While summer television is never exactly “good,” this year’s summer TV can not even be described by anything resembling a synonym for “ok.” In fact, I’ve spent all morning browsing through a copy of the Dictionary of American Regional English in order to find words capable of describing the mediocrity that is the post-Hell’s Kitchen TV landscape in all our glorious dialects. Yet, if everyone in the MSM and their mothers are to be believed, our TV has just “tarved” (to tip, turn) and glory days are here again. After all, Mad Men has returned.

I’m not going to try to “make strange;” (to act shy, or, to feign ignorance of) Mad Men was one of the best shows on TV last year and I’m excited to have it back. It’s a well acted, meticulous show, with rich supporting characters and wonderfully understated performances by its female leads. Indeed, the show succeeded despite the relative weakness of its major mystery (Don Draper’s checkered past) on the strength of the secondary storylines and believable romantic relationships. Few shows manage to handle one love/sex story well; Mad Men always seems to juggle five or six, with each one pulsating sexual energy. I’m going to hold off judgement on the new season for a few episodes (sadly, Saladeers are not treated to the same free media as tvguiders), but, in the meantime, I will offer this: a DVD tip of the week.

In one of the show’s many “wink-wink, nod-nods,” one of Sterling Cooper’s principal partners is played by Robert Morse, star of the classic musical and film “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.” Film satires, especially today’s, have a tendency to age rapidly (will the four people who found “Epic Movie” funny still laugh in twenty years?), but the best satire, like Swift, is priceless. “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” doesn’t quite reach the heights of A Modest Proposal (now there’s an idea for a musical!), but its underlying scenario is still recognizable, and its depiction of corporate life wouldn’t be out of place on The Office. Plus, there are musical numbers. “How to Succeed” is a charming counterpoint to Mad Men, mixing office politics with a dash of whimsy. Add in Taschlin’s excellent “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter” to fill-in the cinematic prehistory of Mad Men, and to restore the icons Mad Men spends so much time deconstructing.

About a third of the way into The Dark Knight, Ledger’s Joker, spinning himself an origin yarn, shouts menacingly, “Why so serious?” It’s an apt question to ask of a movie that’s likely the darkest Superhero movie ever and, coincidentally, one of the best. Why not a little bit of laughter and merriment in the midst of all this catastrophe? Isn’t that what the Joker’s promising, after all? Together with Batman’s remark during the denuement that he “can be whatever you want him to be,” Joker’s question is the film’s aesthetic statement. If dark times call for dark stories, then Batman can be just as dark as anyone else. Nolan’s first Batman movie offered hope and the possibility of progress–Vote for Batman and rebuild the monorail!–but his second movie questions the idea that a masked marvel is what the world needs. It’s not the first time that a film Batman’s had to deal with an antagonistic Gotham City (that would be Returns), but it’s Batman’s first existential crisis, and one that makes for interesting dramatic conflict.

The movie picks up on a theme prevalent in the comics: the line between hero and villain is slim to non-existent. For that matter, so is the line between order and chaos, another of the movie’s major themes. There’s nothing especially new about these themes (Face-Off, anyone?) but Batman’s existential crisis occurs during a turn in cinema towards darker, more serious movies. Twelve-years-ago, the Coen Brothers made Fargo, mixing a morality tale of crime gone wrong with gallows humor and a woodchipper; last year brought No Country for Old Men, in which evil is a force of nature and nothing’s worth joking about. Paul Thomas Anderson made his mark by blending drama with a lampoon of pornography before ominously striking Oil! in his neo-western; and corporate raider movies used to end with climactic boardroom scenes (think, The Secret of My Success or Working Girl) but now end with men in giant suits of armor pummeling each other on freeways (Iron Man). Ok, maybe that last one isn’t the greatest example.

Nowhere is this turn to darkness more apparent than in the characterization of the Joker. Burton’s Joker is a self-described “homicidal artist,” someone who considers the human body a canvas.

In flipping through Vicki Vale’s portfolio, he stops to admire her pictures of a Cambodia-like slaughter, comparing her work to his own. It’s a self-reflective moment on the part of the filmmaker. What is the director of an action movie if he doesn’t think of himself as a homicidal artist, someone who finds the beauty in violence and carnage? Burton’s Batman goes way beyond the typical action movie of the time precisely by playing up the artistry. The movie’s mis-en-scene is incredible, mixing in elements from different eras in urban history to make Gotham reek of decay. In contrast, the Gotham in the Dark Knight is a place of high-finance with gleaming offices, major cultural institutions, apartments with ample storage space and/or lake and river views. Read the rest of this entry »

One of the most interesting attributes of comic books as a media form is the frequency with which creative teams change. It’s rare to see a show-runner leave a successful TV show, and even rarer to see multiple executive producers within a year. (Commander in Chief, is the rare recent exception, but one that hardly bodes well for the system’s prospects.) Movies sometimes change personal between sequels, but, most likely, no-one gave thought to the prospect of the sequel before the first movie was made. Creators also sometimes change in genre fiction, especially after the initial creator has passed (like the new Bond novels), but authors hardly change in serious fiction. Although I’d pay money to read Thomas Pynchon write a Zuckerman novel, it’s not something anyone’s likely to see.

It’s really quite amazing how regularly comics change their creative teams. It’s such an established part of the genre that we don’t really think about it, yet something truly different and worth thinking about. Comics exist within a push-pull of long-term storylines and attracting new readers; being “true” to a character’s history and reinvention; remaining within continuity and a continuum and being accessible to anyone who buys the issue. Some stories, like “Final Crisis,” don’t even pretend to be comprehensible to the amateur reader, but other comics, like Superman, have to belong to everyone. Superman is such an American myth that any American needs to be able to read Superman and understand what’s going on. It’s why you can’t do anything truly radical to the character (like make him electric blue!)–at least not for too long. Also, while a storyline may be very good on its own (like upgrading Metropolis), there’s a strong chance that it will be diminished by later authors. Frank Miller’s “dark” superhero stories of the 80’s were brilliant, but much of what came after only cheapened them.

So it is that the first issue of the James Robinson run on Superman is just so-so. Robinson is one of the best authors working in comics. His Starman was probably the best superhero comic of the 90’s/early 200s; at least the most consistently great. Robinson made us care about every aspect of the character’s universe. His history, his city, his rogues gallery, his personal life. The lives of the families in the city. It was a completely unique world. His recent run on Batman was highly enjoyable, and one of the better Two-Face stories, even if not so unique. But his Superman, while promising, leaves a lot to be desired. Robinson clearly wants us to care about the characters, but his initial attempts (let’s let Krypto narrate part of the issue!) fell flat. Robinson has more than earned the benefit of the doubt (though, there’s always the danger that some characters are just too stupid to succeed) but on it’s own, Superman 677 was not an especially good issue and only time will tell if Robinson, a great writer, is a great writer of Superman.