Heroes by the Hundredfold: 100 Best Costumed-Crusader Films: 11-20

Just to recapitulate the criteria for inclusion in this “list of the best costumed-crusader films…”

 

After Martin Scorsese asserted that he viewed MCU movies as nothing but thrill rides, I started looking for superhero films that had more than simply kinetic thrills to offer, though all the films on this list do offer those as well. So let’s resume the list at numbers 11-20.

 

 

BATMAN (1989)

Love it or hate it, this is the pivot-point around which all other costumed crusader movies revolve, though its breakthrough resulted from exceptional good timing. If the original project had come together in the early eighties, when no one outside the comics-world thought of the Caped Crusader as anything but sixties camp, even a good Bat-film might have been lost amid such early-eighties mediocrities as FLASH GORDON and LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER. But in 1989, three years after THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and four years after Tim Burton hit the big time, the audience was arguably primed for a new kind of Batman, in a city that merited the name “Gotham.”

Burton sensed the visual potential of the Expressionistic art seen in Golden Age Batman comics, and he also had the inventiveness to create the sort of expensive chaos appropriate to Hollywood blockbuster fare. All these factors made it possible for the new Batman to be an enigmatic figure capable of dishing out fatal levels of violence to criminals more ruthless than Adam West ever encountered. But the hero’s existence gives birth to his polar opposite, and so Gotham becomes a war zone between a grim crusader and a capricious clown. To be sure, the strength of the new template didn’t keep others from reverting to camp or even to tearing down Batman in the name of a pissy Progressivism. (That’s you I’m talking to, Christopher Nolan.) Yet no deviations could change the fact that Batman Was Now Cool. Of the primary players, Jack Nicholson studiously avoided lending his name to further super-projects, but Keaton reprised his Bat-role in the THE FLASH and delved into super-villainy with SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING, while Kim Basinger played “Holli Would” in COOL WORLD, which is at least a marginal costumed-crusader flick.

 

 

BATMAN, THE (2022)

When I blog-reviewed this movie, my first observation was that its moody dramatics struck me as a rejoinder to Martin Scorsese’s “thrill ride” characterization of superhero movies. If anything, director/co-writer Matt Reeves ratchets up the systemic corruption of Gotham seen in the films of both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, so that when the fiendish Riddler begins preying on Gotham’s one-percenters, he’s also attacking the crime families that work hand-in-glove with rich politicians. In this world, Batman is a vigilante much more abhorred by the police than in any other Bat-movie, but he’s their only chance, ironically, to restore the city’s status quo.

Though other films successfully revived various aspects of the Bat-cosmos, Reeves is the first one to make Batman a longjohn-garbed athlete once more, and Robert Pattison delivers not only Batman the Detective but also Batman the Hotshot Martial Artist. On the negative side, I don’t think that Reeves’s versions of Riddler, Catwoman or Penguin will have any staying-power, and indeed the backstory for Selina Kyle is even more undernourished than the one in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Zoe Kravitz shows more presence here than she did in X-MEN FIRST CLASS, while Colin Farrell previously distinguished himself as “Bullseye” in the 2003 DAREDEVIL and Andy Serkis joyously chewed some of the BLACK PANTHER scenery.

 

 

BATMAN & MISTER FREEZE: SUBZERO (1998)

Since BATMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES doesn’t qualify on a list of feature films, it would be great if that show’s raconteurs had produced an animated movie as good as any of the TV show’s best episodes. The four films in the “Dini-verse” (or “Timm-verse” if one prefers) are decent entertainment but nothing exceptional, though BATMAN AND HARLEY QUINN proved the funniest of the batch. Yet SUB-ZERO emerges at the head of the pack by building on the show’s re-invention of the once obscure comics-villain Mister Freeze. Giving the former Victor Fries a cryogenically frozen girlfriend was just what the cold-themed villain needed to take on deeper emotional resonance, and SUB-ZERO centers upon the frigid fiend’s plans to revive his inamorata no matter the cost to others. With the help of a crooked medical colleague, Freeze kidnaps a Gotham resident to initiate an organ transplant– and this resident just happens to be none other than Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon. Barbara’s only briefly seen in costume in early scenes and for the rest of the film is in street clothes while captive on an Arctic-based oil platform.

Batman and Robin track her down for a big slam-bang battle with Freeze and Belson, but all the dramatic heft rests with the villain, effectively voiced by Michael Ansara. Ironically, the film was intended to supplement a big-screen release, 1997’s BATMAN AND ROBIN, but that movie tanked and temporarily killed the Bat-franchise, at least partly because of Arnie Schwarzenegger’s ghastly performance as the cool, cruel villain. As for other appearances, Ansara had voiced an Amerindian version of Indiana Jones for SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS, Bob “Commissioner Gordon” Hastings had voiced Superboy in the sixties tv cartoon, and Carl “MANTIS” Lumbly was billed for “additional voices.”

 

 

BATMAN BEYOND: RETURN OF THE JOKER (2002)

Though the basic design of this “Batman of the Future” was decent, the 1999-2001 series didn’t generate too many memorable additions to the Bat-mythos, being largely insulated from either the comics or the continuity of the same producers’ BATMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES. The principal exceptions were Old Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) and Old Barbara Gordon (Angie Harmon), who carried over in order to provide varying levels of support to New Young Batman Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle). The series also included indirect references to Bat-history, in that Terry’s future Gotham was often plagued by anarchic gangs of goons called “Jokerz,” and their mere existence could be seen as a prelude to a return for the Clown Prince of Crime. The fiend who appears (voiced inevitably by Mark Hamill) both is and is not the original Joker, but the script by Paul Dini and Glen Murakami does the villain proud. The backstory for the hateful harlequin unveils a terrible fate for the Tim Drake version of Robin, arguably much worse than what happened to Drake’s predecessor in the comics. As for New Batman, he acquits himself well against Joker 2.0, and though I didn’t entirely buy McGinnis’ attempt to psycho-analyze his enemy in the midst of pitched battle, there’s no doubt that New Batman succeeds in getting under his enemy’s skin in a way Old Batman could never have conceived of. Extra points are earned by the carnivalesque design of the villain’s henchmen and a funny cameo by the woman who used to be Harley Quinn. Tara Strong voiced the flashbacks for Young Batgirl and remains famed not only for that role but also for Raven on TEEN TITANS GO and Bubbles in POWERPUFF GIRLS. Frank Welker has more superhero-adjacent credits than I cared to count, though usually as side-characters, while Michael Rosenbaum parleyed his Luthor-cred into voicing a henchman called “Ghoul.”

 

 

BATMAN: GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT (2018)

It’s not any kind of “gaslighting” to say that this is one of the best animated videos about a costumed crusader– and possibly the more so, because it was based a 1989 “Elseworlds” novel whose script was far weaker than this adaptation. Writer Jim Krieg, working with director Sam Liu, only takes from the graphic work the basic setup of “what if Bruce Wayne lived in America’s version of the Victorian era and became Batman to combat a serial killer who might be Jack the Ripper?” For one thing, while the GN’s writer Brian Augustyn provided only one possible suspect to be the Ripper, Krieg supplies three (and the revelation of the culprit was fascinating even if I didn’t guess the guilty party). The script builds up the contrast between the rise of greater technology, glossed by “steampunk” variations, and the dark guilt over all forms of human sexual nature.

Of the dozen reworked versions of Bat-characters in GASLIGHT, only a few are of consequence: a street-gang of juveniles called the Cock Robins (some of whom bear the names of famous Boy Wonders), and Selina Kyle (Maythe Guedes), who still wields a whip in her incarnation as a crusading suffragette. The topic of sex-shame more than justifies the video’s R-rating, and the action-scenes prove far more compelling than anything in the nice-looking but fusty graphic novel. Bruce Greenwood voices Batman but so far hasn’t done a lot of other non-bat superhero roles, while Kari Wuhrer takes over the Barbara Gordon role, leaving Tara Strong, the most experienced Batgirl-voice, to essay a minor support-character. Grey Griffin meets a similar fate, but possibly consoled herself with her having done such high-stature roles as Wonder Woman, Evil-Lyn, Lois Lane, and Black Canary.

 

 

BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

Tim Burton also returned for one more shot at the Bat-mythos, and this time, his approach was arguably informed by his having “recharged his batteries” on EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. Whereas the 1989 BATMAN had strictly been a duel between a champion of justice and a clown of crime, RETURNS ventures more into the terrain of fairy tales, albeit given a grotesque twist. Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), perceived as a pillar of the Gotham community like Bruce Wayne, is actually a vampire preying on Gotham. Thanks to him, the monstrous evil of the subterranean Penguin (Danny DeVito) is given a veneer of respectability. Because of him, an ordinary, slightly addled young woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) is transformed into a vengeful cat-spirit willing to wreak havoc on Gotham– and its caped protector– if it means getting even with Shreck. Of the two funnybook villains, Burton’s Penguin works least well. His ability to sway citizens with an oily charm doesn’t track when juxtaposed with his outbursts of random brutality. As a result, subsequent iterations of the Birdman Bandit skew toward the comic-book version, a master conman and not a nose-biting looney.

Catwoman, though, projects a perverse sexuality that does show up in some later versions, though not so much in the context of her having a “Miss Hyde” persona (though this does line up with the comics-character’s “secret origin” from a 1950 tale). Some might argue that Michael Keaton’s Batman gets a little lost amid this cast of crazies. But it can also be argued that the evils of Penguin and Catwoman require more strategy than did the Joker, not least because they pose the threat of making him just like them. Michelle Pfeiffer would return to the superhero world as the MCU’s Janet Van Dyne (though of course lacking any of the comics-version’s charm). Paul Reubens essayed both the lunacy of Bat-Mite in BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD and a different take on “Penguin’s daddy” in the series GOTHAM, and Andrew Bryniarski gave us fifteen minutes of Lobo in a short that, like RETURNS, shared the theme of seeing Christmas through a glass weirdly.

 

 

BATMAN VS. ROBIN (2015)

From 2014 to 2o16, three “DCAMU” films starring Batman and the “Damian Wayne Robin” appeared in consecutive years. Both SON OF BATMAN and BATMAN: BAD BLOOD suffered from being overstuffed with too many superfluous characters, but BATMAN VS. ROBIN is by comparison the lean, mean middle child. After Damian moves in and takes over the role of the New Robin, Batman is conflicted with becoming a literal father for the first time, while Damian simultaneously desires and rejects his dad’s approval. A rift is formed between them when Batman suspects that his son, trained by the League of Assassins, might have killed an evildoer. This development sets up Damian to be courted by the, uh, Court of Owls organization.

A particular servant of the Court, known only as The Talon, seeks to get Damian to betray his father, while Damian’s hypothetical “brother” Nightwing and “Greek chorus” Alfred try to save the impetuous thirteen-year-old from himself. As a side-dish, Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne has deep seated feelings toward the Court, whom he suspected of having slain his parents. Jason O’Mara, Sean Maher and Stuart Allen portray Batman, Nightwing and Damian in all three movies, and the slain villain Dollmaker was effectively voiced by “Weird Al” Yankovic, who also went on to voice Darkseid on TEEN TITANS GO. 

 

 

 

BLACK FOX: AGE OF THE NINJA (2019)

Though not many people would consider ninjas to be superheroes, I consider that if ninjas wear costumes that aren’t typical attire, they can indeed be “costumed crusaders.” That said, there aren’t a lot of ninja-films that offer anything but pure visceral thrills, or, on occasion, the “so bad it’s good” experience (for which I heartily recommend 1984’s NINJA 3: THE DOMINATION). But the 2019 BLACK FOX, while it doesn’t re-invent any wheels, has a good dramatic arc alongside all the fight-scenes– and surprisingly, the drama concerns the heroism of two female friends without feeling the need to run all the men in the world into the ground. The story takes place during Japan’s “Edo period,” and the only violation of the period’s history is that an ambitious schemer performs a quasi-scientific experiment that confers weird electrical powers upon his daughter Miya (Mami Yamija). A gang of bandits, the Negoro, invades the house of Miya’s father, so she flees into the wilderness. Eventually Miya stumbles across the compound belonging to a ninja clan named “Kitsune” (fox). There Miya is befriended by Rikka (Chihiro Yamamoto), granddaughter of the clan-leader (Yasuaki Kurata).

Grandpa at first gives sanctuary to the wayfarer, but when the Negoro come calling, he surrenders Miya after a token resistance. To rescue Miya, Rikka defies her grandpa and her clan, donning her own “Black Fox” ninja gear, which includes a black fox-helmet. Admittedly Rikka probably doesn’t wear this full costume for more than ten minutes of film-time, but she does have to confront a brainwashed Miya using her formidable electrical powers. Unlike most American superhero films, this Japanese effort devotes some time to building the friendship of the two women before they oppose the bandits and their masters. At the same time, though both Rikka and Miya have problems with male authority, there are females who head up the Negoro band, and some of the males act honorably. I won’t try to suss out the past credits of the more contemporary Japanese actors, but Yasuaki Kurata has a venerable history in kung-fu cinema, including FIST OF LEGEND (where Donnie Yen dresses up like Kato) and such lower-grade ninja-films as NINJA TERMINATOR.

 

 

 

BLACK PANTHER (2018)

Though I despise the ideology behind this movie, I must admit that director/co-writer Ryan Coogler accomplished what he set out to do: to deliver to audiences a myth-like narrative that explains both the Third World status of Black African nations and the marginalization of Black Africans brought to the United States as slaves. Both sins were wrought by those convenient villains “The Colonizers,” and though this attribution is nothing new with respect to explaining the evils wrought by slavery, Coogler popularized the idea that the poverty of Black African nations could be laid at colonial doors as well. To do this, Coogler reworked the venerable “Black Panther Origin” from Marvel comics of the sixties. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had devised a Classic Liberal solution to the problem of Third World poverty by dropping a meteor, chock full of the wonder-metal vibranium, into the ordinary African kingdom of Wakanda.

This happenstance gave the ascendant king of Wakanda, T’Challa the Black Panther, the chance to compete with the industrialized “First World.” But Coogler goes further by having the vibranium show up in Wakanda centuries ago, where its availability somehow makes the formerly poor land into a super-civilization with advanced technology. In addition, the vibranium-tech gives the denizens the power to shield their land from outsiders, so that they can enjoy a pre-lapsarian African society, while all of their neighbors are diminished and exploited by the colonizers. At the time of the movie, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has just won the throne by a ritual combat, though he’s conflicted as to whether to maintain Wakanda’s isolationist policy. T’Challa’s assorted uncertainties– his “daddy issues” being incredibly contrived– contrast with the absolute righteousness of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger, a former CIA agent, intends to ship all of Wakanda’s super-tech to various terrorist cells around the world, thus making Wakanda the flashpoint for a new World War.

The villain– whom some benighted reviewers called the film’s actual hero– beats T’Challa in a second ritual combat and assumes command of the country. The dying king is resurrected less by “black power” than by “girl power,” in that the Panther’s mother and sister restore the hero’s mojo so that he can triumph in the final act. Coogler gave his audience something of a trade-off: they got to have an African Wonderland, filled with sedulous research into African language and customs. On the other, Boseman’s Black Panther, who proved so dynamic in his debut film CAPTAIN AMERICA CIVIL WAR, becomes less a hero and more a pawn driven by the exigencies of Coogler’s script. Boseman passed away in 2020, which at least spared him the ignominy of appearing in the PANTHER sequel. As for Jordan, he had already played the major role of The Human Torch in the worst of three FANTASTIC FOUR releases– but damned if I didn’t like his Torch more than his Killmonger.  

 

BLACK WIDOW (2021)

Sorry, Critical Drinker, but you’re wrong about this movie’s ideological intentions. Yes, it would have been nice to have a Black Widow movie that was fun and sexy rather than a spy-games flick that was very dark and, well, very Russian. But WIDOW was not one of the MCU’s toxic girl power movies. If anything, the Eric Pearson script breaks with the Mickey Marxist leanings of many MCU films by celebrating the emotional power of the nuclear family, even a phony one. The setup informs us that long before Natasha became a brainwashed agent for Father Russia, she was one of two orphan girls set up in a “deep cover” imitation of an American family for spycraft purposes.

Natasha and Yelena pretend to be the gradeschool-age daughters of two average Americans, essayed by Russian agents Melina (Rachel Weicz) and Alexei (David Harbour). The spy-family escapes capture by SHIELD, but they aren’t very well rewarded for their services by their handler Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Essentially, Dreykov betrays all four of them, with particular cruelty toward the two little girls, both consigned to become Russia’s Black Widow assassins. The film then shuttles to the period in Natasha’s adult life after she defies the law in CIVIL WAR but before she loses her life in INFINITY WAR. Various contrivances force Natasha to travel to Europe, where she must re-assemble the members of her temporary family to strike back against a conspiracy by their old friend Dreykov. Melina, in fact, is serving Dreykov in his administration of the Black Widow program (which doesn’t exactly put her on the list of virtuous women). Yelena (Florence Pugh) has broken her conditioning and wants to save other females from the fate that befell her, though she also benefits from gathering together her fake family, which, as she plaintively cries, was “the best part of my life.” As for Alexei, the only male member of the family, he incited Critical Drinker’s wrath in that he becomes fat and deluded, despite having been made into a Russian version of Captain America.

There’s no doubt that scripter Pearson was recycling fat-jokes from his time on THOR RAGNAROK. But Harbour’s Alexei– or “Red Guardian,” to use his comics-name — is not a fool the way Fat Thor was a fool. Yes, the Guardian takes refuge in fantasies of having battled his opposite number Captain America, but for years he’s been stuck in prison by Dreykov for some unknown transgression. Once he’s reunited with his false family, he doesn’t always say the right thing, but he’s not indifferent to his fake daughters, as Melina often seems to be. And the script does give the Guardian the chance to battle a doppelganger of the Captain, taking on Russia’s version of The Taskmaster (complete with never-explained shield). The strongest emotional scenes of the film are between Natasha and Yelena, alternately admiring or dissing one another, since even their short time together bonded them despite the lack of common blood. The movie has its flaws, of course, like routine, unexciting MCU fight-scenes and assorted plot holes.  I may never know why the MCU brains knocked off Natasha Romanoff.

But at least this interstitial film gave me a look at her “family history.” The only interesting super-credit here was Harbour’s turn as HELLBOY two years previous.

 

More to come…

*****

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Gene Phillips

Gene Phillips has been writing about comics (off and on) for roughly forty years, particularly in the pages of print-zines like AMAZING HEROES, COMIC INFORMER and COMICS JOURNAL. His JOURNAL review of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was selected for Gale Publishing's CONTEMPORARY LITERARY CRITICISM. Currently he's engaged in attempting to review, not just every superhero movie, but every "superhero-adjacent" movie he can find on the blog THE GRAND SUPERHERO OPERA. Likes to honk off political critics by comparing popular culture to mythology.

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