Literary Corner, Uncategorized

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin, Chapters 17-19

“I guess they don’t know what’s good for them,” said Freeze. “Cops on the rocks, anyone?”

Multiply that tenfold, throw in descriptions of cinematic action scenes that really weren’t that good anyway, and you pretty much already know what’s in the last few chapters in Batman & Robin are like.

Fun fact: at some point Patrick Stewart was being considered for the role of Mr. Freeze. Can you imagine him saying lines like…

“Cops are so hot-tempered these days”

Well, okay, actually it’s not that hard to imagine.

mrfreeze2

Anyway, Batman and Robin of course fight Mr. Freeze’s goons. Michael Jan Friedman sneaks in a line that’s genuinely funny, which of course wasn’t in the original script.

“Boy”, [Robin] thought, as he left the skiers in his wake. “I hope for Freeze’s sake he buys these guys by the dozen.”

They’re too late, though, because Mr. Freeze has already hijacked the observatory’s equipment to flash-freeze the citizens of Gotham City. Compared to being gassed by the Joker, it’s perhaps not as bad, especially because Batman works out that human beings can be defrosted from the effects of Mr. Freeze’s ray, but it has to be done within eleven minutes. How he works that out? Well, the narrative doesn’t know either, but at least it admits that.

Batgirl wasn’t sure how [Batman] knew that. On the other hand she wasn’t about to question anything he said.

Since she didn’t question how her butler uncle created an artificial intelligence clone of his consciousness, why become a skeptic now?

Of course, Batman is right, and Batgirl uses her hacking skills (I swear it’s the only point in the whole book where she’s useful) to use satellites keyed into the observatory to bathe Gotham in enough sunlight to save everyone.

As Batman goes to stop Mr. Freeze from disabling the satellites, Robin and Batgirl are attacked by Bane. So, yes, the villain famous for breaking Batman’s back in one of the most famous stories in the entire franchise’s existence isn’t just reduced to a dialogue-less, character-less lackey, but doesn’t even really fight Batman. And it takes a little over a page for them to defeat him. Do you get why this film generates Chernobyl-esque levels of nerd-rage inducing contamination?

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Anyway, in the climactic battle between Mr. Freeze and Batman, we get the crappy one liner to end all crappy one liners:

“We aim to freeze!”

I think that one actually caused me to blackout for a little while.

The God of Plot Convenience intervenes when Batman fights Mr. Freeze to a standstill, allowing him to reveal that Poison Ivy was the one who tried to kill Nora and that Batman had managed to save her. For some reason, Mr. Freeze just happens to have a cure he invented for the early stages of the disease that forced Mr. Freeze to put Nora in suspended animation, which happens to be the same disease that threatens to kill Alfred. Hooray, Dick and Bruce can go back to taking an elderly man for granted in no time!

Unfortunately, Poison Ivy won’t get a happy ending. But, first, we get a bit of a teaser for Batman Triumphant, the sequel that never happened.

The Riddler, the Mad Hatter, Maxie Zeus…all of them thoroughly mad. All of them hollowed out by this place until they were devoid of hope. Only the Scarecrow refrained from shrieking and cursing with the rest of them. But he was the maddest of all.

See, Batman Triumphant was supposed to be the third Batman film directed by Joel Schumacher, with the Scarecrow and Harley Quinn as the villains and even Jack Nicholson reprising the Joker in a scene depicting Batman’s own Scarecrow-induced nightmare (and, yes, proving once and for all that the Tim Burton movies and  the Schumacher movies are in the same continuity, despite how little sense that makes). Despite solemn promises would be tonally darker, Batman & Robin‘s poor box office performance and reputation as a big-budget b-movie doomed Batman Triumphant, the whole Burton-Schumacher series, and superhero movies until the still-booming boom.

By one of those pop culture coincidences only I care about, the Scarecrow was also supposed to be the villain in Tim Burton’s never-made third Batman film. I would say he’s the kiss of death for Batman film franchises if not for Batman Begins. Anyway, having read a script that was at least supposed to have been the latest draft of the Batman Triumphant script, I’m convinced we didn’t miss much, although I am faintly grieved that we all missed out on Jeffrey Goldblum as the Scarecrow.

Back to Poison Ivy, she’s plucking the petals off a flower, playing “he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not”, which is something Poison Ivy, even as she exists in the film’s universe, would never do. Mr. Freeze shows up in Ivy’s cell, after bribing the guards.

“Prepare for a bitter harvest,” Freeze told her, his eyes glinting like daggers. “Winter has come at last.”

Ivy swallowed. This wasn’t he kind of cold embrace she’d had in mind.

So…I guess Batman & Robin followed the quirky series tradition of leaving one of the two featured villains dead after all.

Meanwhile Bruce reflects on his relationship with Alfred, specifically an incident when Bruce was sent to a child psychiatrist after the death of his parents and only Alfred perceived that Bruce had only told the psychiatrist what he expected to hear.

Of course, Alfred had known what was going on. But he hadn’t intervened to protest the boy’s behavior. It was as if he’d sensed that Bruce would need a clean bill of health one day. As if he’d known the boy would need to fade into the background, bland and uninteresting, so someone else could emerge and never be linked to him.

Honestly that’s the kind of thing the book needed more of. Actually, it’s what the script needed a lot more of. Among the many flaws in the movie is that it slaps on a “we’re a family” theme, only without actually doing much to explore Bruce’s relationship with Alfred. Oh well, at least Barbara is around to point out that the Bat-signal comes out, as if to remind everyone of her existence.

My final verdict: I do think Michael Jan Friedman comes out of this looking well enough, but he was given an impossible assignment. Batman & Robin was a bad film from the script up, and the elements that made the movie bearable, even vaguely enjoyableArnold Schwarzenegger’s weirdly earnest performance as Mr. Freeze and Schumacher’s gloriously day-glo Silver Age camp vision of Gotham City, for example—are practically impossible to replicate in prose. You can see where Friedman tried to add background detail and give the narrative some kind of nice thematic wrapping—see Batman use the gymnastic knowledge he got from young, pre-insanity Mr. Freeze to save his life!—but you get the sense he gave up at a certain point…much like many other people who worked to bring us Batman & Robin.

 

 

 

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Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin, Chapters 14-15

One of the genuinely interesting things that comes from reading a novel or graphic novel adaptation of a film is that sometimes they’ll include scenes left out of the theatrical cut of the film or only included in earlier drafts of the script. In this case, there are more scenes with Julie Madison, a character from the earliest years of Batman’sjuliemadison existence who in the movie, like in the comics, is Bruce’s fiancee. However, there aren’t as many scenes even in the novel as were actually filmed, and it’s been rumored that on the cutting room floor is a scene where Poison Ivy stabbed Julie to death in the Gotham Observatory. Now that would have jarred the tone up!

Unlike her cinematic predecessors – Vicki Vale, Selina Kyle, and Dr. Chase Meridian (God, I will never not hate that stupid name) – Julie really barely qualifies as even a love interest. In fact, even with all her scenes intact, she barely exists in the film’s universe. She’s even more of a non-entity than Commissioner Gordon, if that’s possible. It’s almost like the filmmakers wanted to crack jokes about Bruce’s real love interest in this movie being Dick. It writes itself!

Anyway, we do get at least one allegedly funny scene where Poison Ivy accidentally ends Bruce and Julie’s engagement when she infects him with her pheromone powers.

“Make a choice,” said the starlet, intensely aware of the swarming reporters. “Her or me, Bruce.”
The rich man hesitated – but only for a moment. “Well, um…her.”

Again, while the movie does show Poison Ivy kill people, even if they’re not Julie herself, her effectiveness as a villain does seem limited to ruining Bruce’s relationship with a woman we barely see.

Speaking of broken hearts, next we switch to Robin, who is more full of angst than a ’90s X-Men comic. Featuring only Rogue and Gambit.

why couldn’t Bruce just be happy for him, for godsakes? Why couldn’t he, of all people on earth, understand how good it felt to be loved again – really loved – and to have someone to love in return? […] The wind howled around him, echoing the howling in his heart. How could Bruce be so cruel to him? How?

Okay, now I’m convinced that Michael Jan Friedman is in on the big gay joke too.

Actually, even though for a while it seemed like Michael Jan Friedan was on auto-pilot, this might be another case of the author’s good ideas being constrained by the crappy script he’s adapting.  Whether or not Robin’s tantrum is being brought on by Poison Ivy’s influence, there is a germ of an interesting concept in exploring how Bruce, who obviously has one or two emotional issues, might actually have problems being a paternal figure and offering psychological comfort to even someone who went through a trauma very similar to what he did. Bruce might just assume that bringing Dick Grayson into his mission of justice is all the resolution he needs, which is very much not the case. There’s something to how troubling it is, and yet so natural to the character, that Bruce Wayne’s worldview is so shaped by one horrible event that he would subconsciously assume that anyone who also lost family to criminal violence would be made whole by becoming a vigilante like he did. The implications of that for all young characters who adopt Batman’s legacy, including both Robin and Batgirl, can fuel many stories (all better than this one, of course).

batmanandrobinrobinAt least I think that’s what Michael Jan Friendman is hinting at. Even if he is, it still gets buried under the stupid and forced “love triangle” between Batman, Robin, and Poison Ivy. I mean, someone had to realize at some point that it’s not much of a conflict when everyone knows Robin and Batman are just under Poison Ivy’s influence, right? Trust me, in prose form it’s even more obvious.

What’s not expected is what Alfred planned as his “replacement” in the event of his death. In the movie it comes across as a bizarre, lazy, and deranged deus ex machina. In the book, it…comes across as a bizarre, lazy, and deranged deus ex machina.

“I anticipated a moment might arrive,” said the image, “where I became incapacitated. As a precaution against such a circumstance, i programmed my brain algorithms into the Batcomputer and reated a virtual simulation – the one you see before you.”
Bruce stared for a moment. then he shook his head in admiration of the older man’s genius.

Oh, my elderly butler and father-figure created an AI clone of himself – impressive, but ain’t no thing.

Okay, I can buy the charitable arguments that Batman & Robin was scripted with not only the ’60s television series, but also with the campy Silver Age comics in mind, but I think even in those stories this would have been too much of a plot convenience. And I mean it would have strained suspension of disbelief even right next to that Silver Age saga where Alfred was believed killed by a boulder, secretly brought back to life but accidentally turned into a monster by a scientist, and plotted to destroy Batman and Robin for no reason.batmanandrobinalfredai

It doesn’t help that Alfrednet only exists to help Barbara figure out that Bruce and Dick are Batman and Robin, and help her become Batgirl…say it with me, for no reason. At least in the book that stupid blazing red Batman logo doesn’t glow on her face from the computer screen, showing the worst kept secret in history.

To be fair, in the book Alfrednet also does pretty much everything to get Bruce to figure out that he and Dick have been under the control of Poison Ivy’s pheromones, which…you know what, Batman, you do not get to call yourself the “World’s Greatest Detective” anymore. Bad Batman!

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Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin, Chapters 10-11

Right away we get another example of why the Batman & Robin ‘verse doesn’t work in prose or film:

[Mr. Freeze] was headed for a cell in the notoriously hellish institution known as Arkham Asylum…being put away with some of the most sadistic criminal minds ever to caress a switchblade.

Arkham Asylum just doesn’t fit in that well with a lighthearted, more Adam West-esque interpretation of the Batman universe. Sure, it can be mentioned, or even shown, but making it a central part of the story poses some tonal problems. I’m not sure, but I’d bet that’s one of the reasons a scene depicting Two-Face’s violent escape from Arkham Asylum in Batman Forever was cut.

This is not just because Arkham is grim and violent, but what it represents:  how most of Batman’s rogues gallery are damaged people – possibly irreparably – like Batman himself. It’s a heavy idea, one that falls right through a narrative filled with puns but light on all the little things like characterization. But at least it gives Michael Jan Friedman a chance to write in some cameos.

Through the small, barred window set into the door of one cell, he could see a dark-bearded visage emerge from the shadows. And a moment later, an arrogant smile. “It’s good to see you, Lord of the Frigid North,” the inmate declared in a resonant and commanding voice. “Perhaps we can join forces for a little revenge. As you know, it’s a dish best served cold.”

Meanwhile Poison Ivy and Bane make their base in an abandoned bathhouse, which [insert “Batman & Robin is so gay” joke here]. Bruce is on a date with Julie Madison, who is about to propose to him, but Bruce is distracted by his illicit desire for Poison Ivy, so [insert another “Batman & Robin is so gay” joke here]. And Dick and Barbara bond over participating in a motorcycle race, although it ends badly when Barbara castigates Dick for not even noticing that Alfred is terminally ill, which…is a really good point, actually. At least the Dark Knight Detective does know, and it’s actually all but spelled out that he didn’t tell Dick because of his trouble coming to terms with it. I haven’t seen the movie in a while, but I’m pretty sure that’s more explanation than we get in the film itself.

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This was something else that Friedman tries to flesh out, but can’t quite because the film’s script left him so little to work with. To be fair, though, it doesn’t help that Alfred in these movies is, besides Commissioner Gordon, the most shadowy supporting character, as perfectly has he was portrayed by the great Michael Gough. In the comics and in the animated series (which animated series? The animated series, duh), he’s definitely Batman’s essential civilian partner in crimefighting, handling some of the logistical aspects. Depending on the writer or the era of the franchise, there’s more about Alfred being a father figure, if not outright being Bruce’s legal guardian, but the Burton-Schumacher movies steered away from all that understandably, since the family servant getting to be Bruce’s guardian is probably about as unrealistic as the idea of a billionaire in a bat costume going around beating up the mentally ill [Fun Nerd Fact: The whole thing is a rare example of Silver Age comics being more realistic than their more modern counterparts, since the former had Bruce’s uncle as his legal guardian after his parents’ death, while the “Modern Age” of comics made Alfred the sole person to raise the orphaned Bruce.]

Well, as far as the film continuity goes, there might have been a throwaway line in 1989 Batman about Alfred raising Bruce, and I will totally take the time to watch the movie again just to verify that! Watch this space!

Anyway, it’s not as bad as Barbara Gordon Wilson’s entire character and plotline, but the gravitas of Alfred’s illness also just comes flying out of nowhere. That’s not to say this movie and previous ones don’t establish that Bruce cares for Alfred, much more than one would care for an employee, but the idea that losing Alfred would be like losing a parent just isn’t earned. There’s no intimate scene of Bruce and Batman bonding or reflecting on their relationship, no flashback to Alfred caring for young Bruce, virtually nothing about how Alfred feels about the man he watched grew up risking his life every single night…that Alfred means a great deal to Bruce and Dick is just a detail to be spelled out briefly. The book handles it better, because honestly it would have to, but again the story is just so poorly stitched together Alfred’s whole illness even in prose is basically just the Macguffin of Sadness.

The two chapters end with Poison Ivy and Bane busting Mr. Freeze out of Arkham. Hopefully the cure for his wife that Mr. Freeze is working on will help Alfred! How neat would that be?

 

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Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin, Chapters 8-9

So I suppose it’s inevitable I’ll just dwell on the same topics.  There’s only so much to be said about Batman & Robin the film, and like how Michael Jan Friedman must have struggled with stretching the movie’s sparse plot out into a book, it’s tricky to not return to some of the same ground in writing this book up.

That said, yeah, even though Michael Jan Friedman is a good writer, this book does more to show why Batman & Robin is an even worse interpretation of the Batman mythos than Batdude and Throbin.

batdudeandthrobin

For instance, there’s more clumsy juggling of “Mr. Freeze the tragic villain” with “Mr. Freeze the punster.”

Fries and his wife were playing with a puppy in a field somewhere.  Upstate New York, he thought – or was it New Hampshire?  It was the height of summer, judging by the brightness of the light and the cut of their clothes.  What was the dog’s name again?  He thought for a moment.  Sunshine?  Sunspot?  Something like that.  It was getting harder and harder for Freeze to remember such things.

Notice the subtle differentiation between “Fries” and “Freeze”?  As if Mr. Freeze no longer even sees himself as the normal human being he used to be?  That’s a legitimately good character moment, but it’s all followed by…

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” said Frosty, “but I got something here you might want to see.”  He held out a newspaper clipping.  Without a word, Freeze lifted his gun and fired.  In a flash, Frosty had frozen solid, still grasping the clipping.  “I hate it when people talk during the movie,” he muttered.

I’m not saying you can’t have actual characterization, much less the occasional poignant moment, alongside old-school camp.  Look at “Batman: The Brave and The Bold” series, which embraced Batman’s goofy Silver Age post but still had effective, genuinely moving moments like the members of the Doom Patrol, who had become cynical and washed-up superheroes, choosing to sacrifice their own lives to save a group of strangers.  Like a lot of good writing, it’s a delicate balancing act, one that’s completely overturned with a barrage of crappy puns coming from an interpretation of a villain the audience is supposed to feel sorry for.  Imagine if Magneto in X-Men: Days of Future Past went around telling Xavier, “Well, that’s why we’re…polar opposites.

But lets move on before I churn out a whole treatise about this.  Mr. Freeze is planning to steal a diamond being exhibited at some charity gala that will be hosted by Bruce Wayne, but of course the whole thing is a trap.  By a cosmic coincidence, the gala has a botanical theme, and it’s where Poison Ivy chooses to make her true debut, appearing on stage like in the movie à la Marlene Dietrich coming out of the gorilla costume in Blonde Venus. 

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Naturally right away her pheromone magic works on Bruce Wayne and every other dude in attendance.

“Hi there,” said the woman, lifting the man’s chin with a slender forefinger. She winked at him. “And, er, you are…?” he sputtered. “Poison,” she said, smiling. “Poison Ivy.” Poison Ivy, Batman thought, trying to focus on her features. But it wasn’t easy. He left like a man who had drunk a quart of love passion.

Poison Ivy appears as one of the flower-themed girls up for auction. This might be a chance to make some commentary about objectification and Poison Ivy’s rage against men like Prof. Woodrue, but…no, it’s all about Batman and Robin already starting to fight over Ivy by trying to outbid each other, even though it basically means that Bruce Wayne is trying to outbid Bruce Wayne. We don’t really know why Ivy is bothering with all this, aside from the fact that the script wanted her to be there to meet Mr. Freeze. Again, I have to wonder how strictly Michael Jan Friedman was required to stick to the script.

Oh, and I neglected so far to mention one of the most important characters in Batman & Robin.

Then, out of nowhere, Gossip Gerty made a face and asked, “Is it getting nippy in here?”

Does Gossip Gerty get more screentime than Commissioner Gordon in the movie?  Let’s just assume, yes, yes she does.

Anyway, Mr. Freeze crashes the gala and confiscates the diamond from Poison Ivy, who falls in love at first sight.  The feeling is not mutual for Mr. Freeze, who turns out to be completely immune to her pheromones.

“Let me guess,” he said haughtily, dispassionately. “Plant Girl? Vine Lady? Miss Moss?”

I have to admit again, I actually liked that bit…although like with Bane getting drafted as Poison Ivy’s muscle it does hint toward the script’s odd refusal to let Poison Ivy be much of a real villain in her own right, as opposed to the super-serious menace of this movie’s Mr. Freeze.

Mr. Freeze also leaves Poison Ivy with a snowglobe.  Inside is a miniature Gotham with the words “Welcome to Gotham City.”   No, I can’t imagine a more fitting way to welcome a newcomer to Gotham City than by having their super-criminals leave souvenirs to their victims.

Regardless of what I think about the tendency of most of the Burton and the Nolan movies to have at least pairs of supervilllains, teaming up Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy does make more sense than putting together Man-Bat and the Mad Hatter, or Harley Quinn and the Scarecrow (which actually was the plan for the unmade Batman Triumphant). They’re both from the minority of genuinely superpowered members of Batman’s rogues gallery, and as the book itself points out they’re both “elemental.” Plus thematically putting the villain who symbolizes lust and passion with a villain who is a mournful, tragic figure yet believes himself to be dead to emotion does generate some creative currency. I’m iffier on the idea of making Poison Ivy an obsessed fan of a supervillain; shoving her into a spot that better fits Harley Quinn, in other words. i mean, from the very beginning, even though Poison Ivy’s origin has seen a lot of changes, she’s generally been about being a woman who has been hurt by men or a male-dominated society and using sex appeal to force her own way. But I can still see a romantic obsession based on admiration of another’s ruthlessness and inhumanity working, you know, or at least working if this wasn’t Batman & Robin.

poisonivywithmrfreeze

Enough of that, though, as Batman and Robin pursue Mr. Freeze we get the real relationship that drives the story:  the partnership of Batman and Robin, or rather Batman having to put up with Robin’s perpetual motion machine of whining:

“You know,” Dick went on, “in the circus, the Flying Graysons were a team. We had to depend on each other. Each of us had to trust the others to do their parts or we were finished. That’s what whaaa whaaa whaaa whaaa whaaa whaaa the only way to win is by counting on someone else.”

I may have taken some liberties with the text there, but you get the gist.

At least we are left with this,

Bruce smiled tautly. “Be reasonable. You couldn’t even keep your mind on the job at hand. All you could think about was Poison Ivy.” Dick exploded – at least partly…

Hehehehehehehehehehe.  Oh come on, like you don’t think that’s intentional.

Well, we can’t possibly follow that up, so let’s breeze…or should I say, freeze through the rest: Mr. Freeze gets captured and sent to Arkham Asylum, while Barbara shows us that she’s even more of a Strong Independent Woman (TM).  We learn she knows judo and can handle a motorcycle, so it’s totally not out of the blue that she can be an effective vigilante fighting against superpowered lunatics!

Oh well, at least Michael Jan Friedman got away with not having to mention the Bat Credit Card.

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Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin, Chapters 6-7

It’s pretty much a matter of rare nerd consensus that the most unpleasant incarnation of Batman is Frank Miller’s version in All-Star Batman & Robin, or “Crazy Steve” as Linkara christened him.  Now that I’m seeing him fleshed out in this book, though, I think Batman & Robin‘s Batman might be a contender.

“Where’s Alfred?” they asked simultaneously.
The bell rang a third time.
Suddenly, Alfred appeared behind them.  “I must have dozed off,” the butler explained – and not without a certain embarrassment.  As he confronted Bruce, he looked painfully contrite.  “My sincerest apologies, sir.”
Bruce held up a hand and smiled.  “First time in thirty years, Alfred.  I think we can find it in our hearts to overlook it.”

Okay, I get that the intent here is to show Bruce trying to ease Alfred’s discomfort with humor, but still, it’s almost like joking, “Oh, Alfred, do it again and I’ll have you shot like the worthless, crippled horse you are!”  Ah well, at least he didn’t ask if he was retarded.

On second thought, maybe having that particular interpretation of Batman involved would be the best thing for this book.  Can you imagine post-insanity Frank Miller’s ASB&R going up against the punny movie Mr. Freeze?  Get a fan fic writer on that, stat.

I know I’ve been hard on Michael Jan Friedman, even though he’s really just the victim of an unenviable writing assignment – and the need for an artist to get a paycheck in a capitalist, post-industrial society, of course.  He won over my sympathy especially because he needed to have this scene introduce Barbara Gordon Wilson, who is on a technical level the film script’s own walking, talking biggest misstep, what with her entire introduction and character feeling like an afterthought.  As much as I still love the Tim Burton movies, they did leave B&R in the lurch in this regard, making Commissioner Jim Gordon such a non-entity that introducing his daughter as Batman’s new partner could only come flying at the speed of sound out of left field.  Still, there were various ways a good scriptwriter could have gotten around all that.  But, alas, a good scriptwriter B&R did not have. Making her instead Alfred’s niece was a lazy patchjob that, as we’ll see, robs any drama from Barbara’s decision to become Batgirl.  (As with so much of the Joel Schumacher movies, comparing the big-budget Hollywood movies to what the plucky animated series was doing with the same material, in this case making Barbara Gordon first becoming Batgirl a desperate bid to save her father, is helpful. Or depressing. Let’s go with depressing.)

Batgirl

 

Part of the problem too is that Batgirl’s character, fitting to her “Oh damn, I just finished an entire draft of the script but the studio just said we gotta throw in another element of the franchise here” secret origin (so I presume), is that she’s so cookie-cutter. She attends a snotty boarding school, yet she secretly does stunts on motorcycles!  Yep, she’s got Strong Independent Woman (TM) written all over her tights.

And, to give him credit, Michael Jan Friedman does what he can here. He fleshes out Barbara’s connection to Alfred, elaborating that Barbara isn’t really Alfred’s niece, but the daughter of his lost love, Margaret Clark (not a character from the comics, but I think the name does come from a DC editor). Of course, how Margaret’s husband and Barbara’s actual father handled his wife’s old flame having a paternal relationship with his daughter isn’t explained, although I like to think Friedman is hinting that Barbara might actually be more than Alfred’s niece. At any rate, it is a nice bit of characterization for Alfred – leaving some things to the reader’s imagination, while detailing both Alfred’s sense of honor and feelings of regret.  Too bad it doesn’t really do much for Barbara “Wilson.”

On the villains’ side, we find out that Mr. Freeze commits crimes to try to save his cryogenically frozen wife, who was dying of a rare disease. But he might also be a little bit insane.

“Do you think I’m mad, Frosty?”
Frosty wrung out his sleeves. “That’s really a judgment call, Boss. Not for me to say.”

Okay, I genuinely liked that bit, notwithstanding that Mr. Freeze dubbed his henchman “Frosty.” Too on the nose, doctor!

But it doesn’t help that we get hints of the tragic version of Mr. Freeze, yet buried under an avalanche (see, I can do it too) of puns.

Freeze scowled.  “To be frozen. To never change. A life of perfect ice-olation.” [Ow. -Ed.] He shook his head. “There is no perfection in that.”

As for Poison Ivy and Bane…ah, I didn’t really talk about Bane last time, did I? That was probably B&R‘s greatest sin among the fanbase: turning a villain who was a genius bruiser, who broke Batman’s spine, into a mindless, voiceless henchman. Personally I thought it was even worse that the whole implication was that Poison Ivy couldn’t be a threat unless she had a superstrong thug at her beck and call.

The driver hesitated for a moment. Then he chuckled and turned around in his seat. His nostrils flared, drinking in what he must have thought was some exotic and expensive perfume.
“Okay,” he said. “what is it?”
“Don’t look now,” she whispered provocatively, “but I think you’re about to be replaced.”
The man looked at her quizzically. “Huh?”
Suddenly, a hand reached in through the open window – a huge hand – and snapped the driver’s neck. Then his door opened, and he was dragged out onto the pavement.

Basically, it really didn’t take long for the mousy and somewhat ethical scientist we met to become a serial killer. I know that’s an issue with villain origin stories in movies, but…well, I’d be the first to admit that if I ever got superpowers I’d probably go on a revenge spree, but even I’d probably feel a little bad about offing bystanders (well, at least at first).

[Bane] was about to put the engine in gear when the door beside Pamela opened again – and a man in a business suit slid in. […] “I’m sorry,” he said weakly. “There must be some mistake-” Pamela smiled. “Silly darling, there’s no need to pretend in front of the driver.” Grabbing his face, she kissed him passionately. By the time she let go, the man was dead. As he slumped to the floor, Pamela reached over and opened the door. Then she pushed him out with her foot. He slid to the ground beside the limo driver. “Love hurts,” she advised the corpses as she closed the door. “In my case, it kills.”

Groan.

Although, of course, I wonder, would Poison Ivy’s powers of pheromone seduction work on lesbians? Or conversely would they work on gay guys? I guess we’ll find out. (Sorry, it’s Joel Schumacher, so…I had to work that joke in somewhere).

Finally, the two chapters conclude with what was actually a deleted scene from the movie, where Pamela confronts Bruce Wayne at the ceremonial opening of the Giant Chekhov’s Gun…I mean, Gotham Observatory. We meet Julie Madison, who was Bruce Wayne’s love interest and even fiancee way back in the early years of the franchise when Batman was fighting werewolves and breaking criminals’ necks. But she basically just exists as a walking reference, so we can move on to Poison Ivy, who tracked Bruce Wayne down because he had at one time funded Woodrue’s research but stopped because Woodrue was a “lunatic,” manages to hand him a proposal for environmental reform, which appalls Bruce.

“Your intentions are noble,” Wayne conceded. “But with no diesel fuel for heat, no coolants to preserve food…millions of people would die of cold and hunger alone.” Pamela shrugged. “Acceptable losses in a battle to save the planet.”

So, I guess in Schumacher’s DC Universe Wayne Enterprises is the only business in the world that provides fuel and refrigeration? Anyway, Pamela has a public breakdown worthy of a PETA member.

“You’re so smug in your towers of stone and glass,” Pamela went on. “So ignorant of Mother Earth and her ways, so blind. A day of reckoning is coming. The same plants and flowers that saw you crawl from the primordial soup will reclaim this planet. Earth will be a garden again,” she told them. “Somehow, I will find a way to bring your man-made civilization to its knees. And there will be no one to protect you. No one.”

I really don’t want to turn these posts into “Ways In Which the Animated Series Handled the Franchise Better than the Schumacher Movies,” but…

Plus I know I complained about how even the animated series characterized Poison Ivy as an ecoterrorist, but even that worked out better than what we have here.  When Poison Ivy is introduced, we see she spent years planning to murder a man simply because his actions indirectly threatened an endangered species of flower. That at least makes her warped view of environmentalism into a pathology worthy of Arkham Asylum. Here, though, she just comes across as a bad political blogger’s strawwoman of an environmentalist or a reverse “Captain Planet” villain.

Oh well, at least she’ll be inexplicably acting like Marlene Dietrich soon, which is…an improvement?

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Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin: Chapters 4-5

To be honest, despite her being more or less one of the top-tier members of Batman’s rogues gallery, I don’t think Poison Ivy is often written that well.  That might not be the best observation for a character who basically imperils the male heroes by trying to sleep with them (much like Marvel’s Enchantress), but that’s not to say she hasn’t been presented in an interesting way. The best comic I’ve read where she is the antagonist is Ann Nocenti’s Cast Shadows, which played down her usual role as a femme fatale archetype or an extremist environmentalist and instead presented her as a scientific genius whose traumatic past and present rage against an impersonal, heavily urbanized, and male-dominated society has turned her into a dangerous killer, much to the detriment of a world that could actually benefit from her botanical creations. Outside comics, there was the classic Batman: The Animated Series episode Home & Garden, which presented the tragic side to her own powers and hinted in a surprisingly subtle way how that could twist someone’s psyche. For the most part, even good writers tend to just have her be a red-headed succubus with a vague plant theme or an eco-terrorist whom even Earth First! would advise to dial it down a shade. It was actually kind of a relief when, after a couple of episodes playing up the latter version of her, a few episodes of B: TAS made her motives more mundanely criminal. Then there’s the interpretation in Batman & Robin, which I can sum up in a phrase:  It was pretty damn horrible. poisonivy Batman & Robin’s Poison Ivy runs with the eco-terrorist and maneater roles at the same time, but she’s also a pastiche of Golden Age Hollywood Jezebels. Because, I imagine, comic book fans would be most receptive to an elaborate number referencing Marlene Dietrich’s famous “gorilla suit” sequence in 1932’s Blonde Venus?  (Well, okay, normally I would be, but that’s beside the point…). Worse is that they case Uma Thurman, who actually could have pulled off at least a slightly more nuanced take on the character, or at least one that tapped into the animated series incarnation. But, no, instead we got another bit of miscasting that almost rivals Tommy Lee Jones’s turn as Two-Face. Honestly, one of the reasons I wanted to do this project was seeing how a writer would handle this interpretation of Poison Ivy. Would it be ambitious, like how Peter David in his novelization of Batman Forever played around with the barely hinted idea of the Riddler as having a fixation on Bruce Wayne?  Or…

She had never been the cheerleader type. She’d accepted that long ago. But out here in the rain forest, her personal appearance was going from bad to absolutely horrible. Everywhere she looked, she had some kind of blemish, some interesting variety of rash.

Okay, I’m not one of those “everything is problematic!” cultural critics and I know the movie itself makes it clear that Pamela Isley got sexified when she turned into Poison Ivy. But let’s just say the “An ugly duckling turned into a swan…a killer swan” thing isn’t really an aspect I’d emphasize, personally.

At any rate, the book is somewhat faithful to Poison Ivy’s origin in the comics, even nailing down the detail that her hometown isn’t Gotham City but Seattle. In the comics, she was a graduate student in botany working on a research project for Professor Woodrue, who was secretly an alien plant being with the codename the Floronic Man (don’t you just love comics?). She was given her toxic body and ability to communicate with plants when Woodrue experimented on her to create a human-plant hybrid. Here Woodrue is just a creepy, amoral scientist who tries to seduce Pamela – and, in another dark moment that doesn’t fit the tone of the movie (or the book adaptation, for that matter), causes her to fear that he’s about to rape her. The biggest tweak to Pamela’s origin is that now she invented the super-strength serum Venom, which she was…hoping could be used to help plants defend themselves against human encroachment? (That’s exactly what makes the narrator’s thoughts of being raped rather jarring). And instead of being a human guinea pig, Pamea Isley stumbles across Woodrue selling Venom to the highest bidder, she rejects Woodure’s advances one more time, and he shoves her into tables full of plants and chemical containers, just like Mr. Freeze’s origin which has him falling into a vat of cryogenic solution. Too bad the series didn’t continue, or else we would have had a Mad Hatter origin that culminates with Jervis Tetch falling into a vat of hats. At least Robin notices it:

“Let me get this straight. A brilliant citizen, disfigured by a horrible accident, reemerges as a psychotic super-villain bent on theft, revenge, and destruction. You see a pattern here?”

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Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner, Batman & Robin Chapter 1

So I have to admit, I was somewhat impressed at how this novelization of Batman & Robin started out.  Sadly, now we’re in the territory of the actual film script, and…

“A copsicle,” [Freeze] observed.

Oh no.

I mean, I know Michael Jan Friedman couldn’t just throw away the dialogue.  But it’s still a little weird seeing the words presented out of the context of the worst superhero movie ever made this side of Albert Pyun. Friedman tries to capture that ’60s Batman feel the series was deliberately aiming for – perhaps, arguably, maybe, stand on your hand and squint your eyes – and to an extent it works, sort of.

Bruce Wayne pondered the trap laid out so cleverly in front of him.

Lobster thermidor.  Wild mushroom risotto.  Juliette of gingered carrots and zucchini.  All tastefully arranged on his plate.  And beside it a perfectly chilled glass of Chateau Lafitte Rothschild ’56.

He turned to Dick Grayson, his ward, who sat around the corner from him at the long, polished dining-room table.  “Cunning,” he said.

Maybe my sympathy for Michael Jan Friendman is getting to me, but I will admit that this is a cute way to kick off the book and maybe to try to align the tone to that of the movie.  Apparently Alfred has this elaborate meal decked out to distract Bruce and Dick from their Batman and Robin duties, in this instance just working on the Bat-vehicles, but…even then, it doesn’t quite make sense.  Wouldn’t this be the type of meal Bruce Wayne would normally eat?  Unless maybe he really does have a fast food addiction…

Well, to be fair, I suppose working as a super-vigilante constantly beating up the mentally ill would cause you to burn off a lot of grease and empty calories.

Anyway, naturally dinner is put in the microwave because of the Bat-signal.  We get the usual introduction to the Batcave, with the rather dark (for this story) detail that the grandfather clock hiding the entrance to the Batcave has to be set to 10:47, the moment Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot.

We even get details about Bruce Wayne metamorphing into Batman.

Though it looked like black rubber, it was actually a suit of lightweight, flexible armor, molded to the contours to his body, including his nipples.

Admittedly, part of the above may not actually be in the book.

Unfortunately, things like this are:

Standing by his side, Robin leaned over the console and chuckled.  “It’s the gear,” he said, with just a hint of irony in his voice.  “Chicks go wild over the gear.”

It’s not as good as watching the movie.  At least with the film you can try to pinpoint the exact microsecond when Chris O’Donnell realizes his tenure as a Hollywood Golden Boy was fading out.

Oh, remember the “Alfred is dying” subplot from Batman & Robin?  Probably not, because it constituted like seven minutes of the whole movie, but luckily to pad out the book we get more of that.

Alfred himself staggered forward, barely able to support himself, and grabbed the edge of the massive computer console. His suffering went on for what seemed like forever. And he remained there, gasping for air, teeth clenched against it, until the pain at last began to subside.

My God, he thought. My God.

Still, he was glad neither Master Bruce nor Master Dick [heh heh hehehehehehehed.] had been present to see his discomfort.  Gathering himself on trembling legs, he took out a handkerchief to remove the sweat that had accumulated on his brow.

I feel like I should stop nitpicking even though nitpicking is the bread and butter of blogs like these.  That said…given that Alfred was putting away a meticulously prepared meal that his only real family ditched when he had his spell, this really does make Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson look like assholes.

Besides stretching out a few subplots, the biggest recourse available to authors of novelizations is giving backstories to bit characters.  In this case, we have the adventures of Clayton Krupzic, the security guard on duty at the Gotham Museum when it gets attacked by Mr. Freeze and his men.  He was a tough farm boy who came to Gotham to work as a cop, but couldn’t get a job because of police department budget cuts (although you’d imagine they would have a high turnover rate given all the cops killed by supervillains).

Like with so many ultra-minor characters who get the backstory treatment in adaptations, he’s not around long.

“Please,” he begged Mr. Freeze.  “Have mercy…”

The figure in the silver suit descended slowly, majestically. He was shimmering, terrifying.  And he seemed to like the idea.

“I’m afraid,” he said, peering into Clayton’s eyes, “that my condition has left me cold to your pleas.”

To be fair, the I get that the whole point of “Clayton Krupzic” is to show that even a  bruiser aspiring to be a cop in Gotham City of all places would be terrified of Mr. Freeze, but I find that somewhat less believable than the whole concept of a walking, talking cryogenically frozen man armed with a freeze ray.

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Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin, Prologue

(If you’re wondering where the write-up for the last chapter of Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is…well, there isn’t going to be one.  There’s a couple of reasons why, but first and foremost is that even with the potentially infinite potential of human language I ran out of ways to say “Shut up about Tim liking chocolate” and “God, Dracula is a lame villain.” I’m sure all nine of my readers are disappointed.)  

Novelizations of movies are funny things, and to be honest I never really “got” them.  On one hand, they’re a hopeful sign that literature can and will endure despite the proliferation of audiovisual media, and can offer interesting perspectives on movies especially since novelizations tend to be based on earlier drafts of scripts or at least cover scenes that got chopped from the film itself.  On the other hand, they’re practically acknowledged by everyone to be cheap cash-ins of the most blatant kind, existing basically just to give fans of a particular movie a (allegedly) more immersing experience.  After all, you’d heard of great movies based on books, but what about great novelizations of movies?  Sure, I bet they’re out there even if they don’t get talked about, but the point is nobody expects them to be more than just braincandy.

But what I’m really interested in is what happens when a decent writer gets commissioned to write a novelization of a bad movie. That’s why I actually tracked down the official novelization of Batman & Robin by Michael Jan Friedman.

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Friedman has the cred, especially for this kind of assignment.  He’s a multiple New York Times list bestseller and has written dozens of novels and comics, mostly for the Star Trek franchise and DC Comics.  So can even he spin gold out of shi – I mean, straw?

Well, as much as I pretty much despised, loathed, and didn’t care at all for Batman Forever, the great and prolific Peter David wrote a pretty decent novelization of Batman Forever.  Granted even he couldn’t do anything to stitch the badly butchered Two-Face back together again, and there wasn’t much to be done to soften the blow of the awful dialogue, but it honestly wasn’t bad.  He gave the Riddler a childhood backstory that actually added depth to his obsession with Bruce Wayne, pretty much made the Riddler’s homoerotic fixation on Bruce Wayne more blatant in an interesting way, and even addressed the fact that in the movie continuity Batman used to kill.  Can Friedman at least make something out of one of the worst superhero scripts to ever come out of a word processor?  Let’s find out.

A storm was coming.  Eight year-old Bruce Wayne could feel it in the biting coldness of the air as he and his parents emerged from the movie theater.  He could feel it in the way the hair prickled on the back of his neck.

So we get a rehash of Batman’s origin story, with young Bruce leaving a screening of a film adaptation of “Zorro” with his parents.  Well, we get the Tim Burton movie’s version of it, anyway, except it sleets while it happens, because I guess it has to be connected to the story’s villain some way.  I guess it’s better than foreshadowing Poison Ivy by having Jack Napier wear a gaudy rose lapel.

But the weather isn’t the only irony.

“It’s all right,”  said Bruce’s mother, though she frowned a little  as she watched the sleet catch the light from the streetlamps.  “Honestly, Thomas.  A little weather hurt anyone.” […] Bruce felt a hand on his shoulder, strong but gentle – his fath”er’s hand.  The boy smiled at the sense of assurance it gave him.  With a hand like that on his shoulder, he could do anything.  Take any risk, no matter how great. […] Looking up, Bruce saw a stone figure with the face and wings of an eagle sticking out from a third-floor cornice.  The figure seemed to leer at him, to grin like the Devil as the sleet grew heavier.

It wasn’t the trauma of seeing his parents murdered that turned Bruce Wayne into Batman;  it was a dangerously high concentration of irony.

Next we flash-forward to Alfred talking with a child psychologist about Bruce and “the incident.”  I rather like this scene, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that it’s one that was never in the script, since it actually gives some depth to the Bruce Wayne/Batman-Alfred relationship.

“Forgive me, but Mr. Wayne once described your employment here as temporary.  He mentioned that your first love is the theater – and that you hope to return to it once day.”

“It had occurred to me,” Alfred conceded.

The stout man’s [psychiatrist’s] brow furrowed.  “Normally, it would be none of my business – but I ask out of concern for young Bruce.  He’s already lost the two most important people in the world to him.  I don’t know how close you and he have become, but right now you’re the only real constant in his life.”

Plus Alfred and the psychologist mention Bruce’s uncle Philip, a character introduced in the ’60s who was forgotten after DC’s continuity was rebooted with Crisis on Infinite Earths and only revived in recent continuity.  Who was Philip?  Well, if you ever asked, what are the odds that a butler would be entrusted with the care of his deceased employers’ child, DC’s past writers were ahead of you.  In DC’s “Silver Age,” Philip, Bruce’s nearest living kin, was the one who took in Bruce, a rare instance of DC’s Silver Age stories being more realistic than most of the modern versions.

Sure, it doesn’t add to anything, nor does one line that mentions that Bruce Wayne trained with a “Ducard” in France, but at least they’re references that show that Michael Jan Friendman does care, at least more than He Who Shall Not Be Named.

In the third part of the prologue, we meet Victor Fries (pronounced “free-ze”).  Now in probably one of the worst examples of big-name casting in all of Hollywood history, Arnold Schwarzenegger was picked to play Mr. Freeze, and the sheer bad juju radiating from that casting has leaked out over the book.  So here pre-supervillain Victor Fries is not only a brilliant scientist in the making, but an Olympic athlete who the teenage Bruce Wayne learns how to high jump from.  Now maybe this is nitpicking, but one of the linchpins that make Batman’s rogues gallery the best in comics is that, even for all of their sociopathic and violent habits, they are at their core shattered beings who have been in their own ways chewed up and spat out by an apathetic and rotten society, not unlike Bruce Wayne himself.  I know Friedman is just trying hard to make a Mr. Freeze who actually matches up with his Schwarzeneggerized incarnation, but…

Incidentally, did you know that Patrick Stewart at one point was considered for the role of Mr. Freeze?  I mean, I don’t think even the good Sir Stewart could have helped Batman & Robin become anything than the latter-day b-movie disasterpiece it became (although certainly Scharzenegger did contribute some of its essential charm), but maybe somewhere in the multiverse a decent version of Batman & Robin exists with a Mr. Freeze who, you know, actually acts like his popular animated series incarnation.

Anyway, the prologue is decent enough that it gives me a little hope, but then I realize that with chapter one we’re entering Akiva Goldsman-territory.  Well, at least maybe we’ll get a decent explanation as to how Alfred could whip up a computer with Artificial Intelligence…

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Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner Special: What the Hell, Orson Scott Card?!

Today we’re going to get a bit controversial, or at least be more controversial than debating the merits of Generation One Transformers episodes versus the Gobots cartoon series.

I personally don’t really feel strongly one way or the other about the Ender’s Game movie and the attempts to boycott it.  On one hand, I am one of the people Card would have labelled mentally ill or imprisoned for being gay and I personally would never want to give him enough money to get a soda from a vending machine.  On the other hand, I am also a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft, whose racism was considered excessive by his correspondents even by the standards of 1930s America.  Granted Lovecraft is safely dead while Card is very much alive and still raking in profits from his well-established name, but regardless I’d feel like a hypocrite for decrying anyone for getting some joy and perspective from an author’s works despite how downright vile and personally threatening the author’s personal beliefs may be.

All I really want is that people, no matter which side they take, are aware that writer Orson Scott Card’s views on homosexuality go just a tad beyond just opposing same-sex marriage.  For example:

The dark secret of homosexual society — the one that dares not speak its name — is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.

It’s that desire for normality, that discontent with perpetual adolescent sexuality, that is at least partly behind this hunger for homosexual “marriage.”  (Source).

Or this gem, from way back in 1990:

Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.  (Source).

All that said, there are people who have been profoundly moved by reading Ender’s Game or Card’s other works and feel that it taught them lessons that are actually counter to the bigoted sentiments expressed in Card’s own words above.   So if you do want to pay to see the movie, do so;  no boycott, however successful, is going to change Card’s mind or overturn his position as one of the grand gurus of American science-fiction.  All I wish is that everyone who cares about the issue is aware of why so many don’t want to see their money go into his bank account.

So with that, I want to take the opportunity of this controversy to do something I’ve wanted to do for over a year now;  well, besides having an excuse not have to talk about that damn Worlds of Power book.  Let’s look at one of Card’s more recent works, and see just how much his…unique views on sexuality have seeped into his fictional writings.  This is “Hamlet’s Father,” which was written for an anthology of ghost stories published in 2008.  It received some ridicule here and there on the Internet, for perhaps revealing a bit too much of what Card thinks about homosexuality.  But how ham-fisted is it really?  Well, that’s what I’m here for.

So we when we start we see Card is taking a similar revisionist line to John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius (heartily recommended, and I’m anything but an Updike fan, by the way).  Hamlet’s father is an inept king and a coarse jerk besides, while Claudius is a tactful, intelligent man whom Gertrude, forced into a typical dynastic match, can’t help but fall in love with.  Still, the story is told through Hamlet’s perspective, and there’s a darker secret hanging around Hamlet in his adolescence than just his father’s royal incompetence.  See, the teenaged noblemen that Hamlet is surrounded by keep going off on hunts with Hamlet’s father, while for some mysterious reason Hamlet is never invited.  This includes Horatio:

Hamlet made a noise, so Horatio would know someone was coming.  Thus when Hamlet came around the corner, Horatio was not crying at all, though his eyes were red and his nose was red and a little snotty, as was his sleeve.

“How was the hunt?” asked Hamlet.

Horatio tried a little smile.  “I’m sorry to go, when I know you wanted to.”  […]

“We got lost,” said Horation.  “We didn’t rejoin the hunt until on the way home.”  […]

“You must have been sorry, though to miss the kill.”  Horatio almost sobbed again.  “I am very sorry to miss it,” he said, as soon as he had control of his emotions again.

Okay, I know you probably already figured it out, unless you grew up in a convent – and a convent run by nuns who would make Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music look jaded and world-weary by comparison – but let’s look in on our Laertes:

Hamlet’s tone had been jesting, but the darkness that came upon Laertes’s face was almost painful.  “What is it?”  “Hamlet, I beg you, before you go, ask your father to send me away.  To France…”

Before I get much further, let me clarify:  I am absolutely convinced that Card is a very good writer, even long after his Ender’s Game heyday.  He has a knack for a narrative that’s expressive and vivid yet brisk.  When his characters are meant to be seen as “wise,” they do sound like they’re quoting from a prepared sermon or lecture rather than like human beings who are just speaking in a casual conversation, but he’s far from the only writer guilty of that quirk.  It’s just that the entire first part of this story is mostly about, believe it or not, Hamlet’s father might just be sexually molesting all these pretty, athletic teenagers he’s surrounding his son with.

Granted we do find out more about Hamlet’s character – he’s sullen and envious, basically – and about his relationship (or lack thereof) with his father, but all the “hints” are just so distracting in much the same way a kid punching your arm while chanting, “Is this bothering you?  Is this bothering you?” can be.  And I get that this may have been intentional.  Card is trying to make the point that Hamlet has been sheltered all his childhood and has only seen as much of the world and humanity as his father allowed.  Maybe Card is even trying to draw a gap between what a modern reader would immediately pick up on and what someone in Hamlet’s time and position could understand. Even then, Hamlet just comes across as dense.  He doesn’t even wonder why Horatio has been sobbing.

Anyway, the story finally gains some momentum when Hamlet learns from his father that he’s to be sent to receive an education at a university in the Holy Roman Empire (Germany, basically, more or less; go read up on your medieval European history!).   After trying to get Gertrude to support Laertes’ plea to leave for France, Hamlet says goodbye to his mother and they have this exchange:

“You’re a better son than your father and I had any right to hope for,” she said.  “It’s a well-kept secret from my father.”  “You do not know what you do not know,” said Mother.  “Your father has loved you better than you think.”

So, yeah, Hamlet’s father sends Hamlet away because he’s afraid that now that Hamlet has passed puberty he’ll just have to rape him. That’s a little strange, if only for revising Hamlet and his father’s entire relationship to be about potential rape,  but it still doesn’t completely set off my official alert system for these types of things:

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The morning after discovering that Claudius was in his mother’s bedroom hiding behind a tapestry (here Card actually does practice some subtlety, as he leaves it up to the reader to guess if Claudius and Gertrude are having an affair, at least for now), Hamlet leaves for Heidelburg.  There Hamlet studies until he learns his father had died and the nobles of the realm elected not him, but Claudius, to succeed him.  Also Claudius had already married his mother, which shocks Hamlet, but not as much as not getting the throne.  I think this is the part of the story I like most so far, as Card does a good job of portraying Hamlet’s ambition and frustration without squandering the reader’s sympathy or clashing with his previous characterization of Hamlet as bright but naive.  At least the story has stopped being about implied child abuse.

Hamlet has gotten past his thwarted ambition and has resigned himself to being a scholar and perhaps a member of the Church.  At least until that faithful night when Horatio tells Hamlet about a ghost he has seen…

“Murder and usurpation, treason and adultery,” said the ghost.  “I live now in hell.  Will you have all Denmark join me there?  Avenge me, and purify this kingdom.”

Hamlet is skeptical, and debates with his father’s spirit over whether or not Claudius really did murder him, Gertrude truly cheated on him, and if his father ever loved him.

“Why did you wait?” whispered Hamlet.  “Why did you keep me at such a distance?”

“I would have coddled you.  Spoiled you.  I needed you to be a man of firm resolve.  Strong, cold-blooded as a King must be, and yet I knew I injured you.  Even that was a gift to my people:  Out of your anguish would come your compassion.  A just and merciful judge you would have been, but now you are supplanted, as I was supplanted.”

This is really where Card’s lack of subtlety causes the story to derail.  We know what Hamlet’s father has done (again, unless you were raised in that hypothetical convent), so readers won’t trust the ghost’s side of the argument.  The reader is kept two steps ahead of the story’s own protagonist.

Eventually Hamlet’s father plays on Hamlet’s sense of filial obligation and gets him to swear to avenge him.  Of course, the ghost’s story looks more and more implausible.

“Garden?” asked Horatio.  “He told me he lay sleeping in the garden.”  “I didn’t know that,” said Horatio.  “I thought they found him in his bed.”  “He said the garden,” said Hamlet.

Subtlety is spelled with O-S-C here!

Now I haven’t been discussing the original play, but I will point out that there have been critics who have argued that the reason the play is so compelling is its portrayal of Hamlet’s madness, whether it’s coming from the demands placed on him by his father’s ghost, an existential crisis, or (as one critic argued) Shakespeare’s depiction of what we now call bipolar disorder.  What’s happening with Card’s Hamlet?

It was almost fun, and certainly exhilarating, to feign a bit of madness and watch them all hop. […] I’m a coward, that’s what my madness is about, to delay the day of action, and then delay some more.

So he’s going to take one of the most famous psychological portraits in all of English literature and interpret it as, to put it in twenty-first century terms, faking it for the lulz.  That’s…one way to do it, I guess?

Speaking of madness, Ophelia does get mentioned and eventually shows up, but she never gets any dialogue.  Hamlet’s narration does mention he could conceive of marrying and having children with her, so at least she does help prove Hamlet is heterosexual.  But guess who isn’t heterosexual, according to Horatio…

“[Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are] not the friends that I remember.”  “Things changed in the four years you were gone.  When the Companions were dissolved at your parting, they decided not to dissolve themselves.  Living four years together on Guildenstern’s estates has made them as fusty and peculiar as an old married couple.  I pity the woman who tries to wed her way into that house.”

So, yeah, two of the nobles Hamlet’s father sexually abused are now living together as a married gay couple.

I hate to say this, Orson, but I’m afraid you’ve forced me to heighten the alert.

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Card rushes a bit through the next two parts of the play:  Hamlet mourning Yorick, his confrontation with his mother and his murder of Polonius while he’s hiding behind the tapestry, and Ophelia’s suicide.  And no, we never get Card’s take on the “to be or not to be” soliloquy or the “Get thee to a nunnery” line (Hamlet does at one point misogynistically compare women to pudding as food you take your fill of and throw away, which may or may not be way more sexual than Card intended).  For that matter, Claudius never tries to kill Hamlet by having the King of England execute him and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are never captured and killed by pirates.  Whatever issues Card has while writing this story, at least he does leave Rosencrantz and Guildenstern living happily in a castle somewhere in Denmark.  Maybe they even open up a bed and breakfast.

Another revision Card does take is having Horatio imply that Laertes had been practicing as a swordsman because he wanted to kill Hamlet’s father for abusing him (although even now toward the end of the story it still is only all but spelled out) and assumed he’d have to fight Hamlet, who starts the story as a naturally talented swordsman, to do it.  There’s no poison in any wine or on any sword either; only a reference from Hamlet who says, “The only way I’ll die is if you poisoned your blade and some of it spills on me.”  In Card’s version, Hamlet simply stabs both Claudius and Laertes to death, which causes Horatio to reveal one of the weirdest plot twists in a reinterpretation of a Shakespeare play this side of Xena versus Anthony and Cleopatra (okay, that doesn’t actually exist…I think).

“Oh God!”  cried Horatio.  “O God, how could you punish them all for my sin!”  “Your sin?”  said Hamlet.  “I killed your father!”  […]  “He lied!  The old bastard lied!”  cried Horatio.  “Why didn’t you tell me what he said?  I would have told you.  I thought you knew the truth – I offered to let you kill me right there in the garden!  I thought you understood!”

“Offered?  But I never – why would you kill him?”

“Because he was evil.  Because of what he did to us.  All of us.  the Companions.  All the boys but you!”

Oh, and if you didn’t pick up on the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern thing…

“It twisted us.  I saw it in the others.  Rosencrantz and Guindenstern, they could never look at women.  Laertes – he told me, even before he left for France, that his stick was broken and would never grow again. [?!?!]  And me – I thought I was all right.  I thought…”  He broke down and wept.  

But we’re not done yet!  So it turns out that Gertrude once caught Hamlet’s father molesting him as a baby (which shows that Card doesn’t know the difference between a pedophile and someone who molests boys after puberty, but that’s really the least of our issues here, I think…).  She threatened to tell the nobles that their king was a latter-day Tiberius (my words), but (somehow) never figured out that he was molesting “the Companions.”  Horatio continues:

“Too late,” echoed Horatio.  “A few months ago, a new page came to the castle.  I taught him.  He followed me everywhere like a dog.  I delighted in his company.  And then one day I found myself…I had him naked, I was telling him how a boy shows love to his friend and teacher…the words your father used, the very words.”

And Gertrude does pull out some poison and kills herself, but not before saying farewell:

“I love you, Hamlet,” she said.  “I tried to protect you.  Horatio did only what I should have done.  What the law of God demanded.”

I’m guessing that’s a reference to Leviticus, so, there you have it, any guy who wants to “lie with men” is either a molester, was molested, or both!

Alright, Card, in these few pages you’ve already shown more bizarre and simply wrong ideas about human sexuality than a dozen Oral Roberts University textbooks.  You can’t possibly…

[Hamlet kills himself after refusing to kill Horatio and instructing Horatio to let the invading Fortinbras, King of Norway, unite the kingdoms of Norway and Denmark.]  Then Hamlet’s body slumped onto the floor.  But his spirit did not go where his body went.  His spirit arose and looked around the hall.  To where Laertes’s spirit held his father’s and his sister’s hands; then they arose into heaven.  To where his mother and Claudius, bright spirits both, embraced each other, and also rose in the air, toward the bright light awaiting them.  And finally to the dark shadowy corner where his father’s spirit stood, laughing, laughing, laughing.  “Welcome to hell, my beautiful son.  At last we’ll be together as I always longed for us to be.”

Yes, you might be tempted to  look at that passage a dozen times, possibly more, but, yes, Card just ended his version of “Hamlet” by having Hamlet condemned to Hell where his pedophile-ephebophile-homosexual-whatever father will rape him for all eternity.

At the risk of making a pun…

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But, yeah, this is kind of why some people don’t want to pay money to see Ender’s Game.  

 

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Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest: Chapters 14-15

It’s Halloween!  What kind of sublime horrors do we have in store?

Several hours later, in the middle of the Aljiba Woods, Tim Bradley’s satchel – the one with all the chocolate – flew away and splashed into the center of a quicksand pool.  It sank without a trace.  Tim, who had just fallen flat on his face after tripping over a root in the path, watched all this with a horror approaching panic.

Well, at least it’s a different kind of horror…

By this point F.X. Nine really starts spinning his discount gears and just going down a checklist of things in the game,  Simon finds an invisible wall that hides the Sacred Flame item and buys a chain whip, things that at least I vaguely recall do happen in the game, so there’s that.  Seriously, though, I miss the spirit and verve the book had in the beginning, when Simon was cornering middle schools in bathrooms.  At least I could make easy yet rewarding pedophile jokes then.  

“Just over here, I think!”  called Simon.  He stepped quickly down the cobblestones, holding up his torch.  The illumination showed a sign depicting a vampire with long fangs, pointed ears, a bat on his shoulder – and an red [sic] NO sign stamped over him  “The Ye Olde Anti-Vampire Shoppe,” Simon explained.  “Come in with me, Tim.  We’ll get some things we need here.”

See what I have to work with?  What can you expect, a five-page treatise on why saying “The Ye Olde” is completely incorrect?  The humor in this book makes me yearn for the subtle gags surrounding Simon Belmont in Captain N.

When there aren’t crappy jokes that would make even a ten-year old whose entire repertoire consists of fart jokes, Simon and Tim just run into an ally, easily get an item or weapon that’s a big reference to the game but doesn’t add to the plot in any obvious way, run into another ally, easily get another item or weapon, rinse and repeat, ad nauseam, for a hellish eternity, sans fin.  

Seriously, I’ve said it before, but I honestly got nothing, so let me repeat:  would it have been really that hard to write a kid-friendly horror yarn?  Whatever you think of R.L. Stine, he was able make a career out of doing exactly that.  Scholastic still publishes a ton of G-rated horror, including one book with the completely, objectively fantastic title of Professor Gargoyle:  Tales from Lovecraft Middle School.  Couldn’t we have had something like that, instead of Tim’s Orgy of Puns and Lame Jokes?

Well, in these two chapters Dracula’s spirit does show up in the form of a young girl named Melanie (totally a name you’d hear in Orange County as well as a place that’s supposed to be modeled after sixteenth century Transylvania) who of course has “dark eyes and dark hair,” because all black-haired people (myself included) are avatars for ultimate evil (I was being sarcastic especially because recent scientific research has indicated that’s gingers).  In most fiction the “villain tempts one of the protagonists” is a perfect opportunity to explore the hidden depths of a character.  Here, we’re just reminded for the 657,991st time that Tim really likes chocolate.   Seriously, Dracula tries to seduce a middle schooler with chocolate.  Count, I have to tell you, this is your worst showing since that time you lost your reincarnated wife to Keanu Reeves.  Seriously, you could have just picked  a random middle-aged guy who drives around in a van and spends his lunch hour near an elementary school and gotten some tips from him.

“You will be my friend, won’t you?”

“Sure.  Why not?”

“Here, would you like a piece of chocoate?”  

How does Tim see through the charade?  Not because Gargamel had more elaborate and sophisticated ruses to trick the Smurfs, but because…there’s no chocolate in Castlevania.  

“Impossible!  Nobody resists the temptations of Dracula!”

If you think this dialogue sounds corny and unrealistic, well, I say the exact same thing after a bad first date.

We’ll wrap this up next time, and finally put this curse to rest.  

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