Batman, the character, has been around for eighty years since his first appearance in Detective Comics #27. Over that time, he has been in a number of different media, including serials, television, animation, film, and games. The character has been portrayed in a number of ways for 80 years, allowing for a Batman for everyone’s tastes.
Cutting to the chase, one of the more recent adaptations is also a spin-off. The LEGO Batman Movie features the Batman from The LEGO Movie, itself also an adaptation. The LEGO Movie is also a hard movie to follow up on, having not only been entertaining and thought provoking, but also a cinematic way to play with LEGO. Batman in The LEGO movie was both a parody and a kid’s view of the character, dark, gritty, and very, very serious. Will Arnett played the character straight, despite the absurdity, much like Leslie Nielsen in Airplane and Adam West in the 1966 Batman TV series.
The LEGO Movie well enough to garner a sequel and Batman was popular enough to get a spin-off. This time, set in LEGO Gotham, the movie features Batman and characters associated with him. Emmett, Wildstyle, and Unikitty aren’t around; this isn’t their movie. Instead, LEGO Batman has Will Arnett, Michael Cera as Dick Greyson, Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon, Ralph Fiennes as Alfred Pennyworth, and Zack Galifianakis as the Joker. Even the minor characters were voiced by an impressive cast, including Mariah Carey and Billy Dee Williams as Two Face.
LEGO Batman opens with black, like all important movies, followed by the type of music that makes studio execs and parents nervous. Batman even narrates that, then provides a quote that becomes important to the main theme of the movie.
The big opening features the Joker with every villain from Batman’s rogues gallery planting a bomb underneath Gotham City that, if it explodes, would send the city into the endless void beneath the city. The Joker offers Gotham a deal – provide the mayor and Batman, the city goes unexploded. As time ticks down, the mayor arrives, but there’s no sign of Batman, worrying the Joker. However, the master of disguise that Batman is has already arrived, in the form of the mayor. Batman breaks out a new song and proceeds to defeat the A-list, B-list, C-list, and D-list villains, leaving the Joker for last.
All the Joker wanted was for Batman to acknowledge him as his greatest enemy. Batman steadfastly refuses, calling Superman his greatest enemy and saying he needs no one and the Joker means nothing to him. The Joker does get away as Batman dives to defuse the bomb and saves the city once again.
Later that night, Bruce Wayne arrives at James Gordon’s retirement party. Gordon is stepping down as Police Commissioner, allowing his daughter, Barbara, take over the role. Barbara is a graduate of Harvard for Police and has cleaned up cities like Bludhaven through physical abilities and spreadsheets. It’s love at first sight for Bruce, who is so smitten he accidentally adopts Dick Greyson without realizing it. Barbara, though, hasa plan to clean up crime that doesn’t involve Batman.
Joker, meanwhile, enacts his latest plan to get Batman to admit he’s the greatest enemy. All he needs is the Phantom Zone ray. The plan is somewhat convoluted as he surrenders not just himself but every Bat-villain into Barbara’s custody, sending all of the villains to Arkham Asylum. Batman and Barbara both know that the Joker is up to something, but Batman believes the best place to keep him is in the Phantom Zone.
After a theft where Batman uses Dick, now using Robin as a code name, as an expendable minion, steals the projector from Superman”s Fortress of Solitude. Breaking into Arkham is a little more difficult than expected, but Batman sends the Joker to the Phantom Zone. Barbara takes the opportunity to lock Batman and Robin away.
In the Phantom Zone, the Joker gathers several LEGO versions of filmdom’s villains – Sauron, Voldemort, King Kong, Dracula, Godzilla, even “British robots” that like to yell “EXTERMINATE!” With this lot, the Joker will force Batman to admit that they need each other.
The movie is a character study of Batman, using every incarnation of him, comic, cartoon, and film. LEGO Batman makes references to events from the Christopher Nolan movies, the Tim Burton movies, and the Leslie H. Martinson movie. The character is recognizable and covers similar ground, but takes a deeper look into what becoming a loner does to him. LEGO Batman is driven by two things, a desire to keep others feeling what he did when his parents were shot and a desire to not go through those emotions again. It’s when he is forced to confront what he has become that he realizes that he can’t protect his friends, and he needs them.
The LEGO Batman Movie has its “kid playing LEGO” moments, following the style of The LEGO Movie. Many of the sound effects are just the voice actors providing them, such as, “Pew pew pew!” At the same time, the movie has depth that many of the Batman movies don’t get into, such as the effects of fighting crime while dressed as a bat. LEGO Batman isn’t a parody but a pastiche of all previous incarnations, but while treating the plot like an amusement, the psychology of Batman isn’t there for comedy. His motives are examined, his ego and bravado a shield.
Despite, or maybe because of, its origins, The LEGO Batman movie may be the best representation of the character on film. The character, despite being a toy, has depth, as does the Joker. They both have a need that Batman manages to deny for both, and only when he can break past the denial can the city be saved.
Star Wars is huge. It began as a massive blockbuster that broke box office records and became a massive franchise. Now in the hands of Disney, the Star Wars franchise has a number of tie-ins and spin-offs, including games of all sorts, novels, animated series, and, now, spin-off movies. The spin-offs are a way to keep the Star Wars name in theatres, with each one coming about a year after the major releases like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The spin-offs fill in gaps in the storyline and keeps people talking about the franchise. Let’s take a look at the most recent spin-off, Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Solo delves into the history of the franchise’s favourite scruffy nerfherder, Han. A few points, though. Han wasn’t the first character to appear in a tie-in novel – that honour belongs to Luke and Leia in Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye in 1978 – but Brian Daley featured him and Chewbacca in a trilogy of novels beginning in 1979: Han Solo at Stars’ End, Han Solo’s Revenge, and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy. The three books were later collected as The Han Solo Adventures and were referenced by AC Crispin in The Han Solo Trilogy. The Daley books were the source of the Z-95 Headhunter, first appearing in Stars’ End and then returning in the X-Wing series of video games and in the CGI series The Clone Wars. Of the main characters of the series, Han has had the most done with his background in the Expanded Universe.
The big problem is that there is so much written about Han that a movie risks contradicting what has come before. Canon in Star Wars comes in a hierarchy, with the movies being primary, the animated series coming next, then the tie-in works third. However, West End Games’ RPG tends to be referenced for terms and equipment, so the hierarchy can be fluid. Daley’s works have been around for almost the length of the franchise, a background influence on subsequent work. It’s a tough line for Solo to follow.
As for the movie, Solo is one part coming of age, one part gangster flick, one part Western, one part pulp, one part heist movie, one part origins story, and all space opera. The movie shows Han crawling out of the dregs of Corellia, meeting Chewbacca, meeting Lando, and getting the Millennium Falcon. The seeds of what Han will become in the original trilogy are planted, showing why he got involved with a senile old man, a farm boy, and two droids trying to escape Tatooine. One of the highlights of the film is showing how Han made the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs, and why a unit of length is used instead of a unit of time.
The casting is one of the movie’s strengths. Alden Ehrenreich has the difficult job of being a young Harrison Ford, but pulls off not just the looks but the mannerisms, while still being young and not quite cynical yet. Joonas Suotame plays Chewie, Han’s partner after being rescued from Imperial enslavement. Donald Glover becomes Lando Calrissian, channelling Billy Dee Williams and dominating any scene he’s in. New characters include Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Han’s mentor; Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han’s love; L3 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando’s first mate and droids’ rights activist; and Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), head of the Crimson Dawn crime ring. Everyone named there has a story arc, some successful, others not.
The strong cast leads into one of the movie’s problems. Han gets overshadowed at times in his own story. The story is still his, but it’s not until midway through the film that Han starts to stand out. Lando in particular tends to take over scenes, thanks to both the nature of the character and to Donald Glover’s portrayal. The interplay between Lando and L3 deserves its own feature, movie or TV series, with Glover and Waller-Bridge reprising the characters. This is of no fault on the part of Ehrenreich; Lando is almost the opposite of Han, suave and sophistcated. A film should make audiences want to see more of a character, but not instead of what’s being shown.
Solo also came out at a time when diversity awareness in movies is acute. Star Wars has had issues with reflecting the audience. In 1977, a sausage fest was understandable and excusable for being an artifact of the times. Today, though, audiences are more aware of diversity. The more recent films in the franchise are showing a greater range, including more women and persons of colour both in lead roles and in the background, moving away from the only woman in the film being a princess. Solo, though, is about a white man at a time when films like Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel are breaking records. This isn’t to say Leia and Rey are slouches. They aren’t. Leia took over her own rescue and Rey is creating her own path in becoming a Jedi. It’s more timing working against Solo. If the movie had been Calrissian instead with the same cast, it’d avoid the backlash and counter-backlash.
The biggest problem Solo has is that it is a good popcorn movie. There’s some insight to the character, but it’s not deep. The movie doesn’t go from action piece to action piece. It’s well written, well directed, well acted. It is a solid film. Many studios would be happy if their movies held together as well as Solo. But with Star Wars, solid isn’t enough. Star Wars has always been about the amazing, and Solo just falls short. Expectations weren’t managed, but doing so with the Star Wars franchise is impossible. Fans are expecting mind-blowing, and Solo wasn’t quite there. The movie is worth seeing, but expectations need to be adjusted.
A popular character is valuable. They have fans who are interested in seeing more of that character. If the popular one is a supporting character instead of the star, then the creative staff can take a look at a spin-off. Spin-offs take the popular character* and place him or her into the starring role. Examples abound. Better Call Saul features the popular criminal lawyer from Breaking Bad. Frasier follows the psychiatrist Frasier Crane in his career as a radio host after the end of Cheers. I’ve discussed spin-offs before. They are a mix of adaptation and continuation, which puts them into a grey area for Lost in Translation. They’re also not new or restricted to just television. In some cases, the spin-off can become better known than the original work.
One such series of spin-off movies feature the characters of Ma and Pa Kettle, a hard-luck couple living in Cape Flattery, Washington, with their numerous children. The Kettles first appeared in The Egg and I, the fictionalized memoirs of Betty MacDonald, published in 1945. The book chronicled MacDonald’s life as a newlywed on a chicken farm that she and her then-husband, Robert, bought. The popularity of The Egg and I led it to being adapted as a film in 1947 starring Claudette Colbert as Betty and Fred MacMurray as Bob, her husband. Ma and Pa Kettle also appeared in the film, portrayed by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride. The Kettles were a contrast to the MacDonalds; where Betty was out of her depth with the older style stove and manual housework, Ma kept her household going despite the number of children, including Pa. Where Bob, Betty’s husband, was willing to put in a full day just to get his farm started, Pa was content to let things fall to pieces, putting in a minimal effort. Since The Egg and I was about the MacDonalds and their farm, the focus was on Betty. Still, Main won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for portraying Ma Kettle.
The Kettles – Ma, Pa, and their brood – turned out to be popular. From 1949 until 1957, seven movies** were made featuring Ma and Pa Kettle, with two more made with just Main after Kilbride retired from acting due to injuries and being typecast. Each one used a familiar theme – Ma and Pa adjusting to the wider world while the wider world adjusted to them. The theme works and has appeared throughout entertainment, from Pygmalion to The Addams Family film adaptation. Ma and Pa are simple folk, used to doing things in their way. In Ma and Pa Kettle, Pa wins a “house of the future” with such modern conveniences as a television, electric stove, electric washer and dryer, and electricity. The film covers how the Kettles adjust to the modern devices, from Ma learning how her new kitchen works to Pa having to get up to turn on the radio.
In Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town, Pa wins another contest, this time for a cola company, with the prize being a trip to New York City. With only two plane tickets available, the Kettles almost have to decline, except a kind gentleman on the run from the law for bank robbery offers to watch the children. Again, the humour comes from the adjustments both the Kettles and the wider world have to make for each other, with the added fun of the children, barely manageable by Ma, making the bank robber prefer a nice, quiet cell. The other movies follow the same general format, with the Kettles making their way through trial and error with neither the simple way nor the modern way being touted as the right way.
The Ma & Pa Kettle movies are spin-offs of an adaptation, much like the relationship the TV series Angel has with the movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As such, working out the accuracy of the movies compared to the original is difficult. As a spin-off, the movies kept the core of the characters as portrayed in The Egg and I, a back country husband and wife with too many children and content with their lives. In both the book and the adaptation, the Kettles were the voice of experience compared to Betty and Bob. In the Ma & Pa Kettle movies, the Kettles are often out of their depth, much like Betty was at the start of The Egg and I, but with the experience they had, they could get by and thrive despite circumstance, keeping true to their original appearance.
Next week, the March news round up.
* Or, sometimes, an unpopular character. See also, Joey, the Friends spin-off that lasted two seasons
** The list of Ma & Pa Kettle movies in order of release date:
Ma and Pa Kettle
Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town
Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm
Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair
Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation
Ma and Pa Kettle at Home, which was Percy Kilbride’s last film role.
Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki, the last released film with Kilbride as Pa; it was filmed in 1952 but released in 1955.
The Kettles in the Ozarks, with just Marjorie Main.
The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm, with Parker Fennelly as Pa Kettle.
Murder mystery movies have a fine line when it comes to casting. When a big name is attached to the movie and isn’t the investigator, chances are that the person is the murderer, spoiling the reveal during the opening credits. There are ways around the problem. One is to have the big name be the murder victim, but that means spending a large chunk of budget on a role that appears for the first act. Another approach, the one used by Columbo, is to show the murder. The dynamic changes. The drama comes from wanting to see how the detective solves the crime.
The character of Columbo was created by Richard Levinson and William Link, originally for the anthology series, The Chevy Mystery Show, in 1960, adapted from a short story the creators wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine Levinson and Link then adapted the episode for stage in 1962. The Detective Lieutenant Columbo people are familiar with reappeared on television in 1968 with Prescription Murder, based on the stage play. Peter Falk, who played Detective Lieutenant Columbo in every movie since then, was not the first choice to play the role, but he convinced the creators he could be the character.
Prescription Murder did well enough as a one-off movie that NBC requested a pilot for a potential TV series. The resulting movie, Ransom for a Dead Man, was also successful. Columbo became part of the rotating NBC Mystery Movie line up along with McCloud, MacMillan and Wife, and Hec Ramsey The rotation allowed each part of the line up to spend the time needed without rushing, adding to the quality of each show. Falk won an Emmy for his portrayal of Columbo in the show’s first season, showing the benefit of the extra time.
Columbo ran until 1979 on NBC, then was revived on ABC as part of the ABC Mystery Movie line up in 1989, running until 2003. Peter Falk’s health prevented a 2007 Columbo movie from being made. Over the course of the series, most episodes followed a set format. The first act showed the murder and the murderer. Once the body was discovered and the police called in, Columbo would investigate the crime scene, looking at it at different angles, trying to find that one clue. The rest of the episode followed Columbo’s investigation, including his persistant questioning of his main suspect. The questioning was always done in a friendly manner, and never was directly about the murder. Instead, Columbo would ask about details about daily routines, about the victim, about the suspect’s job. Eventually, Columbo would find that one tidbit that would confirm beyond a doubt that his suspect was the murderer. The writers also played fair; all the details would be available and shown on screen. There was never a hidden clue pulled out from nowhere.
The heart of the series was always Peter Falk’s portrayal of Columbo. Falk provided much of Columbo’s wardrobe and ad libbed many of the detective-lieutenant’s mannerisms, including feeling through his rumpled raincoat for a pencil. Columbo is a friendly, unassuming man with an eye for detail and a quick mind. He loves his wife and his adopted Bassett hound and owns a one-of-a-kind car* that is much like him. At the same time, Columbo has no problem with misleading a subject, though never to the point of creating evidence. Staging a bicycle accident or using subliminal images to find the last piece of the puzzle, however, are just some of Columbo’s tactics. Columbo also went against the grain compared to other investigators of the era; with three exceptions, he never carried a gun. Two of the exceptions, No Time to Die and Undercover, were based on stories by Ed McBain. The third exception, and the only time Columbo has been seen shooting a gun, was Troubled Waters, where he fired a gun into a mattress for ballistics testing.
As mentioned, the special guest starts were usually the murderer. The interaction between Falk as Columbo and the guest stars resulted in many memorable scenes. Among the guest stars were Faye Dunaway, William Shatner (twice), Jack Cassidy (three times), Patrick McGoohan (four appearances and directed five episodes), and Robert Culp (four appearances, three times as the murderer). Identity Crisis, which not only featured McGoohan’s second guest appearance but also had him directing, was the closest to being a Columbo/The Prisoner cross-over**, with Lt. Columbo and Number Six trying to outwit each other.
In 1979, Fred Silverman was looking for a replacement movie in the Myster Movie line up. Silverman commissioned the spin-off Mrs. Columbo despite protests coming from Columbo creators Levinson and Link and from Falk. Silverman wanted to keep the Columbo name, if not the rest of the show. The opening credits formed the connection to Columbo, showing the Columbo’s distinctive car and distinctive dog along with ashtrays filled with cigar ash. The episodes, though, never showed Columbo, focusing on Mrs. Columbo, played by Kate Mulgrew, who would go on to play Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager.
Mrs. Columbo lasted one season and went through several name changes over thirteen episode. The series became Kate Columbo, then Kate the Detective, and, finally, Kate Loves a Mystery. Along the way, Kate’s last name became Callahan, explained as the character having gone through a divorce. The series followed the same format as Columbo, having well known guest stars as the murderer and showing the murder at the beginning. Kate worked at a small weekly newspaper as a columnist, which would lead her to getting involved in several mysteries. The first regular episode, “Murder is a Parlor Game”, guest starring Donald Pleasence (Blofeld, You Only Live Twice) and Ian Abercrombie (voice of Palpatine, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, among many other roles) had Kate get involved after she met retired Scotland Yard investigator Morly (Pleasence).
Mrs. Columbo, as a series, suffered from being a spin-off, an unpopular one to boot. While Mrs. Columbo was never seen in any episode of Columbo, the lieutenant spoke often and fondly of her. Kate Mulgrew was far too young to play Columbo’s wife; other details in Mrs. Columbo contradicted what was revealed by Lieutenant Columbo. The expectations that were set by being a Columbo spin-off were too high to be met. Mrs. Columbo was an obvious attempt to cash in on a familiar name and could have thrived without being attached to the earlier series. However, executive meddling by Fred Silverman set up the connection. The cast and crew did what they could. By the time the series found its feet, it was too late.
What Mrs. Columbo did show was that the approach to murder mysteries that Columbo took could work with other characters. A series that did use the approach would have to ensure that the investigator was his or her own person and not an attempt to mimic Falk’s character. Mrs. Columbo did have the advantage of flipping the investigator’s gender. In short, the series was handicapped by the connection and would have been better served by being its own entity instead of a spin-off.
Just one more thing. Some time back, I mentioned that Columbo would be a series that could never be remade. Without Peter Falk, it just wouldn’t be Columbo. He created so much of what endeared the detective to the audience through his ad libs that anyone else would be a pale imitation. Mrs. Columbo tried to bottle that lightning by riding the rumpled coattails, but there are spiritual successors. The Mentalist and Monk are both contenders. With a bit of effort, Mrs. Columbo could have been one, too.
* Columbo’s car is a 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet two-door convertible. Only five hundred and four were made by that year. Peter Falk found the car that would become Columbo’s on the Universal back lot and decided it would be ideal. The car is as much a classic as Columbo.
** Also guest starring was Leslie Nielsen as the murder victim. Detective Lieutenant Columbo, meet Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant, Police Squad
Let’s round up those tidbits and see what’s going on.
NBC drops a house on Emerald City.
NBC’s entry to the 2015-16’s Wizard of Oz lineup has had its plug pulled and water poured on the corpse. Emerald City was going to be The Wizard of Oz as seen through a the lens of A Game of Thrones. Disagreements between NBC and showrunner Josh Friedman launched the suborbital house drop. Friedman will shop Emerald City around.
Chloë Moretz says Kick-Ass 3 dead due to piracy. Screen Rant says, not so fast.
Kick-Ass 2 broke even in the US with overseas markets adding to its total take. Moretz, who played Hit-Girl, believes that piracy was a factor in the low take. Screen Rant counters with a 29% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, a factor that the R-rated movie wasn’t that good to start.
Blade Runner 2 has a script.
Sir Ridley Scott has confirmed that the Blade Runner 2 script is done and will have Harrison Ford back. Filming has not been scheduled; Prometheus 2, with its March 2016 release date, may cause a delay in the filming of Blade Runner 2.
Museum of London and the BFI need help finding Sherlock Holmes.
The 1914 film A Study in Scarlet, the earliest known Sherlock Holmes adaptation, is the second oldest on the BFI‘s Most Wanted list. If found, contact sherlockholmes at bfi.org.uk or use the #FindSherlock tag on Twitter.
The Greatest American Hero getting reboot movie.
The creators of The LEGO Movie are adapting the Stephen J. Cannell series as a TV series on Fox. The original series featured an inner-city school teacher who finds a super suit but loses the instruction manual.
Patrick Warburton to return as The Tick.
Amazon will be making new episodes of the series. Fox had aired nine episodes of the live-action adaptation of the Ben Edlund comic in 2001, with an animated series running on the same network earlier from 1994 to 1997. The Tick – comic, animated, and live-action – was a parody of superheroes.
Stan Lee confirms Black Panther movie.
During a panel at Fan Expo Canada, held in Toronto, Stan Lee let slip that the Black Panther will have a movie. Marvel’s plans are to have a movie with all their heroes.
Casting has begun for Ghost in the Shell live action adaptation.
Margot Robbie, seen in The Wolf of Wall Street has been cast in the American live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell.
Neil Gaiman’s “Hansel & Gretel” graphic novel to become movie.
Juliet Blake, producer of The Hundred-Foot Journey, has picked up the rights to Gaiman’s as yet unreleased graphic novel retelling “Hansel & Gretel”. The graphic novel should be out in October.
AMC orders companion series to The Walking Dead.
The so far untitled new series will take a look at what’s happening elsewhere during the zombie apocalypse. AMC has released few details beyond that. The Walking Dead also returns for a fifth season this fall.
Warner Bros. has Legion of Superheroes movie in pre-pre-production.
So far, just rumours that a Legion of Superheroes movie is coming, but Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy may have put some fear into Warner. Legion began in 1958 centred on Super-Boy but evolved to stand on its own. The team has appeared in live-action before, being featured in the Smallville episode “Legion”.
Fox to air series based on Neil Gaiman’s take on Lucifer.
Countering NBC’s Constantine, Lucifer will follow the titular devil, based on Gaiman’s work in Sandman and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The fallout from the show should be impressive, especially over at FOX News.
CBS picks up Supergirl series.
The Warner produced Supergirl TV series has been picked up by CBS, allowing the The Eye to join the other broadcast networks in superhero shows. Fox has Gotham, the Batman prequel. NBC has Constantine. CW has the ongoing Arrow and the new kid Flash. ABC is reaping fortune by having the same owner as Marvel – Disney – and both Agents of SHIELD and new series Agent Carter.
Deadpool movie confirmed.
The Merc with the Mouth will finally get the movie people have been wanting. Fox announced that the movie will be released February of 2016. Ryan Reynolds will return to play the character. Filming has not yet started, and the announcement of the Deadpool movie has bumped the Assassin’s Creed movie off Fox’s release schedule completely.
Real Genius being turned into a TV series.
The 80s movie, Real Genius, which starred Val Kilmer, is getting remade as a sitcom. Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions is one of the studios on board with the reboot.