I should save for different posts at a later time. Enjoy contemplating that list while you wait!