Serial Review: Zorro Rides Again (1937)

Release Date: November 20th, 1937 (first chapter)
Directed by: William Witney, John English
Written by: Franklin Adreon, Morgan Cox, Ronald Davidson, John Rathmell, Barry Shipman
Based on: Zorro by Johnston McCulley
Music by: Alberto Colombo, Walter Hirsch, Eddie Maxwell, Lou Handman
Cast: John Carroll, Helen Christian, Reed Howes, Duncan Renaldo, Noah Beery Sr., Richard Alexander

Republic Pictures, 212 Minutes total (12 episodes), 68 Minutes (film), 26 Minutes (6 TV episodes)

Review:

Zorro Rides Again has a few notable things worth mentioning. It was the first film collaboration for directors William Whitney and John English. Also, it was the eighth of Republic Pictures’ 66 serials. It was also just the third western themed serial that Republic did. Additionally, this was the first of five Zorro serials produced by Republic Pictures.

This Zorro serial was influenced by the singing cowboy trend of the time, so there are some musical numbers. I’ve never been a fan of that particular genre so what could have been a great serial adventure for a great and iconic hero suffered from its musical hokiness.

The casting was mediocre and no one really stands out or has a strong presence. Zorro, as a character, always stands out but he just seemed stripped of his coolness. He just didn’t feel like the Old West Mexican Batman that he normally is.

This serial doesn’t have much to boast about, unfortunately. Being a Zorro fan, I wanted to love Zorro Rides Again but I was mostly bored throughout it. Visually, it is average. The direction is fine for a serial but Witney and English hadn’t yet found their rhythm.

In any event, it did spawn four sequels and I’m hoping that they improve upon this weak initial outing.

Comic Review: Batman: The Killing Joke

Batman: The Killing Joke (written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland) is highly regarded as one of the best Batman stories ever written. It is hugely popular and fanboys the world over embrace it like it is some sort of geek bible. It tells the origin story of the Joker and gives us the event that leads to Barbara Gordon’s transformation from Batgirl into Oracle. It essentially covers a lot of ground for only being 48 pages.

Being written by Alan Moore (Wathcmen, Swamp Thing, V For Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) adds a certain level of credibility and mystique to this tale. That being said, for me, it doesn’t live up to the hype and the fanfare. The story isn’t bad but it just doesn’t develop into something all that thought-provoking, which is what one would expect from Alan Moore.

The Killing Joke gives us one of the many Joker origins and the one presented here has seemingly become the most popular. The thing is, there have been several different Joker origin stories told by several different writers that all vary to large degrees. In fact, in Batman canon, no Joker origin story is considered to be “the one”. The mystery of the character is that we just don’t know what his true origin is and frankly, I think it should be left that way: open for debate till the end of time. Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight plays off of this, as his Joker goes on to tell varying stories of how he got his scars. Even the film Joker’s beginnings are unknown.

When it comes to the character’s origin, I’m more in favor of what was written by Michael Green in Batman: Lovers & Madmen. If you haven’t read it, I suggest that you do. I found it to be a better story than The Killing Joke.

The one thing that The Killing Joke has going for it, especially at the time of its release in the late 1980s, is the amazing art by Brian Bolland. The scenes are fantastically orchestrated and Bolland’s ability to convey emotion through his subjects is pretty spectacular. This definitely upped the ante at the time and brought a new level of artistry to the comic book industry, which was in the midst of a big evolutionary jump at that time. The inks and colors were also incredible and gave this book such a vibrant presentation. More than reading this graphic novel, I just liked to stare at its pages in awe.

I do thoroughly enjoy The Killing Joke but apart from the revolutionary art, it lacks in meat and potatoes, which is pretty uncharacteristic of Alan Moore. I think a lot of people embrace it simply because Moore’s name is on the cover, as he has become a comic book writer who has been deified by the fan community. I’m not saying that Moore hasn’t earned that distinction but this book isn’t on the literary level of someone who has reached that level of worship.

Film Review: The Super Inframan (1975)

Also known as: Chinese Superman (China)
Release Date: August 1st, 1975
Directed by: Hua Shan
Written by: Ni Kuang
Music by: Frankie Chan
Cast: Danny Lee, Wang Hsieh, Terry Lau, Yuan Man-tzu, Bruce Le, Kong Yeung, Dana Shum, Lin Wen-wei, Lu Sheng, Fanny Leung

Shaw Brothers Studio, 84 Minutes

Review:

Tokusatsu doesn’t just have to be a Japanese thing, as the Chinese proved with The Super Inframan, known in China as Chinese Superman.

This film sees a guy from a defense force take up the mantle of a new superhero named Inframan after major cities are destroyed by Demon Princess Elzebub (a.k.a. Princess Dragonmon), who was awoken from a 10 million year sleep. The setup is similar to a typical Ultraman series. It also has elements similar to the Kamen Rider and Super Sentai shows.

What you have here is an indestructible hero that fights monsters of human size, giant size and of various styles. We’ve got tokusatsu, kaiju, kung fu and crazy characters.

Demon Princess Elzebub is particularly unique in that her costume, color scheme and throne room seem to suggest that she was the inspiration for the supervillain Serpentor from the 80s G.I. Joe cartoon, comics and toy line. She also inspired certain traits in Kinga Forester, the villain of the newly revived Mystery Science Theater 3000. Elzebub’s henchmen, the Skeleton Ghosts, most certainly were the template for Kinga Forester’s Skeleton Crew a.k.a. the Boneheads.

The Super Inframan also has historical significance. To start, it is the first superhero film to ever be produced by a Hong Kong studio. In this case, Shaw Brothers, who are known for making some of the greatest kung fu classics of all-time. Also, it was the first film to be promoted using a hot air balloon over Hong Kong. Additionally, it is the first film where Shaw Brothers used storyboards.

As a film, Super Inframan is pretty impressive. Regardless of the production limitations, it is a slick and good looking movie. Sure, the monsters are hokey and the costumes bizarre and goofy but the production value looks a step above similar properties from its era.

The film also stars Danny Lee before he became a Hong Kong megastar. Bruce Le (yes, “Le” with one “e”) is in this. He would become one of the most used actors during the Brucesploitation craze.

The Super Inframan is a much better movie than I thought it would be. I’ve been a big tokusatsu and kaiju fan my entire life but this motion picture has eluded me until recently.

Serial Review: The Phantom (1943)

Release Date: December 24th, 1943 (first chapter)
Directed by: B. Reeves Eason
Written by: Morgan Cox, Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Sherman L. Lowe
Based on: The Phantom created by Lee Falk, Ray Moore
Cast: Tom Tyler, Jeanne Bates, Kenneth MacDonald, Ace the Wonder Dog

Columbia Pictures, 299 Minutes total (15 episodes)

Review:

People from my generation may remember the character of the Phantom because of the self-titled film that came out in 1996 with Billy Zane, Treat Williams, Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and James Remar. While that one didn’t pan out well for the old school comic strip hero, his first foray into live-action, this 1943 serial, is a different story.

In fact, despite that 1996 film being mostly awful and, for a long time, my only live-action experience of the Phantom, I have always thought the character was pretty damn cool.

While I did like the original Batman serial, many critics did not. Being that this followed that one and it was also from Columbia Pictures, many of those critics thought that this was a saving grace for the studio, as it surpassed The Batman in every way possible. Granted, looking back now, I enjoyed The Batman for its tone and visual style. The Phantom is a continuation of that and it is also a step above.

Tom Tyler was a great casting decision when it came to the role of the Phantom and he really made the character his. Jeanne Bates was also a good addition to the cast. Ace the Wonder Dog is cool but it would have been even cooler to have a wolf, like the comics, as opposed to a German Shepherd. But they probably didn’t want a wolf mauling baddies on the set.

The plot introduces us to a professor who plans an expedition to find the mystical Lost City of Zoloz. A villain also wants to find Zoloz and use it for an airbase. The villain kills the original Phantom, only for his son to inherit the identity. The rest of the story focuses on locating all of the seven ivory pieces that tell where to find the Lost City. Also, the Phantom wrestles a friggin’ gorilla!

Critics loved Tyler as the Phantom even if some considered his performance to be wooden. It has since become as beloved as his performance as Captain Marvel a few years earlier.

In 1955, Columbia filmed a sequel with John Hart as the Phantom, as Tom Tyler died in 1954. Due to legal issues with the rights to the character, The Return of the Phantom had to be re-branded as The Adventures of Captain Africa before its release.

Ultimately, the Phantom is the epitome of cool, especially for his time. It’s kind of sad that we’ve never gotten a decent followup or reboot in the decades since its release.

TV Review: Gotham (2014- )

Original Run: September 22nd, 2014 – ????
Created by: Bruno Heller, Danny Cannon
Directed by: various
Written by: various
Music by: Graeme Revell
Cast: Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue, David Mazouz, Zabryna Guevara, Sean Pertwee, Robin Lord Taylor, Erin Richards, Camren Bicondova, Cory Michael Smith, Victoria Cartagena, Andrew Stewart-Jones, John Doman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Morena Baccarin, James Frain, Jessica Lucas, Chris Chalk, Drew Powell, Nicholas D’Agosto, Michael Chiklis, Maggie Geha, Benedict Samuel, David Zayas, Cameron Monaghan

Primrose Hill Productions, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Television, 66 Episodes (thus far), 42 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

*originally written in 2015, near the end of season 1, plus additional updates written later.

I was going to wait until the end of the first season before reviewing this show, as I do with most new shows. I just can’t get that far and don’t think that waiting till the season ends will change my assessment. I’ve tried desperately to get this to work for me. I’ve tried a hell of a lot harder than most of my friends and Batman fans, who all gave up on this a long time ago. I saw some promise here and there but this show fails in just about every way. In short: it is pretty goddamned awful (*note: I no longer feel this way as revealed in the final update).

There are actually only a few things that this show has going for it but I’ll get to those shortly.

If you barely know anything about the Batman mythos and you find pleasure in watching mediocre cookie cutter detective shows, I can see where you might find this watchable. However, if you are a Batman fan and love and respect the franchise, this is a very painful experience.

On one hand, the producers are trying to spoon feed the audience with fan service in every episode but it is forced, poorly executed and unnecessary. In fact, it feels as if the producers read a couple Wikipedia articles about Batman and thought they had an intimate grasp. And the way they handle certain characters, goes to show that they don’t understand them at all.  At times it just feels like a cruel joke and it is Fox trolling the shit out of their audience.

For instance, Edward Nygma doesn’t need to speak in riddles every scene, Harvey Dent doesn’t need to display a split personality every other appearance, you don’t need to have constant Joker teases across multiple unrelated scenarios, you don’t need to show a little ginger girl playing with plants every time she’s on screen and Selina Kyle doesn’t need to parkour off of every object whenever she makes an entrance. I also don’t need to be reminded every five minutes about how Jim Gordon is a good cop and every other cop on the force is tainted by something. It is fucking overkill.

The acting is questionable, the writing is more often than not atrocious and despite the over abundance of horribly executed fan service, the show is just plain stupid on its own. It is an obvious attempt at being a cash cow and a ratings grabber and somehow it has worked in that regard, as it is coming back for a second season.

The whole premise of the show makes it a failure from the get-go.

To start, the worst part about most live-action superhero adaptations is the origin. The audience usually finds themselves roughing it through the early bits in an effort to get to the comic book action. Also, how many times has Batman’s origin been told? Now we are given a show that is an overly extended version of the lamest part of Batman’s tale. Who knows how long this could stretch: ten seasons, maybe? Hell, one has been enough.

The other main part of the show, is Jim Gordon trying to “save the city” and destroy corruption. Well, he’s doomed to fail because if he were to succeed, why would Gotham City need the Batman?

As far as characters, Bruce Wayne is okay and I like him being a little shit challenging authority and taking on the evil adults of his world but it isn’t enough to anchor a need for him on this show. Selina Kyle is awful and pretty much a caricature that just happens to look like a young Michelle Pfeiffer. The Poison Ivy character is unimportant and so far useless. All the villains who show up are poorly done and easily defeated. Barbara Kean is the worst character on television. Where did Renee Montoya go? Fish Mooney is sometimes great but mostly terrible. However, I don’t blame these actors, I blame the atrocious writing.

When it comes to positives, Robin Lord Taylor is amazing as the Penguin. In fact, at first, I hated that he was way too skinny to be the Penguin but he’s so good in the role that I don’t care. He is by far, the most interesting part of the show. Almost as good as Taylor is Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock. Then again, when isn’t Logue anything short of great? Ben McKenzie does a solid job as Jim Gordon and I do like Cory Michael Smith as Nygma, the man who will become the Riddler – even though the writers force riddles into every situation he finds himself in. Lastly, Sean Pertwee makes a fine Alfred Pennyworth and is my favorite live action incarnation of the character. Pertwee also looks a lot like his father in his older age and seeing him in action reminds me of the Third Doctor from the classic Doctor Who series.

The show is often times too distracted by its own mess and diverts away from characters with potential to focus on too many small parts in a machine that is too large for its own good. When the show is at its strongest is when the Penguin is on screen, Alfred is kicking ass or when it focuses more heavily on the crime families of Gotham City. The episodes pitting Sal Maroni against Carmine Falcone with a little Fish Mooney and the Penguin mixed in are the best that this series has offered up so far.

I still watch this show because I want to buy into it, I just can’t. The good parts keep me engaged but they are too far and few between. I don’t believe that the show will get better but there is enough good stuff to expand on and save it from being the generally uninteresting mess it is currently. But I probably won’t watch the second season on a weekly basis, as I do now. I’ll wait a year for it to be over with and then binge watch it over a weekend. If it picks up steam and corrects itself, consider me reinvested. If not, I’ll find better ways to spend my time.

Update:

Season 2 of Gotham has been infinitely better than the first. The shows is finding its footing and it now knows what it is trying to be. I like that it is creating its own world and veering away from being trapped by the expectations from an already established Batman mythos. The show is doing its own thing and honestly, at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bruce Wayne is killed off before even becoming Batman.

Update 2:

At the end of Season 3, the show has corrected a lot of its early mistakes.

Cameron Monaghan, who plays Jerome Valeska, who may or may not be the Joker but is probably the Joker, is the best version of Batman’s greatest villain I have ever seen in a live-action story. The kid is magnificent and really captures the magic of the comic book version of the legendary character better than anyone I have ever seen. Yes, he’s better than Heath Ledger and he has the same spirit as Mark Hamill who has voiced the character for decades.

Additionally, the show just becomes more interesting as it rolls on, even though it has some dumb plot threads. But when you don’t take this show seriously and just embrace its insanity, it works.

Most of the villains have evolved solidly, especially the Penguin and the Riddler. I also really liked the Mad Hatter story, as well as the plots that focus on Hugo Strange.

Gotham is far from a perfect show but it bounced back, in my opinion. It also works if you just take it for what it is and don’t try to force it into the box that is the already established comic book mythos. I see it now as an Elseworlds Tale, which is a title DC Comics gives to their stories that take place in different realities.

I’m glad I stuck with it as long as I did. For others who have, their dedication has paid off.

Film Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

Release Date: May 15th, 2017 (Shanghai)
Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Written by: Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs
Based on: Wonder Woman by William Moulton Marston
Music by: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremmer, Eugene Brave Rock

DC Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment, Cruel and Unusual Films, Tencent Pictures, Wanda Pictures, Warner Bros., 141 Minutes

Review:

So far, I have not liked the DC Comics films that have been coming out as a part of their shared cinematic universe. Man of Steel was not my cup of tea, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was littered with serious issues and Suicide Squad was a complete clusterfuck of biblical proportions. Wonder Woman, however, has been receiving a ton of praise from critics and I’ve really only heard good things from those who were able to see it early. So how does it measure up?

Well, this is hands down the best DC Comics film since Christopher Nolan was making Batman movies. It blows all of their recent movies out of the water and then shoots them back down again while they are still in mid-air. And then it blows them out of the water again.

Wonder Woman is great. It is the type of film that DC needed to get the locomotive back on its tracks. It makes me wish that the shared universe started here and we could wipe away those three previous films. And ultimately, I can only hope that this means that great things are coming in the future and that the people behind these movies have now righted the ship.

Most importantly, we now have a female superhero movie that doesn’t suck. And on that same token, it carries a strong feminist message without making itself too preachy. It has a good balance of showcasing the inequality of women during its historical era without beating it over the audience’s head like Hollywood likes to do.

When Gal Gadot was cast as Wonder Woman, I didn’t know much about her. Her casting is really what makes this picture work so well. She is perfect as Wonder Woman and showed that she had the ability to carry a huge motion picture on her back. Plus, she was the focal point in this film, the one to really turn DC’s film universe around.

Additionally, Chris Pine was a great choice for Steve Trevor. He’s starting to become a favorite of mine between this film and his ability to really nail Captain Kirk in the modern Star Trek films despite those films not feeling all that Trekish. He has a certain charm and charisma that go beyond just his looks. Plus, he has great comedic timing and delivery.

I love the music in this film much more than the other DC Comics pictures. Wonder Woman’s theme is simply bad ass. I can’t even recall what theme plays for Batman or Superman.

Now with all these positives, I do have to reel it back in a bit.

While the film was pretty good for a summer blockbuster, I don’t know if it has lasting power. It is good by comparison of what constitutes a normal tent pole film but it lacked in depth and didn’t generate the same sort of feeling you get when you know you are watching a classic for the first time.

The plot was pretty straightforward but it wasn’t all that interesting. The villain just kind of shows up at the end but the twist of who he actually is was not a surprise and I suspected it before it happened. Also, the final battle between Wonder Woman and Ares wasn’t very good. It was like a music video where the music was replaced with philosophical banter about the nature of man and it came off to make Ares look like a complete chump. Ares barely fazed Wonder Woman and she just sort of throws his lightning back at him, obliterating him. It was overly stylized visual poetry where there was no real feeling that Wonder Woman was in any real danger.

Also, for a film as long as this is, it didn’t feel like a whole lot happened. Once we get off of the magical island where the Amazons live, it is quite some time before there is any real battle. And when we finally get to that point, Wonder Woman is invincible and just crushes all the baddies, no sweat. I get that she is a god but this is why I’ve always had issues with Superman and Wonder Woman stories. They need a threat that is actually a threat and even though Wonder Woman confronts another god, she’s the “God Killer”. I kind of just hope Darkseid shows up in one of these movies soon.

Negatives aside, this film is full of a lot more positives and it is worth your time, if you are a fan of superhero flicks. It also gives little girls a film of their own because ElektraCatwoman and so many others didn’t cut it.

Serial Review: Spy Smasher (1942)

Release Date: April 4th, 1942 (first chapter)
Directed by: William Witney
Written by: Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, William Lively, Joseph O’Donnell, Joseph F. Poland
Based on: character by C.C. Beck, Bill Parker
Music by: Mort Glickman
Cast: Kane Richmond, Marguerite Chapman, Sam Flint, Hans Schumm, Tris Coffin

Republic Pictures, 214 Minutes total (12 episodes), 100 Minutes (film)

Review:

Spy Smasher might not be a well-known and beloved character in modern times, but he was the focal point of what is considered by many to be the greatest serial of all-time.

The character of Spy Smasher was a comic book hero published by Fawcett Comics, similar to their other hero Captain Marvel. And also like Captain Marvel, he is now owned by DC Comics and appears in their titles now and again.

What makes his serial Spy Smasher so well regarded is the fact that it had superb writing for its genre. Also, it had some unique cliffhangers. It also bucked trends when one of the cliffhangers saw a character die. The serial formula, at the time, always showed the person escape danger in some miraculous way.

Spy Smasher also has some of the best cinematography and writing a serial has ever had. The bulk of the acting duties were on the shoulders of Kane Richmond and his leading lady Marguerite Chapman.

The serial is twelve chapters but each one is well paced and executed. It also resonated well with audiences as our hero was pitted against Nazis during the World War II era.

As far as serials go, Spy Smasher was damn good and one of the most historically significant to come out.