Comic book movies, man, they're everywhere these days. Two of the damn things even made it to the Baltimore City Paper's Top 10 Films of 2014 list, much to the chagrin of some of our more cinematically serious readers. Rather than apologize, this installment of Clicking and Streaming dives deeper into comic book movies and celebrates the even-cheaper thrills of comic book entertainment products that ain't going to make it anywhere near anybody's year-end or all-time lists.
"Batman: The Television Series"
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD
Clever enough for a prime-time viewership of drunk adults but just enough of a comic book pantomime that you can put it on for any child, the Batman TV series starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, which ran from 1966-1968, is a weird and wonderful chapter in the Dark Knight's considerable history. The show's first episode alone indicates the kind of immortal groovy weirdness you're in for: We find Frank Gorshin's Riddler trying and failing to blow up the Batmobile before replacing Robin with his own villainous girl Friday (Jill St. John) while a roofied Batman basically gets a DUI ("Give me the key, Batman, you're in no condition to drive," intones one of Gotham City's many useless cops).
The show's impressive-for-the-time production values and sunny Los Angeles backdrop give the series a visual flair that copies the comics books, and the arched-eyebrow performances from West, Ward, and various guest stars grant the show some kooky character. This Batman is a child's concept of the consummate gentleman played (mostly) straight. He orders orange juice at nightclubs and feels weird about parking the Batmobile in police loading zones. The whole show leans hard into this Saturday matinee serial-on-whippets vibe and small "it's all in good fun" details such as Cesar Romero as the Joker possessing a plainly visible mustache under his makeup. Even if you're burnt out on Bat-everything or just plain bored with superhero shit, "Batman: The Television Series" is definitely worth your time. (Max Robinson)
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman
Currently streaming via Netflix
So, this TMNT reboot, produced by Michael Bay but so aggressively done in his style that he might as well have directed it, is not the destroyer of a generation's (very sheltered) childhoods, because no one should've ever taken something called "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" all that seriously in the first place. The small-press black-and-white comic book, which led to the animated series, was created as a goof on self-serious comic book artist/writer Frank Miller's American ninja obsession (this impulse is preserved in one scene where the turtles mimic Christian Bale's too-gruff Batman voice), so it's hard to make a mockery out of something that started as one, especially when it was already turned into a merchandising behemoth long before its creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, sold the franchise to Viacom.
All that considered, who better than lab-bred humanoid reptiles raised on American pop culture and internet memes to reflect on the way we live in 2015? The basic plot is still the same: Four turtles (Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael) get infected with some sci-fi ooze that transforms them into adolescent males who fight, joke like a VH1 "I Love the [INSERT DECADE HERE]" retrospective, hate cops, and hate a shadowy organization called the Foot Clan even more. After fanboys decried a leaked script with batshit left-field turns involving aliens and other dimensions (which, by the way, was again quite faithful to the original Jack Kirby-indebted comic book series), the makers settled on a more conventional but no-less-irreverent plotline that borrows from the "Iron Man" trilogy and makes the ultimate villain a white male CEO (William Fichtner, nearly a reptile himself here). It isn't exactly "Lego Movie," but as toys turned movies to sell more toys go, it's plenty fascinating.
While the turtles look like "Pumping Iron" tragedies, there's a Channing Tatum-esque soulful affability that shines through their heavily muscled exterior, along with their indefatigable poptimism: Learning the moves to Gwen Stefani's 'Hollaback Girl' is given as much importance as martial-arts training; Mike asks Raph to be his hypeman on a Christmas rap track that nods to the old animated Turtles holiday special; a climactic showdown is preceded by an elevator beat-boxing session; Vanilla Ice has been replaced by Ty Dolla $ign, Wiz Khalifa, and Juicy J (the Three 6 Mafia co-founder himself a goofier commercialized variation on a once-grittier brand). All in all, it's a more palpable reflection of our hyperaccelerated cultural intake in 2014 than the safe, baby-boomer nostalgia of "Guardians of the Galaxy."
And despite some plot holes, it's a generally well-crafted affair. Director Jonathan Liebesman's House of Bay roving camera swirls allow for a tension to bubble up that the traditional back-and-forth dialogue setup would stifle. A high-speed chase and brawl down a snowy mountain beats the choppy action of "Snowpiercer," and also features Donatello’s slow-motion, adrenalized giggle-snort, easily one of 2014's most purely gleeful cinematic moments. Speaking of which, the jokes are generally on point. Megan Fox as April O'Neil uses the underrated comedic timing she brought to "Jennifer's Body" and "This is 40," Whoopi Goldberg redeems her "Theodore Rex" incredulity as April's boss, and Will Arnett's cameraman uses his overblown male-ego schtick to riff on the fedora-wearing, nice-guy-of-OKCupid type. That said, there are one too many gags where either a Turtle or Arnett lust after April and ideally a sequel will include sensitivity training. (Adam Katzman)