Thursday, January 30, 2014

Culture Shock 01.30.14: The Caped Crusader rises

As I sit at my desk writing this, the Caped Crusader — one-half of the Dynamic Duo — looks on. He has a slight smile on his face, in contrast to his usual grim determination. In place of his customary white-slit eye holes, he has twinkling baby blues. These are eyes clear of vision and of sharp focus.

These eyes see justice, good citizen. Rest assured, they say, all is well.

The Caped Crusader.
As I type this, Batman gives me a knowing nod of the head. Wait! No, it's just my imagination. It's not a nod but a bobble. This Batman is a bobblehead I keep on my desk, right next to my coffee mug, an Associated Press paperweight and my Pez dispensers. And for the first time in decades, this Batman bears an unmistakable resemblance to Adam West, Batman of the pow! bam! boom! 1960s TV show, who for years was the character's most visible depiction — and his curse.

Two weeks ago, Conan O'Brien — of all people — let slip the news via Twitter: The 1966-68 “Batman” TV series is finally coming to home video, sometime this year.

That's not exactly an official announcement, but Warner Bros. confirmed the news shortly after Conan's tweet. The studio will release all three seasons of “Batman” on DVD in 2014. All else remains a mystery: price, bonus features, whether there also will be a high-definition Blu-ray release, etc. Knowing the long wait for “Batman” is almost over will have to be enough — for now.

So, why the long wait? As usual, lawyers are to blame. Warner Bros. owns DC Comics, which owns Batman. The '66 TV series, however, is owned by Fox. And as there was no such thing as home video in the 1960s, bringing “Batman” to home video required a lot of negotiation.

Contentious, time-consuming negotiation.

Signs of a deal began to appear last year, when licensed products based on the '66 “Batman” — like my bobblehead — hit the market. DC Comics even released a digital comic book series based on the '66 show. “Batman '66” so captures the spirit of Adam West's Batman and Burt Ward's Robin, the Boy Wonder, it's like watching reruns.

The reruns, by the way, never went away entirely. They currently air Saturdays on Me-TV (WZDX 54.3), but they're no substitute for owning the series. And there is a lot of pent-up demand to be met. Readers of the website have long ranked “Batman” as their second-most-requested unreleased TV show, after only “The Wonder Years,” which remains unreleased because of music licensing issues. Those pesky lawyers again.

And before you ask: The quickie “Batman” movie made between seasons 1 and 2 falls under a different deal, and Fox released it on DVD years ago.

Given all this anticipation for the TV series' home video debut, it's worth keeping in mind there was a time when Bat-fans despised it.

"Faster, Robin! The rear projection is gaining on us!"
While a parody of morally upright, square-jawed and just plain square superheroes, the '66 “Batman” nevertheless reflected the goofy sensibility of 1950s and '60s Batman comics. But by the '70s and '80s, comic book Batman had grown darker, and the Dark Knight bore little resemblance to the Caped Crusader. Fans resented their favorite hero still being known mostly for his campy Adam West incarnation.

Now, however, after the doom and gloom of Christopher Nolan's “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” it's safe for fans to admit their shameful secret: Many of them liked West's Batman all along. And maybe, just maybe, “The Dark Knight Rises” shows how it can be even more absurd to take Batman too seriously.

When it's at last available as a convenient box set, perfect for weekend binge viewing, the '66 “Batman” will be ready for a long-overdue reappraisal. Every Batman reflects his day, and the duly deputized Batman who protected Gotham during the social unrest of the late '60s is no different.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Culture Shock 01.23.14: The Groucho Marxism of Armond White

Armond White trolls his fellow critics and his readers with
his annual "Better-Than List."
You've probably never heard of Armond White, which is a shame.

White is a unique voice in film criticism, combining fearlessness, encyclopedic knowledge and a sensibility best described as unhinged. Like the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, you're never entirely sure if White's criticism is brilliant or just bizarre, serious or an elaborate put-on. It is performance art that exists apart from the films he examines.

This month, White, formerly of the late, lamented New York Press and currently editor of, became the first person ever excommunicated from the New York Film Critics Circle, an organization White chaired three times, as he boasts via his Twitter handle, 3xchair.

White's crime was allegedly heckling "12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen as McQueen took the stage to receive the NYFCC's award for best director. White disputes the received account of events, but the incident does seem like vintage Armond. During his chairmanship in 2011, White presided over an NYFCC awards dinner that is now legend. His passive-aggressive, and sometimes just aggressive barbs made Annette Bening cry.

And White is no fan of McQueen's work, especially "12 Years a Slave," which White savaged, as is his fashion. White may be idiosyncratic, but he has an entirely understandable dislike for condescension, which may explain his visceral reaction to "12 Years."

White — who is black, I'm obliged here to note — called the film "torture porn," comparing it to "Hostel" and "The Human Centipede." White concludes his City Arts review with, " '12 Years a Slave' is ultimate proof that Hollywood's respect for Black humanity is in absurd, patronizing, Oscar-winning decline."

I've not seen "12 Years" yet, so I can't say whether I agree with White's assessment. But I have seen McQueen's shallow "sex addiction" drama "Shame," which White rightly dismisses as "a sex-phobic art fraud." McQueen has a track record of producing critically acclaimed phonies.

But "Shame" was about sex, and despite what you may think, Hollywood still isn't comfortable with sex. A movie that says slavery is bad, on the other hand, is "important," which is why "12 Years" is now a front-runner for a Best Picture Oscar.

That brings us back to White's excommunication and my suspicion that it was about more than White allegedly being rude in public. White has been rude in public before. Just ask Bening. The difference is, this time he did the unpardonable, not only contradicting 97 percent of his peers (according to Rotten Tomatoes) but doing so loudly, unflinchingly about a movie they deem "important," because without "12 Years a Slave," how are any of us to know slavery is wrong, eh?

It's impossible not to see some politics at play here and sense that White's fellow critics have had enough of his politically incorrect opinions. Tolerating White's baffling love affair with Adam Sandler films is one thing (see his absurd rave of "Jack and Jill"). His deeming the "Schindler's List" of slavery films a fraud, however, is another. It's a sense reinforced by Mollie Hemingway's observation, at, that many of the same critics who damned "The Passion of the Christ" on the basis of its brutality praised "12 Years" for the same. Torture porn is in the ideology of the beholder.

The late Roger Ebert called White a "troll." It's true, to an extent. White's annual "Better-Than" lists, in which he pits movies he favors against the consensus favorites, elevate trolling to an art. And as a fellow contrarian, I'm fully in agreement with about half his better-than picks. The others....

If White is simply an embarrassment in public, the NYFCC could ban him from the awards dinner without banning him entirely. White is a vital part of American film criticism. Infuriating, occasionally insane, but vital precisely because he is so infuriating and insane.

Yet I suspect White is secretly pleased with his ouster. No contrarian can really want to belong to a group that would have him as a member, and Armond White is a Groucho Marxist film critic.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Culture Shock 01.16.14: 'Byzantium' gives vampires back their blood

In the 20 years since director Neil Jordan brought Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire" to the screen, the vampire genre has become — forgive the pun — almost bloodless.

HBO's "True Blood" bathes in blood and sex like a Countess Bathory of self parody, but it is, nonetheless, parody. Otherwise we have endured a long "Twilight" struggle. Mopy vampires who sparkle in the sunlight? It's downright embarrassing. Nosferatu hides his rat-toothed face in shame.

And Jordan is indirectly to blame, contributing as he did to Rice's fortunes.

The Lestat of "Interview" may have been a monster, but with each subsequent installment of her Vampire Chronicles, Rice arced in an ever more emo direction, eventually leading to Stephenie Meyer and her creepy, obsessive, teen-stalking Edward Cullen — the man-child of Meyer's dreams.

So it's appropriate penance that Jordan's return to vampires is the anti-"Twilight." Gone is the overcast blah of Forks, Wash. Say hello to the full-blooded spectacle of "Byzantium" (Blu-ray, DVD).

"Byzantium" gives this undead genre more life than it has had in years.

When we meet vampire mother Clara (Gemma Arterton, "Quantum of Solace") and daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, "Hanna"), they've been on the run for two centuries, moving quietly from town to town and home to home.

Forced into prostitution while a young girl during the Napoleonic Wars, Clara long ago embraced the lifestyle. She tells a disapproving Eleanor more than once that someone has to put food on the table.

But for Clara sex work is as much about empowerment as economic necessity. She uses it to lure her victims, abusive men whose deaths make the world a more beautiful place, or so she says. And she uses it to empower other women, too, giving drug-addicted streetwalkers a safe and profitable place to ply their trade away from pimps and police.

That safe place is Byzantium, a former hotel and, more recently, boarding house with rooms to spare and windows illuminated by the warm neon glow of its eponymous signage.

Byzantium is a matriarchal refuge. Although a man holds the lease — inherited from his mother — he isn't in charge. Clara is. Byzantium is her headquarters for the final campaign in her centuries-old battle of the sexes. It's also the battlefield for her more personal war with Eleanor.

Most children are ready to leave home by their teens. Imagine if you were stuck living with your mom for 200 years. So, the other half of the story is Eleanor's long-overdue coming of age.

Raised in an orphanage until Clara liberates her, Eleanor is reserved and isolated. She feeds only on the old and sick — people who are ready to pass on, anyway. She has no common ground with her worldly mom and no one in whom she can confide. That is, until she meets a kindred spirit in Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, "X-Men: First Class"), a young man who has had his own brush with death.

Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini, adapting her own stage production, create a vampire mythology with some new twists. Clara becomes a vampire, or "sucreant," as they're called here, by stealing a map intended for the man who forced her into prostitution. The map leads to a cave on a barren island, a cave where one can die and be reborn as an immortal.

Until Clara discovers it, the island is reserved for an all-male Brotherhood, which is none too happy when Clara forces her way into their ranks. And when Clara makes Eleanor a sucreant, too, the Brotherhood marks both for death. Creation, the Brotherhood says, is reserved for men.

In "Byzantium," sex is the ultimate weapon. Both Clara and Eleanor are rape survivors. Clara uses her sexuality to take control of her life. Male vampires jealously guard their own form of procreation, and the island and its cave birth eternal life in gushing fountains of blood.

It's as far removed from Bella Swan's passive, suicidal lovesickness as you can get. Clara and Eleanor certainly aren't waiting on any knights in sparkly armor to come along.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Culture Shock 01.09.14: With great power comes great irresponsibility

Spider-Man's defining moment isn't one of heroism. Rather it's when he fails to do the right thing.

In an online discussion last week about remakes that miss the point of the original,'s Charlie Jane Anders singled out 2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man" starring Andrew Garfield. Anders wrote, "Amazing Spider-Man was pretty great, but lost the whole 'Spidey tries to make money off his powers' element of the (Sam) Raimi film and the original comics."

Without that element, "The Amazing Spider-Man" resorts to giving Spider-Man the Batman motivation: the not-so-accidental deaths of his parents. That misses the point even more than Anders lets on. It's Spider-Man's moral failing and his reaction to it that make him who he is.

In the origin story Stan Lee and Steve Ditko crafted, Peter Parker, recently bitten by a radioactive spider, uses his new powers the way most of us would. He uses them to make money.

As he leaves a TV studio with his earnings in hand, he refuses to stop a robber, although he could have done so easily. What business is it of his, anyway?

Then his Uncle Ben is killed, and Peter dons his Spider-Man costume to track down the killer, who turns out to be the robber he failed to apprehend when he had the chance.

That's the moment he learns his lesson: "With great power comes great responsibility." He stops trying to profit from his powers and instead uses them to protect the weak and innocent. That's what makes Spider-Man the hero he is. He's brave and selfless — and a sap.

Yes, a sap. Because he has learned the wrong lesson. Sure it's great that he has learned not to be a self-centered jerk, and it's great that he helps people, even at great risk to his own life and limb. But none of that should stop him from making a few bucks off his abilities, too.

It's not as if he doesn't need the money, and he does have responsibilities he can't fulfill with a punch and a wisecrack. Not a month goes by that he couldn't use some money to pay for his elderly Aunt May's rent or medicine. With a sickly parental figure comes everyday responsibilities.

But no. Peter Parker gives up profiting from his powers because he thinks that is what got Uncle Ben killed, when really it was just being a jerk.

That this is Spider-Man's origin story is ironic given that Ditko was one of his co-creators.

It was during his run as Spider-Man's artist and co-plotter that Ditko became a devotee of Ayn Rand's philosophy, which she dubbed "Objectivism."

Objectivism promotes the virtue of selfishness, in the sense of enlightened self interest. It doesn't rule out helping others, but it certainly doesn't put it at the top of its ethical hierarchy. In her novel "Atlas Shrugged," Rand even has a character explain the virtue of making money.

Money isn't everything in Objectivism. Ditko would go on to pass up more lucrative opportunities in comics in exchange for the freedom to make the comics he wanted to make. But money isn't evil, either. If Ditko were a more subtle storyteller — and I don't think anyone has ever accused him of that — I might think he deliberately intended Spider-Man as a bad example.

Spider-Man is always selfless, and what does that get him? A sick aunt, overdue bills, a dead-end job, a rogues gallery of villains who exist just to kill him and a tabloid newspaper publisher bent on making him New York City's public enemy No. 1.

Maybe if he weren't so selfless, his life wouldn't suck so much. In Ditko's world, Spider-Man is a tragic hero, sacrificing himself for no good reason.

Yet as it happens, Peter does make a little money off being Spider-Man. He takes photos of himself in costume and sells them to The Daily Bugle, passing them off as news. So, when Spider-Man does profit from his powers, he does so under false pretenses and makes the least amount of money possible. How ethical is that?

Maybe the real lesson is with great power comes great stupidity.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Culture Shock 01.02.14: Bringing icons to the screen is a harder job

With a new year comes another slate of superhero movies, but it is decidedly one-sided.

Marvel and Disney will continue expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe with "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Guardians of the Galaxy." As for Marvel Comics characters at other studios, Sony has "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and Fox has "X-Men: Days of Future Past" lined up.

That's four Marvel superhero films in 2014. DC Comics, meanwhile, has none.

Production will start on Warner Bros. and DC's "Batman vs. Superman," or whatever they're calling it. The hype machine will rev up. But that's for 2015. By then Marvel will be back with "The Avengers: Age of Ultron."

So, why does Marvel have such an easy time bringing its characters to the movie screen while DC and its parent, Warner Bros., can't get beyond re-rebooting Superman and Batman? There are lots of reasons, but perhaps the most important one is also the most overlooked: the characters themselves.

Marvel Comics has always been pure melodrama, as much about Peter Parker paying the rent as Spider-Man punching out Doc Ock. Marvel superheroes are soap opera characters who happen to wear costumes and beat up bad guys. They translate easily into modern movies.

DC's major heroes — and villains, too, for that matter — aren't soap characters. They're icons. And they come in two flavors. Either they're paragons of virtue like Superman, Green Lantern and the Flash, or they're walking fetishes, like Batman and Catwoman.

And then there is Wonder Woman, who looks like a paragon of virtue but is actually the most fetishistic superhero of them all. Don't believe me? Check out a reprint of any 1940s "Wonder Woman" comic book and you'll see what I mean: lots of bondage and spankings. Wonder Woman had needs, and the story possibilities for a character armed with a magic lasso that could compel anyone bound with it to tell the truth were obvious.

The same icon status that makes DC's heroes instantly recognizable the world over makes them trickier to adapt for the movies. The way studio executives see it, audiences can't relate to icons. Audiences instead want real, human superheroes to whom they can relate on some level.

There is some truth to that. Otherwise, Iron Man wouldn't have catapulted from the obscurity of Marvel's second tier to become the No. 1 superhero at the box office.

Apart from Spider-Man, Marvel heroes also have a more down-to-earth look. They dress for the job more than they dress to conform to the stereotypical look of spandex-clad superheroes. Iron Man has his armor. The Black Widow has her Emma Peel catsuit. The Hulk has his pants.

DC characters, no matter how much you tinker with them, always look like they're on their way to a fetish club. That is just as true for Christopher Nolan's "realistic" take on Batman and Catwoman as it is for Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin, who infamously sported nipples on their costumes.

Superman has another problem, too. He's so perfect he's boring, unless handled by a skilled writer. Rather than find skilled writers, Hollywood has lately decided to make Superman less perfect, to the character's detriment. "Superman Returns" makes him an absentee father. "Man of Steel" takes away his moral center by having him raised by a Pa Kent who is uncomfortably like Dexter Morgan's dad.

As for Wonder Woman, Warner and DC don't even want to go there. A character who once had her own prime-time network TV show is now too radioactive to touch. So instead of getting her own film, she'll make her big-screen debut in "Batman vs. Superman" so as to minimize the risk.

But there is an easier way than trying to replicate Marvel's melodrama. Warner Bros. could embrace the iconic status of DC's heroes instead of running away from it. That's what people have always responded to in DC's heroes: their larger-than-life surrealism.

That doesn't mean Wonder Woman has to go back to her 1940s spanking fetish. But two hours of her tying up bad guys would probably sell a few tickets.