Episode 155: New Joker for New Times

If you’ve taken even the smallest glance through my blog you have already seen that I write a lot about Batman. He is one of my favorite heroes for many of the reasons that others love him. He is an ordinary human being who is extraordinary at just about every aspect aspect of life. But for me, what makes the Dark Knight so compelling as a character is that for all intents and purposes he should check himself into Arkham Asylum right after delivering another escaped rogue to its halls of potential but never actual mental rehabilitation. Batman is compulsive to a degree that he must have a contingency for every plan, even the ones that should never take place within a person’s neurons. He has prepared himself in case the people he most trusts betray him. And if he ever decides not to, the sense of a lack of preparation eats him alive. This is what keeps Bruce from making meaningful relationships with those around him. His insanity compels him to be the hero even for scenarios that only exist in his imagination. Batman’s mental instability is one of the untold but ever present elements presented in the comics and movies where he exists and no character brings that craziness to the surface like The Joker.

So when I see that the newest incarnation of Gotham’s paranoid prankster is going to look like this

Well I’m still not entirely sure what to think of it. Fun fact: You see the card tattoo on his shoulder? A four of a kind is a fairly invincible poker hand, especially with all Aces. But in games where jokers are playable cards, this is the ultimate five of a kind because jokers are always wild. If the Suicide Squad is indeed the ultimate group of aces meant to work together plus a joker, well that’s a winning hand n matter what. And that’s what Suicide Squad aka Task Force X is all about. Take some criminals and send them to do an impossible mission. They do it or die in the process with no one to trace them back to the government that sent them. So, win-win except for the squad.

Now, back to the Joker and the new look. If you see this man down the street you would assume that your life is in danger. Green hair is always iconic, no eyebrows is an interesting touch. But the tattoos are an interesting choice that make it so that this isn’t the Joker of old. For a quick snapshot of how the Internet reacted and some interesting photoshops check here. As an academic who studies pop culture and Batman I think I need to add my voice to the conversation as well.

Jared Leto’s portrayal of the character is going in a very interesting direction. This is a physical transformation like no other, especially when considering that Cesar Romero who played the Joker in Adam West camptastic version of Batman never shaved his mustache and just had it painted over white. We have had several photos leading to this one of Leto in full Joker attire only to not see him in any attire at all (please be wearing pants) [I imagine some of my readers would rather imagine him sans pants but that is neither here nor there]. We haven’t seen his mannerisms or even heard the laugh yet and yet the picture seems to scream insane beyond the accepted levels of supervillainy from comic books. The body art has a lot of the standard joker imagery. The smile on the forearm, the skull with the jester hat, the above mentioned cards, and hahahahaha all over. Plus you can see that there is more around the bellybutton area and probably around his back. I swear if he has a tramp stamp of Deadpool the Internet would explode. It’s a bit much for a character who is recognizable only for his face, especially once you see the facial tattoos. “Damaged” on the forehead is not exactly subtle. And teardrop that looks like a “J” is just strange to say the least. And the grill, (that thing on his teeth) is just wow. Unless he has an optimized bite attack D&D build, adamantium teeth are never a good idea.

Nevertheless, the insanity is clear. Here’s the problem, Joker isn’t the antagonist of Batman v Superman. He is one of the main characters of Suicide Squad. As a foil and an enemy to the caped crusader, the chaos contrasts with the methodical compulsiveness and you get an interesting duel of ideologies. But, as part of an ensemble of antiheroes at best characters Joker becomes comic relief.

I see Leto and I think manic-depressive, someone who flip flops between a sugar rush of laughter to someone trying to find humor in the macabre to have life mean something again. And that is ultimately Joker’s most important and defining trait. It needs to be funny. If he kills someone it has to be done in comedic fashion, even if he is the only one laughing. However, it feels like this Joker is redefined as the humor of a new generation that no one gets and the deadly artistry just comes off as more annoying than threatening. Maybe it’s my age starting to come out of the intended bracket of the demographic they are aiming for. Perhaps it is because if this is indeed being pitched as a darker grittier version of Guardians of the Galaxy. However, here’s the scary part:

A while ago it was reported that DC has a no joke policy now in their current filmography. Suicide Squad might be the exception and if that’s the case Leto’s Joker might steal the spotlight from the rest of the cast. But if they are making a no laughs at all film with all of these characters then I have no idea how this movie is going to be interesting. Within the the grander continuity of the DC current filmography, the only super in the world is Superman. That means there are no super villains.

My love of Batman stems from the fact that he is only human but surpasses all expectations of humanity. Suicide Squad has a chance to the extraordinary parts of humanity with a morality that ranges from the questionable to the deplorable. Leto’s Joker could mesh super well with Task Force X or he could stick out like a sore pasty tattooed thumb that makes the film flop. Time will tell but I want to see first hand how these characters are interpreted and what the trailers and eventually the movie will show us. Let’s see.

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Episode 129: Speculative Conversations and Lego Batman

Chances are that if we have had any kind of nerdy conversation together I’m going to go into a diatribe of how a particular character or a serial will develop. I’ve been studying storytelling for a long enough time to have a good enough idea and with a crazy sense of optimism in how a story can grow I come up with some interesting possibilities. If you follow me on the book of faces, you have probably seen a few of these beforehand. Many of these speculations occur through extended comments with friends, more often than not with super cool pop culture reporter and good friend Rose Hernandez. It is with her blessings that I offer the present and future post tag of “Rose Garden Stories” of passing along said info in this humble blog.

Today’s post comes from a conversation detailing the reveal of the Lego Batman film for potentially 2017. The sad version of what I came up with goes something like this: So here’s a weird idea of how the plot could go for this movie that would be appropriate but heart wrenching. What if the kid that is playing with Batman figures is an orphan himself? Obviously not to the tragic levels of Bruce Wayne, but yeah the adventures of Batman going through different worlds and scenarios are a reflection of the kid going through different foster homes. It it were the kid from Gotham then the meta levels would be intense. Wow, too many feels for a Lego movie.

A slightly less depressing but way more convoluted version then came up. And again, directors and producers of pretty much any kind of film, I am available for hire if you want stories like these to make their way to the big screen. Two brothers start playing with their respective toys. Let’s say one is seven and the other thirteen to better illustrate just how varied in detail and awesomeness their respective legos are. They play and argue about a lot of stuff but one point keeps being part of the conversation, who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman. Interestingly, it’s the younger one who favors the dark knight as the older one has begun losing that childlike wonder of imagination and creativity and prefers the straight up power of Superman. Hell, take away Superman and replace him with Iron Man for an even more interesting discussion. Anyways, the older brother is going to go on his first camping trip over a week with boy scouts because that’s a reason. Since this is the first time the siblings will be apart, the little one is obviously bummed out. The older one feels the same way but he won’t admit so he allows his lil bro a rare concession of unlimited access to his toys, so long as he is very careful with them.

Now we have Batman transitioning from a limited play space to a whole new world of adventure. Some of the more adult characters like Spawn or even some weird Japanese figures make a cameo. Batman is fighting and doing awesome things all over until suddenly one of the rarer figures breaks (let’s say it’s a limited edition Superman for sake of continuity.) It’s the kid’s/Batman’s fault so both try to hide the evidence of their misdoing but are guilted by the broken figure/sense of brotherly affection to make things right. The Caped Crusader will of course scour through different settings to find something that can help and eventually hears of the mystical Crackle, an object once used for great evil but that can be used to make things right. All the while the kid is avoiding tipping off his parents and working within a limited time table, so stealth missions in the dead of night of 9:30pm will be common. Batman will eventually take on the rest of the master builders to take the crackle and maybe face some of the more dangerous monsters out there (mostly power tools from dad’s garage where the crazy glue is located. Along the way, Bats will have plenty of friends to help but some will become enemies as they realize that the power vacuum of no Superman (and maybe no Batman if they take advantage of the situation) can lead to a new world order for toykind. Batman’s broodiness and paranoia takes an even bigger point and is magnified as the kid refuses to let anyone come close to knowing what happened and he even shuns his own friends. In the end, we get a power of friendship scenario, Crackle is obtained, repairs are made, but the glue isn’t quite set by the time the brother comes back, picks it up and the jig is up. The little brother explains everything, anger subsides and the older sibling realizes that maybe he doesn’t have to grow up too quickly as they both start playing once again. THE END.

Oh and the movie at some point there should be a How It Should Have Ended cameo because those guys are awesome and the superhero cafe should definitely be a thing.

Episode 125: Villainous Serialization

     A recent Internet conversation led to some thinking about some interesting aspects about serialization. A vast majority of my analysis on characters on a story that can span into multiple years is centered on the hero. The spotlight is focused on this guy/girl with a certain set of skills and weaknesses. The challenge in writing for said character revolves around introducing curious tests that work to individual strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes you can do the same thing but slightly different and it works amazing. Take MacGuyver for example. You know he is going to be in a situation where he needs to use a tool to solve a problem but he doesn’t have it so he has to improvise. Old school detective/lawyer shows were more a matter of how Matlock or whoever would get the bad guy, not if. Superman has a ton of powers and a few crippling weaknesses (kryptonite obviously but magic and lightning work pretty well alongside red sun light) but his challenges turn into a borefest easily of him going really fast and punching stuff. Batman can do the same thing but he rarely gets that kind of criticism. But that’s for heroes, what about villains?

     The antagonists have a curious challenge for storytellers, especially when serializing. They should be a threat to the hero but the protagonist can’t fail. Bad guys rarely get straight up victories even as they often times have better resources and less scruples. For example, Spiderman needs to find where Carnage is and make sure he doesn’t maim or killing the man behind the symbiote. Carnage on the other hand can do whatever he wants and just straight up murder everybody. Superman needs to get evidence to prove Lex Luthor is guilty. The owner of LexCorps has plausible deniability, billions of dollars of good publicity, and a small army of lawyers. However, the villains need to be actual threats, an intent which is often undermined by the fact that they always lose at their main objectives. Given enough time, the heroes should beat them easily. Consider Bane, his first appearance is in Knightfall and he straight up breaks Batman’s back after an amazing plan. Years later he can be a cunning tactician, a boisterous bruiser or whatever but the Caped Crusader usually just dodges a few punches and then severs the hose to his steroid serum. Problem solved.

     Ultimately the villain becomes boring because they can’t really lose or because they lose all the time. I can’t take Rita Repulsa or other Power Rangers villains when the only threat is a few cardboard empty buildings exploding. Only a few times does something happens that merit a legitimate fear of losing for the heroes and that is usually resolved in five episodes tops. Of course, these villains had distance between them and the heroes and still had an almost infinite supply of Monsters of the Week so the protagonists where left to deal with the symptoms, not the disease of the source of their problems. The space is ultimately what keeps a believability that the heroes can’t just go on the offensive, even if this would violate their personal ethos. If you save the actual confrontation between protagonist and antagonist until the season finale or its equivalent you build some narrative tension which hopefully gets resolved in an interesting way for the readers.

     The other thing that happens with villains far too often is that further explanation of backstories leads to potential sympathy. This makes for a complex character but makes it harder to connect with the hero. This particular trope was codified by Rich Burlew with the prequel book for OOTS titled Start of Darkness. He took explicit care to complicate the character of the villainous Xykon without demystifying just how horrible a person/lich he actually is. What ends up happening with a lot of these backstories is that the antagonist needs to actively look back and say “I regret nothing” or do something that effectively eschews their humanity and turns him/her into an often literal monster. See more examples here.

     Speaking of backstories, the original idea for this post came from a discussion of the upcoming show FOX show Gotham which serves as an introduction to how the villains and heroes of the eponymous city came to be. Popular villains like Catwoman, Riddler, and Penguin have shown up since the beginning. The notable absence of the most famous Batman villain was recently explained here. The TL;DR version goes as follows: “”every episode in the first season will introduce a character that might be a future Joker, each emphasizing aspects of the character’s iconography, a card sharp, a flower seller, a clown, or just a guy with a very big grin.” What followed was an interesting debate as to whether this was a good or bad idea. This is my final point of the conversation where I defended the choice and speculate way too much.

     The problem with writing Joker is pretty much the same issue that comes with any kind of villain for anything serialized: how can they stay a threat for a season or longer while still leaving a level of fear of what could happen. Mr. J is insane and for good reason but even at his best longform story arc (in the 90s cartoon voiced by Mark Hammill for my standards) he was more comic relief than deadly.

     In this way we see that much like how anyone could be Batman if given the right circumstances anyone could be the Joker for any myriad of reasons. Bruce’s eventual paranoia gets reflected unto the viewer as anyone could be a villain in the making. Season 1 from what I’ve seen is about the rise of the Penguin to power and how the corruption of the city seems to be siphoned and focused unto these villains. GOrdon and other detective are the forebringers of vigilante justice that both saves and dooms Gotham. The old power dynamics are radically altered as the mob bosses are replaced with the strange and uncanny rogues gallery. Season 1 is about that transition of who reigns over the city. As Bruce channels his emotions into becoming the dark knight we get a glimpse of a potential Joker anywhere. Batman doesn’t turn a regular man into the clown of death, the city does.

     Season 2 now becomes a further metamorphosis of how the new supposed light and hope of the city has made its most powerful shadows. As Bruce descends into Darkness Joker comes into the light. He will be erratic and destroy almost at random, which will turn the detectives to realize that no amount of clues or mental gymnastics can predict his next move because he doesn’t know it just yet.

As the Joker said in The Killing Joke, “if I’m to have a past why not make it multiple choice.”

G

Episode 113: Dreaming about Batman

Dreams are a fairly mysterious thing. Freud believed that they are one of the few ways of getting at the subconscious segments of the human mind. Then again, he also said that you subconsciously want to have sex with everyone so maybe we should take that with a grain of salt or with whatever other seasoning you prefer. The other I had a dream during one of those unexpectedly accidentally extra long naps that stuck with me. It may not have the potential to change society as we know it like Dr. King’s dream but it has the chops to maybe turn into decent fan fiction. This was a very convoluted story involving the Dark Knight himself and the rest of the Bat family. I adjusted it enough for it to make sense. Allow me to share with you the crux of the story here. Fair warning: I’ve never really had a chance to follow Batman in all his comic book narrative glory but I do know the basics of what is going on. There are probably a ton of inconsistencies from the main/current continuity.

Set up: Batman is around 50, slightly older but still just as good, even if he needs extra Bengay here and there. He knows his peak has passed and is on the way to passing the torch. Soon after Damian his son/newest Robin being killed in the line of duty (which happened in the “New 52” issues recently) and after Alfred dies (a personal touch that really hits at the heart of Bruce Wayne and Batman which is why included it my last piece of DC fan fiction found here https://midnightsnackserial.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/episode-95-a-new-batman/) Tim Drake in his late teens maybe early twenties comes back to be Robin and help with everything. Dick Grayson/Nightwing is almost 30 and has been more active in becoming the next hero of Gotham, even if he doesn’t want to officially inherit the cowl. Bruce has been working on spreading Batman Inc. to more and more places but feels like a big meeting/training seminar with his global counterparts needs to take place. The place of the meeting has been set as Tokyo, or whatever fictional Japanese super city DC has, within a few weeks. Shortly thereafter, an announcement has been made by some kind of cryptic mystery villain who promises to detonate an atomic weapon over Tokyo by X date (the day of the previously mentioned meeting) unless someone kills Batman. We have no idea if this bad guy has officially set up that day purposely to coincide with the meeting or if it’s a coincidence but everyone in Batman Inc. is quite pissed about coming together in a place where they have targets/might be nuked. Bruce decides to investigate the members of his hero corporation to appease their fears and try to find a potential mole/leak in their network so he travels the world and maybe helps out a few of the new heroes with their own problems to regain some trust. Nightwing in the meantime will stay in Gotham and defend the city while shaking up the well-known Rogues gallery to see who if any of them could have access to such destructive force. Tim as Robin will then go directly to Japan, where the Prime Minister has publicly set up a bounty for Batman’s head and a team of assassins has reportedly taken the job. The declaration was a shock to everyone but the Prime Minister is very adamant that one hero should be able to sacrifice himself to save millions that have already been ravished by destruction before. “If Batman does not accept his fate for him, then I will sacrifice him by any means necessary to keep my people safe.” The date in question is a month from now and tensions are running high. My dream mostly followed the exploits of Tim Drake but I can see all sides developing simultaneously to a pretty sweet conclusion as everyone comes together. For now, let’s follow the sidekick as he searches the land of the rising sun for answers.

Most of Batman’s friends and contacts in Japan are pretty pissed at him for a nuke coming their way soon so Tim is pretty much alone while the country is in a sense of foreboding panic. The only recruit for Batman Inc. was killed by Yakuza a short time ago and no replacement was yet found. Tim Drake is fluent enough in Japanese thanks to training from Bruce who had his fair share of super karate masters to train him way back when. But knowing the language and knowing the customs are very different parts of living in a foreign land, especially one where fear over a potentially imminent demise is the overall feeling in everyone’s mind. His initial investigation focuses on trying to find out who the assassins are, since that is the most immediate threat and finding where the bomb might be if it is already there. After a myriad of different bank transfers from banks around the world, Robin finds two names, one familiar one and one new. The first one is Deathstroke, deadly but predictable enough to be avoided. The other one was new to the field of mercenary work and no information was on him besides that he goes by the name of Oni. The two might be working together or independently but they are quite a threat, regardless.

While walking around the outskirts of Tokyo as an American tourist, he sees a group of men harassing an old shop keeper. Tim immediately tries to help the frail octogenarian but realizes immediately that he has interrupted a Yakuza shakedown of a protection bracket. Knowing that any action taken here would just bring more trouble later on for the locals, Tim pretends to run away in fear while pleading that they spare his life. The trio of yakuza chases him and are surprisingly quick, especially the fat one covered in tattoos. Tim believes he can give them the slip with some stealth and acrobatics but that one fat guy is always right behind him, the other two give up and are quite tired after a few minutes of running after him. On a rooftop, Tim decides that he needs take down this Kung Fu Panda wannabe but his normal tactics and strikes don’t seem to work on this guy. Tim barely avoids the blows and in a moment of desperation he trips his adversary and makes him fall several stories to his demise. The boy wonder is startled at himself that he would ever break the bat commandment of no killing and has to force himself to look at his fallen foe only to notice something quite odd. This was no human being, it was a robot. Specifically an android that looked human enough on the outside but with a decent mechanical inside (think original Terminator). Tim sifts through the scraps and is able to find the logo of a nearby factory/steel mill, which he obviously investigates that night.

Once there, he finds that the other two Yakuza that he outran are trying to explain what happened to their boss, and they are very freaked out about their friend being a robot. The boss, who is surrounded by beautiful women and several bodyguards and a guy that looks like a Pimp-named-Slickback, chides his minions for not doing their work is outright furious towards the pimp dude. What follows is a back and forth as to how the androids work which serves as a nice exposition. Basically, all the robots work are the same until they are programmed. Reprogramming happens via electrocution of a person through a particular tool, which shorts out the nervous system, you then put a thing over the head of the now unconscious person which passes down muscle memory and other physical attributes to robot. Other machines make a proper “human shell” for android that is solid enough to avoid detection normally so outside of constantly having X-Ray scanners around, there’s no real way to figure out human from robot. With enough time, the head device will be synched up enough to start getting memories which can then be shared. In the meantime, you have a quiet duplicate without regular human weaknesses with twice the strength, agility, etc. Pimp guy reiterates that he is only the middle man, his boss/ the inventor of the whole thing is being very generous with wanting to give the Yakuza some free samples of his work in exchange for “volunteers” and that the fact that they were able to take down a Batman wannabe should be good enough to show that they are worth the investment of more people, regardless of them not being super invulnerable. “Besides you don’t complain about how your body guards are no longer distracted by your women.” At that line, one of the beautiful women disarms a gun and sword from the bodyguards and proceeds to destroy them within a few seconds. Bullets and blade mesh perfectly in a symphony of destruction as this young woman takes out 5 Yakuza androids while the henchmen and the rest of the ladies run out. She subdues the remaining real people and proceeds to almost behead Yakuza boss and pimpy mcpimp before Robin swoops down and stops her. She drops her weapons and they fight for a bit but stop once she realizes that the pimp had escaped but Robin explains that he put a tracker on the pimp before the fight started. She clams down, puts on a coat as her skimpy outfit is far too cold and reveals herself as the heroine Katana, the daughter of the man joined the Bat Corps only to have been killed by these cyber Yakuza.

Robin and Katana from here on out team up to solve this new mystery while trying to save Japan because that’s still a thing. In the new Batman cartoon they have Katana act as Robin so I’m sure her harsh yet honorable demeanor works well alongside Robin during this mission and maybe a potential relationship surfaces. Anyways, the original dream gets hazy from there. Basically, they find out that the whole robot mind transfer technology comes from an old Wayne tech prototype that never really worked. They follow the pimp to another factory where they have more robots, some of them with the shell already made so that they can take charge once people have been replaced. Amongst the construct clones you find pretty much the whole UN and Batman. Robin and Katana decide to blow the whole place up and the plan goes well enough until robot Batman springs up to life and helps pimp guy escape. Someone got Batman, which means that if Bruce was still alive his memories are about to be passed along to some mystery villain. Either way, whoever took them down would probably want to talk to the man who put the bounty out on them.

Here the shenanigans get even crazier. Deathstroke ends up fighting Robin and Katana and almost kills him before the reinforcements come in the shape of another Batman robot. This one is the prototype that was developed earlier that Bruce had been tinkering on a while ago and gained “consciousness” as the time as the other one went live. Nightwing figured out enough of the situation once he heard that one of the Batman Inc. people barely survived an attack from a mysterious assassin that nearly killed him and knocked out the Dark Knight but he was barely able to escape and bring the unconscious caped crusader with him. Not nearly as fast or as strong and definitely a robot, it is still helpful enough to help defeat Deathstroke, who is also a robot (what a twist!). This robot was a lot sturdier than the others and good robo Batman was pretty much destroyed in the fight but was able to relay the message (from Nightwing) that the Bat Team in its international will still meet at Japan but will come early, though a few of the members are incommunicado to help with bomb issues. Robin and Katana know that they are running against the clock before memories are extracted so they go over to the Prime Ministers house, through the front door. Turns out that Katana is the grandniece of the guy in charge but that side of the family doesn’t really talk to her after her dad became a vigilante. Inside, they find the Prime Minister talking a dark figure with a horned red mask that we are informed is Oni, who has evil robo Batman beside him. They are arguing as to how the bounty can’t be paid in full until we have a confirmed dead Batman and that his robot buddy isn’t helping the situation because the bomb threats are still going on. Oni is about to do the electrocution thing on the Prime Minister but Robin and Katana jump in and save him. They fight for a while but damn this cyber impostor is awesome and Oni just kind of slips away and he and his cyber assistant escape once again. The Prime Minister thanks his grandniece and Robin while also begging for their forgiveness for hiring the assassins in the first place. With only a week away from the intended detonation time, Robin, Katana, and Nightwing need to come together alongside Batman Inc. to save Japan and stop Oni who has the potential to do a lot more damage if robot replacement of other key figures/heroes (as he has some of Bat Inc. robofied unbeknownst to the group) keeps going on.

And then I woke up. No idea how to finish the story from there or who any of those new mysterious characters are. Maybe a new dream will show me the way eventually.

Here’s hoping that your ships don’t get sunk (the theoretical relationships between characters, but naval vessels too).

G