Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Becoming Batman: My Initial thoughts on 'Arkham City'

So it's now a week and a half since Arkham City was released here in Ireland.

It's safe to say that my anticipation for this game was probably almost as intense as the kind of anticipation I've had for actual Batman movies; such was the extraordinary power of what this game promised. The overwhelmingly positive reviews only served to pump me up even more, as it became abundantly clear that not only was this going to be the greatest superhero game ever, but one of the greatest videogames ever.

So what do I think?

Frankly, the game and the overall experience is outstanding. But the story is very silly.

Let's look at what I really, really liked about the game. First and foremost, the combat is back with a vengeance. The last game's combat was incredible and possibly the best combat system I've ever experienced in a videogame. I never felt more like Batman than when I was battering hordes of henchmen with crippling slow-motion moves. This game has a similar policy of not just throwing endless waves of the same kind of enemies at you. Many enemies wear body armour, carry shields or brandish knives or broken bottles at Batman, meaning that the player has to think on the move about what the best move is, in order to defeat the enemy, just like Batman does. I do have a few minor complaints in so far as the camera has been pulled back in this outing, so it's arguably not as spectacular. Also, when Batman ranks up enough of a combo, he goes into 'Critical Strike' mode, much like the last game. However, in this game, the screen goes all weird and shimmery when this happens, seemingly to add to the pulse-pounding experience which is somewhat distracting. In addition to this, streaks of red fly in Batman's wake; compared to the streaks of black which existed in the previous game.

Ultimately though, the combat is just even better than in the last game. While some of the visceral larger-than-lifeness of the experience might be a little bit dissipated, the actual system itself is greatly improved. Batman can use all of his gadgets in fights now, leading to some really badass moments. It certainly takes a bit of practice, but when you pull it off, it's awesome. The best thing I can possibly say about the combat is that if you were really awesome at fighting in the last game, you will effortlessly carry over and expand your skills even more. It's a perfect 'sequelisation' of the system.

Another awesome aspect of the game is how Batman moves around Arkham City. It was also going to be a problem having the non-superpowered Dark Knight climbing around a free-roaming city where Superman can fly and Spider-Man can swing on webs. This game has come up with a really clever and exciting method, where Batman can combine his grappling gun and his glider-cape to maximise his momentum and soar through the skies, like...well...a bat. If you remember the scene in The Dark Knight set in Hong Kong where Batman infiltrates a heavily-secure building, you'll know what this kind of thing is like. And you use this for the whole game. It's really, really awesome and it's a huge step up from the last game.

Honestly, the gliding alone is almost a reason to buy the game. It's that much fun.

The side-missions are pretty terrific too, and make a lot more use of Batman's detective skills. The Riddler is back and you have to find his Riddler trophies all over the city, as well as solve his sight-gag riddles. Finding Riddler trophies isn't as simple as just going to random spots in the city and picking up a small icon. Often you have to figure out puzzles or use your gadgets to get at the trophy. This can get really frustrating, but it's a good kind of frustration. The fact that I was sitting on the bus yesterday trying to figure out some of his riddles when I wasn't even playing the game speaks volumes about how much this game really makes you feel like you are Batman. I'd go as far as to say that the way these games use the Riddler is possibly the definitive depiction of the character.

One of the main criticisms of the last Arkham game was that in spite of the efforts of Animated Series scribe Paul Dini, the story was really a bit of a let-down. After promising something that seemed like it was going to be something larger-than-life and intensely creepy, the plot basically amounted to Joker turning himself into a monster and threatening to break a few helicopters.

This new game is probably worse in that regard. The story starts off strongly enough, but takes a huge dive in the final few acts, where the final reveal was aggressively predictable, shallow and just lazy. I don't want to completely give anything away, but needless to say, much of of the eerie warnings from Hugo Strange in the trailers leading up to the game ("Tonight...it will end, where it began!") don't even really make any sense. For the first time playing a Batman game, I really wanted to take all of the missions and characters and settings and just structure a different, more imaginative plot than the one used. Luckily, the voice-acting is tremendous, possibly better than the last game and Kevin Conroy is gloriously back on top-form as Batman himself, forever cementing himself as the definitive Dark Knight for all-time. I still can't believe how lucky Batman fans are to have the greatest Batman actor appear in the definitive Batman simulation.

If you can ignore the bizarre plot of the game however, I simply can't recommend this game enough. It's an outstanding videogame in its own right, but it's just the definitive Batman experience. The game rises above its insistence not to use any of Batman's vehicles and the gliding is so exciting that you end up being grateful that you don't have to drive some car around, when you can do this instead. The combat is elevated to the point of dizzy, dumbfounding brilliance and all of the wonderful stealth and detective elements from the last game are expanded and developed excellently.

Please buy this game.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Guerilla Warfare: Why George Lucas is a sad, spoiled little child

Pretty much anyone who's ever bothered to come here knows who these guys are.

What a lot of people from my generation don't know is that everytime those guys show up in a new home video release, something is different about them. Since computer-generated imagery began to get more advanced and realistic from the early 1990s onwards, George Lucas has merrily added in dollops of the stuff to the Star Wars films, withholding the original, much-loved theatrical versions from being remastered in any way.

The very first time I saw Star Wars was in the Summer 1997. It was a relatively recent VHS copy (see above) we had rented not knowing that it was any different from the one that had recently been re-released to the cinema. We watched it so much that it we ended up being far overdue in bringing it back and had to pay a whopping late fee, as was often the case with films we really liked.

Admittedly, the first time I saw 'The Empire Strikes Back' and 'Return of the Jedi', I did in fact see the newer, CGI-ridden versions of them (I didn't see the theatrical versions until years later, when it was finally, shabbily released to DVD).

What comes to my attention now, as an adult is that not only are a lot of these changes kind of awful in how they end up effecting the characters in the movies, the original Star Wars trilogy remains one of the only extremely popular film franchises I can think of that specifically don't have their absolutely-original versions available with remastered video and sound. The only way you can watch and enjoy the same films that were released in 1977, 1981 and 1983 is if you buy either the original videos or the recent DVDs, that came with completely-untouched versions of the films (which unfortunately meant that they look like they were taped off a video and not remastered at all).

And this is kind of ridiculous.

First and foremost, let's dispel a few myths. George Lucas didn't direct every Star Wars film. He didn't direct Empire Strikes Back (which most people regard as the best in the franchise) or Return of the Jedi. He didn't design many of the characters (including Yoda) and he didn't even write the screenplays for the aforementioned films. He played a very important part in the production of all three in the original trilogy, but the fact remains that he left enough of the work to other people that the films cannot entirely be seen as 'his' to change. Not to mention the fact that hundreds of millions of people loved the versions they went to see in the cinema and were suitably outraged when those versions stopped being readily available to buy on newer home video formats.

As a child of the 90s, I'm inclined to say that the versions with which I most identify are indeed the initial 1997 digitally remastered versions, with the newly inputted extra scenes. There's enough of the original theatrical versions intact and I've become so familiar with some of the changes (like the song in Jabba's palace and the Ewok celebration - both of which are completely different from the original). But at the same time, as a fan of filmmaking in general, reading up on the original versions of the films and how innovative and imaginative they were at the time in terms of special effects; it greatly disturbs me that the originals aren't being preserved and saved for future generations - even if only for future generations of filmmakers.

This image explains it better than I ever could. It's far more interesting to watch the original movies in awe of what Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic were able to create with actual miniature models, make-up designs, camera trickery and the general principle of 'smoke and mirrors' rather than the idea that they just created everything on a computer. Ideas and imagination went into the creation of those special effects, rather than boring old zeroes and ones.

On the subject of that image, its creator was probably referencing the prequels as much as the 'redone' versions of the original trilogy. On the subject of the prequels, all I have to say is that they were what they were: out-of-touch and silly, focused more on selling action figures to younger fans than telling a compelling story. I have no real issue with the excessive CGI in those films, because it doubtless made more sense at that time to make the movies that way, rather than create elaborate soundstages and models. I generally just enjoy the prequels for what they are - inferior but fun additions to the story. Plus, George Lucas and wrote each and every one of them so he has much more right to change things around than before.

It's still annoying that the original version of The Phantom Menace won't be around for future generations, but at the same time, the changes aren't as drastic as in the other films, some of them are even welcome (Jar Jar has a newer, less annoying voice and Yoda's ridiculous model has been replaced with a CGI one) and it's also a pretty awful film so really, who cares?

Ultimately, it's just really sad and unfortunate that Lucas seems to be so ashamed of what were some of the most important fantasy adventure movies ever made. Warts n' all, the original ORIGINAL versions of Star Wars are fascinating pieces of pop art that really draw you into the zeitgeist, as well as transporting you into an alternate universe. With the newer, excessively changed versions of the films, they just become more and more like one of those drawings you started drawing as a kid, only to go back and rub it all out again and again trying to make it even better, only to end up with a mess of scribbles and worn-out paper.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Dark Knight Lives: A Review of Batman LIVE

It's only a couple of hours since I left the 02 Stadium where 'Batman LIVE' was showing its penultimate performance. And boy, was it something.

It doesn't take a genius to guess that DC Comics probably came up with the show in response to the troubled Marvel broadway show 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark'. But while that trippy, artsy, excessively expensive mess has done nothing but polarise fans of both comics and theater alike, 'Batman LIVE' is a sensibly well-rounded, fun-for-the-whole-family affair that will certainly please lifelong die-hards (like myself) and a brand new generation of young fans (of which the 02 stadium was teeming).

The plot is essentially a broader, more epic version of Dick Grayson's origin as Robin, with Batman's own history briefly explored as well. In the course of the 120-minute (ish) runtime, we see almost every notable Bat-villain brought to life wonderfully, including the Penguin, Catwoman (who looked as though she'd walked off the pages of Darwyn Cooke's 'Selina's Big Score'), Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Two-Face, the Riddler and of course the Joker himself. Impressively, there were times when practically all of the villains were onstage at once, with dozens of henchmen surrounding them.

The primary strength of the show was the high production values. The set ingeniously incorporated a massive screen for comic book backdrops, while the actual stage would change to suit the scene. The highlight of the whole show was the Batcave itself, which was absolutely breath-taking. Other notable 'locations' included the Iceberg Lounge and Haley's Circus.

The general tone of the show is geared towards a fairly all-ages audience and while it's no 'Disney on Ice', it's certainly not as dark or sinister as the Burton or Nolan Batman movies. The acting is fairly exaggerated and sometimes a little bit corny. In saying that though, I was surprised by how earnest and straight-faced it was. There was no breaking the fourth wall or winking at the audience. Even the characterisation of Batman was fairly spot-on as he was a serious no-nonsense character for most of the show and on the few occasions where he did crack jokes, they were genuinely cool and appropriate to the atmosphere. Being that it is an all-ages deal though, do expect a few moments that border on cringe, though, particularly involving the "Gosh n' Golly!" version of Dick Grayson they chose to use. The actor was good, though as were most of the actors. Batman himself was quite good, but predictably, the villains were the standout performers. The aforementioned Catwoman was pretty much perfect in every way, to the point where I wonder if Anne Hathawaye will do as good a job in The Dark Knight Rises (Spoiler Warning: She probably won't). The guy who played the Penguin was basically doing an impression of Burgess Meredith, but admittedly he was really good and his makeup was particularly impressive. The Riddler was only given a short amount of stage time, but in that short time he was pretty much everything Edward Nygma needs to be (and once again, he looked the part). The Joker had the most stage-time and the guy playing him was pretty much awesome, even if he did look weirdly like a bizarre hybrid of John Lithgow and Jay Leno. His voice was sort of a deep, raspy, demonic version of Mark Hamill's, with similar mannerisms to the famous animated series version. He occasionally dropped in a few of Heath Ledger's iconic tics as well. Of the villains, the only one who was done in a really dumb and disappointing way was Two-Face who did not have the benefit of a decent design, nor the assistance of a memorable acting performance. Other characters included Alfred (who was great) and Jim Gordon (who was not).Of all the actors on stage though, I really have to give top marks to the guy who played the Joker, who really just gave it socks.

The show wasn't perfect and it must be said that the first half, before the intermission, was quite slow to start. Batman didn't even show up for about twenty minutes in (although it was awesome when he did). Another weakness the show had was that the actors were so completely protected by safety harnesses and wires that when the extremely talented trapeze artists and acrobats were sailing across the very top of the stage - part of the intensity was lost because you knew that they would be completely fine if anything went wrong.

On the topic of the wire-work, at times the show occasionally really failed in that regard in terms of placing the audience in another world, rather than forcing them to use their imagination to piece together what's going on. One scene in particular, in the aforementioned first half; saw Catwoman and Batman battling against one another atop the skyscrapers of Gotham. Their fight sees them plummeting from multiple buildings - translated into the actors onstage being hauled around in a set pattern, while the screen-backdrop shows the buildings swooping by. It was an interesting idea, but the execution just didn't really allow for it to be anything other than confusing and fake-looking.

Some other reviewers have pointed out that the fights were a bit disappointing. I'd say that perhaps 30% of the fight scenes weren't really up to much, but the rest really were. Oddly enough, the Dick Grayson fight scenes were the strongest, perhaps because they had such a David-v-Goliath feel to them, as well as the fact that the actor playing Grayson was such a talented stage combatist. The best fight scenes saw multiple fights going onstage at once, just like in the old 60s TV show.

In conclusion, I'd have to say that I enjoyed Batman LIVE immensely. I went into it knowing that it wasn't going to be an extremely dark version of Batman and that I should enjoy it for what it was. That was a wise choice, although I was surprised by the level of writing and acting seen throughout the show and the story certainly took some surprisingly dark routes at times. The real value for money came in the extraordinary production values, the amazing sets and costumes, seeing a brand new Batmobile onstage and just the general awesomeness of seeing Batman kicking ass in real life. Really, I can't express how much Batman fans should just leave their snobbery at the door and just go along to this enormously fun, lovingly created experience. It's a version of Batman I won't soon forget.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why Rocksteady Studios should make a Superman game


Yes, indeed, it will be one of those posts, where I yammer on about Superman. DEAL WITH IT.

Most people know that the release of 'Batman: Arkham City' is kind of shaping up to be a focal point of 2011, for me. From what I've seen of the extraordinarily extensive promotional videos and behind-the-scenes interviews, the game will be tantalisingly close to being the definitive simulated experience of being Batman. While most of Gotham City is locked off in the game and you still don't have access to any of the Dark Knight's vehicles, pretty much everything else I could have ever want in a Batman game (including the bizarre, highly unlikely request of being able to play as the Animated Series version of Batman) has been plucked from my mind and placed into a vast, gothic playground with truckloads of classic villains and nods to the character's 72-year legacy in comics, movies and television. I cannot express just how much I am anticipating this game. Honestly, if I didn't have a girlfriend and a job (and Batman LIVE to look forward to), I'd probably have found a way to cryogenically freeze myself in suspended animation, until it was released.

I hate to say it, but the last time I was this excited for a licensed game, was in the run-up to Superman Returns.


Much like what Arkham City is promising, Superman Returns promised fans an open-world experience similar to the sublime Spider-Man 2 (which was also a tie-in to a movie), whereby you could fly around to anywhere in Metropolis, saving people and stopping crimes. This premise alone was enough to light a fire of insatiable excitement within me, as that's exactly the kind of Superman game I'd always wanted to play. Ever since playing Spider-Man 2, I'd desperately wanted a similar experience as the Man of Steel, soaring through the skies of Metropolis. I even remember having dreams about playing such a game, only to wake up and be pissed off that it wasn't real.

So naturally, when I started seeing videos like the one above, I got extremely pumped.

In the run-up to the game, the developers were promising everything. They claimed you'd have access to 'all' of Superman's powers, that there would be missions where you would play as Clark Kent, that there'd be dozens of villains from the comics who hadn't appeared in the movie and (most importantly) that you could go anywhere in Metropolis and use parts of the city as weapons against villains (like in the also-excellent 'Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction'). I even saw some videos online taken from e3 2006 showing other skins you'd be able to unlock in the game (such as a 'Red Son' skin from the comic of the same name). Unfortunately, large chunks of these elements were abandoned in the ultimately rushed game.


Sometime in the Summer of 2006, it was announced that the game wouldn't be released until November of that year, to coincide with the DVD release of the movie. This was strange news, as we'd been hearing about the game and its (supposedly complex and thorough) development for nearly a year prior to this. Nevertheless, in spite of my disappointment, this just instilled me with confidence that we were in for a real gem of a Superman experience. In this time, I actually saved up and bought an Xbox 360 entirely because of how excited I was for this very game. Another setback occurred when the developers revealed that [Actually no!] you wouldn't be able to use all of Superman's powers as the game wasn't going to feature x-ray vision in any way.

Well, when the reviews arrived, my heart sank. According to dozens of reviewers online and in print (and even on TV), the game was extremely mediocre and only worth a rental, if even. While Metropolis was large and intriguing and really cool to fly around in, there was just about nothing else to do in the entire game except fight hordes and hordes of stupid-looking robots and angry dragon-like beings. It was ironic really, because everyone complained that in the movie, Superman didn't throw a single punch, whereas in this game, there was practically nothing else to do except punch things.

The game did require you to rescue people now and again, but this was entirely optional and rarely (if ever) made any difference to the 'missions' (note the inverted commas).


Ultimately, more than anything else, the game just seemed bizarrely rushed. I have no idea how that could happen, given that the developers had almost two years to develop the game and were yammering on for months about how spectacular it was. It is loads of fun flying around as Superman in the game, breaking the sound barrier, etc. It's just a pity that the developers couldn't find anything else for the player to do.


Skip forward two years. Images started to pop up online of a new Batman game that would be available the following year. The game was going to be set entirely in Arkham Asylum and aimed to make the player 'feel' like Batman, using stealth and detection techniques. Honestly, I wasn't too excited, as I'd heard all of this before for the Batman Begins game. The more information that was released about the game, the more I suspected that it would be just another run-of-the-mill stealth/action game of which Batman had starred in many.

However, in the closing months before the game's release, it became more and more apparent that this might be the holy grail of licensed comic book games.


Sure enough, the game was a godsend. I don't think I need to go into any great detail as to what I liked about the game as I've done that before, but needless to say, I liked it a whole bunch. Aside from the already-excellent story mode, the replay value offered by the additional combat and stealth challenges is basically unlimited as the combat system is easy to learn, but nigh-impossible to master and two years later, I'M STILL TRYING. That's right folks; I still play Batman: Arkham Asylum quite regularly, over two years after its release. I may not be the world's most broadly horizoned gamer, but that's still something.

So that brings us to the title of this post. What has a great Batman game got to do with Superman?

To answer that question, let's take a look at Arkham Asylum's upcoming sequel, the reality-alteringly awesome-looking Batman: Arkham City.


In this game, Batman's not just confined to the walls of the Asylum anymore. Finally, seven years after Spidey introduced the concept, we have a Batman game that's set in an open-world city. Now, admittedly it's not quite Gotham City in its entirety, but 'Arkham City' (think of 'Escape from New York' in a game about Bamtan) does seem to contain most of the iconic elements we've grown accustomed to in 75 years of Batman comics (Penguin's Iceberg Lounge, Dick Grayson's former home, Haley's Circus, the Joker's birthplace Ace Chemicals and most importantly, Park Row or 'Crime Alley' where Bruce Wayne watched his parents get shot), so it doesn't really matter if we're missing some suburbs or a City Hall.


More importantly though are the abilities of Batman in the game. Taking a cue from his film incarnations, Batman's high-tech cape allows him to glide for extended periods, between the buildings of Arkham City. But unlike the last game, this ability is much more expanded upon. By combining potential energy, wind-power and the grapple-gun, Batman can almost fly in the game.


As in the previous game, Batman can see through walls using the special lenses in his mask and root out items or irregularities that warrant attention. Using his explosive gel he can blow up weakened walls. Even with the freeze-stunner, he can temporarily incarcerate foes so that he can deal with them in time.
That's flight, x-ray vision, heat vision (sort of) and freeze breath covered. It's almost like they're hinting that they're going to make a Superman game!

There's obviously a lot more to the equation than the aesthetic similarities I've listed, however curious they are. One of the most oft-mentioned differences between Batman and Superman is that Batman is 'just a man', whereas Superman is the most powerful man on the planet. When you play as Superman in a simulated experience, there is always (or at least for the next ten years or so) going to have to be some kind of restriction on what you can actually do, in the game. You can't fly to any other country in the world as Superman can easily do. You can't destroy every building in Metropolis as Superman could easily (but wouldn't ever) do. You can't use your x-ray vision to see Lois' bazoombas, because it's always going to have to be an all-ages game. The difference with Batman is that, as a simple human with all of the weaknesses that that implies, the sky is the limit. Batman can be bestowed with any fantastic ability throughout the game, because no matter how powerful his gadgets and weapons make him, he will always just be a regular human underneath it all. Superman will always need to be stripped of something in a videogame, and therein lies the challenge for the developers.


More importantly than the game elements themselves though, I think the key feature of the two Arkham games is the level of care and attention paid to the source material that I don't think any game based on a DC Comics franchise has done in the past. The number one problem that has plagued Superman's videogame history is that the developers have just never seemed to care all that much about the Man of Steel's literary heritage. I honestly didn't think we'd ever see a game as rich in the history and continuity of the Batman mythology as the Arkham games are. It should come as no surprise that I want to see the people responsible tackle the other great DC Comics hero. Personally, I think Rocksteady have proven that they have the ability to do the necessary research, invest the necessary manpower and game development technology and root out the best way to bring the Last Son of Krypton into the world of gaming in as effective a way as possible.

If you agree with me, join the Facebook page I set up and let's try and show them how much we want this to happen.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Hall of Action: An Action Figure Retrospective

In the late seventies, when Star Wars was all the rage, toy companies wisely realised that the elaborate vehicles and sets from the franchise would be too costly and cumbersome for 12 inch dolls. Thus, the action figure was born. Cheap, sturdy and miniature enough to be able to fit into larger vehicles (like the Millennium Falcon). Superhero action figures were released soon in the legendary 'Super Powers' line. 

As a kid growing up in the 90s, action figures grew more and more expensive as their popularity increased. This meant that unlike kids in the 80s and 70s, I didn't actually have that many, and it was a pretty big deal whenever I got a new one, although I did have quite a few. A vast, massive majority of them were Batman-related figures, particularly from the Animated Series. I also got a handful of figures from other franchises such as Superman, Star Wars, Spider-Man and even stuff like Power Rangers (a lot of these have been lost over the years). 

These toys meant the world to me and as a result of my lack of access to comic books (for the first half of my childhood, anyway) and the only occasional showing of cartoons like Batman and Superman, I would often spend hours dreaming up my own stories and scenarios, using miscellaneous figures as new characters. As far as I can tell, I was collecting and playing with action figures long after it was socially acceptable (which was a depressingly young age among my circle of friends). 

As the years have grown on, I grew less interested in collecting figures, for the sheer fact that they don't make 'em like they used to. When I was growing up, action figures were designed to be sturdy and durable rather than painstakingly accurate to the design on which they're based. Nowadays, figures sacrifice durability and toughness for design accuracy and they're anything but cheap. There's also this weird spectrum where size is concerned. Figures for 'serious collectors' (the people who leave them in the box or in a display case) are 9-10 inches and the ones for 'younger collectors' (kids who want to actually play with them) are as small as 4-5 inches. When I was a lad, figures were just right at 6-8 inches. 

With the advent of the Internet, the plummeting prices of DVD Boxsets, Graphic Novels and the growing realism and quality of video games, the question of whether kids are even bothered playing with toys anymore is a pretty interesting one. I know that if I had had a games like 'Lego Batman', 'Spider-Man 2', 'Arkham Asylum' (or a more kid-friendly version of it) or 'Batman: The Brave and the Bold' as a kid that I might be a little bit more inclined to want to be immersed in a virtual world of heroism before playing with bits of plastic. Maybe that's just the cynic in me, though. I've come to an interesting point in my life where I'm not really sure I want to keep my toys around anymore. Most of them aren't worth a penny, because they're so war-torn (plus, they're not in their original packaging), and some of them I just couldn't even imagine parting with, because of the sentimental value (even if it means they'll just be sitting in a box in my attic). The purpose of this post is to pictorially archive all the action figures I have left that mean anything to me. 

On the left is 'Combat Belt Batman', the first ever action figure I owned and the first figure from the Batman: The Animated Series line and probably my most cherished action figure. I remember the day I got it (my fourth birthday party) and I remember my mum putting the accessories away for safekeeping (I lost them all very quickly). On the right is Robin (not sure what his full name was) and although it wasn't the 'standard' design from the cartoon (I wouldn't get that figure for another twelve years), I loved it dearly. I got that one for Christmas 1995. I played with these figures more than any other figure I ever owned.

On the left is 'Capture Net Superman' from the 'Superman The Animated Series' Line. I remember the day I got Capture Net Superman, I scoured all of Dublin looking for Superman figures from the cartoon, finally finding this one in town. The S logo got badly chipped as seen in the picture, and I tried to paint it back in, but the paint was too weak and just stained the figure yellow. I played with it, anyway. On the right is 'Heat Vision Superman' (I think) with a bit of modding. A common trick for toymakers and action figure lines was to put out a stream of different designs for the core character, to get kids to go back and buy the colourful alternate version. This often left me with a load of weird looking figures I got as presents that I didn't really know what to do with. I made use of the black-suited Superman and pretended that he was a youthful clone of Superman that was created when Superman was struck by lightning. Superman named this clone 'Electric Superman' or 'Ez' for short. They became partners. Little did I know, in the 90s there actually was a character called 'Electric Superman' in the comics, and Superman had a youthful clone (Superboy) around this time as well. 

(Left to Right: Comedian, Iron Man, Nite-Owl (still in the box), Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan)

Not really sure why I never took Nite-Owl or Rorschach out of the box. I think I just liked the boxes and wasn't that pushed about taking them out. Iron Man, Comedian and Doc Manhattan actually belong to my brother (who is also at the end of his toy-collecting days, which makes me feel old). 

Two identical Azrael figures from the classic 'Legends of the Dark Knight' line. Having no access to Knightfall comics as a kid, we always just referred to this figure as 'The Batman with no mouth'. Notice how I tried to give Azrael a new cape (it was lost years ago), using paper and a cape from another figure. Last Summer I found the figure on the left for a dollar at Toronto Fan Expo. I asked the guy if I could just buy the cape for 50 cents, but he made me buy the whole figure. In the background is the 'KnightsEnd' Azrael, the later, deadlier suit he used in his battle against the original Batman. I also got this at Fan Expo, for a dollar. Man, what an awesome place.

Robin and Nightwing. I bought the Robin on the left on eBay in 2008 and it cost something like €25 altogether. But I love it, because he's just such an interesting design. He's the only Robin figure from the animated line that got the proper yellow and black cape and even though the head sculpt looks like the character from the cartoon, the body is all wrong, with far too much detailing and the wrong belt. The reason for this is that the makers re-used the body from the 'Batman Returns' Robin figure (yes, they made a Robin figure, even though he wasn't in the film). On the right is Nightwing (Dick Grayson two years older), who once belonged to my 19-year old brother. I'm inclined to say he didn't play with it as much as I did. 

The Riddler and the Penguin having the Bants beside the two Supermen. These were the first villain figures I owned from the Batman The Animated Series line and they've really stood the test of time. Unfortunately for the Penguin, I lost his coat, found a replacement years later from a friend who didn't really want it, only to lose it again, just recently. 

Yeeearrgh! This is one of the kookier figures from the 'Legends of the Dark Knight' line. A pirate version of Two-Face. When I was a kid, I thought Two-Face was badass, and I desperately wanted the Batman Forever version of the character, to no avail. I was absolutely delighted when I got this figure even though it was so crazy and I played with it for years. In case you were wondering, Two-Face's left hand was originally a hook and a sword, but they both got snapped off. Years later, I got an animated series version of Two-Face and it was really badass and had two-guns...but I haven't seen it in six years.

The Batmobile from 'The New Batman Adventures' and the first Batmobile I ever owned. I got this the day of my communion in 1998. I got it in Forbidden Planet (which was on Dawson Street back then) and it was one of the greatest days of my life as a result. Twelve years later, my mum (who works in the Blood Bank in town) met a mother and her kid at work who were going out to Forbidden Planet because it was the boy's communion. That orange missile there went missing more times than I could count, because of carelessness. One time, it went missing for over two weeks, only for me to find out that it was stuck in the inside of the car. It also stopped firing properly for a while. My Dad and I unscrewed it and discovered that there was a bit of a cocktail stick stuck in the spring. It still works today.

The seating of the TNBA Batmobile was such that Batman and Robin had to sit back to back. I still thought this was awesome. I loved this so much that I used to assign specific functions to every button on the sticker panel as well as the other buttons that were located around the interior of the car. There were stickers that went on the outside of the car as well, but these were pretty pointless and I got rid of them pretty soon.

The very first Michael Keaton Batman figure from 1989. I bought this in Toronto in a comic shop for 5 dollars. He's sitting in the Batmobile from 1997's Batman & Robin, which I got for something like €2 in a school fair, a couple of years ago. I'd give anything to get the Batmobile from Batman Forever or Batman Returns. 

Another 'mobile I bought only a couple of years ago, from the animated show 'The Batman' (not a bad show; not a good show, but not a bad one) from a few years back. The figure in it is a Bruce-to-Batman figure from the same line. I also got this car at a school fair, for piss-cheap. I actually think it's pretty cool, because while it is fearsome and intimidating-looking, it's also fairly discreet and looks like it would be a car someone like Batman would actually drive. 

It also has pop-out guns on the sides of it which are pretty cool.

The Batwing from the Animated Series. Another eBay purchase, from just a couple of years ago. I think this is really cool and I really wish I'd owned it when I was younger. The only thing I don't like about it is the green glass (it was blue in the cartoon). This one also has the back-to-back seating of the TNBA Batmobile.

A load more figures. The brown guy on the left is Ducard (or the 'real' Ra's Al Ghul to those of us who've seen the ending of Batman Begins) and the green guy is a repaint of him. This was one of the last figure I broke my heart trying to find, only to find it months later for practically nothing. In front of the two Liam Neesons is a Bruce-to-Batman figure that doesn't really look like Christian Bale. An awesome Scarecrow is hanging back behind everyone. Notice a couple of Marvel figures in here. I used to have Spider-Man and Mysterio from the 90s animated series, but they got lost. The only remaining Spidey figures I have are from 2007's Spider-Man 3, which had a great line of affordable figures from the entire trilogy. We have Green Goblin around somewhere but in the mean-time, there's Symbiote Spidey, New Gobin and Venom. I love that Venom figure. He just looks so delightedly evil.

Lex Luthor and Superman's Robot from the 'Superman: Doomsday' animated film. I didn't really care for the design of Luthor in this film. Too much white. I love that they gave Superman a robot servant though. I always love the idea of Superman having robot servants in the Fortress of Solitude. 

An Indiana Jones figure I got in Disneyland, Florida. He came with a whip, a pistol, a flaming torch and an emerald encrusted sword. Only the whip and the torch survived. That pistol was really cool. Wolverine there is from some Marvel line and came with a comic that was set in the future. It's a pretty renowned X-Men story that I'm sure other people reading this will know.

This Wolverine came with a giant robot battlesuit. I also got this in Florida in 2001 after begging my Dad to get it for me on the subject that I pay him back. The battle suit was crappy and fell apart after a few years, but I only really wanted the Wolverine figure anyway.

The Superman Returns Clark-to-Superman figure. I'm really glad this figure was so easy to find, as it's awesome. Superman has a wig attached to a pair of glasses, a shirt/waistcoat, slacks and shoes as a disguise. It's no wonder no one knows he's really Clark Kent.

Lex Luthor from Superman Returns, looking impressively like Kevin Spacey. This one was a lot harder to find but once it did start showing up, you could get it pretty much anywhere. He's holding a tube of Kryptonite and also came with a Kryptonian Crystal that you could squeeze into it, as Luthor did in the movie. He also came with a missile blaster that shot out the same Kryptonite missile from the movie. 

This figure was just badass. It was from the 'Man of Steel' line from the mid nineties. It was called 'Anti-Kryptonite Superman' and was supposed to be a suit Superman wore to protect him from Kryptonite poisoning. You could take the helmet and the armour off. Funnily enough, the head sculpt of Superman looked an awful lot like Nicolas Cage who had been cast as Superman around this time (in a thankfully never-made Tim Burton film), which has made me suspicious as to whether or not the head sculpt was from a Superman Lives concept figure.

As I got older, I started taking better care of the accessories that came with figures. While a lot of them still manage to get lost, there's a lot of really cool stuff here. 

A repaint of the classic Animated Series Batmobile (from before TNBA). This was another eBay purchase that I bought in tandem with the Batwing. I really like this, but again the green detailing spoils it and that silly glow in the dark logo is annoying. Still glad I bought it, though.

Terry McGinnis/Batman Beyond sitting in the 'Bathammer', one of the stupider vehicles from the third act of 'Batman & Robin', designed solely to sell toys. This was another school fair purchase. I'd never spend any real money on something as crappy as this. The figure in it is another story.

This is the 'Tumbler' Batmobile from Batman Begins. I got this for €15 about a year after the movie had actually come out, and it's awesome. It only fits one figure (and it doesn't do the Batpod thing from 'The Dark Knight') but if you push that middle button at the back there, weapons spring out from the side. The other buttons are sound and light buttons, which are also really cool. I never actually bought the Batpod one from the sequel, because it was one of those things where Batman was forcibly stuck to the Batpod and couldn't be removed. I always hated toys like that as a kid, because it took away from the fun if you couldn't remove the figure from the vehicle.

Another wide shot of all the figures. That other Batmobile is from Batman Beyond and also belongs to my brother. I never liked it that much, because of all the ridiculous stickers. At the far, far back is the Movie Masters Dark Knight figure, which is awesome.

All in all, I can't see myself parting with most of these. Hopefully, I can store them away safely until I have somewhere really permanent to display them or until the point where and if I live to have kids or nephews or nieces who will cherish them as much as I did growing up.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Why Walker, Texas Ranger is Exactly the Same as Batman

Some of you might know that I have something of an affinity for the Chuck Norris Phenomenon that kind of died a death in 2006. Unlike most, however, I still get regular, nigh-daily pleasure out of this Internet wonder and his supposed omnipotence, rumoured hyper-fertility and his back-catalogue of hilariously cheesy action movies.

However, the Bearded One's biggest claim to fame was Walker, Texas Ranger; a stupendously distilled version of the Chuck Norris Experience. The show had a suspiciously similar premise to Chuck Norris' coup de grace 'Lone Wolf McQuade' (a.k.a. 'The Funniest Film Ever Made') in that it starred Chuck Norris as a member of the elite law enforcement agency The Texas Rangers who was always adverse to fighting alongside a partner until his superiors forced one on him. The show combined typical detective-show elements with martial arts that just seemed to get more and more insane(ly awesome) as the years went on. And Chuck Norris himself sang the fucking theme tune.

For eight mighty years, families across the world were graced once a week with a 45-minute television experience of sublime, action-packed badness. Because it was the 1990s, there was almost a mandate that the show get more and more outlandish, with weirder episodes showing Walker going up against ghosts and having the ability to communicate with animals. The strangely watchable show is unmissable, brainless hangover television.

But the best thing about it is that it's pretty much exactly the same as Batman. 

Most of the main characters in the show have a direct correlation to the main characters in most Batman stories. In some cases, this is just a minor coincidence owing to the fact that most action/detective stories generally have the same group of stereotypes (the cypher, the sage, the love interest and the comic relief), but then there's completely WTF stuff that is either flat-out plagiarised or an hilarious coincidence).

Let's take a look at the cast of supporting characters and who they compare to,

James 'Jimmy' Trivette = Robin, The Boy Wonder

Trivette is Walker's partner and often joins Walker for the climactic fight scenes. Alas, he's not quite as tough as Walker and often leads to the bad guys getting away. This is quite similar to what happens with Robin in a lot of Batman stories. Trivette is also really good at doing some Computer Work! to help in a given case, as Robin is often known to do, especially in stories from the last thirty-odd years. Similar to Dick Grayson's past as a circus-acrobat, before Trivette was a crime-fighting Texan, he played football for the Dallas Cowboys. And when it comes to crime-fighting, Trivette is often shown to be something of a novice compared to the infinitely experienced Walker, who knows everything and can do everything, much like the difference between Robin and Batman. Trivette's greatest ability is his ability to answer phones and make phonecalls, which he is seen doing at least five times per episode. Sometimes, he doesn't even leave the office, because he's so busy making phonecalls, so in a way, you could also compare him to Oracle who can be excused for doing this, because she's in a wheelchair.

C.D. Jones = Alfred and Commissioner Gordon

Imagine if you somehow rolled Alfred Pennyworth and Commisioner Gordon and removed all of their wit, steely determination and seriousness and replaced all of this with Kentucky Fried Chicken. The resulting character would be C.D. Jones, the lovably ridiculous comic relief character who appeared in the first five years of Walker. C.D. Much like Jim Gordon, C.D. spent many years on the force (although Gordon was never a Texas Ranger) and despite his old age, he still has a lot of fight in him. Like Alfred, he always has a glib remark or a comment to make (although unlike Alfred, they're never witty; just retarded) and he's an adventurous cook whose culinary experiments are often too intense and foul-smelling for the other characters to appreciate. C.D. tragically died in one of the later seasons, as Alfred and Jim Gordon are sometimes known to do in various retconned stories. 

Alex Cahill = Rachel Dawes

Alex is tricky, because up until the Christopher Nolan movies, Batman never really had a Lois Lane; a character who was very much on the side of justice and also wanted to have tickle-fights with him. Nevertheless, Alex pretty much is the precursor to Rachel Dawes in that she is a "Single-White-Female-Lawyer District Attorney". She initially scolds Walker for his harsh methods, only to change her tune when his manliness melts her cold heart. Much like Rachel Dawes, Alex Cahill is played by a terrible actress. 

Sydney & Gage = Batgirl & Nightwing

In the later seasons, Chuck Norris was well into his sixties and his character was firmly established as being the toughest, most unstoppable sumbitch on television and he already had a serious girlfriend in Alex, so there really wasn't an awful lot they could do with him as a character anymore. But the show was successful enough that it had to go on, so it was decided to bring in two younger Texas Rangers, Sydney Cooke and Francis Gage who unsurprisingly engage in a tortuous back-and-forth exchange of "Will they, won't they?" for the entirety of their two years on the show. This is much the same as Batgirl/Oracle and Nightwing both on the animated series and in the comic book series of Batman. Similar to Walker, lazy writers often don't bother trying to write about Batman himself because "Everything has already happened to him!!" (or rather, Warner Bros. don't want one of their most cherished brands tampered with too much) so instead they just develop and explore his sidekicks, to the point of giving them new costumes, new superhero identities and even to the point of introducing entirely new sidekicks. Also, just like Batgirl and Nightwing, Sydney and Gage never were shown truly embracing a romantic relationship, which is why the good people of the Internet have used them for hundreds of raunchy Slash Fan-Fiction stories. 

Now that we've explored the supporting cast, let's look at the big man himself:

Cordell Walker = Batman

Throughout the series, Walker is a sullen, brooding character who is rarely shown taking a break from crime-fighting. For some reason, he never needs a warrant to search anywhere (admittedly I'm not up on how much paperwork the Texas Rangers have to do) and he is often seen throwing the first punch. Walker rarely resorts to lethal force (although that's not to say he never kills anyone, which unlike Batman, he does fairly often) and usually only uses his gun to stun or disarm his enemies, similar to the way Batman uses his batarang. 

Like Batman, Walker's 'look' is iconic and while he does wear different clothes all the time, they're usually a variation of the same shirt/jeans/cowboy hat combo just as Batman's different costumes all usually rely on the same symbols and features. Just like Batman, women find Walker incredibly sexy, even though he looks completely ridiculous. Similar to the Bat-symbol, Walker is never seen without his Texas Ranger badge except when he's off-duty. Speaking of off-duty, much like Batman has a secret identity, Walker regards his status as a Texas Ranger as need-to-know and in the rare occasions where he's off-duty and amongst people he doesn't already know, he keeps his occupation a secret. 

When most people think of Batman, they think of him using his fists to fight crime. Unsurprisingly, this is what an awful lot of people think of when they think of Chuck Norris and Walker, Texas Ranger. In every single episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, there is an insanely awesome fight sequence of epic proportions, often with completely ridiculous 'sonic boom' sound effects.

Unfortunately, in spite of how well-known Batman's abilities as a martial artist are, practically none of his other-media appearances have done this justice with most Batman movies showing Batman awkwardly shuffling around, unable to turn his head or (in the case of the Nolan movies) picking off his enemies stealthily so fast and finishing them off  faster than the camera can keep track. However, the sublime videogame Batman: Arkham Asylum is so similar to Walker, Texas Ranger that it's actually frustrating that you can't unlock Chuck Norris as a playable character.

Now, most of you are probably saying "Most of these similarities are just coincidental and in keeping with the tropes of any action story". Here's where the real shocker comes in. 

When Walker was just a young boy, he watched as his parents were ruthlessly killed in front of him. The crime went unsolved for years. This trauma was what inspired him to become a Texas Ranger. In the third season episode 'Final Justice', Walker comes face-to-face with his parents killer, and this happens:

Look familiar? That's because an almost identical scene takes place in Batman 1989, although in that film, Jack Napier plunges into a vat of chemicals instead of being rescued. Hmm...