Monday, 27 February 2017

REVIEW: The Lego Batman Movie

Batman is a character that can be anything from camp crusader in purple lycra, to a brooding misanthrope in black body armour. Conventional wisdom of late is that the latter approach is the better. Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKay and their colleagues beg to differ.

The Lego Movie was an unexpectedly brilliant family comedy, and its standout element for many was its version of Batman. Voiced by Will Arnett (possibly the best Batman since Kevin Conroy), the Lego Batman is a hilarious parody of the brooding, gravel-voiced Dark Knight. The Lego Batman Movie carries the joke as far as it can, sneaking us a look at the sulking brute behind the mask. After all, no matter how dark and hard-nosed, no one who dresses up as a bat can be a true adult. The Lego Batman keeps his mask on almost the entire run of the film, only taking it off twice, once for a gala event at the insistence of Alfred (a note-perfect Ralph Fiennes).

The script is a very family-friendly approach to Batman, and haven't we waited long enough for one of those? Grahame-Smith's story essentially takes the growling Christian Bale Batman and shows us how he might become the cute Adam West Batman, with his extended Bat-family. Bruce Wayne accidentally adopts wee Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) while besotted by the new Comissioner Gordon. That is to say, Barbara Gordon, voiced by Rosario Dawson, rapidly stacking up the comicbook character credits.

Much of the story concerns Batman's gradual acceptance of son and sidekick ("The kids at the orphanage call me Dick." "Well, children can be cruel.") into his life, and his growing respect for Barbara as a hero and crimefighter in her own right. The secondary plotline involves Batman's other great relationship, his great enmity with the Joker (Zack Galifianakis). Bats destroys the Joker by dismissing him as his archenemy ("I'm fighting lots of villains. I like to fight around."), leading the Clown Prince of Crime to go to absurd extremes to take over Gotham and prove himself. As the Joker's plans go, the one he uses here isn't the most contrived or ridiculous, and certainly one of the most successful.

The Lego Batman Movie is a Batman movie first and foremost, but it doesn't let Lego's vast franchise reach go to waste. The rest of the Justice League make an appearance, but this is wisely kept to a cameo, so that the focus is resolutely on Batman and Robin (although The Lego Justice League Movie sounds fairly inevitable at this stage). In the second half of the film, though, the plot goes nuts, bringing in villains from every corner of the Lego Dimensions. This leads to some of the funniest moments in the film, as Sauron (Jemaine Clement, wonderfully) lays waste to Gotham, along with Lord Voldemort (strangely not a dual role for Fiennes, but a guest spot by Eddie Izzard), the Gremlins and many others. Even the Daleks are involved, although, strangely, they're referred to only as "the British robots." (Clearly, they are taken from 1979's Destiny of the Daleks.)

I had hoped that a similar array of heroes would be involved in saving the day, but the script shows more restraint than that, and correctly keeps Batman at the centre of the film. There's plenty of room for his huge array of villains, one of the best, and often the most ludicrous, rogue's galleries in comics. I had to convince some very incredulous friends that Crazy Quilt, Orca and the Condiment King are genuine Batman villains. The only really crushing ommission is the Music Meister. It's a glorious film for comicbook fans in general, and Batman fans in particular. Every previous Batman film gets a nod, even the 40s serials, plus much more. To support the excellent performances there are some wonderful minor roles and cameos, such as Billy Dee Williams finally getting to play Two-Face, and very oddly, Mariah Carey voicing the Mayor of Gotham.

This is an absolute joy from start to finish. Time will tell if it has the same rewatch value as The Lego Movie, but it definitely has the same wit, silliness and message of family and friendship as its predecessor. Here's looking forward to The Lego Movie Sequel (and, hopefully someday, The Lego Doctor Who Movie).

Friday, 24 February 2017

Comics to TV: Supergirl 2-10


This episode involves two main themes, both, in essence, revolving around the theme of heroism and what it means. Primarily, we have the nature of what makes someone a hero. Is someone a hero if they simply engage in stereotypically heroic actions without any true compassion to back it up, as is the case with Mon-El, who uses his Daxamite powers to save people mainly so that he can impress Kara? Or is it someone's intentions that makes them a hero, as with James and Winn, who are finally revealed to Kara as the Guardian and his sidekick. They have no powers and fuck up as often as they do good, but they're doing so from a genuine desire to help people.

All this is run through Kara's own attitudes; as the central character of the series, she's the one who makes the judgments at the end of the day. It's refreshing though that James calls her out on this. Just because she's the city's resident premier superhero doesn't give her the deciding vote on the roles others play. (And she doesn't have the clout that, say, her cousin would.) Equally, though, James is clearly as motivated by his jealousy of Kara (and perhaps Mon-El), as he is by nobler reasons. 

I'm glad that there are no clear-cut answers. The charaters are both right and wrong in many ways. Mon-El doesn't think it matters why he's saving lives, as long as he's doing it, while it makes the difference to Kara. She's right to point out that James (and especially Winn) are putting themselves in danger because they have no superpowers, but then, neither does Alex, and she runs into battle with aliens on a weekly basis. Kara seems obsessed with making Mon-El into a hero to match up with his powers, but says to James that powers aren't all it takes, because if they were, Livewire would be a hero. 

Tying into this is the secondary theme, that of prejudice and prejudgment, and how this undercuts Kara's, and J'onn's, heroism. Kara refuses to believe that Livewire could possibly be innocent, until she sees visual evidence that she has been abused and used against her will. She also harbours lingering prejudices against the Daxamites, something that is holding her back even as her feelings for Mon-El grow. It's a relief that he finally admits his feelings for her, but she can't (yet) do the same. 

J'onn is far more prejudiced, which throws his character into a very poor light. While he has been the victim of supression on Mars (as a Green Martian), and prejudice on Earth (as both an extraterrestrial and a black American), he is, albeit understandably, prejudiced against the White Martians who destroyed his people. M'gann has been locked up under the DEO for what must be weeks, with no consideration of due process or her rights. This sort of shit goes on all the time in The Flash, and it's no more palatable there, but it's perticularly galling here as she's been so clearly noble and heroic herself. J'onn finally overcomes his prejudices and makes a huge step forward as a character, but it's a nasty side to both J'onn and Kara that keeps coming forward.

That's not to say I disapprove of the storyline. It's far more interesting to have flawed heroes, and sci-fi allows for a certain allegorical approach (I am reminded of Worf's attitudes to the Romulans on Star Trek: The Next Generation). Both Kara and J'onn have issues to deal with because of their backgrounds, but now that they're on Earth they're called out on it and made to deal with their preconceptions. While this isn't the most exciting episode of the series, it has important things to say.


Jimmy Olsen, of course, goes way back. He arguably made his first appearance as early as 1938, in an issue of Action Comics, only a few months after Superman himself. The newspaper boy who appears isn't named, but he does look like Jimmy, right down to the bow-tie. Jimmy's inarguable debut, though, happened on the radio, in the series The Adventures of Superman in 1940, played by Jackie Kelk. As a chatty sidekick to Superman and Clark Kent alike, he was quickly absorbed into the comics, appearing on-and-off for a few issues before disappearing again. It was only when Jack Larson played the character on the TV version of The Adventures of Superman in 1953 that he became a mainstay of the comics.

He became popular enough that in 1954 he received his own title, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. During this series' frankly astonishing twenty-year run, Jimmy was put through a variety of unlikely transformations, from Flash-like super-speed, to increased intelligence and elasticity. At one point he was transformed into an alien from Jupiter, and on another occasion, he switched bodies with a gorilla. There was quite a lot of stuff with gorillas, but they seem to be the province of The Flash these days.

The series also introduced Lucy Lane, who became Jimmy's ongoing love interest, although he also had dalliances with Supergirl. Jack Kirby took over the title on 1970, specifically because he wanted free reign to play with an existing title and Superman's Pal was one of DC's lowest selling titles at this point. He revamped the series with more impressive villains and gave Jimmy his own team, the Newsboy Legion, characters he had initially created for Star-Spangled Comics in the forties. Also returning from that title was the Guardian, the Captain America-like alter ego of Jim Harper.

Jimmy has appeared many times onscreen over the years. Best known is Marc McClure's portrayal, visually close to the look of the comicbook original however dated that appeared. McClure first appeared in 1978's Superman: The Movie alongside Christopher Reeve. going on to appear in its three sequels and in the 1984 Supergirl film starring Helen Slater. He was later played in the alternative continuation Superman Returns in 2006, played by Sam Huntington.

The popular 90s series Lois and Clark featured Jimmy is a prominent role. Michael Landes played the character as a cocky up-and-comer for the first season, but was replaced by the better-remembered Justin Whalin, who was more like the goofy rookie of the comics. Other actors who have played Jimmy include Aaron Ashmore in Smallville (whose brother Shawn was almost cast in the role for Superman Returns), and the late Tommy Bond in the 1948 Superman cinematic serial and its 1950 sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman.

Mehcad Brooks is, clearly, something of a departure. Aside from his race, the character as portrayed by Brooks is quite different from the naive sidekick of the comics and popular films. Confident, athletic and strong, Brooks's James Olsen has not only become editor of CatCo, but has transformed himself into the Guardian in place of Jim Harper (who has appeared in Supergirl). In many ways, Winn is more like Jimmy as we remember him. There are some elements of the character that follow on from the comics, though, such as his relationship with Lucy Lane and his brief attachment to Supergirl. And he is, of course, Superman's pal. It's just a shame he's so terribly dull (and he doesn't wear a bowtie).

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Worlds of TRAPPIST-1

The internet is alight with people sharing the news of NASA's latest announcement. After teasing us with talk of a discovery "beyond the solar system," NASA announced the existence of a seven-planet star system located less than forty light years away. What's most exciting about the discovery is that most of the planets are considered potential habitats for life.

The star known as TRAPPIST-1 is, like many modern stellar discoveries, named after the device used to detect it, in this case, the TRAnsiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in Chile. You may notice that this doesn't quite spell out TRAPPIST, but the inventors are obviously Belgian beer fans and I can support that. Located 39 light years away in Aquarius, TRAPPIST-1 is described as an ultra-cool dwarf star, on the borderline of a red dwarf and a sub-stellar brown dwarf. Three planets were discovered there and announced back in 2015, and since then, the NASA Spitzer telescope and the Very Large Telescope at Paranal have detected four more. The extent of the system was announced last night (Feb 22nd).

In spite of being such a cool, dim star, TRAPPIST-1 may make an effective sun for life-bearing planets due to their extremely close orbits. All seven known planets orbit the star closer than Mercury orbits the Sun, and at least three of them are considered right within the system's habitable zone. This makes the planets astonishingly close together; the first and second planets are only slightly further apart than the Earth and the Moon. Finally, elaborate skies hanging with enormous sister planets can be considered a reality, not just science fiction. 

OK, this is Vulcan, but you get the idea

The planets are named TRAPPIST-1b through to -1h, and, unusually for discoveries of this type, are labelled in order of distance from their star. Each of them is within Earthlike mass and radius, with at least three of them estimated as being smaller than the Earth, and all are considered to be rocky, terrestrial-type planets. TRAPPIST-1b and -1c are the closest, with featureless spectra that indicates either a cloudless, water vapour dominated atmosphere, or a thicker, Venus-type atmosphere. They most likely lost the bulk of their surface water while their star was still cooling, and are less likely as abodes for life. TRAPPIST-1d is more likely habitable, although still closer than the calculated Goldilocks zone. TRAPPIST-1e, -1f and -1g are right within this zone, and are probably fairly cool in comparison to their inner brethren, far more likely to hold liquid water, Depending on the thickness of the atmosphere, they may be cooler than the Earth, or more comfortably terrestrial. TRAPPIST-1h is less well analysed so far, but is likely cold and less hospitable.

While the relative positions of planets to the star suggest potentially life-supporting temperatures, we shouldn't jump to conclusions. As always, Earthlike is a relative term. Red dwarf stars, let alone ultra-cool dwarfs, are debatable as life-supporting stars, due to the extreme proximity of their planets. The year on these planets will be very rapid, in the manner of a few days (-1b's year lasts only a day-and-a-half in Earth terms, with -1h at no more than 35 days, probably less). They are also likely to be tidally locked, with one side of each planet permanently facing the star. Both facts would lead to extreme weather conditions on the surface. Equally, radiation from the star, including X-rays and extreme energy ultraviolet radiation, would bombard the planets constantly at that proximity, depleting the atmospheres and making it harder for life to form.

Still, there is reason to hope. Even if the planets are lifeless now, they may not be always. Stars' longevity is inversely proportional to their size and temperature, and an ultra-cool dwarf like TRAPPIST-1 is likely to last a thousand times as long as the Sun, remaining stable for trillions of years. TRAPPIST-1 is estimated at only 500 million years old at present, but it could become a host for life for many thousands of millions of years in the future. 

Click the link here for NASA's announcement and an artist's impression of planet TRAPPIST-1d.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Comics to TV: Supergirl 2-9


You could be forgiven for expecting something rather special from this, Kevin Smith's first episode of Supergirl. After all, his directorial debut on The Flash, season two's "The Runaway Dinosaur," was a thing of beauty. What's more, as the title hints, "Supergirl Lives" is loosely based on Smith's script for the troubled and long-dead feature film Superman Lives, although, from what I've read of that production, the only thing that has really survived is Kara being left powerless due to the lack of a yellow sun. 

What we actually get is a fairly low-key start to the semi-season, even as it spans light years. Much of the episode takes place on Slaver's Moon, a hellish planetoid bathed under the light of a red dwarf star, leaving both Kara and Mon-El little better than ordinary humans. (As inhabitants of the same system, it makes sense that they react the same way to stellar conditions. For all we know, Slaver's Moon might even be in the Kryptonian system, although it's probably unlikely.) Much of the purpose of the episode seems to be tying up the loose ends from the previous episode "Survivors," with the villainous Roulette still on the loose. The alliance of Roulette and the Dominators, while tying various elements of the Supergirl/Arrowverse together, feels like an odd mix and doesn't really work.

Where the episode succeeds is in the development of two of its recurring male characters. Jeremy Jordan has really come into his own as Winn, now that the character has been allowed to get away from the confines of CatCo and become more than a second-tier love interest for Kara. Winn's latest role as sidekick to the Guardian is more believable than James becoming the superhero himself, but as a distinctly un-buff, un-powered individual, it's entirely fitting that Winn would be overwhelmed by the threat and violence of the situations in which he finds himself. Jordan portrays Winn's journey from post-traumatic stress through reluctant heroism to true bravery rather wonderfully.

Chris Wood gets more likeable as Mon-El with each episode, and this instalment sees him finally accept his fate as a superhero without losing any of his layabout charm. As well as finally kicking his story into high gear (with more developments in his relationship with Kara to come as a result), the aliens searching for him at the episode's close raise interesting questions about his background. Do we know the truth about his life back on Daxam? There should be some fun revelations to come later in the season.

The real star of the episode, though, is the stupid comedy alien called Joe, who appears to have wandered in from a children's series filming on the same planetoid.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

New from The Doctor Who Project

TDWP have just released the latest in their Brief Encounters line - a series of adventures for Doctors One to Seven. This time it's "Shadow at the Heart" featuring the fifth Doctor and Nyssa, as played by Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton in the hit BBC TV series.

This short was written by me and my compatriot James P. Quick of C.P. Studios, from James's original idea. I think we've come up with something pretty special here, especially if you're a fan of early 80s Doctor Who. I have also been involved with C.P. Studios' upcoming series of Batman audioplays, The World's Greatest Detective. Keep an eye on the website for updates.

You can download the story in PDF format for free here.