Kill Bill (fight 2 of 4)

Killin’ time.

Practically kill-thirty.

2) The Bride vs Gogo Yubari, Johnny Mo and the Crazy 88

The Fighters:

  • The Bride aka Beatrix Kiddo aka Black Mamba. Sporting a yellow track suit deliberately reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s in Game of Death. She was a mean biatch back in the previous fight, but here’s where we see just how deadly she really is. Played by Uma Thurman, with special stunts carried out by the excellent Zoe Bell.
    • Armed with: a samurai sword specially made by Hattori Hanzo, the blacksmith whose blades are legendary even in the Bride’s circles.
  • Gogo Yubari, a young Japanese woman whose cheery demeanor and schoolgirl outfit belie a murderous psychopathy. Played by Chiaki Kuriyama, who caught Tarantino’s eye in the cult film Battle Royale.
    • Armed with: a flail (ball & chain) with a retractable razor blade.

  • The Crazy 88, O-Ren Ishii’s personal army. There’s actually maybe 40 or 50 of them, not 88– as Bill says in the second volume, they just like to call themselves that, probably because it “sounded cool.” A bunch of hotheaded but not terribly skilled young men & women, all wearing fancy black suits and Kato (the Green Hornet’s sidekick, most famously played by Bruce Lee) masks. Played by various stunt folks.
    • Armed with: mostly katana swords, probably pretty cheap ones. One has a sort of whip/strap and another has two tomahawks.

  • Johnny Mo, field leader of the Crazy 88. He’s dressed similarly but is visibly older and completely bald. Played veteran Hong Kong martial arts star Gordon Liu. The character is a replacement for the script’s “Mr. Barrel,” an imposing fighter who takes the Bride up on her offer of standing down if she’ll pay him a favor later on.
    • Armed with: what appears at first to be a wooden staff but turns out to be dual short samurai swords with wooden cane handles.

The Setup: Though it comes late in the movie, this is actually the second part of the Bride’s mission of vengeance. Which makes a twisted sort of sense: as the Bride’s ultimate target, yakuza boss O-Ren Ishii (more on her next time), is the most protected of her former colleagues, going after her first is a great way of getting through the hardest part immediately. But more importantly, it’s O-Ren who still retains the services of Sofie Fatale, the DiVAS’ old executive assistant. It’s Sofie who will help (voluntarily or otherwise) the Bride track down all her other targets.

This fight is also probably one of the greatest arguments for splitting the movie in two. In terms of duration, complexity and sheer spectacle, no fight in either movie comes close; it absolutely feels like a climax. It’s much better placed at the end of one volume rather than the middle of a single movie. Sitting through two more hours of dialogue & cameos after this monstrosity would set even the most patient of audiences to fidgeting. If you want to know how audiences will turn on you if you drag out a movie too long after what seems like it ought to be the climax, just ask Steven Spielberg. (Or maybe not, since he seemed unwilling to learn that lesson.)

The Bride follows Ishii’s procession to an upscale Tokyo restaurant known as the House of Blue Leaves (it sounds like a really cool name for a restaurant, but for all I know in Japan that’s about as inspired as “Applebee’s”), where she’s relaxing with Gogo and a handful of Crazy 88s. After seizing Sofie in the bathroom and holding her at swordpoint, Beatrix summons her foe out of a private upstairs booth by bellowing out her signature line: “O-REN ISHII! YOU AND I HAVE UNFINISHED BUSINESS!”

(She says it in Japanese and I’ll note that even as someone who barely speaks it, Uma Thurman’s pronunciation is terrible. Simply atrocious. She seemingly made little to no effort to study the rhythms of the language, and is just reciting funny words she learned from a piece of paper. I saw this in the theater with a friend of mine who speaks it fluently and his native Japanese girlfriend; they couldn’t stop laughing whenever Uma spoke.)

After a brief staredown between the two old comrades (punctuated by the obligatory “siren” moment in the Bride’s head), the heroine casually slashes off one of Sofie’s arms, leaving her to writhe and scream on the ground while arterial blood sprays from her new stump. Nasty, but it’s definitely one way to clear a restaurant. After the terrified crowd stampedes out, the Bride is alone with her enemies. Tough luck for them.

The Fight: It starts out simple enough. At Ishii’s direction, the six members of the Crazy 88 try to take on the Bride: first one at a time, then three, and finally the last remaining pair. She makes quick work of them all, her Hanzo blade humming as she does so.

This leaves only Gogo, and although the Bride tries to talk the youth out of dying today, the psycho adolescent just laughs at her, and readies her chain.

She’s not as into it as this guy.

Sword vs flail is an unusual mash-up, but the choreography (a joint effort between Yuen Wo-Ping and Sonny Chiba, the famed Japanese martial arts star who also appears in the film as Hattori Hanzo) does a decent job of giving a sense of real back & forth here. Well, mostly “forth” because it’s Gogo who dominates, with her unpredictable and long-ranging weapon. The Bride tries to keep her sword up for a while but is eventually disarmed by the chain, and even takes a couple brutal blows to the chest from the swinging ball.

Yubari is enthused yet methodical, displaying astonishing precision & control of the weapon. A time or two she even kicks the ball in mid-swing to suddenly change its direction. The Bride can do little but jump out of her way, with Yubari chasing her and smashing tables in pursuit. In an echo/foreshadowing of the fight with Vernita, Kiddo grabs a table leg as a desperate means of defense, and swings it like a baseball bat to return the metal orb back to sender. Gogo dodges the volley but gets nailed in the back of the head when it ricochets off the wall behind her.

She falls but the Bride can’t get there in time to finish her off before she recovers and activates the razor blade attachment on the flail. One swing slashes the heroine on the shoulder, and although another embeds the weapon in a wooden pillar, the chain wraps around the Bride’s neck. Gogo yanks it tight to keep her from escaping, and slowly pulls up the slack in order to choke her enemy to death. Fortunately, the Bride picks up her chunk of a table leg and slams it, exposed nails outward, in Yubari’s white sneaker. Her follow-up blow hits the deranged teen in the side of the head, taking her out for good.

Crybaby.

[In the script, Gogo had a sister named Yuki who was not present at this showdown. The biggest departure the final product has from it is the deletion of an entire chapter called “Yuki’s Revenge” where Yuki nearly derails the Bride’s mission in her own quest for vengeance. It could have been a setpiece to rival this sequence, too; as described in the screenplay, an armed-to-the-teeth Yuki tears up half a suburban block (the scene immediately follows Vernita’s death) trying to kill her.]

Though it’s just the Bride and O-Ren Ishii now, it seems that a distress call she put out earlier has just paid off. Whole cars full of the remaining Crazy 88 rush in, led by Johnny Mo. The two adversaries share a moment of black humor, and an old joke that doesn’t become clear until you learn her name later on (“tricks are for kids,” get it?). Of course it wasn’t gonna be that easy, silly rabbit.

The small army quite literally has the Bride surrounded, swords drawn and ready for blood. There’s a tense stand-off in which the 88 are clearly wary of her, despite their superior numbers; the first time she moves even a little, the crowd lurches back as one. But the Bride isn’t going to let all the sword-bearing idiots in the world stop her revenge, so she gets to work.

There’s only one expression that aptly describes the Bride in the chaos that follows:

Homegirl goes nuts. There’s just no stopping a pissed off mama lion with a Hanzo sword. Imagine Neo during the Burly Brawl, but with a samurai sword, and no terrible computer graphics, and landing blows that actually look like they hurt… but even better than that. She’s constantly slicing, slashing and stabbing. She almost never stops moving, and with seemingly every other sword movement she takes down an opponent either fatally or by removing a limb. Between her dancing sword and her sick aerial moves (she flips about, clearly on wires), no one can touch her. Attempting to walk through the fight in sequence would be a fool’s errand, so let’s just call out some of the more memorable details:

– the middle of the floor is made of glass, allowing Tarantino to film from underneath

– there are at least three distinct music selections accompanying the battle: one cheesy, one dramatic & tense, and one silly fun (the song “Nobody But Me” by the Human Beinz)

– Johnny Mo constantly comes in & out of the fight, being separated from the Bride by multiple factors. The longest time he’s away is when the Bride snaps a bamboo pole at him which knocks him out for a few minutes

– this fight was deliberately done using old-fashioned techniques, without the aid of modern technology. There are veritable geysers of blood

– the theatrical release of the film switched to black & white for the majority of the fight. While this is stylistically interesting, it also had a practical purpose: Tarantino had learned a while back that the MPAA is, oddly enough, much less skittish about on-screen blood when the blood is not red. Unrated home releases later restored the scene to full color.

– The Bride’s acts of mayhem include:

  • ripping one gangster’s eye out
  • ripping another guy’s throat out
  • chopping off numerous limbs & heads
  • catching one thrown axe, dodging the other to let it hit someone behind her, and returning the first into the head of the thrower
  • splitting one man in half down the middle
  • slashing three necks with one swing
  • jumping on one man’s shoulders to get the high ground briefly, and cutting the hands off the man she was perched on when he tries to stab her from below
  • doing a form of “breakdance fighting” that would shame even Derek Zoolander when she spins around on her back and feet, slashing at her attackers’ legs the whole time

Eventually the orgy of violence winds down to just the Bride and less than ten remaining Crazy 88s (what were they thinking they could accomplish that the last forty or so couldn’t?), who she lets pursue her upstairs into a smaller room. For unstated reasons, one of the restaurant owners turns off the building’s lights, leaving the fight to take place in silhouette.

It’s cool, a nice little change. As the Bride dispatches the last handful in style, the owner turns the lights back on (again, inexplicably) just before the Bride takes out the last gangster standing: a frightened boy, probably not older than 17. She’d previously sliced his mask off and let him live out of mercy, but he came right back. So this time she breaks his sword into little pieces, then bends him over and literally spanks him with the flat side of the blade, sending him off to momma in tears.

Kiddo leaves the room to find a revived Johnny Mo, who goes after her ferociously. Their fight ends up on the second floor railing, with her frantically defending herself as he deftly balances on the thin surface while spinning his whole body so he can slash at her with alternating blades. But as soon as she finds an opening she leans and cuts off one of his legs, dropping him to a small indoor pond below (already filled with blood from another guy she’d killed and left in there).

Surveying the carnage she’s caused…

… the Bride makes a small speech:

“Those of you lucky enough to still have your lives, take them with you! But leave the limbs you have lost. They belong to me now.”

Which, uh, sure. Whatever you say, ma’am.

Whew. This is a real monster on every level. The execution is nearly flawless and the tempo changes just enough to keep things from being repetitive; all in all it’s a grand buffet of grisly fun. A shame Tarantino has largely shied away from straight-up action filmmaking ever since.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: Lucy, I’m home!

I’m too proud of myself for coming up with that joke to think of a caption.

RARR

I just got back from my local Alamo Drafthouse, and I have one VERY IMPORTANT message for the GFS community:

Go.

See.

Pacific.

Rim.

Not later. This weekend. Send Hollywood the right message.

Kill Bill (fight 1 of 4)

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

– old Klingon proverb

Kill Bill is an odd movie (or pair of movies), even by Quentin Tarantino standards. Made after a six-year absence, which itself followed quite a hot streak, it’s arguably the beginning point of the auteur’s (still ongoing) decadent & self-indulgent phase. Though that’s quite fitting, considering the whole point of the thing was for Tarantino to dive head-first into the sort of throwback genre filmmaking he had only paid glancing tributes to in the past. It’s a B-movie plot & premise made with A-level talent, and the resulting mix vacillates between brilliance & irritation– your mileage may vary.

Adding to the movies’ schizophrenia is the late-in-the-game decision to split it the story in half, making two films out of what was intended to be one. The idea, “suggested” by the studio, was almost certainly financial, but QT tried to cover for it by claiming that one three-hour action movie is boring, whereas two 90-minute movies is more appropriate and “ambitious.” Of course, both movies well exceed their 90-minute run time, with 111 minutes for Volume 1 and 136 minutes for #2. The first feels abrupt and action-packed while the second is far more talky and laconic– a clear sign of its obviously longer production/post-production time, with many pointless scenes inserted apparently just so Tarantino could give minutes-long monologues to some of his favorite character actors.

(This also resulted in silly decisions like coyly keeping the titular Bill’s face off-camera for the whole of the first film. I mean, really– are we supposed to not know what David Carradine looks like?)

Still, when the film works, it really works, especially during those action scenes. Much praise is due to Tarantino who, despite his reputation for violence, had never really done any sort of “action” film before, but a lot is also thanks to star Uma Thurman as well. Not all of her performance works perfectly in the movie, but she most certainly puts her game face on when it comes fightin’ time. This girl can beat some ass.

[Administrative note: I’m treating this movie as one big movie, which theoretically it ought to be– a shame Tarantino’s “The Whole Bloody Affair” edit never got a wide American release, I’d buy that on Bluray in a heartbeat. Also the movie does take place out of chronological order, so if any of you wants to get cute by arguing which fight really does come “first,” know that I am, as always, writing up the fights in the order the audience seems them happen in.]

[Second administrative note: After hearing rave reviews about the movie’s epic script online, I purchased (for an amount of money I’m too ashamed to disclose) a copy of the script via eBay, about a year before Volume 1 came out. It is largely the same as the finished story, with a few significant changes and one entire (cool, but superfluous) chapter removed. I will comment on the differences when appropriate.]

1) The Bride vs Vernita Green

The Fighters:

  • The Bride, aka (spoiler) Beatrix Kiddo aka Black Mamba. A veteran assassin and deadly warrior out for revenge against the former colleagues who betrayed her. Her real name is amusingly bleeped out (like a curse word on TV) every time it’s mentioned until very late in the second movie; this is done apparently so that she is mostly only thought of as the archetypical “Bride” figure (it’s even how she’s named in the script), as well as set up the punchline to a joke that every time Bill addressed her as “kiddo” in flashbacks, it wasn’t merely an affectionate nickname. Played by Uma Thurman, who originally developed the character with Tarantino.
    • Armed with: she brings a hunting knife with her, but doesn’t draw it until Vernita produces her own blade.
  • Vernita Green aka Jeannie Bell aka Copperhead. A member of the Bride’s former team, who has since left the crime business for domestic bliss under the “Bell” alias. A husband (not seen) and young child have not made her any less lethal. Played by Vivica A. Fox.
    • Armed with: nothing to start but, as mentioned, later produces a knife, as well as some other handy implements.

The Setup: For an undisclosed number of years, the Bride and Vernita were, along with several other (mostly female) killers, members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS, get it? It’s a “real” version of the “Fox Force Five” TV show Thurman’s character from Pulp Fiction had starred in the pilot for), led by the titular Bill. The group’s snake theme led to each having the code name of a killer serpent, hence “Black Mamba” and “Copperhead.” (Vernita later grouses that SHE should have been Black Mamba, presumably because she was the only black member of the team, but maybe Bill thought that would be too on-the-nose.)

For reasons that are gradually revealed (long story short: Beatrix, Bill’s lover, discovered she was pregnant, and went into hiding to keep her child safe from Bill’s criminal life. Under a fake name she got engaged to a shlubby but nice & ordinary man… and Bill, upon tracking her down, assumed that she had betrayed him), Bill brought the entirety of the DiVAS to bear his wrath on the Bride’s wedding rehearsal day, killing her fiancee & new friends. Bill himself put a bullet in her head, leaving her for dead in her own wedding dress. She miraculously survived and awakens from a four-year coma to find her baby gone — she assumes dead, but the baby had actually been delivered safely and taken by Bill. After recovering and arming herself suitably, she embarks on a “rip-roaring rampage of revenge” to take down the folks who wronged her, one by one.

First we see her target Vernita Green, living in an idyllic suburb. At home alone, she answers the doorbell and, from her dialogue, she seems to think it’s a friend of hers come to visit. It isn’t.

The Fight: Vernita opens the door and after a quick glare in which we hear the Bride’s “revenge theme” playing on the soundtrack (the film’s audio cue signal that the Bride has set eyes on her latest target of revenge. It’s an obnoxious but weirdly funny musical bit with a blaring siren featured prominently. Taken from the TV show Ironside), followed by a punch to the face.

From there it just goes nuts. Vernita may be retired and she may not be driven by revenge like the Bride, but she does have a family to live for, so she fights back ferociously. She’s not shy about using her own home as a weapon, however, and the domestic tranquility transforms quite rapidly into a war zone.

The two throw each other through glass and into walls. The Bride kicks Vernita in the crotch (!) and drops her through her own coffee table. Vernita grabs one of those broken table legs and uses it to bash Kiddo in the calf. The Bride nearly chokes out Vernita, until the latter stops her by grabbing a fireplace poker and whacking her in the head with it.

Soon enough the fight goes into the kitchen, where Vernita ran to get a knife. The Bride barely dodges her initial lunges and deflects more by seizing a frying pan. After some creative use of the kitchen table, the Bride matches her by whipping out her own blade.

“This is even worse than the time I let those Mormons in”

With both combatants solidly armed, the two slowly move back to the living room in a tense stand-off, tentatively searching for an opening in the knowledge that one wrong move will bring death. The stalemate drags on as the audience sees, through the bay window the two ladies are on either side of, the approach of a school bus, which lets off a little girl who trots obliviously towards the house. As the reality of this sinks in, Vernita pleads silently not to continue this in front of her daughter. The Bride acquiesces, and both hide their blades just as “Jeannie’s” daughter Nikki comes through the front door.

The choreography has a definite martial arts feel to it, but not in any extravagant way. It’s quick, mean, even desperate. Tarantino makes a few aesthetic concessions, such as overt “whoosh” sound effects whenever either lady gets flipped through the air, but there’s an overall sense of this fight’s realness– it feels like it could really happen. Especially considering how the two combatants look after not too long: bruised, battered, bloody, sweaty and tired. It’s in this state that Nikki finds them.

Nope, nothing suspicious at all.

Vernita bluffs the girl’s initial hesitation away (“This is an old friend of mine I haven’t seen in a while,” she says with forced sweetness. It’s technically true), and makes her leave. Tension deflated, the two head for coffee in the kitchen.

After some discussion they agree to finish their duel elsewhere, later that night. In the original script there’s some discussion over how the Bride deliberately chose to make this a fight rather than a hit; she could have easily taken out Vernita at a distance with a sniper rifle or a bomb, but she had enough respect for her old comrade to give her a fighting chance. It’s not brought up here.

And in any case, Vernita shows no similar restraint in return. Hiding a gun inside a children’s cereal box (called “Kabooms,” of course), she takes a shot at the Bride that misses, which the heroine responds to by throwing her knife straight into Vernita’s heart. She slumps to the floor and dies within seconds.

The real kicker comes in the denouement: as Beatrix pulls the knife from her opponent’s chest, she turns to find  four-year-old Nikki standing behind her, looking right at her mother’s corpse and too shocked to speak. The Bride, cold as ice, tells Nikki that although she didn’t want Nikki to see this, her mother nonetheless “had it comin'” and if Nikki grows up and wants payback, she can look Beatrix up. Harsh.

(There’s also another, smaller kick after that: when the Bride goes back to her car, she crosses Vernita’s name off her kill list… and we see that it’s the second name getting crossed off. The plot, she thickens.)

As we’ve discussed here numerous times, the main job of the opening fight scene is to set the tone, or, as is the case here, the baseline. As mentioned earlier it’s an interesting mix of the fantastic and the grittily realistic, just as the movie itself largely is. But things will certainly get more ridiculous from here on out, and it was wise of Tarantino to start out with what’s arguably the most grounded encounter.

The fight pulls no punches. And neither, as we learn at the end, does the Bride: her cold-blooded behavior proves that her single-minded quest for revenge will have human consequences, and neither is she a very healthy person. This isn’t about right and wrong so much as it is about unfinished business.

As a side note, Tarantino has said repeatedly that he plans to make a third movie many years from now about Nikki’s own quest for revenge against the Bride. But then, Tarantino says a lot of things.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: An unfair fight.

Totally unfair. They don’t stand a chance.

Superman vs The Elite (fight 4 of 4)

“Is that… Superman?”

“Not anymore.”

4) Superman vs The Elite

The Fighters:

  • Superman, voiced by George Newbern.
  • The Elite: Manchester Black, Coldcast, Menagerie/Pam, and The Hat. Voiced by Robin Atkin Downes, Catero Colbert, Melissa Disney, and Andrew Kishino, respectively.

The Setup: Since their last tango, the Elite have decided that Superman is yesterday’s news, and declared themselves to be the new world police. They announced they’d settle the Bialya/Pokolistan conflict once & for all, which Superman tried to head off by (in an excellent sequence) non-lethally destroying a squadron of jets that had been sent to attack a civilian population center… only to discover that while he’d been doing so, the Elite had assassinated the bloodthirsty leaders of each nation. An enraged Superman decked Manchester Black over this, which resulted in the miffed Brit issuing a grudge match between the two forces, tomorrow.

Superman spends an anxious night pondering his options– even Lois thinks he might not be able to win– and leaves at dawn to face them. They arrive on the streets of Metropolis but, at his request, the fight is moved to a less-populated area. Flashy as ever, the Elite teleport all five combatants to the moon (Alice), in which the Hat’s magic has thankfully created an artificial atmosphere. But the group has brought along several floating cameras, which they use to broadcast the  conflict to the entire world.

Superman tries one last time to reason with the Elite, but they laugh it off and get right to business.

The Fight: Really, Superman fights against only three of the Elite, while Black hangs back and monologues. Addressing the watching world via camera (and implicitly the viewer, since the speech mostly plays over our view of the battle), Manchester lectures about how the time of old-fashioned “capes” like Superman is over, it’s the 21st century and the world is more complicated than dropping off bank robbers at the police station and getting kittens out of trees. The Elite are an authority (ahem) unto themselves, and they’ll punish as they see fit. “He who has the power makes the rules,” and so forth.

Superman performs well against the other three but like Atomic Skull was in the last fight, he’s overwhelmed by sustained, alternating attacks from multiple opponents– not to mention visibly hamstrung by his moral restraint.

And crazy reptile chicks on his back.

The staging here is probably the most viscerally exciting portion of the whole fight: incredibly smooth animation does a great job with cool stuff like Coldcast smashing away at the hero’s face, Pam straddling him and trying to bite his head off with a giant slug, the Hat summoning rock formations out of the ground to crush him and missiles for him to dodge.The music here is different than anything that’s come before: exciting, but filled with a sense of desperation and sadness. There’s an overwhelming sense of wrongness to seeing these smug punks pound on the Man of Steel.

Finally a tired but determined Superman makes a lunge at Black, who halts his narcissistic speech to hit the Kryptonian’s mind. Superman has adequate mental defenses to keep his mind from being read, but he seems helpless against a direct psychic attack. Manchester induces a stroke that gives him Superman a major nosebleed and sends him to the ground, shouting in pain.

He’s just defenseless enough to be seized Coldcast, who unleashes a full-force, all-out blast of power (it’s unstated but safe to assume he’s stronger than ever after stealing the Skull’s energy) right in Superman’s face. A massive explosion (visible from space) rents the ground, and when the smoke clears there’s nothing left of Superman except the tattered end of his cape.

Smug about their apparent victory, the four re-unite (Black’s telekinetic shield protected them from the area of effect on Coldcast’s blast) and prepare to leave, when suddenly they hear their enemy’s voice. He sounds… different, unlike he has this whole time. He doesn’t even sound angry; he merely speaks with a steady and terrible calmness.

“I finally get it. Thank you… I made the mistake of treating you people like… people. Now, I understand better… I understand now what the world wants, what it NEEDS. The world needs people in charge, willing to put the animals DOWN.”

As he speaks there’s a slow pan around the Elite as their dread mounts. Not only are they thrown off-guard by the fact that they failed to kill their enemy, they also have a palpable sense that the rules have changed. The worst kind of bullies are the ones who derive their advantage from their targets’ innate decency, and it’s clearly no more Mr Nice Superman.

Out of nowhere, Menagerie gets hit by a dart, with Superman’s Kryptonian crest on it. The effects are immediate: she howls in pain and falls to the ground as her slug symbiotes forcibly come out of her. Coldcast picks her up and he can’t tell if she’s breathing. The truth hits home for the rest that they might not get out of this alive (“He’s playing it our way!” Black frets), and suddenly a whirlwind forms on the moon’s surface, courtesy of Superman’s incredible speed. He briefly appears in the center of it, a dark silhouette with glowing red eyes.

As the tornado approaches, the Hat cockily levitates higher and begins a spell to undo it, but suddenly chokes off in mid-word, clasping his throat. As he’s carried off into space, the others deduce that magic barrier or no, the Hat still needs to breathe, and Superman’s vortex sucked the air right out of his lungs.

Black and Coldcast teleport back down to Metropolis, thinking that Superman won’t be so destructive in the midst of his favorite town. Black plans to “flatten the whole city” (some protector!) the moment their opponent shows up, but his team’s numbers dwindle yet again when a red & blue blur collides with Coldcast and sends him out of view in the blink of an eye.

Crashing to the ground like a meteor (and sending debris flying everywhere, including apparently on people), Superman informs Black where his teammate went. “Orbit. He went into orbit at Mach 7. If you had super-hearing, any second now you’d hear the… pop.” Superman shows his face for the first time since “dying” and the beating he took has only made him MORE intimidating. He’s streaked with blood, his costume is torn up, and a burst blood vessel has made one eye go red. He looks– and acts– more than a little deranged.

Above: WAY better than how they handled this in Superman III.

Black bellows about Superman having killed his whole team, to which he calmly replies “Your team of killers. Now they won’t be killing anyone else.” As he does so, Black uses telekinesis to throw piles of debris at Superman, which the hero casually sidesteps, so fast that his actual motion can’t be seen, only the still moments in-between. It’s super cool in a way that’s hard to convey in words, so:

Manchester puts up a green force field that Superman wears down with repeated blows, the last one knocking him backward. He summons up debris from all over and tries to crush Superman in the middle of it, but the Kryptonian calmly frees himself and sends several tons of car and concrete out into the crowded area around him… one batch of rubble actually seems to land on Lois, which Superman doesn’t even notice. Or care about.

As Superman slowly walks through a sustained psychic pulse that Black lashes out with, he asks the Brit how it feels to be deconstructed, to be the victim, to watch his dreams die. Manchester responds with an enormous telekinetic blast that pushes Superman farther away, so the hero plays his trump card. His eyes glow briefly, and although Black thinks he was attempting to melt his face off, Superman had actually launched a microscopic ray of heat straight through Black’s eyes, found the abnormality in his brain that’s responsible for his psychic abilities, and cut it out. “Instant lobotomy.”

Black is now utterly helpless, a fact which Superman underscores by calmly approaching and slapping him around. Literally slapping.

Super Pimp.

The fourth and final slap knocks some blood and probably a few teeth loose from Black’s mouth. In tears, he snuffles out “This isn’t you, you don’t do this!” to which Superman replies “I do now.”

It’s ugly and it’s mean. Everyone sees it and is distressed. Even Terence Baxter, the pissed off little urchin who was so enamored of lethal vigilantism earlier (and is nearby this fight too, in an odd coincidence), begs Superman to stand down and not stoop to his opponents’ level. But the hero lets it sink in– the fact that he’s giving them what they think they wanted, and showing them what it would really look like.

Superman can move at the speed of thought, he can level mountains with a blow, he can count the molecules in the air, he has a whole fortress full of advanced alien technology, and he’s nearly impossible to kill. If he abandons his principles, if he believes that life is cheap, if he arbitrates rather than enforces justice, if he decides that his might makes him right, then he’s no longer a protector or a hero. He’s an angry god. And this is what he was actively arguing and fighting against the whole story, if anyone had cared to listen. They’re listening now.

But fortunately for all involved (especially current crybaby Manchester Black), Superman didn’t give up the fight against his dark nature. With a deservedly smug grin, he reveals to all how he’d planned this show right from the beginning, with more than a little help from the Kryptonian robots he has stashed in his fortress. His helpers were always there to sneakily protect bystanders so that it looked like he was being reckless with collateral damage, and they’ve similarly whisked off the  remaining members of the Elite– they’re all chilling in the fortress as he speaks, imprisoned and unconscious but alive. Superman’s helpers had even enlisted the Elite’s bio-ship, Bonnie, by promising that they’d free it from the team’s enslavement.

It was hard work, just like the difficulties Superman faces every day when he clings to his principles in an ever-harsher world. Meanwhile, hatred and violence are easy, but worse for everyone in the end. So Superman threaded the needle and maintained his code while still getting everyone real familiar with what they’d see if he didn’t… and what they’d probably see from the Elite, after enough time of unchallenged rule.

Black tells Superman if he thinks this is over, he’s living in a dream world. To which, corny as ever but still right, Superman replies:

“Good. Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us into something better. And on my soul, I swear that until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice are the reality we all share, I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.”

The people cheer. Superman wins, and more importantly, his dream does.

So it’s not perfect. The genuinely exciting portions of the fight are over by the halfway mark, and while the second half keeps up plenty of narrative excitement to make up for it, upon re-watch you find yourself wanting to see Superman take just a bit longer to dismantle the Elite. Though of course that’s probably the primitive lizard-brain part of you talking, the part heroes like Superman want you to overcome. Also, that “heat vision surgery” thing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Newbern plays it terrifically here, especially interesting after years of hearing him as such a boy scout in Justice League (even the “bad” alternate version of him from one episode sounded pretty cheery). Parts of his performance are even better when you re-watch the film in light of the final revelation: when he lets loose an over-the-top melodramatic laugh during the tornado scene, it’s not because Newbern is hamming it up, Superman is.

And of course all praise due to the writing of Joe Kelly, adapting his own story here. Kelly is somewhat notorious for inserting overt and clumsy political messages into his comics (he even shoehorns them in this film a few times, retroactively applying a War on Terror angle to a March 2001 story), but his dialogue here shines. And he gets Superman.

This is the Superman I love, and the one the world loved for roughly 70 or so years of comic history. If, as the navel-gazers like to say, the old kind of Superman is no longer “relevant” in today’s world, then that’s the world’s problem, not Superman’s. He’s not a reflective figure but an aspirational one.

And this is not, Henry Cavill’s dazzling performance aside, the Superman we got in Man of Steel. (SPOILER WARNING for next sentence). That’s a Superman who not only kills his adversary at the finish, but also causes untold thousands of deaths in collateral damage as he callously tosses his foe through a surprising amount of buildings, taking down whole city blocks just so the filmmakers can aesthetically highlight the scale of superpowers involved. A Superman who exists not to protect or inspire but only to fight… and as the absolute last person on the Internet who should have to demonstrate his affection for fight scenes, I can safely say that I want something a little more from Superman. Something better. Man of Steel’s Superman resembles nothing so much as the act Superman puts on in this movie, in order to fool the Elite and prove a point.

(Not to dump on the movie relentlessly, but… speaking of those fight scenes–you know, the fight scenes that the movie sacrifices so much to portray and are supposed to be its major saving grace? Man of Steel basically has a whopping two fight scenes. Superman vs the Elite has, in case you missed the title cards here, four fight scenes of varying quality, plus a few neat sequences of Superman saving people and the like. And it does all that in half the time.)

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: You & I have unfinished business.

killbillposter

Superman vs The Elite (fight 3 of 4)

An Atomic rematch.

Who NEEDS Kryptonite?

3) Superman and the Elite vs Atomic Skull

The Fighters:

  • Superman, who’s been running hot & then cold with the new team. Voiced by George Newbern.
  • The Elite: Manchester Black, Coldcast, Menagerie/Pam, and The Hat, who’ve risen in popularity lately. Voiced by Robin Atkin Downes, Catero Colbert, Melissa Disney, and Andrew Kishino, respectively.
  • The Atomic Skull, the radiation-powered supervillain. Although basically still the same, he’s quite obviously bigger (possibly eight feet tall or more), badder and a whole lot more dangerous, not to mention pissed off.

The Setup: During Atomic Skull’s incarceration he’s been hooked up to a reactor, siphoning off his unlimited energy supply and using it to generate free electricity for, apparently, a sizable portion of Metropolis. Unfortunately some sort of power outage/surge brings the whole system down (seems flimsy) and he’s escaped, looking for blood.

Meanwhile, since their initial meeting, Superman and the Elite’s relationship has deepened. He sought them out and received a brief history from Black, then the five were brought together in an impromptu rescue mission as they worked together to save the victims of a terrorist attack on the Chunnel. After that, however, Superman has been increasingly troubled by the group’s methods, not to mention their attitude– they’ve already fatally intervened during the most recent flare-up in the Middle East. Superman is out in Smallville, grousing with Pa Kent, when Lois calls with the word that the Skull is stomping around Metropolis.

The Fight: Although Superman speeds off, it’s the Elite who arrive first– just in time to save Lois & Jimmy from getting crushed by a falling car, actually. Seeing on the news that his new heroes the Elite are in town, Efrain Baxter’s rebellious son, Terence, runs off to see the action in person, with dad in pursuit.

The Elite’s cocky attitude fails to impress Atomic Skull– he dismisses them as “the interns” before scattering them with a major blast. He easily shrugs off Menagerie’s counter-attack and beats on Coldcast pretty hard. Black catches him with a telekinetic surge and gets assisted by an arriving Superman. The two rivals slug it out pretty hard, but Skull’s time away has improved his power so much he’s able to uppercut Superman into the sky and through several buildings.

Manchester is left alone with Skull, and when they go head to head, Black’s telekinesis against Skull’s radioactive energy, the Brit is no match, and gets knocked back pretty hard. He’s saved by a returning Superman, but when Skull gets the upper hand again and unleashes another devastating blast on the hero, the resulting shockwave kills several people in the nearby area… including Efrain Baxter, absorbing the pulse that would have hit his son. He’s turned into a statue of dead ash right before Terence’s eyes.

Superman recovers and, buying some time by blasting Atomic Skull with his heat vision, orders the Hat to form a perimeter and prevent further collateral damage. The Hat– whose vast abilities are apparently only useful under close supervision, because he’s been sitting around uselessly up to this point– complies by summoning up a bunch of huge terracotta warriors to scare away pedestrians. He also asks if Coldcast can absorb energy as well as direct it, which he can.

Though Black bristles at Superman taking charge of his team, everyone sort of silently agrees to a loose plan where four of them take turns hitting the Skull with harassing attacks while Coldcast finds an opening to get in close. This is probably the best part of the fight, with each superpowered titan having a quick skirmish with the villain before getting batted away, only to get replaced by another hero. The Skull is one heck of a blunt instrument, but he’s quickly outclassed by a coordinated effort. And when Coldcast lunges in and lays hands on the beast, there’s little he can do (thanks to Superman and Pam holding down his limbs) to resist as his excess energy is leeched out, leaving him shrunken and helpless on the ground.

The aftermath, however, is what’s important. Black wants to execute Skull on the spot, which Superman naturally resists. But it’s Terence Baxter who turns the whole crowd against the rule of law, as he urges Black on and blames Superman for his father’s death, saying that this wouldn’t have happened if the hero had put down the Skull for good last time. With the mob’s approval, Manchester sends a point-black psychic pulse that explodes Atomic Skull’s skeletal head– Superman just barely fails to stop him, as he’d stepped away from Black to console Terence. The vigilante group quickly teleports out, leaving Superman to cover up the corpse of the person he’d failed to save.

A lot of improvement here. The Skull’s dramatic change in appearance and his casual murder of even more innocents– notably Baxter, who we’ve gotten to know a bit by this point– really raise the stakes. This isn’t fun & games, people’s lives are on the line. Things get ugly and desperate enough here that it’s less like a superpowered romp and more like a war.

Unlike the previous tussle with Skull, it’s set at night, which is a rather simple but effective way to accompany the thematic with a literal one. And the staging is subtly different: unlike the city-spanning and building-hopping antics of last time, this all goes down on, basically, one street, making for a more tight and intimate feel. The music score (by Robert J Kral) is exciting but plays out in a slow, moody, rhythmic and low-key way, conveying an ever-growing dread.

By the end of the fight, you yourself hate the Skull and rather feel like killing him– when Superman cries out for restraint you see it being almost as pathetic and ineffectual as the crowd in the movie does… yet simultaneously, you pity him. You know the deck is stacked against him, that this is the time when principles are tough to hold onto. We’ve all been there.

Superman is left alone in many senses of the word. Pretty dark.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: It gets darker.

THIS dark.

Superman Vs The Elite (fight 2 of 4)

In which we meet monsters.

(SUBTLE DOUBLE MEANING)

2) Superman and the Elite vs Pokolistan monsters

The Fighters:

  • Superman, duh. Prior to this event he hasn’t met or heard of the Elite before; this is where they make their debut. Voiced by George Newbern.
  • Manchester Black (sometimes shortened to “Chester”), leader of the Elite and a lower-class Brit with a punk look. Gifted with inherent psychic abilities. Black’s telepathy lets him read (most) people’s minds, project his thoughts to others, and launch mental attacks directly at the victim’s brain. His telekinesis allows him to lift objects and people with his own mind, as well as project waves of raw force (portrayed in the film as a glowing green energy). Quick-talking and humorous, but also crude and more than a little shady. Mostly an analogue of the Authority’s Jenny Sparks. Voiced by Robin Atkin Downes.
  • Coldcast aka Nathan Jones (real name never said in the film). An American and the Elite’s bruiser, Coldcast’s powers are electromagnetic in nature. He can absorb and discharge many different types of energy, an ability which also seems to enhance his physical strength and durability greatly. Voiced by Catero Colbert.
  • Menagerie, aka Pam– unlike Coldcast, her superhero name is the one never used in the film; everyone seems particularly chummy with her. The team’s lone woman, she has a reptilian appearance, with leathery bat wings that allow her to fly with surprising speed and dexterity. Her real value, though, comes from the seemingly unlimited number of deadly slugs she can generate from her body and control remotely. The slugs (apparently the result of bonding her to an alien weapons cache) have a surprising number of offensive capabilities, and she can even use them to briefly enhance her senses. She’s supposedly Puerto Rican, which I don’t buy because not ONCE does she have a hilariously dramatic outburst of anger. Mostly an analogue of the Authority’s Swift. Voiced by Melissa Disney (yep, from those Disneys).
  • The Hat, an Asian man (Japanese in the comic but implied to be Chinese here, and he speaks perfect American English anyway) with mystical powers seemingly centered in his normal-looking hat. The hat’s powers are vague but vast; he generally uses it to summon enormous creatures but it can produce other effects as well. The Hat’s body is also said later to be protected by a magical field, thus minimizing his potential for injury. Clearly an analogue of the Authority’s Doctor, with whom he shares not just similar magical powers but also a substance abuse problem– the Hat is clearly an alcoholic. Voiced by Andrew Kishino.
  • An enormous monster. The product of Pokolistan’s biological weapons division. Resembling nothing so much as a giant, weird, weaponized cockroach, the monster walks on four enormous legs and has an extra limb in its mouth, as well as dual retractable laser cannons on its back. Incredibly strong and durable. Apparently capable of multiplying itself at will. It’s… well, it’s like something a child would design. Voiced by a bunch of inarticulate sound effects.

“rarr,” etc

The Setup: In the aftermath of the previous tussle with Atomic Skull, Superman showed up in person at the United Nations in order to attend to some sort of debate/lecture about the role of superheroes in society (because that’s the sort of thing the UN does, I guess?). Superman admirer Professor Efrain Baxter plays devil’s advocate for the crowd, pondering if these repetitive battles (the previous one cost millions of dollars in property damage, apparently), marked by restraint are really the best way to defend against evildoers. Should those with power not be more proactive and seek more definitive solutions? Is it time to take the kid gloves off? Superman answers in the negative and says that his ideals are worth sticking to, even when things get difficult.

The event is interrupted by news that violence between Pokolistan and Bialya (two fictional Middle Eastern countries; presumably the writers made up fake ones so as to avoid offending any *actual* Middle Eastern countries by suggesting they’re constantly locked in pointless wars) has flared up again. Superman flies off to the war zone, seeking to do what he can to minimize damage. Instead, he arrives to find that rumors of one side deploying WMD in the conflict are true, except that in Pokolistan the “M” stands for “monster,” as Gamera’s retarded cousin is tearing things up left and right.

The Fight: Superman gets some Bialyan regulars (their weapons are no match for the creature’s thick hide) away from the thick of things, and is surprised to find that Coldcast is already blasting away at one of the beasts, albeit ineffectually. Menagerie flies by and lodges about a dozen slugs along the back of the creature’s spine, which causes it to split in half right down the middle. This apparent victory is short-lived, however, as each half grows another new half, forming two monsters each the size of the previous.

Whoops. Superman is able to fly in and knock one monster on its back, but it recovers and cheap shots him through a building just as he goes to town on the other one. It seems like a stalemate, but the hero is soon contacted telepathically by Manchester Black, who, while watching from a distance, tells him that the monsters are brainless and technically not even alive (which he confirms with X-ray vision), so he’s free to use extreme force. A few passes with super breath freezes one monster solid, leaving Superman free to shatter it in a thousand frozen chunks with a single blow.

The second creature is dispatched when it’s swallowed by an enormous magical dragon, which then shrinks down to hand-held size and returns to its summoner, the Hat. The battle finished, Superman approaches the Elite as a friend and they, for all their too-cool attitude, are actually a bit star-struck. The conversation doesn’t last long, however, as they soon teleport out. (Transportation provided, it will later be revealed, by the team’s dimension-hopping sentient ship– another nod to the Authority.)

This one’s a bit underwhelming, and more than a bit silly. Giant bug-monsters as a form of warfare is a kind of bonkers-fun idea, but the creatures themselves are, for all their strength, a bit underwhelming. Not to mention they’d probably be inefficient in traditional combat. Plus they present all sorts of logical/science Fails: if they don’t have brains, how are they controlled? If they can multiply at will, why not send in two (or more) to begin with? And when they multiply, where does all that extra mass come from?

They’re dispatched a little perfunctorily as well. The freeze/smash thing is a nice, but the Hat’s swallowing act is a  abrupt, and this, the first combat use of his power, is shockingly broad: if he can simply absorb anything he wants into his magical hat, you wonder why he doesn’t just do that every time.

The fight does a handy enough job of introducing the Elite one by one, with a nice if hardly thorough demonstration of their abilities. Too bad it’s short and a touch on the goofy side. Fortunately there’s better to come.

Grade: C+

Coming Attractions: Your second-favorite flaming skeleton returns.

Your first favorite damn well better be this guy.

Superman vs The Elite (fight 1 of 4)

Yep, you probably thought I’d do the brand-new, ostensibly action-heavy cinematic reboot Man of Steel, but [cue record scratch noise]:

Tricked ya.

Without getting overly fanboy-ish (… yet), let’s just say I have major problems with the treatment Snyder, Nolan and Goyer gave The Man of Steel’s title character. Even putting aside from a lot of narrative problems and logical head-bangers, the Superman in the film is not really recognizable as Superman in several very crucial ways (to the extent he is at all it is largely thanks to the absolutely fantastic performance by Henry Cavill).

Superman Vs The Elite (an admittedly cheesy and bland title, but less unwieldy than that of the comic issue it was based on, Joe Kelly’s “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”), is not a great movie, even if it is one of the better examples of DC Entertainment’s many straight-to-DVD one-offs; the animation aesthetic is a little off-putting if still smoothly done, the PG-13 language is gratuitous, and the voice acting doesn’t always click.

It does, however, have a great Superman. One who is recognizably the Superman that has endured for 70+ years while still retaining vulnerability and the ability to kick some ass. It’s a Superman who is definitely about something– he has a specific meaning to the people he protects, he’s not just an action figure. This, and some other things we’ll get to, will put him into stark contrast against the caped Kryptonian you can currently see in theaters. And while this movie has of course been seen much less, it’s currently available on Netflix Streaming, so I’d advise you to check it out.

I’ll note here that the comic book story this was specifically based on came out in March of 2001, which demonstrates that all these hand-wringing “is Superman still relevant?” essays you’ve seen over the past year or so are hardly anything new; the question was an old one back when Kelly penned this issue. It was also a response to certain comic book trends in early 21st century, and the film’s ultimate villains (spoiler), the Elite, are a blatant pastiche of the Authority– one of Warren Ellis’ abandoned projects, the Authority were a pointedly proactive team from the Wildstorm label who upended their world’s status quo and took life & death into their own hands.

1) Superman vs Atomic Skull

The Fighters:

  • Superman, aka Clark Kent aka Kal-El. He’s… look, I’m not going to explain Superman’s powers to you. This is not an origin story; Superman is already a well-established hero in this film, and married to Lois Lane. Voiced by George Newbern, already a veteran at voicing the Man of Steel thanks to five seasons of the animated Justice League series.
  • The Atomic Skull, aka Joseph Martin. His powers are based on being exposed to some kind of “gene bomb,” which in the comics was courtesy of an alien race, but his origin is only obliquely referred to here. He can discharge powerful blasts of radioactive energy (often strong enough to turn non-powered humans to ash on contact), and has advanced strength & durability somewhere in the neighborhood of Superman’s own. Voiced by Dee Bradley Baker.

The Setup: Refreshingly simple. Atomic Skull has escaped from custody somehow, and he literally goes looking for a fight, specifically for one with the last son of Krypton. He starts killing bystanders in Metropolis left & right so as to goad Superman into showing up. It’s not spelled out whether the villain is just spoiling for violence or if he wants payback against Superman specifically (it’s clear from dialogue that they’ve tangled before), but when the hero expresses shock at how callous he would be, the Skull simply replies “you do what you do, I do what I do.” Indeed.

Kinda hard NOT to be a villain when you look like this.

And just before Atomic Skull can do what he does to a mother and her screaming baby, Superman flies in and clocks him g0od.

The Fight: The Man of Steel wastes no time following up with a tackle that takes them both farther away from civilians. Superman quite notably does use the terrain against his adversary here, but (and this is important), ONLY in minimal ways. He drags the Skull up the side of a building but only causes surface damage to its wall, he smacks him into other buildings but again only in glancing ways that cause superficial damage. This of course means that Atomic Skull is likewise not caused maximum harm, but that’s the price Superman pays for being cautious and conscientious. The hero’s deliberate restraint is not spelled out here, but it will become clear much later on just how damage a more careless Superman could cause.

After some more blows, the Skull gains the upper hand when he’s able to get a grip on Superman– direct contact increases the damage his powers can dish out, apparently. Superman frees himself by using his super-shout to bellow “LET GO!” with a shockwave that shatters nearby windows (more property damage), and creates some distance from his opponent’s deadly reach by seizing a telephone pole (one of Skull’s blasts had tore it from its moorings) and smacking the villain around with it for a while.

Eventually the whole thing ends when a blow from the Kryptonian sends the airborne Atomic Skull into a pond in a nearby park, which for some science or comic book “science” reason foams up around the villain and renders him unconscious. To the cheers of bystanders, Superman flies the villain away into custody.

Like many opening fights, it’s fairly brief and not particularly impressive but it does set the right tone. The movie establishes a proper “superhero” aesthetic early on, roughly demonstrating the scale these kind of players operate at.

The setup is also deceptively simple: the villain shows up spoiling for a fight and gets one, right in the middle of a crowded urban area. That’s the kind of thing that’s entertaining for us to watch on screen (or read on a page) but what would it be like to live in a world like that, where your loved ones could end up dead or your business trashed just as collateral damage to a grudge match between two superpowered weirdos? Wouldn’t you want that to be solved once and for all via drastic means? How many times do these freaks have to escape from an inefficient system before someone puts them down for good?

We’ll see.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: We meet the new guys.

Elite, but not beat agents.