Batman: Arkham City (PC)

video-game-noir-batman-arkham-city-catwoman-via-digitaltrends[1]

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Batman: Arkham City has restored my faith in adventure game ports from the console to the PC. The game plays so intuitively and fluidly that I’m inclined to believe it’s actually quite a bit better suited to playing with a keyboard and mouse than it would be with a game controller. While Batman: Arkham City is a spectacularly entertaining game on its own merits, the sheer playability of the PC version puts it over the top for me.

Just a quick note, I played the Game of the Year Edition, which in addition to the base game, includes a Harley Quinn’s Revenge expansion, a Nightwing bonus pack for the challenge modes (non-campaign), and other sundries. If one were considering purchasing the game, I would suggest this is the version you would want (especially if you can pick it up for $7.50 on Steam, as I did).

I would love to do an in-depth review of this game, but with time always limited by life, I will endeavor to sum things up as briskly as possible.

Batman: Arkham City is a game that constantly reminds the player both why Batman is probably the best comic book character ever and why his rogues gallery is the best rogues gallery ever. The amount of mileage that writers have been able to get out of the Batverse over the years is astounding, possibly because Batman, himself, lends himself to so many different portrayals while still being distinctively Batman.

Batman: Arkham City - BaneThe writing is top-notch. To be sure, Batman: Arkham City does a somewhat strange narrative trick here by having us play out two mostly separate plotlines. These are interwoven, but neither is especially reliant upon the other structurally, except that, of course, you can’t complete one without completing the other. It’s a testament, I suppose, to the cleverness of the writers that it all feels connected, even if there’s no particular reason that they had to be.

A main cast of strong voice actors anchors the dark narrative, and it is worth noting that this is some of Kevin Conroy’s best work in the role of Batman. And that is a great compliment to the voice actor, because, of course, Kevin Conroy has been voicing Batman for so long that at this point, I think he may in real life actually be Batman. I’m pretty sure he is, anyway.

I would make the same  claim for Mark Hamill, once again performing the Joker. The writers provided a lot of meat for the character in Batman: Arkham City, and Hamill digs in in his customary fashion, while supplying his inimitable nuances that, for me, have always made Hamill’s a definitive portrayal.  I believe that Hamill may recently have officially retired from the part, but wow–for Hamill, especially, what a way to go out. The final confrontation between these two is a brilliant illustration of the crux of the ongoing conflict between Batman and the Joker, and one can clearly feel the deft pen of Paul Dini at the script level just knocking another one out of the park.

I also thought that Troy Baker was fantastic as Tim Drake/Robin, and was happy to have a chance to play with him more in the Harley Quinn expansion.

The gameplay is massively fun. Honestly, if this had merely been a beat-em-up, I would have almost been happy enough to play it (and in point of fact, I’ve done quite a bit of that in the challenge modes). But between the stalker encounters, platforming, and some basic puzzle solving, the overall gameplay package is very rich. It may not surprise you–particularly if you have played Batman: Arkham Asylum, but it is very solid, and as I averred at the outset, very intuitive to grasp.

The inclusion of the Catwoman sequences was a nice attempt to spice up the gameplay, though ultimately, this bit does feel a bit tacked on–nevertheless, however, nearly as fun as playing with Batman.

But nothing will ever trump playing as Batman, and ultimately, that is what this rave review resolves to: Batman: Arkham City allows the player to step into the shoes of the most bad-ass of all heroes, and so compellingly that it’s kind of a downer when it all comes to an end. The only thing for it at that point is to head to the Internet and blog about it, I suppose.

Reviewapalooza

Some microreviews of a bunch of stuff I’ve streamed lately on Netflix.

redhoodCOVER[1]Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

I haven’t read the comics upon which this film was based, but I put off watching Under the Red Hood, because as I recalled, the Red Hood plot line hadn’t gone over very well with some fans. I can’t speak to why, however, because I felt this turned out pretty well for all characters concerned. There’s a very problematic plot point with regards to the ulterior motive behind the Red Hood’s actions, but it’s forgiveable.  The narrative delivered a twist when, perhaps, it didn’t need one, but at least it helped get the story to its logical conclusion.

Any writing issues are more than made up for by very well-executed action sequences (the way Nightwing moves in this film is brilliantly animated) and great voice acting turns by Bruce Greenwood as Batman and Jensen Ackles as the Red Hood.

220px-Planet_Hulk_DVD[1]Planet Hulk (2010)

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

This probably deserves a slightly better rating on its own merits, but I felt that the translation from comics to film probably excised a lot of explanatory details that could have brought this story up to the next level. To be sure, I haven’t read the Planet Hulk comics, and I don’t necessarily feel compelled to do so after having seen the film, but I am willing to believe it’s probably a very decent storyline when told in its entirety. All of the elements for a great story are there, but I simply felt slightly irritated by a bunch of small things.

For example, I really didn’t feel that the opening sequence with Tony Stark narrating his reasons for sending the Hulk into space was an adequate explanation, especially given the characterization of the Hulk that followed, which actually made him seem rather rational and at times compassionate. And on that score, this isn’t the classic Jekyll/Hyde portrayal of the Hulk, but the film never bothered to address that.

DC-Showcase--Superman-Shazam--The-Return-of-Black-Adam[1]DC Showcase: Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam (2010)

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

This actually contained four different short features, all roughly the same length. The lead-in feature is the Superman/Shazam short, and I was looking forward to this, because Jerry O’Connell was reprising the role of Captain Marvel that he so perfectly voiced in Justice League Unlimited. This was a lot to like about this, but sadly, Jerry O’Connell didn’t get much to work with. It’s an origin story, so Captain Marvel is only in about half of it, and during that time, the story asks him to go a little dark for the climax, and that works against the earnestness and incorruptibility that the actor sold so well in JLU.

My favorite short in the set was easily the Green Arrow one, which had some really nice action set-pieces, and was simply a ton of fun. The Jonah Hex short was also fantastic. Of the four, the only one for which I didn’t really care was the Spectre short, if only because it seemed out of place. The other protagonists–even Jonah Hex–are all heroic, but the Spectre is just really sadistic, and would have worked better in, say, a horror anthology.

220px-DoctorStrangeDVD[1]Doctor Strange (2007)

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

Just too melodramatic to be much fun. In my opinion, it didn’t manage to capture the weirdness of the world of Doctor Strange. It leaned too heavily on standard horror movie beats and imagery. For me, it’s just not Doctor Strange unless you have something that looks like this. I just wanted something more exotic, and maybe something that tried a little bit less to be a stand-alone film and origin story.

11153114_800[1]Hulk Vs. (2009)

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

This contained two mini-features: Hulk vs. Thor and Hulk vs. Wolverine. Of the two, the latter was probably more interesting, though it probably tried a little too hard to mesh together every major Wolverine plot line form the past 30 years. Both features wisely (I think) understood that the Hulk was the least interesting character in the cast, so they made the narratives more about the other characters. I felt Hulk vs. Thor was a little awkward in the way it physically separated Banner from the Hulk–it isn’t the way that I think of the character. For me, Banner is the Hulk, not just a trapped soul inside some rage monster with a soul of its own.

1344701352_iron[1]The Invincible Iron Man (2007)

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

I didn’t really care for it, to be honest. It changed up the Iron Man origin too much in order to shoehorn in a plot about the resurrection of the Mandarin. In addition, the CG-rendered Iron Man armors were a jarring distraction. Additionally, the denouement hinges upon a romance between Tony Stark and another character that just seemed false–but worse, it doesn’t allow Stark to really do anything directly to defeat the Mandarin, such as he is in this film. Amidst other problems.

600full-hellboy-animated--blood-and-iron-posterHellboy Animated: Blood and Iron (2007)

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

If you can get past the Saturday Morning Cartoon style of the animation, this is pretty neat. Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, and John Hurt lend their voices, but I don’t know if this is in the continuity of the films or the comic books or just some sort of hybrid. Perlman is great as Hellboy, as usual, and the narrative is interestingly ordered, with flashbacks in reverse chronological order interspersed between segments of the main action.

I wish the animation had been up to the task of attempting to reproduce the distinctive atmosphere of a Hellboy comic book. A property as stylistic as this deserved better.

155356.39026146[1]Justice League: Doom (2012)

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

The underlying plot is flawed, I think. Is Batman really the only person on Earth (and beyond) capable of inventing a plan to take each member of the Justice League out individually? But I suppose if you can accept the fact that Vandal Savage would go out of his way to steal Batman’s failsafe plans and put together a legion of doom in order to implement them, this is rather enjoyable.

There’s something rather odd about watching this, however, when one has seen the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, as this film uses the same voice actors. As a result, it felt kind of weird that this story should have been told in the continuity of the mainstream DC universe. Also, the climax was kind of ridiculous, even for a comic book film.

Jack Nicholson Was a Better Joker than Heath Ledger

If I’d made this claim a couple of years ago, I might have been lynched. But perhaps in 2011, we can finally look back with a bit of historical clarity and, at worst, agree to disagree.

Listen, Heath Ledger was at the top of his acting game in The Dark Knight and his Joker was an interesting character with an even more fascinating portrayal; but after watching a mere 10 minutes of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman yesterday, I laughed more than I laughed throughout the entirety of The Dark Knight. And that’s the problem in a nutshell: Ledger’s Joker just wasn’t funny.

I’ve heard a lot of annoying and petty complaints about Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker. He was too chubby for the role is one I’ve heard more than a few times, and probably ranks amongst the stupidest criticisms ever. I’ve also heard that he wasn’t playing the Joker, but was playing Jack Nicholson…or playing Jack Nicholson playing the Joker, or whatever. I simply don’t agree, and this, as well, strikes me as being rather ignorant. But all of this aside, the reason Nicholson was a better Joker than Heath Ledger is that he played both sides of the Joker’s personality well: the comedian and the sociopath.

In case you’re curious, the scene I watched yesterday was the bit where the Joker interrupts the newscast to run a commercial for “new and improved Joker products!” That’s a fantastic illustration of how funny Nicholson was, from that little high-kicking dance while pushing the shopping cart, to the way he delivered the line, “With new and improved Joker brand, I git a grin…agin…and agin…”, to the infectious, slightly demented laugh following the line about hair color so natural only your undertaker knows for sure.

Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson more or less nailed it in my opinion. Which is not to say that the film was perfect, but I think it remains probably the best film in the Batman franchise, problems notwithstanding.

If I had to rank Joker performances outside of these two, I’d probably have to give the gold medal to Mark Hamill–in particular, in later episodes of the animated series in which Joker went a little darker, culminating in the amazing and–to my mind, definitive–portrayal given in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. It may only be a voice-over, but Hamill knocked it so far out of the park that, for me, it’s almost difficult to imagine a pre-Batman: TAS world.

Oh, and just to put this out there, as well: Michael Keaton was a great Bruce Wayne. Actually, he and Val Kilmer were the best of the live action Batmans, though I will concede that Clooney was the absolute worst (and I like George Clooney).


Edit: Since posting this online, it has been the source of a very steady stream of traffic to this blog (to this single post, anyway), and a fairly lively discussion in the comments section. I’ve long since said my piece there, but I would encourage visitors to keep the discussion going (and civil). Just note that WordPress seems to have stopped notifying me when I get new comments on this post, so during my posting lulls, it may take a while for your comment to be approved.

Thanks to everybody who has visited and commented. Looking back at it, I only wish I had written a better post! Ah well.