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.

tdkr_batman_superman

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!

Summary:
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!

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.

Persona:
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.

Origins:
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.

Death:
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

A Tribute to Badasses!

You know those characters, people who come to us from our favorite movies, TV shows, or pop culture in general. The kinds of people who excel at kicking ass and taking  names? The kinds of people that just never seem to die, they just keep getting bigger and badder the more time passes? Yeah, we all have people like that in our collective imagination, the inspiration heroes and villain who just impressed the hell out of us and made us want to be badass like them!

Well today, I felt inspired to do a little tribute piece to characters such as these. On the one hand, this seemed like a good diversion from my usual conceptual pieces which deal with big and potentially boring stuff. I mean, outside of people like me, who really cares about planetary cultures and mega cities? On the other, it felt like an overdue acknowledgement to all the characters that were well written, well scripted and well executed over the years. Yes, today I’m paying tribute to all the people in sci-fi who were so good at being so bad, or just bad enough…

Here they are!

Alucard:
The main character from the short-lived by popular Hellsing series. Not to be confused with Van Hellsing, also about a vampire hunter, this series was all about an organization in the UK that was dedicated to fighting vampires, ghouls, and other hellish creatures. Their chief operative, a mysterious vampire named Alucard (Dracula backwards), was quite the epitome of badassness!

In addition to his cape, Victorian-era clothes, and massive handgun, he had the supreme confidence and “man of few words” thing going that can only come from being alive for so freaking long. As they say with most vampire series, the longer they live, the more powerful they get. And Alucard has been around for a long, long time!

Ordinarily, he would just dispatch his enemies with a few blasts of his massive double-action pistol. But when faced with truly powerful demons, he would break the really scary shit! We’re talking seriously dark, scary energies that would tear an enemy to pieces, body and soul! Though it was never made clear why he was helping humanity in the animated series, the original comic did a better job of exploring his back story and motivations.

Taking its cue from Bram Stoker’s original novel, Dracula was apparently defeated by the notorious Abraham Van Hellsing and agreed to become the family’s loyal servant. The main story takes place several hundred years, later when the latest descendent of the Hellsing family is carrying on the tradition of keeping England safe from the forces of evil.

Blade:
Here we have another vampire hunter who’s more than just your average guy! Though his real name is Eric Brooks (according to the comic series), this street hunter goes by the professional name of “Blade”. Little wonder, considering that just about every weapon in his arsenal features an acid edged pig-sticker or a sharpened silver stake! But of course, the real twist comes in why he does what he does.

As if that wasn’t badass enough though, he also alternates between a Gran Torino and a motorbike, wears a leather cape over segmented body armor, and packs enough firepower to take down an entire SWAT team single-handedly! All the while, he utters his few, but cryptic lines through those big, vampire incisors.

Known ominously as the “Daywalker” to vampires who are scared shitless of him, he combines the best of both worlds when it comes to human and vampires. He is immune to silver, garlic and daylight, but can heal almost instantaneously and has super strength. His only weakness however comes in the form of the “thirst”, the need for blood which every vampire suffers from and must eventually succumb to, or die. In order to preserve his humanity, Blade relies on a synthetic “serum” which temporarily satisfies his cravings.

In a theme that has growing in popularity and familiarity since the early 80’s, Blade is a half-man, half-vampire who’s mother was bitten while pregnant with him. Tormented by his split identity, and the supposed loss of his mother, he has chosen to resolve this crisis by hunting those that made him what he is and robbed him of his human life. However, the question of what he will do once he’s rid the world of the last vampire, and what he will do when the serum stops working, are questions that remain unresolved, and help to drive the story.

Boba Fett:
When you hear the name Star Wars and the word badass, what naturally comes to mind? Assuming you know anything about Star Wars, then chances you thought of Boba Fett! This notorious bounty hunter was probably the most badass thing about the series, dwarfing Vader, Jabba, and the Emperor in terms of shear awesomeness!

Hell, this guy not only appeared repeatedly in movies two and three (with a small cameo in a deleted scene in movie one), he also had entire novels, comics, and games dedicated to him. Annnnd, if the Dark Horse series Dark Empire is to be believed, Fett even escaped the mighty sarlacc. Who else amongst the expanded cast of the Star Wars saga can boast that kind of record? Lando? HA!

Though Lucas attempted to explain Boba’s origins in the prequel movie Attack of the Clones, other stories from the expanded universe claims that Boba was in fact a former Stormtrooper of Mandalorian origin.

However, on this latter point, all sources agree. Clearly, Boba Fett was of Mandalorian origin, a warrior race that had become virtually extinct after the Sith Wars and had relegated themselves to the role of bounty hunters and mercenaries. Boba had apparently distinguished himself amongst his rivals by delivering on contracts, charging exorbitant fees, and being very hard to kill. Hell, somebody who crawled their way free of the sarlacc aint no pushover!

The Joker:
Batman’s nemesis, and Gotham’s smiling psychopath, the Joker is one of those villians you just love to hate! And yes, he’s also pretty damn badass! Though he has gone through countless renditions and adaptations over the years, all the variations revolve around the same basic theme.

Basically, the Joker is a sociopathic criminal who thrives on chaos, the perfect polar-opposite to Batman’s vigilante persona. Over the years, he has been in and out of Gotham’s Arkham Asylum, examined by doctors, but always seems to escape to stir up shit again.

In his most recent incarnation, as performed by Heath Ledger, the Joker reached new heights of popularity and badassery! Not only did he manage to rip off the mob, turn Gothamites against the Batman, drive Harvey Dent mad, commandeer the mob, bring Gotham to the brink, and stay one step ahead of the Batman and police the whole time. He managed to do it all with a twisted smile on his face! That’s an awful lot for a man who claims he doesn’t do planning!

Looking to the comics and expanded franchise, one sees even more examples of badassery! Here, as well as in the movies, new and old, the Joker is notorious for causing trouble and doing it with a shit-eating grin. In addition to the general mayhem he’s been known to cause, his credentials include turning a psychologist into his willing sidekick (Harley Quinn), kidnapping and torturing the Commissioner’s daughter, killing one of the Robin’s, and nearly killing Batman on numerous occasions. Yet somehow, he always manages to escape, survive, and live to inspire chaos another day. Malevolent? Yes. Psychotic. Oh yes! But a notorious badass as well? You betcha!

Raven:
“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world… Hiro used to feel this way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this was liberating. He no longer has to worry about being the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken.

That pretty much says it all. Taken from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Raven is one of the chief antagonists of the story and one of the baddest motherflechter’s around! An Aleut by ancestry, he is skilled in the art of harpoon throwing, knife fighting, killing people, and being untouchable. Of course, this might have a lot to do with the fact that in the sidecar on his motorbike (pretty badass in itself!) he has a thermonuclear device stashed. This, apparently, he got off a Russian sub after stowing aboard and killing the entire crew with glass knives, and its wired to go off in case anybody does the unthinkable and kills him. Hence, nobody messes with Raven, as if his size and skill with weapons weren’t intimidating enough!

People recognize Raven not only by his obvious size, leather jacket, and motorbike, but also by the words “Poor Impulse Control” tattooed on his forehead. This is a holdover from his years in the corrections system of the future, where they’ve resorted to tattooing a prisoner’s particular maladjustments directly on their forehead for all to see. But for those who’ve pissed him off, or are just on his hit list, the first indication that Raven’s around is the telltale presence of his harpoon in your chest!

Molly Millions:
Also known as “Sally Shears”, Molly is a recurring character in William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. Technically, she is what is known as a “razor girl”, though cyber-ninja works just as well. Basically, she’s a gun (or razor blade) for hire who gets paid by high-rollers to take out anyone who stands between them and their objectives. This, she typically does by slashing people with razor claws that are imbedded in her fingertips, though she’s adept at hand to hand combat and wield firearms with the best of them too!

Thought tough, deadly and ruthlessly efficient, she has shown herself to have a softer, sensitive side, not to mention a sympathetic past. For instance, her first appearance is in Gibson’s short story (and film adaptation) of Johnny Mnemonic. Here, she goes beyond her usual mandate and begins to fall in love with the story’s protagonist, Johnny.

In her follow-up appearance in Neuromancer, she admits that he was the first “client” she overstepped her boundaries with and still mourns him years later. She also reveals that she began as a “meat puppet”, a form of prostitute who allows their body to be controlled by handlers while they are maintained in a blank-outed state. This is how she apparently paid for her cybernetic enhancements and became a mercenary ninja.

On top of all that, she is a fiercely loyal and levelheaded woman who, despite the nature of her job, is committed to her moral code and values the kinds of human relationships that are becoming increasingly rare in Gibson’s world. One might say that she’s tough because she has to be and would much rather live an ordinary life where love is not obsolete and murder for hire is not the only way for street people to get ahead. Still, don’t mess with her! Just because she’s got a soft side doesn’t mean she won’t fillet your ass!

Ripley:
Mother, warrior, humanitarian and xenocidal ass-kicker, Ellen Ripley defined female badassery for an entire generation of moviegoers! From her humble origins as a crewman aboard the Nostromo to her showdown with the mother Alien, Ripley demonstrated the full range of the heroine protagonist. She was began as a regular officer who was put into a terrifying and claustrophobic situation, a lone survivor of a xenomorph attack aboard a confined spacecraft.

But living to fight another day, she faced her vulnerability, overcame her fear, and put it all on the line to save a little girl. And in the course of that, she also strapped on some heavy artillery and kicked some serious ass! And in the end, the showdown between herself and the Alien hive queen was not only cinematic gold, it was so thick with allegory you could cut it with a knife! Two mothers, two titanic forces, coming together to fight for their young!

Let’s face it, this is what makes Sigourney Weaver and her character so awesome and sympathetic. She’s a regular woman who, when faced with treacherous odds, went above and beyond to do the right thing. And let’s not forget that her motives were purer than anyone else’s. Whereas some people were interested in their bonuses and others in shooting shit up, she fought tooth and nail to protect and save the life of a young child, a girl who reminded her of the daughter she lost.

And it worked. In the end, she outlived all the professionals who ignored her or were sent in to “protect her”. When all else failed, this lady came through and showed that you don’t come between a  mother and her child and you don’t underestimate a determined woman, or she’ll kick your ass! Yes, years later and Ripley still remains an inspiration to women everywhere, and a reminder to us boys to respect and honor the women in their lives. In the end, they are a hell of a lot tougher than you think 😉

Vampire Hunter D:
Yet another vampire hunter who’s got some questionable ancestry! Vampire Hunter D is based on a novel series with manga and anime adaptations. Taking place in the distant future, thousands of years after WWIII took place, D wanders through a pre-industrial world hunting the demons, vampires and assorted creatures that have come to plague it. Apparently, in the distant future, vampires have established themselves as a sort of Nobility that control their fiefdoms through a combination of advanced technology and magic.

Much like Alucard, D has a questionable ancestry which is gradually established as time goes on. Right off the bat, it is clear that he is a dhampire, the child of a vampire mother and a human mother. As time goes on, it becomes established that he is fact the son of the ancient Count himself. As a result, he has some pretty badass powers, which include spontaneous healing, super strength, and some pretty dark powers! Unfortunately, he also has his share of weaknesses as well. Sun-sickness, garlic; all the things that are fatal to vampires are pretty harmful to him as well.

Believing that vampires have overstepped their traditional authority, D is dedicated to sending them back to the darkness from whence they came. Though he is part vampire, he values his human side and cannot condone how vampires abuse the humans they have dominion over.

Ah, and his weapon of choice for dispatching vampires and demons? A big katana-style sword! This weapon can decapitate even the most powerful vampire, or rend him from his neck to his navel. Oh, and did I mention he also has a smartass symbiot living on his hand? Might sound weird, but this thing keeps him company, keeps him honest, and has even saved his life a few times.

Vasquez:
Yes, I realize I’m doubling down on a single franchise. But no list of badasses would be complete without mentioning Private Vasquez. Also of Aliens fame, this woman put the  bad in badass, toting that massive smartgun and telling everybody who got smart with her where to go! Seriously, those iconic lines, “Let’s ROOOOOCK!” and “I just want to know one thing… where-they-are!” Bam! There wasn’t a single person in the audience who wasn’t get goose bumps.

Not only was she clearly a tough, take-no-prisoners kind of woman, she commanded the respect of those around her, particularly the men. Hudson, played by Bill Paxton, would get smacked down anytime he tried to sass her. Recall the lines: “Vasquez, anybody ever mistake you for a man?” “No, how about you?” Classic! And of course Private Drake, her partner in arms, practically followed her around, even though he was twice her size!

But of course, she too had a sensitive side. When Drake fell protecting their group, she took it really hard. She was even willing to go back into the den of the xenomorph’s when it became clear he was still alive. Even though it was obvious he and the others were being used as symbiotes and the odds of them making it out alive were virtually nil, she was still willing to risk her life. One seriously got the impression that she loves the big lug after all…

But mainly, she was an ice cold chick and tough as nails. When those around her began to panic and cry “game over, man!”, she raised her gun and started kicking ass! And when at last she was cornered and wounded, did she roll over and die? Hell no! She grabbed hold of that grenade and went down with a bang, taking as many of those buggers as she could buggers with her! RIP Vasquez. You rock!

Well that’s all for now. I was going to include some non sci-fi examples in this list as well, but that would made it too long to post! Stay tuned, I’m thinking I’ll save those examples of mainstream badassery for next time. And I might just have some final thoughts to offer on this whole phenomenon known as badassesness. I love inventing words! Bye!

The Dark Knight Returns

While I’m riding this comic book turned movie high, I must mention one of the best comic books around and definitely one of the best installments in the Batman franchise ever. And while this comic has not yet been made into a movie per se, I do believe large tracts of it have been used to create The Dark Knight Rises. I am, of course, referring to The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.

To be fair, I’m not exactly a comic expert, but even I’m not that big a fan of Miller’s work. He has obvious woman issues and is not the best illustrator, and large parts of this comic were lifted from The Watchmen. But hell, it worked! If you’re going to steal, steal big. And the concepts of outlawing superheroes, forcing others to work for the government, a dictator president and an escalated Cold War all worked quite well within a Batman context. And trust me when I say, Dark Knight Rises will use this stuff! Read the review and you’ll see what I mean…

(Background—>):
Initially, the comic was the result of a collaboration between Miller and DC’s editor-director Dick Giordano (formerly the Batman group director). However, disagreements over deadlines forced Giordano to pull out, leaving Miller to complete the project alone. DC then published the full and final product in one volume with four parts which, despite its price, sold quite well.

(Plot Synopsis—>):
The story opens on a near-future Gotham city where things have gone to hell due to the absence of the Batman. The reason for his retirement is simple: superheroes have been outlawed, except for Superman who now works for the government. We learn that this was part of the deal, where he became a military asset in order to spare his former comrades the indignity of going to prison. As with Watchmen, this has led to an escalation of the Cold War and the creation of a dictator president (in this case, its Reagan or a clear look-alike).

In any case, Bruce Wayne (aka. Batman) is struggling with being retired. By turning his back on his former profession, he feels like he’s betrayed the promise he made to his parents decades back. In addition, the situation is getting so bad that he feels he has nothing to lose by returning. This worsening situation is portrayed with an allegorical heat wave that has gripped the city and is only getting worse.

Enter into this Harvey Dent, the former DA turned Two-Face who has had corrective surgery (courtesy of Bruce Wayne) and who’s doctors now claim is recovered. However, these doctors soon have egg on their face when a masked terrorist seizes Gotham’s two main business towers, clearly meant to resemble the WTO’s twin towers (it should be noted that this comic was written several years before Sept.11th 2001), and threatens to detonate a bomb.

Batman is successful in stopping the terrorist, who is clearly Dent, and finds that the surgery has not had the desired effect. Rather than correcting his split personality, it has only deepened it, making his look one way but feel another. Dent is placed back into psychiatric care, and the public is divided over Batman’s return. The media, in the form of talking heads and news reports, play a large role in this comic. And for the most part, they have bad things to say about Batman, claiming that in spite of his actions, he ultimately attracts a more deranged breed of psychotics and criminals.

His return also puts Superman in an awkward position since he will now be forced to come to Gotham and arrest him. However, as he is still occupied with a US-Soviet standoff taking place on the fictitious island of Corto Maltese, Batman has some time. Which he spends moving onto his next targets, the Mutants gang. Seems these thugs have taken over the streets, are thieving and murdering, and are led by a massive, psychotic freak. Oh yeah, and they operate out of the city’s dump. When Batman confronts them, he gets into it with the boss, but things go awry. After all, the boss is a mutant, is hugely strong and powerful, nearly impervious to pain, and a lot younger than Batman.

After several rounds, Batman begins to lose ground against the titanic thug and has his arm broken and shoulder torn by his claws. He is on the verge of blacking out when a young girl (dressed as Robin) jumps in and takes down the boss with a crowbar. She helps Batman escapes and the police show up shortly thereafter to arrest the boss. Seems Batman has a new sidekick, and makes it back to the Batcave to recuperate. However, the mutant boss lets everyone know from custody that he defeated the Batman and that he will wreak further vengeance on Commissioner Gordon and anyone else who gets in his way.

Across town, the spineless mayor comes out of hiding and blames the escalation on Batman. He further claims that he will step in and put an end to things by speaking with the mutant’s leader. However, this meeting turns bad when the mutant leader decides to kills the Mayor. He is placed back in prison, but Batman soon arranges it so he can escape. He then confronts him again, this time in a mud pit in the middle of the dump where he plans to beat him by outsmarting him. He also makes sure that every member of the mutant gang is there to watch, because he knows their reign of terror will only end if they see their leader defeated firsthand.

This time around, the fight is still a tough slog, but Batman utilizes his experience and his environment to his advantage. The mud slows the boss down, he manages to partially blind him with his own blood and the mud, then paralyze his limps with a nerve pinch and a broken elbow. He then gets him down into the mud where he latches onto one his legs and breaks it, immobilizing him completely. He then pounds him senselessly into the mud while the mutants look on in horror and awe. The mutants are beat and the city is safe, except that people are now forming a new gang that wants to emulate the Batman (echoes of The Dark Knight here!). Just like in DK, Batman is not too enthused about their existence and begins cracking down on them. Meanwhile, at Arkham, a dispirited and anesthetized Joker sees Batman on the TV, and comes back to life! Seems Batman’s resurgence is attracting his old enemies…

Meanwhile, on Corto Maltese, Superman’s actions have prompted the Soviets to up the ante. They fire an ICBM at the island, but rather than being a nuke, its a massive EM missile. Superman diverts it to a desert where it explodes and harms no civilians, but he is almost killed in the blast. A interesting point, since we know that Superman draws his power from the sun, it seems reasonable that an uncontrolled blast of EM radiation would harm him. And of course, it does! Also, Gotham and every other city in the area is hit by a massive black out. Chaos ensues, and Batman must travel to the prisons and take control of all the gang members who are escaping. Since many are Batman wannabees, he manages to recruit them to restore some order to the streets. The power comes on shortly thereafter, and once again, the media and experts debate the events. Most condemn Batman’s latest actions, even though he has helped to save many lives.

But Batman has his own theories. Mainly, he blames Superman for selling out to the government, and sees the escalation with the Soviets as a direct result. During a conversation before Superman sets off, he tells Wayne (they use each others’ real names!) that he will have to go up against him if he persists. Wayne replies by saying that he no intention of going back into retirement, and that if it comes to a confrontation “may the best man win”. Superman is incredulous, but he has his answer!

Back in Gotham, the Joker is finding new ways to create mayhem. Having convinced the same crop of doctors that he’s cured, he goes on a talk show where he is confronted by a Dr. Ruth look-a-like. After some innane psychobabble, he kills Ruth with a poisoned kiss and unleashes his smilex gas into the theatre, killing everyone. He then runs to an amusement park where he is intercepted by Batman, and more mayhem ensues. Batman finally corners him in a sewer where they have their final fight! The Joker stabs him a few times in the stomach, and Batman manages to cripple him by breaking his neck. The Joker then finishes it, snapping what’s left of his neck and killing himself. He dies laughing…

Again, Batman narrowly escapes, and Superman recovers enough to return to Gotham. After some preparations, Batman is prepared for his final fight! Getting himself into some powered armor, assembling his usual arsenal of tools, and enlisting the help of Green Arrow, someone else who resents Superman. He’s also sure to pop a pill, who’s purpose is as yet unclear. Then, he picks the location for their fight, the very street corner where Bruce Wayne’s parents were gunned down. The fight goes to plan, with Batman managing to hurt Superman in a number of ways (he’s still recovering from the EM missile attack) and stalling him long enough for Green Arrow to fire off his special package! A kryptonite tipped arrow!

Naturally, Superman catches the arrow, but the tip then explodes into a million tiny particles which he then becomes poisoned with. Severely weakened, Batman puts his hands around Superman’s throat and delivers his last words to him. Essentially, he tells them he sold them out, that he could never understand that the world doesn’t make sense, that his ideological purity makes him a pawn, and that he beat him! But then, Batman suffers from what appears to be a heart attack and collapses. The police arrive to see Superman kneeling over his old friends body, guarding it even though they were locked in mortal combat not a moment before.

The comic then moves to Batman’s funeral. Things are just wrapping up when Superman notices something. A faint sound coming from the ground, and someone suspicious looking standing nearby, waiting. In short, what he hears is heartbeats, the suspicious figure is the new Robin girl, and she’s waiting with a shovel. Remember the pill Batman took? Turns out it was a designer drug that imitates the appearance of death (little Romeo and Juliet there, but okay). His case contained a hidden oxygen supply, and everything was timed so Robin could dig him up before it ran out. Superman looks at her and winks. He’s onto them, but has decided to let his friend go.

Once he’s emerged, we see Batman moving to a new location with the new Robin and a set of accolades. From there, they will rebuild, create a new Batcave and start fighting crime anew. The public thinks he’s dead, but his spirit will live on through a new generation of masked crime fighters. Yeah! Batman forever!

(Synopsis—>):
A possible downside to this comic was Miller’s frequent use of media types and talking heads to advance the story. While it is interesting – and effective when it comes to providing transitions and pacing – the way it constantly helps advance the plot and provide background can get a little tiring at times. By volume four its like, we get it, Batman is a controversial media topic, and the so-called experts are morons! That, plus the fact that Miller really seemed to want to stack public opinion against Batman in the story got a little heavy-handed at times.

Still, it did manage to give some depth and a certain social context to the story. Not to mention realism, seeing as how any vigilante, no matter how effective, would not fail to stir up resentment and fear amongst those in power. All throughout the novel, it is made painfully clear that authorities condemn Batman because they don’t want to appear condoning, regardless of how needed he really is. At the same time, those same people seem to want to think that former villains have been successfully rehabilitated, if for no other reason than because they want to believe their methods are effective.

And I said, this book did seem to be borrowing pretty heavily from The Watchmen. However, these elements were well suited to the Batman universe, and given the fact that Dr. Manhattan was openly compared to Superman, it wasn’t like the borrowing was all one way. What was also well executed was the reason for Superman’s employment by the government. Not only was he doing it to protect his friends; according to Batman, it had much to do with his naivete and idealistic outlook. The boy from Smallville just couldn’t help but take orders, it was what he was born to do. And when society and the government turned on them, he effectively sold them out by agreeing to do their bidding.

This last element was something I especially liked about this graphic novel, the it explored the differences between Batman, Superman, and pitted them against each other. Fans of DC comics couldn’t help but have a big fangasm, but it was also highly appropriate. Whereas Superman had always been the clean-cut, cardboard cut-out superhero, Batman was always the darker, grittier, more realistic one. And in both cases, this was presented in very real terms, showing the upside and downside of these traits. Whereas Superman is seen by Batman as a fool and sell-out, the complete flip-side of how others see him, Batman is portrayed as a sort of social fascist in addition to be being a brave vigilante. This dichotomy serves to elevate the content and makes everything feel more realistic.

The Dark Knight Returns, ladies and gentlemen. Read it, love it, then look for traces of it in The Dark Knight Rises. I’m telling ya, it’s in there. Look for it!