Monday, April 5, 2021

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Joker World


The Joker is back—if he ever left.

Oscar-winner Jared Leto returned to the role for a short appearance in the long-anticipated “Snyder Cut” of 2017’s “Justice League,” which premiered on HBO Max last month. Joker wasn’t in the original movie, or in any of the cut footage that fans had been longing to see since the dismal product hit theaters. Nor did he have much to do with the story. But director Zack Snyder said it would seem “uncool” for the Joker to never show up in his series of Batman films. He’s probably right—the Joker has reached the kind of cultural prominence where his absence would have been noticed.

Ten years ago, after Heath Ledger nailed the role in “The Dark Knight,” fans petitioned that the Clown Prince of Crime be permanently retired from cinema. Since then we’ve had two more—three if you count animated movies, and four if you consider Leto’s return to be a new character. 

“I seriously have Joker fatigue,” comics writer Gail Simone said in 2015—and that was several Jokers ago. 

Thursday, April 1, 2021

If You Mite

 At long last, the Snyder Cut is here.

Three and a half years after Justice League fizzled at the theaters, HBO Max last month released director Zack Snyder’s full, four-hour vision of superheroes, swagger and CGI. Snyder, who left production midway through following his daughter’s suicide, and his legion of fans watched helplessly as Warner Brothers and fill-in director Joss Whedon reshot and recut his would-be masterpiece into incoherence. Now, thanks to years of fan pleading and petitioning—as well as alleged death threats and Elmo-booing—we all can watch the first cinematic meet-up of DC Comics’ legendary heroes just as the original director intended.

It’s either a triumph of fan passion and creative freedom over corporate studio fecklessness, or acquiescence to an entitled, aggrieved and toxic sector of fandom, driven to extremes to protect a brawny, excessively masculine ideal of superheroes. Or, possibly, both.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Beaks & Ballots

Donald Trump claims that in 2020, he was up against everyone—the media, the courts, even the vote-counters.

The Penguin would tell him to go cry a river. 

When he ran for Gotham’s mayor in 1966—with his old foe, Batman, as his main opponent—he was opposed not only by the incumbent mayor but the entire Gotham Police Department, whose officers all proudly wore Batman campaign buttons. 

In the classic Batman TV episode “Hizzoner the Penguin”—that’s “His Honor,” if you’re not familiar with early 20th century political lingo—and the follow-up, “Dizzoner the Penguin,” the villain nearly won the mayorship with a lively and ruthless campaign that would put Corey Lewandowski to shame.

And just like Trump, who we almost certainly will see again, it wouldn’t be Penguin’s last foray into politics. The dapper birder and jewel thief gained a taste for politics, going back to the campaign trail in 1992’s “Batman Returns” and later comics. While never as successful as Lex Luthor, who took the presidency in the 90s, Penguin is Gotham’s closest thing to a Trump-like figure, with no lines separating his political ambitions, his business enterprises and his illicit underworld activities. 

But it was the 1966 episode that introduced the Penguin to politics. It’s still a blast to watch today, mixing the series’ madcap camp with an edge of political satire. It’s also a fascinating cultural artifact from a time of rising anxiety about how television was upending American democracy, reflecting fears that have become so baked-in to our political discourse you sometimes need a reminder that they once seemed new.

Gotham was never the same after Penguin gained an interest in politics. Neither was politics, for that matter.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Trump and Kitsch

President Donald Trump has some odd notions about exercise.

The man who claimed, through his doctor, to be the “healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” and mocked his opponents as “low energy” and “sleepy” doesn’t disguise his disdain for unnecessary physical exertion. He believes that human beings are born with a finite amount of life force, and that to squander it is foolhardy. He is the first president since Ronald Reagan to avoid jogging.

Nevertheless, to keep his crowds pumped, his campaign has repeatedly used the most famous anthem to working out in the history of music -- the Village People’s “YMCA.” Trump himself can often be seen boogying to the 40-year-old tunes at the end of his rallies, apparently unworried that a few dance moves could tap his final reserves.

This attracted a few online double-takes. Could the messiah to the Religious Right and running mate of Mike Pence really be a fan of the most flamboyantly gay band to outlive the disco era?

Friday, April 24, 2020

Unbreakable Bonds


My Christmas gift to myself last year was Batman #17, a 1943 comic. The cover shows Batman and Robin riding a bald eagle, urging the reader to keep it flying by buying war bonds and stamps.

As a Batman fan, I’ve always been drawn to the World War II war bond covers--I’m not totally sure why. They don’t feature the elements usually associated with the Dark Knight. There are no dark alleys, bizarre aliens or maniacal clowns. I guess they’re just a simple reminder of Batman’s national significance, only a few years after his creation.

It was already the crown jewel of my comics collection, but it will have a whole new dimension of meaning to me now, in the age of coronavirus. Some have objected to comparing the outbreak to World War II, but I don’t know how else to think about it. It’s the only other time in our cultural memory that the U.S. government has asked its citizens to make such extraordinary sacrifices to serve a common cause and defeat a global threat.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

#TheDress and International Taxes


Yesterday was the five-year anniversary of #TheDress, one of the most fascinating and confounding Internet memes of the past decade. At the time, I saw a remarkable parallel to an international tax policy issue , and considered writing a blog post comparing the two. I wrote it out, but decided not to submit it to my editors—and I’ve regretted it ever since. Here it is, with minimal edits and an update at the end.

March 1, 2015

Unless you spent this weekend away from your computer, your TV, and your phone, you probably heard about “The Dress”—or as it became known on social media, #TheDress. The garment, pictured above, seemed ordinary enough, until people started to describe it. Some people said it was gold and white, others said it was black and blue, and neither group could figure out what in the world the other was talking about. Tens of millions of people on every continent spent Thursday night arguing about it, and it lasted throughout the weekend.

(I can’t see anything other than gold and white. Believe me, I tried.)

The answer, it turns out, wasn’t some social delusion, sorcery, or a mass outbreak of color-blindness. It didn’t even really have to do with eyesight or color. Experts suspect it is due to slight variations in neurology creating differences in how people interpreted the images, color, and light in the picture lead to very different conclusions about what was being depicted.

There’s a similar dynamic which sometimes occurs when governments look at complex corporate tax structures. Due to differences in laws and customs—often slight—tax authorities can come to quite different conclusions about what a structure is, and how it should be taxed. And while #TheDress just resulted in a few moments of amusing online diversion, when it comes to international taxation this phenomenon can cause a serious problem.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Curious Case of Harley Quinn


To call Harley Quinn the most complex and interesting new DC Comics character of the past 40 years is to damn her with faint praise.

True, DC doesn’t make that many new characters who stick. But she’s making a run to be one of the all-time greats from Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery. Go to any comic-con and it’ll be dotted with tassels and colored pigtails, from her signature looks. If she’s not the most popular cosplay character, she’s in a statistical tie with the Caped Crusader himself—no small feat.

The white-faced, red-and-white checker-dressed jester—created 27 years ago as the Joker's henchwoman on "Batman: The Animated Series"—debuted her own new animated show on DC’s streaming service on Friday. In a few months, she’ll return to the silver screen in the gloriously titled “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” Margot Robbie’s second outing as the character and proof that Warner Brothers sees her as one of its most bankable characters.

It took her a long time and a lot of tears to work her way out of the Joker’s shadow. Along the way, she became something of a feminist icon—by never, ever trying to be.