The Dark Knight Returns: The Animated Movie

the-dark-knight-returnsRecently, I finished watching the animated movie of the classic comic, known as The Dark Knight Returns. Adapted from Frank Miller’s four-part graphic novel, this movie came in two parts that were released separately over the past year. And now that I have both parts under my belt, I feel that a review is necessary. Not only was this an overdue feature, in my opinion, it was also one of the biggest installments in the Batman franchise and the greatest accomplishments of Miller’s checkered career.

Originally published in 1986, TDKR tells the story of Batman many years after the official story arc where he and others like him have gone into retirement. Borrowing from such franchises as The Watchmen, it experiments with some limited alternate-history, showing how the 80’s would have been different had superheroes been around and worked for the government. In and around all that, Miller also takes the time to make some social and political commentary, examining Batman’s quest to save Gotham from multiple angles and presenting it as a controversial issue within the story.

With only some minor liberties and changes, the animated movie presents the story as it happened in the graphic novel and was true to the spirit of Miller’s creation. Intended as a sequel to the 2011 animated film Batman: Year One, the film was directed by Jay Oliva, who worked as a storyboard artist on Man of Steel, Batman: Year One and Batman: Under the Red Hood and stars Peter Weller (Robocop) as the voice of the Dark Knight, Michael Emerson (Lost, Saw) as the Joker, Ariel Winter (Modern Family, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Speed Racer) as Robin and David Selby (Dark Shadows, Unknown, The Social Network) as Commissioner Gordon.

Plot Synopsis:
TDKR_part1The story opens on Gotham City, with Bruce Wayne now 55 years old and in retirement. Nearly all superheroes, with the exception of Superman who works for the government, have gone underground since the government made their activities illegal and the population turned against them. Unlike most, Batman went willingly due to the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, which left him scarred and dejected.

Naturally, Gotham City has descended into a state of chaos and near-anarchy and a new gang of thugs called the Mutants has taken control of the streets. At about this time, Harvey Dent is released from Arkham Asylum after undergoing reconstructive surgery which has restored his face. His therapist, Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, insists that Dent is a healed man and wants to return to normal life and repent for his past crimes. Like many Gothamites, Wolper is not a fan of the Batman, blaming his obsession with order for Dent’s psychosis.

TDKR_batmanSimilarly, the mutant boss begins to release statements saying his gang is going to take control of the city and kill Gordon. After meeting with him for drinks and visiting Crime Alley where his parents were murdered, Bruce Wayne realizes he can no longer stand idly by and decides to don his cape and cowl again. His first stop is to a robbery in progress where he takes out several armed hooligans and is met with nostalgic praise by one police officer, and fear and trepidation from a rookie.

Batman’s return is met with mixed reviews, with some condemning his actions and others hailing the return of the crime fighter who teaches common people to be brave and rise up. His sudden appearance is also noticed by the Mutant boss, who begins to add Batman to his list of people to kill. But more importantly, a masked man holds the city ransom and threatens to blow up the cities “Twin Towers” if he doesn’t get a ransom. Batman is convinced its Harvey and intervenes.

tdkr_dentAfter taking down his thugs, Batman realizes that the bombs Harvey set were meant to go off no matter what. When he confronts Harvey himself and disarms him, he realizes the entire thing was an elaborate suicide attempt to demonstrate how he has not healed. Rather than being cosmetic or physical, his psychosis is deeply rooted in his psyche and can’t be expunged. He surrenders to Batman and is returned to Arkham.

The city breathes a sigh of relief and once again begins endlessly debating the Batman’s actions. One person who takes particular notice is a young woman named Carrie Kelley, whom Batman rescues earlier on in the story from a mutant attack. After witnessing him save the city, she buys a knock-off Robin costume and decides to pursue him, hoping to become his new sidekick.

tdkr_mutantBatman’s next confrontation takes him to the city dump where the Mutants are assembling and getting ready to assault the city. In his souped-up version of the Batmobile, which is now an armored tank, he disperses the thugs quickly using rubber bullets and rockets. But the Mutant leader comes before him and challenges him to a one-on-one fight. Batman cannot refuse, and the two get into it.

The fight goes poorly as Batman realizes the Mutant boss is in his prime, clinically insane and virtually immune to pain. Despite his best efforts at beating his down, Batman suffers some severe injuries as the mutant bites into his shoulder, breaks his arm, and slams him to the ground. He is narrowly saved when Robin intervenes and distracts the boss and Batman is able to pacify him. Together, they retreat back to the Batcave while Gotham PD arrives and places the Mutants into custody.

tdkr_tankWhile recovering from his wounds, Batman has a talk with Kelley about being his sidekick. He agrees to take her on provisionally, provided she doesn’t disobey his orders or put herself in needless danger. The mayor meanwhile attempts to step in and come to an agreement with the Mutant boss, but is murdered when he steps into the room alone with him. Batman decides that the only way to crush the mutants is to defeat their boss publicly and permanently.

After arranging for his escape, the Mutant boss is lured to another dump where the Mutants have all assembled. Engaging him in knee-high mud which slow him down, the Batman has the advantage and manages to pacify the boss further with nerve pinches and strategic blows. He finishes him off by getting him down and breaking his arm and leg, then punching him until he’s unconscious. To all the Mutants watching, it is clear who is top dog in Gotham now!

Thus ends part I of the story.

tdkr_part2In part II, things once again open with people debating the actions of the Batman, especially since his defeat of the Mutants has led to the creation of a new gang known as the “Sons of Batman” who assault and kill criminals. Commissioner Gordon retires and is replaced by a Ellen Yindel who issues a warrant for the arrest of Batman. And in Arkham Asylum, another person takes notice of Batman’s latest actions with interest… the Joker!

Meanwhile, Superman is called to the White House to discuss putting and end to Batman’s actions. Superman indicates that it won’t be easy and he doubts Wayne will listen to reason, but agrees. He arranges to meet with Wayne and tells him that his coming out of retirement is a violation of their agreement and that if he persists, Superman will have to bring him in. Wayne responds only by saying “may the best man win”.

tdkr_jokerSuperman is then forced to head to Corto Maltese, a small island that is being contested by the Soviets and the US. After open fighting begins, Superman intervenes and begins destroying the Russian forces. The American forces are declared victorious, but a full-scale nuclear standoff results and a terrible sense of fear sets in.

After convincing Wolper that he has recovered, the Joker decides to come out of retirement himself by going on a late night talk show. Whereas Wolper is presenting him as a recovered man who regrets his actions, the Joker arranges to kill everyone in the studio using his Smile-ex gas, which his assistant disperses using a pair of robot children. Batman arrives on scene but is forced to fight it out with the police, and everyone in the studio dies.

tdkr_showdownThe Joker finds Selina Kyle (aka. Catwoman), who now runs an escort service, and drugs her to make her do his bidding and orders her to send one of her girls to give the same mind-control drug to a local Senator. This man then jumps from his hotel window after saying a full scale first-strike is the only recourse they have with the Russians, which intensifies the panic and keeps the police busy. After learning of this, Batman and Robin head to Kyles place where they find her bound and beaten in a Wonder Woman costume. Barely conscious, she tells them, “he’s worse than ever”, and they realize he has headed to the county fair.

They arrive to find the Joker’s already killed many people and Batman begins pursuing him while Robin tries to stop his associate and his lethal robots. Batman finally corners Joker in the Tunnel of Love where he breaks his neck, but not before the Joker has critically wounded him with a knife. The Joker then taunts the Batman by saying he will be charged with a murder he couldn’t bring himself commit, then twists his own neck to complete the break and kill himself.

Batman narrowly escapes police but knows they will stop at nothing to end him now. Retreating once again to recover, things once again escalate as the Russians respond to Superman’s intervention in Corto Maltese with a tactical nuclear strike. Superman manages to divert the missile from landing in Corto Maltese, but diverts it to the upper atmosphere where its detonation causes a massive EMP to short out all electricity in Gotham.

tdkr_batman_horseSuperman himself is nearly killed by the blast and the resulting cloud cover, and must drain energy from nearby plants and trees in order to recover. Batman also awakens from his bed to find the city rioting and looting in the midst of the blackout, and rides in with Robin on some horses to begin recruiting people to help. He finds willing assistants with the Sons of Batman, former Mutants, and common citizens alike. Commissioner Gordon also manages to enlist the help of people to stop a fire and manages to find his wife after thinking he lost her in the blaze.

With the city once again saved and Superman recovered, the stage is now set for the final confrontation. Passing overhead of Wayne Manor, Superman etches the word WHERE? on the lawn, to which Batman responds “Crime Alley”. After doing an inventory of some specialized weapons, which includes a powered exoskeleton, he is met by Oliver Queen (aka. Green Arrow), who he agrees to let help him. Having lost his arm to Superman in their last confrontation, he is bitter and eager to help the Dark Knight bring him down.


The Gotham Police and National Guard cordon off the area as Superman and Batman both arrive. The Batman gets out of the Batmobile and tells Robin to keep it running and follow the orders he left her with. Robin asks if there is a plan here, but is left with the impression that Batman will not be returning from this fight. He confronts Clarke in the street and they begin to fight it out. Outmatched, Batman employs several special weapons to slow him down, including a sonic blaster, a massive electrical shock, acid, and finally, a kryptonite arrow fired by Oliver.

The arrowhead explodes after Clarke catches it, filling his lungs with the dust. Batman delivers several more punches and is all set to deliver the coup de grace, but takes the time to let him know that he just wanted to defeat him, not kill him. In the end, he wanted Clarke to know what it was like to feel mortal, and to know who defeated him.

Meanwhile, Alfred torches Wayne Manner and collapses outside, suffering a stroke and dying in front of the home of the family he spent his life in service to. The police and army arrive and find Superman wounded but alive and Batman on the ground. Superman refuses to let them touch him and carries his body away.

Shortly thereafter a funeral service is held which is attended by Kyle, Gordon, Superman and a young veiled woman. Kyle blames Superman for his death and Gordon is heartbroken. However, as Clarke turns to leave, he hears a quiet pulse coming through the ground. He turns and looks to the young woman and sees she’s carrying a shovel under her robe. He realizes the truth and winks at her.

tdkr_exoCut to the final scene, where Robin, Oliver and a group of people arrive at a cave and begin setting up equipment. Bruce arrives and tells them they are setting up here, that this will be their new “Batcave” and he will teach them everything he knows. Henceforth, they will work from the shadows, protecting Gotham and not drawing attention to themselves. The movie ends with Batman saying he spent the last few years searching for a good death, but feels he can now make a good life.

“Well… good enough!” he finishes by saying. Roll credits!

Personally, I thought this movie was done right. The casting, and character-acting were all spot on, and I especially enjoyed the animation. Not only was the quality quite good, but it managed to capture a great deal of the aesthetics and even iconic images from the original comic itself. Not easy to do when your adapting graphic novel material, especially when its Miller’s work!

tdkr_batmobileWhat’s more, I thoroughly enjoyed how they captured the tone and feel of Miller’s original comic. Not only did it possess the dark,  gritty and just-realistic-enough tone of things, they also managed to smooth down some of its more rough edges. For one, many people who enjoyed the original comic did have some complaints about all the social commentary and the way the talking heads and mass media asides kept coming up. While I agree that Frank leaned on these a little too heavily, I think they struck a fine balance in this movie. Basically, they managed to present the issue without getting too saturated by it.

The same is true of the whole controversy surrounding Batman’s actions and the big question it raised. In Miller’s comic, you kind of got the feeling you were being beaten over the head with the moral, but these guys did it right by not overdoing it. It’s like, we get it, vigilantes must consider the consequences of their actions, whether or not their fighting crime is a form of “social fascism” and leads to more kinds of “legitimized violence”. Put it in the background and let the show go on…

tdkr_battleAnd yes, they did change a few things. For one, Batman’s confrontations with the Joker and Superman happened a little differently in the books. In all four cases – Dent, the Mutant leader, Joker, Superman – they kind of sexed up the actions scenes, adding more punches, kicks and acrobatics. No complaint there, they were awesome! Especially the fight with the mutant boss, which I felt really captured the essence of Batman schooling his younger, crazier enemy in the ways of pain!

Dark_Knight_ReturnsBut they when it came to the latter two, they changed things a bit in a way I didn’t like so much. For example, in the comic, the Joker’s taunted Batman for not being able to kill him, whereas here he simply laughs for having made him “lost control”. In truth, Batman still couldn’t kill the Joker, despite how many more people he’d killed and the fact that he now blamed himself for not doing it sooner. It was a brilliant theme, loaded with subtext and something they touch on numerous times throughout the series. Here though, it was kind of minimized.

tdkr_fightThen there was how Batman told Superman he didn’t intend to kill him but just wanted to let him know he could beat him. In truth, Batman was not so merciful to him in the comic. After disabling him with kryptonite, he made sure Clarke understood why he was beating the tar out of him. First, he felt Superman had sold them out by agreeing to serve the government, that he resented him for being a boy scout who blindly did as he was told, and that he could never understand what life was really like. Only after all that did he tell him he wanted him to remember who had beaten him and how he could have killed him.

And that was the real point here. In the end, the fight was a contest of who’s way was better, Batman’s dark and realistic appraisal of things, or Superman’s naive and idealistic way. That’s part of what made it so brilliant. It was a commentary on two parallel stories that were years in the making, and the ironies and consequences that grew out of them.

Superman, for all his power and idealism, is basically an expression of the American Way, with all the naivete and denial that goes with it. Batman, on the other hand, is like a reality check, a cynical and dark admission of what really is. The significance of how they collided in the end and one could have killed the other, but stopped short of doing it, was magnificent!

Batman_gothamUltimately, The Dark Knight Returns was a great series and its little wonder then why Christopher Nolan drew inspiration from it to fashion his relaunch of the Batman franchise. In the first and second movie we get into the issue of “escalation” in the creation of the Joker and the responsibility of the hero, both of which bear a striking resemblance to what happened in this comic.

Then there was the issue of Batman coming out of retirement to face a younger, meaner, stronger opponent in Bain, which seems ripped from his confrontation with the Mutant boss in this one. Add to that Batman’s apparent death at the end of the last movie and all roads seem to lead back to this comic at some point. Hell, even the name of final movie in the franchise is practically the same as the comic: The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) – The Dark Knight Returns (TDKR).

And with the final release from the Nolan series, I’m guessing the time seemed ripe to show the adaptation of the classic comic and show people just where so many of the original ideas came from. You’re welcome Nolan, and I strongly recommend anyone who has not read the comic and/or seen this movie yet to get out there and do both. You might say it’s required reading and viewing for any fan of the Batman franchise!

Batman – Under the Red Hood

Hey all. My apologies for not cluttering you’re inbox’s lately with my usual slew of posts. But I’ve been away for the weekend and beyond the reach of a keyboard and/or PDA with internet access. But I’m back now, and back to my usual, manic output! And in honor of that, here’s a clip from an animated movie I saw awhile back and think is deserving of a review.

Entitled Batman: Under the Red Hood, this animated movie adapts some key material from the Batman comics, specifically the death and resurrection of Jason Todd, the second Robin to ever serve as sidekick to the Dark Knight. After being murdered by the Joker, he returns a few years later in the form of a vigilante who seems intent of killing criminals and getting under the skin of Gotham’s “Caped Crusader”. His disguised is especially significant because it used to be the very thing that the Joker wore before the accident that left him a scarred and brutalized freak.

The clip here is of the reunion between Todd, the Joker and Batman once the Red Hood’s true identity has been revealed. I picked it because it’s just so damn well scripted and chock full of classic Batmanesque themes. And check it out, the Joker is voiced by John Di Maggio, the voice actor who does Bender on Futurama. I look forward to reviewing it in full, as it was pretty badass!

Batman: Nightwing Short

There’s something to be said about short fan videos. Oftentimes, they are of low-quality and really don’t boast a lot of thought or creativity. But every so often, you get something of real value. Star Wars fans have been treated to some rather appealing videos over the years where fans, using their own imaging and rendering software, produced videos of lightsaber fights that weren’t half bad. And more recently, I came across this video which is the first in a proposed series of Batman shorts that were inspired by the original comics.

This one is entitled Batman: Nightwing and follows the exploits of Dick Grayson, the original Robin who went on to become his own superhero after leaving Batman’s side. Here we see him being called in to deal with the Red Hood, a villain in that emerged relatively recently in the franchise who turned about to be Jason Todd, the second Robin. For those who are unfamiliar with the comics, this is the Robin who was murdered by the Joker and then was resurrected, and returned to Gotham as a villain.

Personally, I like the video because it takes two characters who are important in their own right, but rarely the focus in the franchise, and squares them off against each other. There’s also a sense of generational conflict since we basically have the original Robin and his successor fighting, the one who went independent fighting the one who went bad. It just feels appropriate and significant, don’t you think?

The producer, Danny Shepherd, indicated that this video would become part of a series, and that was when it reached its first 100,000 hits. Now, it’s hovering at just over 540,000! Yeah, I’m thinking there’s going to be a sequel or two ;) Check out the video:

A Tribute To Sidekicks

Hey all! Today, I thought I’d cover a topic I’ve been thinking about for some time. Over the few years that I’ve been writing now, something has been missing from this site. I’d payed tributes to franchises, novels, series, movies, heroes, and even robots. But not once have I acknowledged the critical supporting characters who have provided comic relief and made the lives of the heroes that much easier over the years.

And so I present the following list of the top 13 sidekicks from the field of sci-fi, at least the ones that I know of and/or care to acknowledge. Not  a lucky number I know, but I couldn’t bring myself to exclude any of the people here. They are hardly alone in being faithful companions, comedic foils or much needed helpers, but they are the people that I feel capture the full range of side-kick abilities and personalities. Hope you enjoy, and as always, suggestions are welcome, just in case I decide to make further installments.

Abraham Whistler:
This first sidekick comes to us from the Blade franchise where he serves the vampire hunter as mentor, weapons maker, and surrogate father figure. This last aspect is especially important, since it forms the basis of his relationship with Blade. Whereas Blade never had a family, Whistler was robbed of his. Both blame vampires for this travesty, and therefore make the perfect team. Whereas Blade provides the muscle and the daring, Whistler makes the weapons and is the voice of reason.

According to his bio, as provided by the both the Marvel Universe and the movie adaptation, Abraham became a hunter after his family was murdered by a vampire. It was in the course of hunting one evening that he came upon  a teen-aged Blade who was in the midst of preying on a homeless person. After realizing that Blade was a half-vampire (aka. a dhampir), he chose to spare his life and began training him to become a hunter himself.

Like the bad-ass vampire hunter he helped create, Whistler is a man of few words who seems pretty rough around the edges. But, also like Blade, underneath that gruff exterior beats the heart of a man who still seems to care. While he’ll often advise Blade against sticking his neck out or taking unnecessary risks, in the end he’s still willing to go the extra mile to help those in need.

From a distance, Bender might seem like a wise-cracking, alcoholic, kleptomaniac robot, but once you get to know him… well, you pretty much realize that’s who is! On top of that, he seems to have a moribund fascination with killing all humans, a theory he has occasionally attempted to put into practice!

However, it would be wrong to say Bender’s a superficial kind of guy. In addition to being terrified of can openers and secretly wanting to be a country-western singer, he’s also shown himself to be pretty sensitive at times. When Fry moved out of their apartment, he went on a Bender of non-drinking, which for him is a very bad thing!

On top of all that, he’s also come through on numerous occasions to save Fry and the crew of Planet Express. Never without complaint, of course, but still. I guess you could say Bender is an exercise in contradiction. An automaton designed to bend girders who excels at not making human lives any easier!

Here’s the hairy side-kick who taught us the immutable lesson about living in the Star Wars universe. When you’re in a jam, it’s always good to have a Wookie in your corner! And of the universe’s many Wookies, Chewbacca is probably the best. In addition to being delightfully shaggy, he’s very strong, fiercely loyal, and mechanically inclined. Not a bad guy to have around!

Intrinsic to Chewie’s relationship with Han is the concept of the Wookie life-debt. At some point in the unspecified past, Han came to Chewies aid by freeing him from an Imperial slave-labor camp. As a result, Chewie is bound to Han for life. This is something Chewbacca takes very seriously, as any attempt to put Han is danger is usually met with a severe beatdown! When Han’s family expanded, after marrying Leia later in the franchise, Chewie’s life debt extended to them as well.

Chewie’s past also shows through when it comes to his attitude about restraints. When Luke tried to put some on him, even though it was part of ruse, he didn’t react too well! Beyond that, not much is known, like whether or not he has family back on Kashyyk or elsewhere in the Galaxy. But then again, Chewie doesn’t talk about this stuff. Like most Wookies, he doesn’t talk about himself much, preferring to express himself in a series of warbled utterances or loud growls.

The next entry on this list is the faithful, staff-twirling sidekick from the Xena: Warrior Princess franchise. Gabrielle, a former farm girl turned warrior companion, became the model of friendship and loyalty for countless girls and young women all over the world. In addition, numerous Lesbian rights advocates saw her and Xena as examples of the kind of love and dedication that can exist between two women. Whether or not they had this kind of relationship is a matter of speculation; the point is, they did love each other, regardless of whether it was platonic or romantic.

Gabrielle’s story as Xena’s sidekick began in small Greek village after she and her sister were taken as slaves. After being rescued by Xena, Gabrielle wanted to become just like her, in part because she was impressed by her fighting skills but also because she didn’t want to end up in an arranged marriage. The two women became friends and enjoyed countless adventures over the course of their many years together.

As time went on, Gabrielle evolved from being a young, naive girl who stood in Xena’s shadow to being a fully-fledged warrior. Her choice weapon was the staff, but in time, she also incorporated kicking and acrobatic abilities. Eventually, she became a heroine in her own right and was even replaced by the klutzy Joxer as the dependent sidekick.

Harley Quinn:
Here we have an interesting side-kick, one who exemplifies dedication and diabolical intent. A one-time psychiatrist who was brought in to assess Gotham’s criminal mastermind, Dr. Harleen Quinzel soon found herself sympathizing and even becoming enamored with the Joker and helped him escape from custody. Once her involvement was made clear, she fled herself, changing her name to Harley Quinn and becoming the Joker’s full-time assistant.

Making her debut in the Batman animated series, she was quickly incorporated into the DC Comics series. Ever since, she has made numerous appearances in the graphic novels, spin-off shows, and video games. Unlike the Joker’s usual henchmen, she has staying power and the ability to live to fight another day much “Mr. J” himself, as she affectionately calls him.

Though her affection and attachment to the Joker is the picture of obsessive and unhealthy behavior, it is precisely because of this that her loyalty and commitment shines through. No matter what nefarious schemes the Joker gets up to or who he hurts, she sticks by him and always has his back covered!

Next up, there’s the spunky, charming, cheerful and mechanically inclined engineer of the Serenity! Yes, in the Firefly universe – a universe permeated by thugs, freelancers, mercenaries and privateers – Kaylee is a breath of fresh air and a spot of sunshine. Not what you’d expect in a ship’s mechanic, but that’s an undeniable part of her charm! When it comes right down to it, she is as much at home in coveralls and machine grease as she is in a pretty dress and a parasol.

According to the series, Captain Mal first met Kaylee during a chance encounter when his previous mechanic brought her to the engine room for a little sumthin’ sumthin’! After realizing that she had more talent in her pinky finger than the other dude had in his entire frame, her promptly hired her! Since then, neither Mal nor Kaylee has ever looked back.

On top of all that, Kaylee is quite the romantic. All series long, she held an obvious torch for Dr. Simon Tam, River Tam’s protective brother and the ship’s doctor. Although her early attempts to facilitate a hook-up failed, she later learned that he held the same feelings, but denied them because he was too focused on protective his sister. In the end, they got together, a fitting and happy ending for this pretty ray of sunshine!

R2D2 and C3P0:
Yes, they are technically not a single side-kick, but they come as a pair so I shall not deal with them separately. And when it comes right down it, they really don’t work well on their own since they’re essentially comedic foils for each other. Together, they are the comic relief and workhorse of the Star Wars universe.

Making their debut at the very beginning of the original trilogy, R2 and 3P0 captured people’s hearts as the unlikely duo on whose shoulder’s the fate of the universe rested. Whereas R2 was an astrometric droid, a rolling Swiss Army knife with a stubborn attitude and endless gumption, 3P0 was a prissy, effeminate translator who specialized in protocol and etiquette. Together, they were the robotic odd of the universe!

As time went on, the two bonded and became totally inseparable. In addition, no matter where the main characters took them, they both seemed to always be indispensable. R2 opened doors, interfaced with machines and disabled traps, while 3P0 talked to the natives and advised the group on the safest course of action. While they frequently fought and lobbed insults at each other, their affection for each other was clear. When R2 was damaged during the Battle of Yavin, 3P0 selflessly offered his own components to help fix him. As the franchise expanded after the original trilogy, they even got their own animated show, aptly named Droids.

Where would Batman be without his trusty side-kick, Robin, “the Boy Wonder”? Probably dead, to be frank. Yes, this sprightly acrobat has been their for Bruce Wayne on many occasions, pulling his chestnuts out of the fire and taking down the villains who were about to get the best of him. And yet, Batman has gone through several Robins over the years. Only one died, and was even resurrected. But still, that’s a high turnover rate!

The first Robin was known as Dick Grayson, an 8 year old who’s parents were murdered by mobsters, prompting  Bruce Wayne to take him under his wing and teaching him the ways of vengeance and justice. After taking down the man responsible, Batman and Robin went on to have many adventures together until Dick eventually went independent and became Nightwing.

He was replaced by Jason Todd, a young man with a similar backstory. Like Grayson, he was an acrobat who’s family was murdered. But in Todd’s case, he reacted to this trauma by becoming a hard-nosed street kid who stole to survive. After catching him in the act of trying to steal his tires, Batman began to train Todd as his new Robin. Unfortunately, this side-kicks life ended tragically when the Joker killed him and his birth mother with a bomb.  He was resurrected as the Red Hood shortly thereafter, but never reprized the role of Robin.

Thereafter, a string of Robins came and went, but in each case, their basic role and characteristics remained the same. Whereas Batman was always the tall, strapping and bulky hero, Robin was always smaller, faster and slighter of build. And whereas Batman was always the quite, ultra-serious brooding type, Robin could be counted on to tell a joke and crack a joke.

Some people might disagree with my choice to include Roger on this list, as he is as much an independent character as a side-kick. However, I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about Roger on this site and this seems like the perfect one! Also known by various personas he’s assumed over the years, Roger is the alien from American Dad that lives in the Smith’s attic, coming down every so often to take part in family affairs and hijinks.

From a passing glance, Roger might seem like a drug-addled, alcoholic sociopath. But there’s a reason for that! In addition to being an avid wine guzzler, coke head, pill-popper, and pansexual weirdo, he’s also reputedly the one who invented disco, the drug ecstasy, Jar Jar Binks, and the man go got the Captain of the Exxon Valdez drunk! Aside from all that, he’s spent the majority of his life avoiding government agents and impersonating colorful men and women.

In fact, Roger is so in love with impersonating other people that fashion montages have become a recurring part of his existence. And while he can certainly impersonate men well enough, his preferred aliases tend to be women. This is in keeping with Roger’s pansexual identity, which seems to involve gender confusion, bi-curiosity, and a total lack of boundaries. In fact, when in women’s constume, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he’s a bit of a tramp!

Many years back, Roger came into the Smith household after saving Stan’s life in Area 51. Since that time, they have had a dynamic not unlike Han and Chewie, where obligation gave way to lasting friendship. Years later, Roger is considered a fully-fledged member of the Smith family, despite his ruinous activities and the high cost of keeping him entertained and under wraps!

Saul Tigh:
Okay, this guy might not be the perfect side-kick, but he’s definitely a rich and interesting character. On the one hand, he’s lived a rather rough and gruff life as a man, participating in the First Cylon War, going through a divorce, then developing a recurring drinking problem. On the other, he was a freaking Cylon and didn’t even know it! So yeah, maybe not the best guy to have in your corner, but he does have his upsides!

According to the relaunch series, Saul Tigh met William Adama in a bar a few years after the First Cylon War. After bailing him out of a close shave with several angry men, the two became fast friends and bonded over their shared experiences. Many years later, when Adama became commander of the Galactica, Saul was appointed as his XO. When the Second War began, he and everyone else were forced back into action.

In time, he became reunited with his estranged wife, a manipulative woman who also turned out to be one of the “Final Five” Cylons. Over the next few years, he maintained his position as XO, continued to have a rocky relationship with her, and never quite shook his drinking problem. In fact, it seemed that whenever times were tough, Saul would turn to the bottle.

Nevertheless, through it all, Saul remained a committed and loyal officer, one could be counted on to whatever what was necessary when the pressure was on. During Cylon offensive, when the Galactica was hit by a tactical nuke, he stepped up and made some tough calls which may have prevented the destruction of the ship. When Adama was shot by Boomer, herself a Cylon sleeper, he stepped into the Captain’s shoes and did his best to keep the fleet together. And when New Caprica became occupied by Cylon forces, Saul led a human resistance that kept up the fight against the occupation until Adama and Apollo could liberate the planet.

All in all, Saul was complicated. He was gruff, short, and had absolutely no patience for people he didn’t approve of. He could also be violent sometimes and was definitely a problem drinker! But he had a good heart and somehow managed to stay sane through it all, even after he learned that he was a Cylon. In truth, a lot of people would probably be dead were it not for this man, which is probably one of the reasons that Adama kept him around. That and the fact that, like Saul, Adama too was a fiercely loyal man.

Samwise Gamgee:
When it comes to dedication, selflessness, and versatility, Samwise Gamgee definitely takes the cake! The noble, stalwart and immensely loyal friend to Frodo Baggins, Sam was the very reason the quest to destroy the One Ring succeeded. Though a bit of a simpleton, his levelheadedness and stout heart were a constant source of strength and support for the Ringbearer. Hell, had it not been for his tireless help, cooking, and ability to come through in a pinch, Frodo would have been dead for sure!

Ostensibly employed as Frodo’s gardener, Samwise became involved in the quest to destroy the One Ring after Gandalf caught him eavesdropping on their little conversation. Before parting company with them, Gandalf instructed him never to let Frodo out of his sight. Sam took these instructions very literally, and thereafter did not leave Frodo alone for one minute! After setting off together, it was Sam who made sure they always had food and their spirits were high.

When Gollum entered their party, Sam never once stopped warning Frodo about him. Though Frodo seemed to think that Gollum had a role to pay or could be redeemed somehow, Sam remained committed to the belief that he was evil and untrustworthy. In the end, he was proven right, but then again, Frodo was in a way too… whatever, it’s complicated!

Towards the end of their quest, when things became truly difficult, Sam came through like never before. When Frodo was paralyzed by Shelob and taken captive by Orcs, Sam risked everything to rescue him, charging headlong into Minas Morgul and kicking the crap out of every Orc that stood in his way. And when Frodo finally faltered under the weight of the One Ring, Sam carried him up the Mountain to the Cracks of Doom.

Through it all, Sam never once complained or considered leaving Frodo’s side. Naturally, some speculate this was because the two were more than just friends. Lousy gossip mongers! But in truth, Sam was just that committed to those he considered friends and what he considered to be right. These are qualities he passed along to his thirteen children after he and Rose Cotton got married. Wow, loyal, friendly, and fertile too! Samwise has got it all!

Wedge Antilles:
When it comes to side-kicks, Wedge has some of the best characteristics of all. He’s loyal. He’s reliable. And best of all, he never dies! In addition, Wedge (who’s name alone makes him cool) is also one of the best pilots in the Rebel Fleet and the co-founder of Rogue Squadron (along with Luke Skywalker). Throughout the original Star Wars trilogy and the expanded universe, Wedge has always been there in his trusty X-wing and other attack craft, providing much needed support and kicking Imperial ass!

His impressive resume includes an assault on the First Death Star, where as a junior officer in Rogue Squad, he provided cover for Luke as he launched the torpedoes that would destroy the terrifying space station. When Imperial Forces attacked Echo Base on planet Hoth, he was there in a speeder and scored a major victory by being the first to take down an AT-AT walker with a tow cable. And finally, he played a major role by helping to lead Rebel Forces to a decisive victory in the battle of Endor.

Because of all this, Wedge gained the reputation of being the greatest pilot in the Galaxy. As the sole survivor of both Death Star runs, he was given command of Rogue Squadron before being promoted to General and given command of an entire fleet. Throughout it all, Wedge never once lost his soft-spoken and humble attitude. It just goes to show you, nice guys really can kick ass!

Zoe Washburne:
And last, but definitely, DEFINITELY not least, there Zoe, the heroine of the Firefly universe. As a veteran soldier, freelance butt-kicker, executive officer, and loving wife, she’s got the whole package, at least when it comes to science fiction heroines. A good woman to settle down with and to have aboard your ship, guarding your precious cargo and your ass. No wonder Mal trusts her with his life, and Wash loves her so!

Having served in the War of Unification as a Browncoat, Zoe served under Mal when he was a Sergeant in the Independents Army. In the end, they were the only two to survive the battle, which bonded them for life. Afterward, she took a job as his XO aboard the Serenity and never looked back. Of all the other crewmembers, she was the only one who routinely referred to Mal as “sir” and obeyed his orders. However, that didn’t stop her from expressing concern over his decisions and letting him know when she thought they were totally stupid!

In the course of her service as XO, she met Wash, the ship’s pilot, and the two fell in love. They got married shortly thereafter, and even talked about settling down and having children (something their lifestyle wasn’t exactly conducive too). Due to her close relationship with Mal, Wash was often jealous of then, which at times caused friction. However, Wash soon realized that his concerns were for naught, as it became clear to him that the loyalty she had towards her commander did not conflict with her love of him.

In short, she’s the kind of woman a man would want as a friend, a sidekick, and a lover. Though tough as nails and the kind of no-nonsense lay who’d kick your ass if you messed with her or her crew, she could still be tender and make her man feel like a man. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge! Know what I mean? Just don’t tell her I said that, she’d kick my ass!

So, having looked into all these personalities, I think it’s fair to say that I have some inkling of what makes a decent sidekick tick. In short, I think the following characteristics, alone or in combination, are what add up to a good supporting character, one which the hero is likely to want to keep around.

  1. Loyalty: This, above all, seems to be what makes a sidekick both desirable and endearing to audiences. As heroes undergo their trials and tribulations, they need someone who will stick with them, keeping them on the straight and narrow and making sure they don’t succumb to temptation or their enemies machinations.
  2. Levelheadedness: As the saying goes, “It’s always a true friend who will tell you what you need to hear, even when you don’t want to hear it”. And when it comes to sidekicks, this is not only desirable, its a job requirement. When the heroes life is on the line, the last thing they need is an ego stroke or to be let down easy. And frankly, the view really is better from the cheap seats!
  3. Sense of Humor: And remember, it’s important to keep things light. Whenever the pressure is on, danger is all around, and the tension is palatable, a good wisecrack or a little slapstick is usually in good order. Just refrain from poop jokes or overtly juvenile humor (look at you, Jar Jar!) And if were talking comedy instead of action and drama, the sidekick should be especially comedic! Their antics should inspire hysterical laughter from time to time, even if it’s a little in bad taste ;)
  4. Mad Skills: Remember, just because the hero is the focal point of the story doesn’t mean that you can’t steal the show every once in awhile. In fact, said skillz can pay the billz! And by that I mean a skilled sidekick can come in extremely handy to a hero from time to time. After all, if you’re constantly requiring rescuing, the hero will very quickly grow tired of you and find someone to replace to you! It also doesn’t hurt to have a gimmick, a weapon or characteristic that sets you apart. For example, if the hero is a big, He-Man/Amazon kind of hero, go small and wiry. If they are a smaller, wisecracking personality who relies on their wits more than their physique, be the muscly, enforcer type. It’s also good to carry your own unique brand of weapons. They set you apart and diversify your killing power!

That’s all I got for now. Like I said before, I’m open to suggestions for other candidates. If I can assemble enough, I’ll be sure to do a second installment. Otherwise, expect more of the usual posts dedicated to franchises, concepts, technology, and the latest in science fiction!

A Tribute to the Joker

the_joker-wallpaper-1366x768Soon enough, the third and final installment in Chris Nolan’s Batman franchise will be premiering. I can’t tell you how much I want to see it. Ever since The Dark Knight ended and it was clear the Joker would not be appearing in movie 3, I’ve been itching to see what they would do with it.

And from what I’ve seen, they are taking the proper route. Combining elements from the comic book The Dark Knight Returns with a real life or death, all or nothing feel, this movie might even top the last one in some respects. Don’t want to jinx it, just saying it’s sure to be good.

But I think I speak for more than just myself when I say that it’s a shame the Joker won’t be making it back for one last dance. We all know why he won’t, of course. For one, it would have been in bad taste to try and replace Ledger after his untimely death. What’s more, after the masterful performance he gave, no actor could be expected to fill the role. I mean, c’mon, you don’t ask to go on after the Beatles, it’s just plain silly!

So in honor of Ledger, and every other actor that has ever tried to bring life to this character, I’d like to do a post detailing this villain that has remained so popular over the years.

The Joker:
To put it simply, this character, this villain, is a work of genius. Designed to be one of the many villains the “caped crusader” did battle with, it wasn’t long before this smiling psychopath became Batman’s arch-nemesis and the chief pain in his ass. The reasons for this seems pretty clear, but just for fun I’ll get into them anyway. Basically, he was the perfect villain because people loved to hate him and found him so dark and yet so fun.

For starters, his whole work up was immensely inspired. By adopting the whole insane clown thing, he combined the macabre with the innocent, which pretty much made him the stuff of nightmares. He killed, he maimed, and he tortured people sadistically, but he always did it with a smile on his face and a quick joke. He could be insane, yes, but he could also be brilliant and cunning. His method was madness, but it was concealed behind a sort of playful, laughable exterior.

This was in stark contrast to Batman’s tough and cold character and the permanent scowl he had etched on his face. As such, he was the perfect foil for Batman’s particular brand of heroism and social control. Whereas the dark knight was obsessed with order and stability, the Joker was malevolence and disorder personified. In a way, he played Lucifer to Batman’s God, messing with his designs and subverting his sense of right and wrong. And, like Lucifer, he knew how to turn the tables and get people to do his bidding. And whereas Batman never smiled, much like God, the Joker could be counted on to see the fun side of things, even in pain, suffering and death.

Due to the many adaptations and interpretations of this character over the years – be they in print, television or cinema –  there are more than a few different origin stories. And they don’t always agree. However, certain common elements can be seen across all the different iterations. The earliest mention of his past indicated that he was a criminal named the Red Hood before he donned the clown makeup. This changed when he fell into a vat of chemicals while trying to escape from the Batman, an experience which left his skin permanently discolored.

This was expanded further in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, where he was shown to be a chemical engineer who quits his job at a chemical plant to become a standup comedian. After failing in this endeavor, he agrees to help two criminals break into the plant. Shortly before the robbery can take place though, he learns that his wife and son have died in a freak accident. He tries to back out of the crime but is strong armed by the other two thugs. And of course, the crime goes south and he is left disfigured. Between this and the loss of his family, he is driven insane and becomes the Joker.

Later versions once again resurrected the concept of the Joker being a career criminal before he became a sociopathic villain. In these versions, the name Jack was used, and it was said that he had some contact with the Batman before taking on his new persona. In fact, in Batman Confidential it was suggested that it was his obsessions with the Batman that eventually led to the accident which forever changed him.

All of these elements informed Tim Burton’s adaptation of the story in the 1989 movie. Here, the Joker was portrayed as a petty thug named Jack Napier who worked for Rupert Thorn, the Gotham city crime lord. Then, after tangling with the Batman at a chemical plant, he suffered a disfiguring injury before falling into a chemical vat, which left his skin dyed and his face permanently scarred. The Joker therefore blamed Batman for his transformation, but would later come to learn that he had been the one who shot his parents when he was just a child.

Personally, I found this version to be genius in that it managed to capture the true insanity of the Joker. Faced with an image of himself that was twisted into a hideous smile, Napier could do nothing but laugh at the sick joke that had befallen him. From thence forth, he was determined to make others see the humor in it as well, right before he killed them! And by making him responsible for killing Bruce Wayne’s parents, the two were ultimately responsible for the others’ creation. Clearly, Burton interpreted the whole “flip sides of the same coin” thing quite literally!

However, Christopher Nolan took a different approach with his adaptation of the criminal mastermind. In the 2008 film The Dark Knight, we are given a version of things where we know nothing about the Jokers origins. On several occasions, he offers up explanations as to how he got his scars; but of course, the story keeps changing. No one can be sure which version is the truth and which is false. In one, he’s the victim of an abusive father who slashed his face. In another, he had a wife who gambled and had her face cut up by the Mob. His own scars were self inflicted out of grief so that he could resemble hers.

This is apparently in keeping with the fact that no definitive explanation has ever been given as to how the Joker really became what he was. Over the years, many different explanations have been given and it’s unclear which are true. In the end, this was resolved by saying that the Joker frequently lies, or can’t keep all the facts straight in his head. As he says in The Killing Joke: “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”

Weapons of Choice:
smilexThough the Joker appears to be adept at firearms and somewhat versed in hand to hand combat, his preferred method of killing has to do with various “comedic” weapons. These include razor sharp playing cards, acid-spewing flowers, cyanide pies and lethal electric joy buzzers. Clearly, the man understands irony and is willing to go the extra mile for consistency.

In addition, he has a signature poison known as “Joker Venom”, a deadly poison that leaves his victims with a ghoulish rictus grin as they die while laughing uncontrollably. This venom comes in many forms, from gas to darts to liquid, and has been his primary calling card since his character’s inception.

All of this was featured in Tim Burton’s Batman, where it was revealed that the Joker was well versed in chemistry and was using this knowledge to create his Smile-X poison. By smuggling various chemical precursors into common consumer products, he was able to disseminate his poisons into Gotham city without anyone knowing. Once these different products were used in combination, people began to die, all of them with a massive grin on their faces!

In Nolan’s version, the Joker retained his preference for simple weapons, but dropped the whimsy, poison and chemistry. As Ledger’s Joker said to a detective while in custody: “Do you want to know why I use a knife? Guns are too quick. You can’t savor all the… little emotions. In… you see, in their last moments, people show you who they really are.” Later, while free and in the company of the Russian mob, he added: “I’m a man of simple tastes. I enjoy dynamite, and gunpowder, and… gasoline!”

Between these two takes, the Joker retains one basic characteristic… Fear! Whereas a criminal with a gun is scary, a mad man with sharp objects, burning acid and explosive devices is downright terrifying!

Criminal Acts:
The Joker’s resume reads like that of a man who desperately wants to be the biggest maniac in town. Over the many years of his character’s existence, he has committed countless crimes, some whimsical and some downright brutal. All of these have been done for reasons which, in the words of the Batman: “make sense to him alone.”

In the Killing Joke, the Joker paralyzes Batgirl (aka. Barbara Gordon) by shooting her in the back. He also kidnaps Gordon and taunts him with photographs of his crime, hoping to drive him mad and thus prove his point that any man can go insane under the right circumstances. In “A Death in the Family”, the Joker also killed Jason Todd, the second Robin. This, he did with a bomb, but only after beating him senseless with a crowbar.

During one of his many stays in Arkham Asylum, the Joker also managed to convert Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist who was sent in to examine him, into his willing helper. Convinced that the Joker might be faking insanity to avoid the death penalty, she sets out to unlock his past. In time, he earns her sympathy and convinces her to help him escape. Eventually, she is caught and her obsession with him leads her to seek him out and become Harley Quinn, his criminal sidekick.

He also went as far as to murder Sarah Essen Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s second wife, after kidnapping her. Once Gordon took him into custody, he once again taunted him in the hopes of driving him mad and getting him to forsake his moral code. However, Gordon sticks to his code and only kneecaps him. True to form, the Joker quickly laments that he might not walk again, but then finishes with a maniacal laugh!

Of course, the list goes on. Given his many years of sadistic stunts, it would impossible to include them all in one post. Suffice it to say, he has been a constant source of (ahem) “entertainment” to Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and the Gotham Police Department.

Though the Joker experienced near shaves with death on many occasions, he finally met his end in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. It was here that, after a prolonged absence, the Batman came out of retirement to fight crime one last time. This soon inspired the Joker to awaken from his drug-induced slumber inside Arkham and begin creating havoc again.

It began with Joker once again pretending he was rehabilitated in order to gain parole from Arkham, and was followed by him releasing his toxic venom into a crowded talk show studio before making his escape. After many deaths and a chase that took them across the city and into an amusement park, the Batman finally cornered the Joker inside a tunnel and engaged him in mortal combat.

The Joker managed to stab him several times, but Batman eventually got the upper hand and snapped the Joker’s neck. However, this didn’t prove fatal, and a laughing Joker once again mocked Batman for not being able to go through with it. The Joker then took a deep breath and snapped his own neck the rest of the way. Thus, the Joker died as he lived… laughing, mocking and batshit crazy!

Final Thoughts:
What more is there to say? The Joker is just one of those characters who’s stuck with us over the years, and for good reason. Not only did he have all the right characteristics to make a fitting villain, he was also the perfect arch-nemesis for the Batman. Overall, I have to assume that he wasn’t the kind of character who was tailor made for the role, but an inspired invention that grew into the role over time and became a permanent feature before long.

To paraphrase cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, good characters aren’t just created, they wander in off the street looking for a meal and a bath and end up staying. In the Jokers case, I’m glad he stuck around. Much like the Batman, he’s probably the most realistic, dark and gritty personality to ever come out of the comic book world!

The rest, as they say, is insane cackling laughter… HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

RIP Heath