Remembering the Real Brilliance of “Batman”

Adam West in

Photo Credit: Internet Movie Database

Thursday saw the Bat-signal flash across the night sky of Los Angeles, per mayoral decree, as Hollywood paid tribute to one of my childhood heroes, the late Adam West:

I’ve had plenty of time to pay my respects. In fact, I wrote this tribute to Batman‘s golden anniversary last year that, emotionally, still rings true today. But the timing of West’s passing is what fascinated me the most about that sobering news.

It happened during Pride weekend across America. This was fitting not because certain high-ranking members of the United States government used to think two men named Bruce and Dick living together was a tad suspect, but because of one of West’s early roles that only came to my attention some time after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, which happened almost a year ago to the day of his death.

Those of you who are of the same generation as I knew him as the Caped Crusader, or perhaps better, in some cases, as Mayor West on Family Guy–a different kind of “batty,” as it were. Most of you, however, probably have never heard of a 1959 movie called The Young Philadelphians, nor his supporting role in it. Though not for nothing, you can’t even YouTube his appearance, even though it was a very prominent pre-Batman gig for the versatile young actor.

Don’t worry, I can thumbnail the details. Paul Newman co-stars with real-life wife Barbara Rush–who, funny enough, would appear as the celebrity villain du jour on one of Batman‘s cringe-worthiest episodes years later–as an unscrupulous lawyer who, as a teenager, is more or less forced by his family to pursue that way of life. Fortunately, in the end, he pulls a Lloyd Christmas and totally redeems himself.

The story begins, however, with West center stage, having to summon the courage to come out of the closet to his character’s bogus wife, played by Diane Lawrence (an actress, like West, better known for her TV work)–and on their wedding night, to boot. Finally, he blurts out to her, the eventual mother of Newman’s character, that he can’t make love to a woman.

I couldn’t remember another thing from The Young Philadelphians if my life depended on it, but seeing West play out this lone, thought-provoking scene on TCM one random evening really pulled me in and put the puritanical history of our country into perspective, to say nothing of his acting prowess. Today, the LBGTQ rights movement remains a major national issue, and it has made progress despite what happened in Orlando. Back then, it was so blasphemous to be gay you couldn’t even use the word in that context.

In depicting the struggle of many members of the LBGTQ community to be true to themselves in a sometimes intolerant world, Adam West demonstrated to me what a pro he always was, even before the decision-makers at ABC gave him his biggest break of all. Ultimately, he embraced the role that, because of other, less visionary people in high places, was both gift and curse at various points in his career. He will be missed because, no matter what mask he wore, literally or metaphorically, he “got it,” whether he was called upon to be silly, serious or the groundbreaking combination of the two that defined his signature small-screen alter ego.

I’ll always remember seeing him and Burt Ward hold court with a packed room of Bat-fans, including me, at Steel City Con in Monroeville a couple years ago. He made eighty look like the new forty with how eagerly he engaged us and answered questions, even though, presumably, he had answered some of them thousands of times before. Just as six-year-old me always knew, in my heart of hearts, that Batman–with help from “Boy Wonder” Ward–would be there to restore justice, Adam West was there, as always, to make us smile.

I suppose I’ll always have my Batman reruns on MeTV and on DVD, at my convenience (thank you, Courtney). I’ll always have my copy of Return of the Caped Crusaders, the animated swan song that may never fully recapture the magic of the television series but will remain a proud part of my collection for the same sentimental reasons. The camp and comic book pizzazz, years ahead of its time, will always be there, but this time, the deceptively brilliant man who made it what it was and what it remains today won’t be.

Holy heartbreak…

Who Made Trump for President a Thing? We All Did, Of Course

Someone asked me over dinner what I think our country’s fascination is with Donald Drumpf–er, Trump.

In full disclosure, this anonymous friend has enjoyed a very successful–and very long–career in law, and she was asking me to explain this one. Which is telling.

Donald Trump is a fascinating candidate insofar as he epitomizes everything the rest of the civilized world has said or thought about our country over the last 15 years, and, in some cases, longer.

Even after a thorough education that included college-level excellence in the subject of American history, I have an impossible time trying to recall a Presidential front-runner on either side of the political spectrum who has been more universally despised, yet less phased by his self-made infamy.

But for my money (which he will never have), it’s very simple:

We are surrounded by what we create.

Frightening though his buoyant candidacy is this deep into an election year, part of me is getting a kick out of watching him do this to the party he claims to represent:

When said party spends decades using its power to wage war on civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, to say nothing of its equally relentless class warfare, and to generally monger fear and hate at every chance it gets, it gets not necessarily the candidate it wants, but the candidate it deserves.

In this democracy, or any other, you get what you vote for. When so many voters, after all those years, either don’t pay close enough attention to what they vote for, or don’t vote at all, eventually, you get Donald Trump.

Shame on us for our own blissful ignorance.

To further understand his popularity, one should look no further than the candidacy of counterpart Bernie Sanders. Trump and Sanders have personalities that are magnetic to a common sect: the angry white male (or female, as it were). Having spent six years in corporate radio, half that time coming at a right-wing news/talk station, I know one when I hear one.

They are angry with corporate avarice and Congressional indifference. They are angry because they have worked and studied harder for jobs and degrees that yield less. As a result, they are attracted to candidates like Trump and Sanders, who want not just to race for the White House, but to turn the establishment upside down when they get there.

Albert Einstein once said he “would rather be optimistic and a ‘fool’ than pessimistic and ‘right.'” It’s one thing to be overly idealistic, which may prove Sanders’ downfall if he does not surpass Hillary Clinton, but it’s quite another to be downright fantastical.

Shame on us for accepting any candidate who insists upon recreating our own puritanical past, instead of striving for a better future.

When did bigotry become presidential again? When did misogyny become presidential again?

When did naked insincerity–and buffoonery–become presidential again? At least Nixon had the wherewithal to destroy the evidence.

Shame on us for not channeling the anger.

Those who are prepared to vote for Trump because of his business acumen had better prepare for the same rude awakening as discharged contestants on The Apprentice (most of whom wouldn’t have lasted five minutes at a real company).

His brand is not global. His success has not come without failure. He has swung and missed. He has–literally!–been deemed too risky for Las Vegas. He is a name-dropper. He is a pitchman. He is not even the real owner of the “Trump” products he has pitched recently. He is not a master businessman, and he is only able to masquerade as one because the very system he wants to game has been giving him more second chances than wives.

This is the part where my conservative grandmother, may she rest in peace, would say, “Don’t get sucked in by the hogwash.”

Shame on us for getting sucked in by the hogwash.

To be fair, corporate media, per normal for our country, is not exempt from our self-deprecation. Scott Pelley of CBS News, who, reporting for 60 Minutes, did one of the best interviews/takedowns of Trump to date, called him just what he is: a hurricane of words. If only Pelley’s boss, Les Moonves, shared his journalistic integrity, perhaps, by now, we could have weathered the storm.

With all due credit to CBS News, I miss the days of Cronkite and Brinkley, and Woodward and Bernstein, when the Les Moonveses of that era could be counted on to protect us from the Les Moonves you just read about there.

Fortunately for Moonves, his competitors don’t get a free pass. NBC might as well have given Trump a 90-minute commercial by allowing him to host Saturday Night Live in November, compared to one-sketch cameos in separate episodes for Clinton and Sanders. Its family of networks didn’t hesitate to join cable competitors in partisan nonsense, either.

Cable networks dump Hillary Clinton's speech for Donald Trump's speech

But they wouldn’t give it to us in spades if there weren’t a market for it.

Shame on us for creating that market.

We helped create the market for Trump in the same way we ushered in the era of “shock jocks” like Howard Stern in corporate radio. It wasn’t enough for us to just tune out and/or tune in to someone else. We masochistically indulged Trump because we wanted to hear what he’d have the temerity to say next.

Shame on us for making catnip out of cat excrement.

In the absence of strong leadership, it is all too easy to be duped by foolhardiness. While “leadership” is a word that can mean many things to many Americans, it is never to be confused with merely using a big platform to repeat empty euphemisms and schoolyard taunts louder than the person next to you until your followers believe them.

There are those who flaunt political correctness, to borrow a term used derisively by The Donald, and then there are bullies. America needs a leader who sees the difference.

Trump said in one of the Republican debates that the rest of the world is laughing at us. It was the first time in his entire campaign I found him to be dead right.

This year, it is up to all of us eligible voters, regardless of political orientation, to ensure the bully does not enjoy the last laugh.

(Featured images courtesy of the Associated Press and Media Matters for America.)

Popchock on Film: “Hail, Caesar!” Teases, But “Deadpool” Delivers

For those of us unfamiliar with the title character, and those of us who are relative novices to Marvel folklore in general, Deadpool is a film that could be charitably described as different. But even for devotees and comic geeks wanting more than the same old origin movie, it is anything but “same old.”

Deadpool scores big time with its shameless fourth-wall demolition, literally, right from the opening credits. Be prepared for some of the most well-produced credits you’ll ever see in this genre. Ryan Reynolds, almost as quickly, scores big time with Morena Baccarin, who has previously scored points with me for her portrayal of Dr. Leslie Thompkins on Gotham. Just as she tries to bring out the best in Detective Jim Gordon on that program, her role in Deadpool makes us sympathize with a vigilante who insists upon being unsympathetic.

Reynolds’ character reminds me of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. He’s so stuck on himself it comes off funny, albeit borderline obnoxious, and his warped moral compass, at the end of the day, still points him in the right direction. Unlike conventional comic book movie protagonists, however, he doesn’t fight for truth, justice or the American way. Essentially, he fights for himself, but he fights for himself for a noble reason: returning to the love of his life, and with it, a return to relative normalcy. Furthermore, Deadpool doesn’t have the book smarts of a Tony Stark, but his street smarts and uncanny philosophies are quite amusing. You could even go outside the Marvel universe and say there’s a streak of Batman in him–a do-gooder too skeptical to be a team player, despite the pleas of those special guest X-Men present.

Other than Deadpool’s snarky disposition, the most pleasant surprise in this movie for me was director T.J. Miller putting himself in a supporting role as the wisecracking bartender who helps a physically and emotionally scarred Wade Wilson name his new alter ego. I remember him best as Jay Baruchel’s sophomoric friend in the Pittsburgh-based romcom She’s Out of My League, and his humor is a bit more wry here, but it works.

A sequel–a prerequisite for any big-budget superhero flick these days–might be risky due to the law of diminishing return. Reynolds, to some, may have been forgettable as Green Lantern, but he goes straight to the opposite end of the personality spectrum in Deadpool. He is as glib as he is intense, and a little bit of Deadpool goes a long way.

The violence is graphic and wholesale, and, above all, indiscriminate. Audiences outside the target ones will argue it’s oversold, and understandably so. The dialogue, especially between Deadpool and his counterparts, is as raw as raw can be. All things considered, I’m stunned the lines dropped by Miller in this interview didn’t make the cut:

Indeed, Deadpool will say things you thought you’d never hear, and it makes you see things you can’t un-see. Yet you won’t be able to take your eyes off it.

"Hail, Caesar!" posterHail, Caesar! is a movie that says one thing and, ultimately, does something wholly other. As Colin Trevorrow said while making Jurassic World, the first step toward commercial success is assembling a Murderer’s Row of actors; without the right cast, you fail before you start.

To wit, the first thing that attracts you to this movie is the names on the marquee. George Clooney has his perpetually universal appeal. Scarlett Johansson, the aesthetically-pleasing Avenger, makes an eye-catching faux Marilyn Monroe. Josh Brolin effectively slips into his main character, the head of a fictitious movie studio in the early 1950s. Jonah Hill, whom I loved as much in Superbad as I did in Moneyball, has proven he can play both straight and not-so-serious–which he does.

Once again, one of the movie’s most pleasant surprises is not necessarily on the marquee. Wayne Knight (“Hello, Newman”) portrays the background extra who plays an integral role in the plot, which centers on the kidnapping of Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, the A-list star of an epic movie with religious undertones in which the studio is heavily invested.

While the kidnapping is something you see coming, if you’re pre-judging this movie strictly on what you see in its ads, the political reason behind the kidnapping that is later revealed are something you don’t see coming at all. In hindsight, it’s a sign of the time in which the movie is set, but it’s also a loose end Hail, Caesar! does not effectively tie up.

Clooney’s captors try to push him off an ideological ledge; however, after defending their ideology to Josh Brolin, the latter’s count-your-blessings-and-shut-up defense seems to work a little too well. We don’t get to see the consequences, if any, of Clooney’s temptation. We are asked to take for granted he lives happily ever after, which, knowing that era of show biz, is too big an ask even if you’re asking your audience to suspend disbelief.

On the plus side, we now know Channing Tatum can tap-dance–am I right, ladies? His moves are quite impressive. The fleshing out of his character is not. There is a link between Tatum and the kidnappers, but the fate of his musically inclined Burt Gurney is as strange and nonsensical as it is ambiguous. By the end of the film, there is no sense of urgency by the bad guys toward Clooney’s escape, nor is there any urgency toward regaining the lost ransom money demanded for his safe return.

I appreciate how Hail, Caesar! satirizes the absurdity, or, at least, the perceived absurdity of the Hollywood lifestyle. There is phoniness, there is talk of arranged relationships, and there is a performer horribly miscast. The funniest part is when a pretentious director played by Ralph Fiennes tries to mold a cowboy picture star played by lesser-known Alden Ehrenreich into a more debonair leading man, sans Southern drawl. But perhaps the Coen Brothers had more star power than they knew what to do with, as the climax they build to just seems to fall flat.

Hail, Caesar! didn’t suck. It also didn’t make me feel guilty about seeing it for free.