Hello everyone, and welcome to a new series here on Unshaved Mouse where I review every Batman movie except for the ones thatI’vealreadyreviewed. Well, most of them. I mean, some of them. Look, the character’s been featured in over eighty films at this point and I have a life, allegedly. But let’s kick this off with a thematically appropriate question. Riddle me this! What is the first superhero movie?
Well, not to get all Bill Clinton on ya, but that really depends on your definition of “movie”, “superhero”, “first” and “the”. You can argue, and many do, that the superhero genre has always been with us. That Superman and Batman are just the latest iterations of characters like Enkidu, Herakles, Thor and Cúchulainn. At the opposite end of that maximalist take is the concept that the first superhero was Superman, because he was the first to embody three fundamental elements; a secret identity, superhuman powers and a comic book origin. And between these two poles there are characters that are kinda liminal, sort of superheroes and sort of not. Characters like Zorro and The Shadow. Pulp heroes? Superheroes? It’s not entirely clear. I know one guy who claimed that the first true superhero was Baroness Orczy’s 1905 creation the Scarlet Pimpernel. And since that guy was frickin’ Stan Lee. Yup. Good enough for Mouse.
If so, that would make the now-lost 1917 silent film The Scarlet Pimpernel the first superhero movie.
So, (if you’re willing to stretch your definitions), the superhero movie genre is over a century old, and even pre-dates superhero comics. And yet, if you ask the average person what the first superhero movie is, what do you think they’ll say? 1978’s Superman? The 1966 Batman? Why has around half of the genre’s history been essentially memory holed?
Well, part of the problem is that most superhero cinema prior to the 1950s came in the form of serials. Serials were essentially the precursors to TV shows. A cinema would screen a new episode every week. Each episode was typically between 10 and 30 minutes long, low-budget and would end with a cliff-hanger to get you back in next week. In the forties, many famous superheroes were adapted to the form, including Captain Marvel, Captain America, Superman and, of course, Batman.
The second reason why this era of superhero cinema is so obscure is that they were all mostly terrible.
Okay, let me walk that back a little. They are products of their time. Because of the nature of the format, serial plots tends to cycle in place for around ten episodes before abruptly sprinting to the climax. This makes them, as you might imagine, not exactly bingeable.
And yet, I feel like Colombia’s 1943 picture The Batman should have a bigger pop culture presence. It’s the first Batman film, after all. And it was influential, in its way. It created several hugely important parts of Batman’s mythos. And the sixties series was arguably more an adaptation of this serial than the actual comic it claimed to be based on. And yet, if fans even know about it it’s usually “that weird old Batman movie that’s super racist”. And you know what? That’s unfair.
It’s not just racist. It’s also very boring.
And look, I’m just going to say this up front. I’m not doing my usual scene by scene analysis on this one. Why?
BECAUSE THIS BEAST IS THREE AND A HALF GODDAMN HOURS LONG
I had a realisation when I heard that line. In the eighth episode of Wandavision, “Previously On”, Wanda Maximoff enters SWORD Headquarters to try and retrieve the body of her lover, the Vision. And something about how Elizabeth Olsen delivers that line. Some mixture of ragged sorrow, aggrieved entitlement and barely contained rage…like a soul that’s been crushed into diamond-hardness by life’s cruelties. It’s absolutely terrifying. And that’s when I realised that Elizabeth Olsen is the best actor in the MCU.
Now, a while back I said that I would be reviewing all of the Disney Plus Marvel shows as part of this series, but, in my defence, that was before I had seen most of them. In fact it was right around the time that Wandavision had me convinced that it was one of the most exciting, radical genre TV shows I’d seen in years. That’s…not how it turned out. The Wandavision finale wasn’t terrible, by any means, but for something that was shaping up to be the MCU’s answer to Twin Peaks to end in just another CGI blob fight in the sky…
Well, I wasn’t angry. But I was disappointed. And it turned out that Wandavision was the highpoint, so let’s just breeze quickly through the rest.
Not bad, really liked the John Walker arc, the Isiah Bradley stuff was cool but the villain was just nails-on-a-chalkboard and the two leads were the least compelling part. C+
Didn’t see it. I mean, I watched it but the whole thing was so underlit I don’t even know what happened. Picked up a bit towards the end with the Kang reveal but the writing needed to be a lot sharper for a show about the MCU’s wittiest character. C-
Damn, Marvel just does NOT like Star Lord, huh? This one’s hard to judge, any anthology show is going to have ups and downs. Overall, I think it balances out to be a B-.
Quit after episode 3. Automatic F.
Okay, a Hawkeye series is a tough lift. Fair enough. But how do you fuck up Moon Knight? I quit this twice. I tried to power through because I love the character but life is too damn short. Two Fs.
And I haven’t seen Ms Marvel or She Hulk yet.
So that’s us all caught up.
Multiverse of Madness is basically a thrown gauntlet to the audience. Prior to this, the TV corner of the MCU (whether that was on ABC, Netflix, Hulu or Disney +) was completely vestigial to the films. In fact, prior to Charlie Cox showing up as Matt Murdock in No Way Home, I can’t think of a single instance when the TV properties were even acknowledged in a main series movie (prove me wrong in the comments, folks). MoM though? If you are not at least fully caught up on Wandavision, Loki and What If?
Milligan: Ohhh yes! If we build this mountain on England, England would sink under the weight.
Seagoon: Sink? In that case, this mountain would be invaluable, people could climb up the side and save themselves from drowning!
Milligan: Mercy, you’re right. Hurry and build it, before we all drown!
The Goon Show: “The Greatest Mountain in the World” (1954)
Alright, let’s just dispense with the usual dancing around.
Encanto is great. It’s a great piece of animation. It’s an excellent musical and it’s without a doubt my favourite canon movie in a long-ass time. It’s walking out of here with a good grade, don’t nobody worry ’bout that.
I have to confess that what really fascinates me about Encanto is how it keeps making the most basic, obvious mistakes in screen-writing you can imagine (trying to build a mountain that will cause the country to sink), and instead of just fixing them in a sensible way (just not building the mountain) by doubling down and solving those problems in the most ridiculously over the top way possible (actually building the mountain). And it works.
The best example of this is the first song Welcome to the Family Madrigal.
There are twelve named speaking Madrigal characters, all with unique personalities, powers and familial relationships to keep track of. That is, quite frankly, bananas and any sensible screenwriter would have gone through the cast with a machete looking for who could be cut.
Way I see it, for this story you need Mirabelle, two older siblings to establish the pattern that Mirabelle broke by not getting a gift, and then a younger sibling to get a gift to show that Mirabelle really was a fluke. You need Abuela, obviously, Bruno and Julietta. Augustine doesn’t need to be there and Pepa’s entire family is extraneous. And yes, obviously, that would really suck to lose those characters but that would be the sensible choice. The sane choice. But that would not be the Encanto choice.
Encanto instead decides that it’s going to have an opening song flat out admitting “yes, our cast is far too big and complicated and our premise is weird and clunky so here is a song to help you remember”. It shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t work. But simply by dint that it is a phenomenal song it does. They built the goddamn mountain.
A rule I really, really try to stick to in reviewing movies is this: never criticise someone else’s work unless you can articulate what you would have done differently. This is not to say that I have no constructive criticism of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. I would, in fact, venture that I have quite the stack, teetering precariously in the corner as I write these words, ready to crush my tiny little mouse bones at the slightest inopportune breeze. And yet, I can’t help but feeling that a lot of what I am about to say might come across as a touch hypocritical if you are a long time reader of this blog.
So I kinda feel like I’m not reviewing this in good faith. I mean, is this movie a travesty of Carroll’s original work, crunching it into a generic Lord of the Rings rip-off slathered in a thin veneer of anachronistic corporate feminism to appeal to the broadest possible global audience so that Disney can bank another €1 billion dollars for the death ray fund?
Yes. It is that thing I said.
But how the hell am I supposed to make that argument? If this is a bad Alice, then what would meet my definition of a “good” Alice, considering I can’t stand the source material? (It occurs to me that I haven’t actually read either of the novels in two decades. I may need to go back and give them another go).
Well, I suppose it would be a movie that was able to do what the 1951 movie did, make me like the story of Alice through sheer artistic brilliance. I love the ’51 Alice not because it’s an Alice movie, but because it’s a Disney movie, possibly the most Disney movie of that era.
You’ve got Mary Blair on backgrounds. Verna Felton, Ed Wynne, Sterling Holloway and J. Pat O’Malley on vocals. The Nine Old Men directing animation. Music by Oliver Wallace. The movie works because it takes Carroll’s novel, sands off the creepier and more unpleasant elements, and uses the episodic nature of the story to allow some of the most talented men and women to ever work in animation to go buck wild. So I suppose, that’s what I want from an Alice in Wonderland adaptation. Something that can overcome the weaknesses of the source material by just being really, really beautiful.
“Hey Mouse, what do you think about all these live action Disney remakes?” is a question I have never been asked because I am a relic of the 2010s internet and have been irrelevant to fandom discourse for quite some time.
But if they did ask for those opinions, boy, do I have opinions! Nuanced and interesting opinions? Not really, by and large I think they’re hot garbage at best and actually morally reprehensible at worst.
I hate the whole scene, man. I hate the lazy nostalgia milking. I hate the rehashing of old songs and characters in ways that are always inferior to the originals (the 2016 Jungle Book is, I admit, a pretty fine movie but I’ll be deep in the cold ground before I say it’s an improvement on the ’67 cartoon.). I am real sick of Disney cynically trumpeting minor gay characters whose presence would have been real daring thirty years ago to earn gushing publicity. And I really hate that the biggest entertainment company in Western history is apparently unable to understand the simple fact that just because a character is a great villain doesn’t make them a great protagonist. In fact, it means the opposite of that.
That said…I’ll admit the announcement of 2015s Cinderella provoked a lot less bile and profanity to gush forth than it usually would. Mostly that’s a lack of skin in the game. The 1950 Cinderella is a film with which I am on perfectly cordial terms, but it’s not and never will be as important to me as something like The Little Mermaid or The Lion King. Plus…it’s Cinderella, you know? The Disney Cinderella may be the most famous film version but it’s certainly not the definitive version, because there isn’t one and never will be. Cinderella is one of the absolute pillars of world folklore, with versions spanning thousands of years across the breadth of Europe and Asia. And there have been Cinderella movies as long as there has been film. The earliest version I found was from 1913 (called, hilariously “A Modern Cinderella”). Cinderella has been played by everyone from Julie Andrews to Brandy to Betty Boop to Jerry Lewis. It’s a timeless story that’s remained popular despite decades of bad, pseudo-feminist critique (the story is not, and never has been, about marrying a prince. It is, and always has been, about escaping poverty and domestic slavery). So, whatever, I say. Disney want to make another Cinderella movie? Fine.
I am willing to acknowledge this movie’s right to exist, Disney. All you gotta do is make a good movie.
In the season 6 Simpsons episode Lisa’s Wedding, we get a glimpse of the far-flung future of 2010. We see Lisa Simpson and her boyfriend Hugh exiting a film festival dedicated to Jim Carrey. “He can make you laugh with a mere flailing of his limbs” Lisa gushes wistfully.
From the perspective of 1995 the joke is simple enough; wouldn’t it be funny if low-brow, gurning over-actor Jim Carrey was one day revered as a Carey Grant-esque screen icon? Well, it’s a neat dozen years after the “future” the Simpsons predicted and, while I wouldn’t say he’s quite there yet, Jim Carrey is definitely a much more highly respected performer than when the Simpsons made their jab. Like the Simpsons, Jim Carrey is still around. Unlike the Simpsons, he’s still approaching everything with maximum enthusiasm and can still manage to be funny so I say, match point Carrey.
That’s a subjective view, obviously. Carrey is very much a marmite performer, you either love him or you hate him. Personally, I’m just the right age where Ace Ventura, Batman Forever and The Mask were childhood staples so yeah I dig the dude a lot. For me, he’s in that rarified “Jack Nicholson” category; there’s is no one else who can do what he does and he clearly has a ball doing it. But sure, he’s not everyone’s bag. Fans of Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (which, paws in the air, I have yet to read) seem deeply divided on Carrey’s portrayal of the villain Count Olaf, who is (apparently) a far less comedic and more monstrous individual in the books. Sucks to be them. I think this is his best work in anything not called The Truman Show. Look, casting Jim Carrey and expecting him not to be Jim Carrey is like hiring a bouncy castle and then just putting it your front garden for children to look at.
Going in, there were more red flags than a China versus Vietnam World Cup Final. A straight-to-DVD CGI movie I’d never heard of from a studio I’d never heard of helmed by one of the directors of Shark Tale? Yeah, let’s just say I went into this in full Anton Ego mode.
But I dug a little deeper and I started seeing a few green shoots of hope. For you see, director Bibo Bergeron (of, I believe, the Sackville Bergerons) is not just the co-director of Shark’s Tale. As an animator he worked on Fievel Goes West, A Goofy Movie and The Iron Giantwhich is a pretty damned impressive filmography before you even factor in that he co-directed The Road to El Dorado!
There has been a realisation slowly festering in my mind for a good few years now. A realisation whose inexorable truth forces me to re-evaluate core, deeply held beliefs and even my own sense of identity.
And it is this.
One More Day needed to happen.
That’s not to forgive how it happened. Or the rationale given for why it had to happen. Or the long series of mistakes that led to it. But I’ve gone from thinking that it was one of the worst stories in comics history, to a necessary piece of narrative table clearing (that was also just a fucking trainwreck as a comic).
Back when I was doing publicity for Sparrow I was asked who my One True Pairing was and I gave possibly the most vanilla, basic and boring answer possible.
But it’s true! This just works. And there’s so many reasons why. Firstly, you have the obvious chemistry of two very different characters clashing against each other. The quiet, soft-spoken farm boy and the brassy big-city journalist. But most importantly, I think, is the fact that Lois Lane is an integral part of Superman’s story engine rather than simply being vestigial to it. Lois, at least in most incarnations, is a whip-smart investigative reporter and former army brat. What this means in practical story terms is that she has a nose for trouble and the combat training to do something about it when she finds it. This was how the old Fleischer cartoons utilised her; having Lois uncover some nefarious threat which would then allow Superman to arrive and beat the snot out of it. These two aren’t just a great partnership textually, they are metatextually working together to create the story. Superman marrying Lois Lane in the comics was a perfectly logical step because, honestly, what can possibly be gained by having Superman playing the field? There’s only one gal for him. I know it, you know it. Now, let’s take a look at the antithesis of that.
Now, before you get the wrong idea, let me say this upfront. I LOVE Mary Jane Watson. I think she’s a fantastic character, especially considering she was initially created as a gag.
Mary Jane first “appeared” all the way back in Amazing Spider-Man #15 when Aunt May mentions “that Watson girl” next door. This starts a running gag of Aunt May trying to fix Peter up with this girl and Peter weaselling out of it because he assumes that any girl his Aunt likes must be strictly squaresville, daddio.
This running gag lasted a full two years until issue 42 where Peter is finally strong-armed into going on a date with Mary-Jane and finally meets her face to face.
Iconic moment. Perfect. 10/10. No notes.
Famously, Mary Jane was such a force of personality that she took on a life of her own. She was initially just supposed to be a secondary love interest for Peter, a distraction from his One True Love, the sainted Gwen Stacy. But fans loved Mary Jane. Of course they did. How could you not? And so it was Gwen who went sightseeing with the Green Goblin, and Mary Jane became Peter’s girlfriend and finally, his wife.
And, on paper, Mary Jane is a lot like Lois Lane. Beautiful, tough, smart, sassy and doesn’t take any shit. But, y’see, Peter Parker has one thing in common with alt-rock singer Lazlo Bane: he’s no Superman. And, like in real life, some characters just aren’t cut out for marriage. And whereas the marriage of Superman and Lois has been one of the most enduring and stable elements of their status quo, the 1987 marriage of Peter and Mary Jane quickly came to be seen as a problem that needed to be worked around.
Peter Parker has always been a younger character than Clark Kent. Clark has a steady job in journalism (stop snickering in the back), Peter lives pay-check to pay-check doing freelance work. Clark is practically invulnerable, Peter is one bullet away from an early grave. Clark Kent is mature, stable, happy and living his best life. Peter is young, insecure and perpetually on the verge of psychological, emotional or financial collapse. Clark Kent is Superman because he’s a good man who wants to help people. Peter Parker is Spider-Man because he is a child broken by guilt. One of these guys is marriage material. One isn’t.
And so the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson became a joyless death march where we got to watch a once vivacious and fun loving woman ground down by the debts of being the wife of Peter Parker. Again and again, she’d try to convince him to give up being Spider-Man and he would, only for the narrative gods to call him back to the webbing because, well, he can’t stop being Spider-Man. By contrast, I can’t remember any time in any media where Lois Lane asked Clark when he’s going to pack this Superman nonsense in. Because why would she? She loves Superman.
Multiple attempts were made to dig Spider-Man and MJ out of this narrative hole. Hell, the entire reason for the two-year long travesty that was the Clone Saga was to get Peter and MJ to a happy ending so that Ben Reilly could take over as a new, single Spider-Man. But nothing worked. The obvious solution, for them simply to divorce, was dismissed as Joe Quesada didn’t want Peter to do something so immoral as getting a divorce (remember that). While I don’t agree with that rationale, I do think having them divorce would have created problems. Spider-Man works best as a young character, that’s the whole reason teens flocked to him in the sixties, and having him divorced permanently ages him and makes him less relatable to your target audience. Not many guys in their early twenties worrying about alimony payments, y’know? So the situation festered until 2007 when Marvel finally decided to cut this Gordian knot with One More Day. If, when cutting the Gordian Knot, Alexander the Great had accidentally killed several bystanders and then stabbed himself in the dick.
I’ll try to keep this brief. During the Civil War storyline Peter Parker made the world class blunder of trusting Tony Stark and unmasked himself to the world as a way of showing his support for the Superhuman Registration Act. But when Peter realises that Tony’s perfectly reasonable agenda of government oversight and accountability for superheroes had started taking its cues from Stalinist Russia he switches sides and becomes an illegal hero. So now Peter, Mary Jane and Aunt May are on the run and every supervillain in the world knows he’s Spider-Man. Aunt May gets shot and is dying and Peter, despite knowing genius scientists, world-class doctors and ACTUAL GODDAMN WIZARDS is unable to find anyone who can treat a perfectly normal gunshot wound. At which point Mephisto, THE LITERAL GOD OF EVIL, approaches Peter and makes him an offer; he’ll save Aunt May in exchange for erasing Peter and MJ’s marriage out of existence.
People were PAID to write this. Actual professional writers.
What makes it worse is that even IF you were dead-set on such a contrived, obvious writer-fiat way of resolving the problem, there were ways to make it better. Linkara had a great suggestion; have Mary-Jane be the one who gets shot and then have Peter have to sacrifice their marriage to save her. Then, at least, it becomes something epic and tragic and genuinely noble, rather than Peter sacrificing his vows to his wife to save Aunt May, a woman who explicitly told him that he should let her go so she could be with her beloved husband in heaven just because he can’t let go.
So other than the terrible contrived writing, the massive character derailment and the huge implied insult to the audience’s intelligence, how was the comic, Mrs Lincoln?
Well…like I said, ghastly business though it was, One More Day was ultimately a success in that it did what it was designed to do. Peter Parker went back to being a young single superhero and the Spider books underwent something of a renaissance during the Brand New Day era. But, my God, it came at a price. And ultimately, I think that’s why we hate One More Day so much. It was the hero we needed, not the one we deserved. Also, really weird pick to base a movie on.
You know what? I confess. I phoned the New Mutants review in. I was feeling tired, uninspired and unenthused about the movie and in the end I just kinda bashed it out. Sorry. Sometimes I just don’t have anything particularly insightful or funny to say about a particular film. Maybe it’s because I’ve just come off anti-depressants. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe I was just lazy. Whatever it was, I apologise. Now let’s draw a line under it and talk about something I’m actually passionate about…OH GAWD NO.
No. No! I don’t care about the Eternals and ya can’t make me dammit!
Okay. Some of what I’m about to say may seem a little harsh so let me preface it with this:
Jack Kirby was one of the most influential comic creators in the history of the medium and a bona fide American hero to boot. He co-created Captain America and fought Nazis before America even entered World War 2. He combined a singular, iconic art-style with a rock solid work ethic and a fantastic imagination capable of coming up with far out, head-melting concepts.
“Concepts” are not “plots”. They are not “characters”. And they are most certainly not “dialogue”. And I do not think its a coincidence that, whatever the ups and downs of their tempestous relationship, Kirby’s best work was done in collaboration with a certain somebody who excelled in those areas.
There’s a saying that everyone has one good story in them, but for some people one is their lot and I’m afraid that, when it came to narrative, Jack was kind of a one trick pony. That trick, admittedly, was pretty neat; superheroes as gods. Six years before the appearance of Thor in Marvel, Kirby did his own take on the God of Thunder for DC in the anthology series Tales of the Unexpected before updating the Norse pantheon as the race of super advanced alien Asgardians for Marvel. He later co-created the Inhumans, a secretive race of superhumans who act like a pantheon of gods and were created as a result of “Chariots of the Gods” style interference by the alien Kree. After years of being slighted and disrespected by Marvel editorial, he jumped ship to DC where he created the Fourth World, a series about god-like superhero aliens. After that was cancelled, he returned to Marvel and created The Eternals, a series about gods from ancient mythology who are actually superhumans created as a result of “Chariots of the Gods” style interference by alien gods.
You see what I’m talking about? The dude kinda had a limited pool of ideas to draw on and I think that his solo work really demonstrates why he needed Stan Lee. On the other hand of course, Stan Lee’s catalogue shows that Stan Lee was an iconoclastic genius auteur who didn’t need help from anybody.
The big problem with the Eternals as a concept, the reason why they’ve never been a fan favourite and why Marvel has always struggled mightily with knowing what to do with them is this: the Marvel universe is so packed to the gills with Kirby’s influence (either from his own creations or those of creators building on his concepts) that the Eternals can’t but help feel utterly redundant. There is no Eternals story that can’t be told with the Inhumans, or the Avengers, or the Asgardians, or the X-Men or the Titans (Thanos’ crowd) because they all arose, directly or indirectly, from the febrile primordial soup of Kirby’s imagination. Which is probably why they have always been one of the few Marvel properties I just cannot bring myself to care about. Because whatever you think the Eternals bring to the table, chances are there’s another table serving the same thing only better. And, from a cursory glance, it appears that their fortunes did not improve with the move to the big screen. Its box-office performance was pretty good (especially considering the pandemic) but rather anemic for a Marvel movie with a $200 million price tage. And it has the ignominous distinction of being the first Marvel movie with a “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Which means, of course, like the contrarian rodent I am, this particular Eternals-hater finds himself nonetheless liking this movie quite a bit.
Stop all the clocks. Cut off the telephone. Prevent the Wolverine from snikting with a juicy bone. Clean away the electrified toads. Shutter the Department of Redundancy Department. Roll up the carpet under which we swept away the allegations against Bryan Singer. The X-Men are dead. Long live the X-Men.
And yet, in a very real way, we already have covered the final X-Men movie, as Dark Phoenix was actually filmed after New Mutants. New Mutants long stay in purgatory while Disney tried to figure out what exactly to do with this malformed creation that Fox had hurriedly thrust in their arms is now well known and need not be re-hashed here. Between the Fox/Disney merger and Covid has any movie had worse luck in terms of timing than New Mutants? Yes, almost certainly. But learning about them would take time and I’m feeling lazy today.
Anyway, like Dark Phoenix I’m feeling oddly charitable to New Mutants, maybe because of its rough upbringing, or maybe just because, deeply flawed though it is, it’s trying to do something that I’ve been saying superhero movies needed to do for years.