Saturday, July 26, 2008

Maintaining the Path

Those of who have made a study of The Middle Room (and we naturally suspect there are dozens - perhaps hundreds - of researchers and sociologists examining every word) are well aware that we've previously expressed our fondness for the Spectacular Spider-Man. In fact, we've made our opinions known on more than one occasion.

But today we have come to do more than merely celebrate the show's accomplishment. We've come to ask for help.

The Spectacular Spider-Man is more than a show: it is a continuation in a tradition which began in 1992 with Batman: The Animated Series. Until then, cartoons were fundamentally "childish" in construction. This isn't to say, mind you, that they were all necessarily bad; merely that they were aimed exclusively at a younger audience.

Batman changed the equation. The series, while certainly animated, was crafted as if it were a live-action film. The stories were well written, the voice acting was taken seriously, and the concepts were mature.

The path had been forged, and other series followed suit. Shows like Gargoyles, Exosquad, and The Tick were soon released, providing animated entertainment which could be appreciated by older viewers as well.

It isn't that these shows are necessarily darker or more morbid than others: only that they are better written, less juvenile.

We here in The Middle Room look at The Spectacular Spider-Man and see the successor to Batman: The Animated Series. This is particularly important, as it is all but standing alone.

We've been watching the signs for a while now, watching as trends shift and tides change. We've been watching, growing afraid as we saw advertisements for Batman: Brave and the Bold. We raised an eyebrow when we first saw a trailer for Young Avengers.

But none of that could prepare us for Iron Man: Armored Adventures. If appearances are to be believed, it is Iron Man re-imagined as a teenager. We repeat: Tony Stark, a child.

The question that first leaps to our mind is, simply, "Why?" Why would someone believe this a good idea? Why was this show even made?

And, obviously, there can be no answer.

But there is hope. Hope that such short-sighted production demands will not win out. Hope in a future of sophisticated animated programing.

For this to happen, the world needs heroes. The world needs programs which respect their source material and their viewers. Spectacular Spider-Man needs to show them all how it's done. Only when the Spectacular Spider-Man outlasts these upstarts will the producers and executives revise their pathetic equations and realize what any of us could have told them from the start:

Better quality = More money.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Movie (?) Review - Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

In our quest to celebrate all things superhero, there is another class of character we tend to overlook. That, of course, is the super villain, without whom even the greatest caped crime-fighter would be nothing but a vigilante in a mask.

Joss Whedon (iD&Di: .97) certainly realizes this, and has crafted his newest tale around one such villain. What's more, he has chosen to make this a musical tale. Singing, dancing, and death rays: what's not to like?

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is, of course, genius, but you most likely knew that from the revelation that Whedon was behind it. An excellent cast is given material to match, and the result is a joy to behold and to hear.

The story follows a young super villain as he attempts to balance his career and his love for a woman who knows neither of his names. When the villain's nemesis becomes involved, the story gains depth and resonance. Whedon passes on the simple "love triangle," opting instead for something more operatic and thoughtful.

Rating something that's not a movie is problematic, even with our focus on relativity. Still, Dr. Horrible is simply too good and too contained to think of as anything less. Whedon provides us with a simple solution to our rating dilemma. If "Once More With Feeling", the greatest episode of Buffy, were a five star production, Dr. Horrible would receive four. Not bad for an low-budget internet production. Not bad at all.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


We in The Middle Room are not psychic, nor do we place our trust in those who claim such talents (exempting, of course, the honorable Professor Charles Xavier, Jean Grey, and the late Martian Manhunter). While we do have a time machine at our disposal, it hasn't been working well recently. There are logic problems with arranging to fix such a device last week, so we may hold off.

Still, there come times when we become curious as to what the future may hold. For instance, the other day we were pondering who might be the villain of the next Batman movie. Seeing as The Dark Knight has already made more money than the net worth of several small nations, it seems another sequel is inevitable. While we weren't as thrilled with the film as some, we'd certainly welcome another installment.

But who should be the antagonist? It is a question which vexed us, at least until we approached the problem logically. We considered the source of many of the film's ideas, and we considered that the writers weren't interested in obvious choices such as The Penguin or Catwoman.

Then we thought about the ending of The Dark Knight. The last few minutes were our least favorite of the movie, so we were initially reluctant to revisit them. However, we thought of a way they might redeem The Dark Knight's ending in a sequel.

We have now a theory of who the villain of the next film could be. We've heard no rumors to this effect, nor have we seen the future through any means supernatural or scientific. While we've no reason to actually believe we could be right, the idea strikes us as surprisingly rational in a twisted sort of way. A concluding chapter to this trilogy which could build on what's happened, pay tribute to the movies' roots, and truly take the franchise in a new direction.

Who is this antagonist? Scroll down for our theory.

This is, obviously, nothing but a theory for now. But if Superman does wind up acting as the antagonist in the third part of Nolen's Batman franchise, just remember one thing: you heard it here first.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Movie Review - The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight is widely being hailed as one of the greatest comic book movies ever made. This is a fallacy, not because of the film's quality, but because it can not reasonably be called a "comic book" movie.

This is a crime story, a drama, a suspense, but never a comic book movie.

Most critics will celebrate the lengths this movie goes to separate itself from its origins. But we in The Middle Room do not consider comic books something to be ashamed of. The movie does an impressive job of making Gotham city "real", but this very premise is flawed. Gotham is not real. There is no Batman, no Joker.

Let us pause a moment to ensure the reader that we do not consider The Dark Knight bad. In all honesty, we think it may be as good a film as any comic book movie since the original Superman. But it is not one of them.

What's missing is style, not substance. There is a way that things appear in comic books, larger and more imposing than life. This is more the case with Batman comics than most characters. Batman is meant to appear to be more than a man. While the movie pays lip service to this ideal, we are never shown a version of Batman that backs up these claims. If Batman is a symbol, show us a symbol. Show us a world of symbols, in fact.

No, the movie seeks a sense of realism. The Batcave is conveniently absent, written out due to the events at the conclusion of Batman Begins. There is precedence for their solution, taken from comics in the 70s when Bruce Wayne decided he needed to be closer to the streets of Gotham, but the loss is deeply felt here. Likewise, the Batsuit, here imagined as a modified combat suit, disappoints (as it did in the first installment we might add). But most, we miss Gotham, traditionally displayed as a taller, older city, a character in its own right. Instead, we are presented with Chicago.

Fortunately, our villains have more substance. The Joker is near perfect (though the make-up was again overly... realistic). His character has never been this frightening, and as long time fans of the comic, this means a great deal. Two-Face is also handled superbly, perhaps with more care than we've ever seen.

And the movie itself: well written, well acted, well shot, and all of that. The characters of The Joker, Harvey Dent, Rachel Dawes, and James Gordon are handled masterfully. The last few minutes were melodramatic and illogical, but such is life.

As a film, compared to the likes of The Godfather, this would deserve four stars out of five - objectively, it's that good. But, as a comic book movie - a Batman movie - we can only give it three stars against Batman: Mask of The Phantasm.

We enjoyed the Dark Knight; we will surely want a copy in our DVD collection, but we wish it were less embarrassed by its source. Taking the premise seriously is less impressive when that premise is so understated.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Values We Hold

In The Middle Room, the world of superheroes and the world of toys naturally intersect. This should come to no surprise to any who have visited our site before and perused our collection of oddities. Superheroes, we believe, are our society's mythology; action figures and dolls are their rightful idols and statues.

We've never considered this a point worth belaboring; in fact, we assume it a concept our readers will shrug off as obvious. But, sadly, not everyone shares our enlightened perspective.

Apparently, a religious British group is unhappy with a new barbie doll depicting Black Canary.

This we cannot abide. An attack on America's heroes is an attack on America itself. Black Canary is a pillar of morality, a wise and honorable heroine who has placed her life on the line again and again to fight injustice. She is a powerful fighter, a loving wife, and a brave leader. And if she chooses to wear fishnet stockings while leading the Justice League of America - AMERICA - into combat, we feel that is no one's business but her own.

What's more, it is our considered opinion that complaining that Barbie dressing as Black Canary is somehow inappropriate reveals an intrinsic lack of knowledge regarding the toy industry. For instance:
This is a Barbie from a few years back dressed as Electra. If you believe this is an acceptable role model, then perhaps you should read up on her exploits.

Also, we would draw your attention to these other offerings from Mattel:

There are these....


And especially this. Be sure to read the caption on that last one.
Where were these upstanding British moralists when those were released? Eating their fish and chips, no doubt.

Do not believe for a moment that these claims are based on values: were this the case, they'd have gone after other figures instead. This was a vicious attack on America, our superheroes, and their plastic representations. If Britain feels the need to tear down heroes, they're welcome to start with their own. But to those who sling such foul insults, we say this: leave Black Canary alone - she's too good for you.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Same Bat Time....

We stumbled across the results to a contest (a Bat-Contest, in point of fact), and found ourselves amused. To share in said amusement, all you need do is click here.

While we realize these were intended as jokes, we believe some have actual marketing potential. In particular, numbers 19, 15, and 2 would likely sell well enough. What's more, number 11 is more or less already available.

In fact, it strikes us as an odd contest, since not everyone was invited to participate. It is our sincere belief that PopBox Collectibles could have won with several of their products.

But then, the line between marketing and parody is often a blurry one at best.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Movie Review - Batman: Gotham Knight

Recently we had an opportunity to sit down and watch Batman: Gotham Knights, a DVD containing a series of short, connected Batman cartoons animated by various Japanese animation studios. The concept is of course reminiscent of the Animatrix released a few years ago. Unfortunately, it wasn't as good.

The Animatrix is a similar series of anime shorts tying into The Matrix. Their quality varies, but a few at least are better than any of the actual Matrix movies.

Batman: Gotham Knight isn't bad. Some of it could generously even be called good. Of the six shorts, only one, "In Darkness Dwells," truly impressed us. It wasn't that the rest were bad, just mediocre. And, when it comes to Batman, our expectations are already high.

The DVD's producer, Bruce Timm (iD&Di: .56), has already set the bar in more ways than one. His numerous animated series, from the now classic "Batman: The Animated Series", through the unparalleled "Justice League Unlimited", are the epitome of animated television entertainment. Similarly, he has produced direct-to-DVD features such as "Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker" and "Justice League: New Frontier", which have redefined what we expect from films without a theatrical release.

But Gotham Knight does not deliver, at least not in the way we've come to expect. While it's always a pleasure to hear Kevin Conroy (iD&Di: .35) voice Batman, we were less impressed by the choices made when casting supporting characters. This particularly bothered us in the case of Jim Gordon, who sounded far too young. It's not clear to us whether they were trying to duplicate the sound of the movie or if they were trying for something that duplicated a dubbed anime, but the end result was jarring.

In addition, with the notable exception of "In Darkness Dwells", there was a disconnect between the writing and the animation. While everything of course reflected the look of Japanese animation, most of the stories were subdued. This hardly complimented a style that favors action and movement. Many of the stories felt burdened by a sense of realism; perhaps the writers felt they needed to maintain the tone of the films.

It's somewhat ironic that the least realistic story, "In Darkness Dwells", was scripted by David Goyer (iD&Di: .92), the screenwriter behind both "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight". Perhaps he felt more free to explore the world he helped create.

In short, while not awful, "Batman: Gotham Knight" doesn't live up to expectation. There are some good moments and some good animation, but it just can't live up to expectations. If you have the opportunity to see it for free, there's plenty to enjoy. But if you're looking to purchase an animated Batman DVD, track down "Batman The Animated Series" and its many spin-offs. Also, let us reiterate our endorsement of "Justice League: New Frontier".

Against any of the above, Gotham Knights can't do better than a relative two and a half stars. Plus, a lot of the older animated movies and shows have been discounted as of late, so you'll save money while watching a superior product. Still, if you're a big enough fan of both Japanese animation and Batman, you might want to check this out as well.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Movie Review - Hellboy II: The Golden Army

There are many aspects of Hellboy II to cover. From the effects to the characters to the overall look of the film. And certainly all of this is important; we'll get to it in due time. But first we must examine first impressions. We must consider six words which sum up what we took away from our experience.

The Hobbit is in good hands.

To say Guillermo del Toro (iD&Di: .64) improved on the original is a waste of breath. This was to Hellboy what X-Men 2 was to X-Men or Spider-man 2 was to Spider-man. And del Toro accomplished this without a single hyphen.

Don't take this as an attack against Hellboy: we enjoyed the first installment well enough. We'd heard that the original was held back by the studio, that del Toro was pressured into including a major human character.

It seems as though this time he wasn't so constrained, and it certainly shows. Humans are pushed to the background. Instead we're left with Hellboy, Abe, Liz, and a new addition, Krauss, who are allowed to shine.

And shine they do. The drab pallet of the first film is replaced with one far more vibrant. Hellboy is now bright red, contrasted to Abe's blue. Meanwhile, the fairy kingdom provides us with a preview of what we might expect to see in The Hobbit.

This next point deserves special attention, as we've a confession to make. As much as we've enjoyed del Toro's previous work, some of us have questioned his ability to manage the kind of vast special effects The Hobbit will require. Sure, he can do simple scenes well: Pan's Labyrinth was breathtaking. But, we wondered, could he expand that into a world? Has he the skill to master a fantastic world and use it as nothing more than a backdrop when necessary?

We didn't expect an answer so soon. Yes, dear reader, he can. The world of Hellboy is not the same as Middle Earth, but that doesn't matter. Faced with a large scale, del Toro doesn't flinch. He creates characters and weaves them into his world. He ignores neither his actors nor the tone, regardless the scope of the effects.

This is the man who is meant to follow in Peter Jackson's (iD&Di: .90) footsteps. And Hellboy II is the proof.

The movie itself is a concoction of two parts concentrated glee, mixed with one part melancholy. It is a joy to watch. Without sacrificing anything, del Toro has created a comic book film that incorporates comedy, action, and wonder - along with a pinch of tragedy. But don't think for a moment that these ingredients clash: this recipe is thoroughly mixed into a coherent work. The elements flow naturally from one to another.

It's not the best movie we've seen this summer: Wall-E currently holds that title. But this is at least as good as Iron Man. It might even be better.

Is the movie perfect? No: no picture is. At times things move too quickly and some events feel contrived. But better that than tedious, which is one thing the movie never becomes.

In The Middle Room, we of course consider relativity when rating a film. There are dozens of movies we might compare this to in several genres. Another comic book movie would be an obvious choice, but we think a less conventional option reflects it better. Whatever the movie looked like, it felt like Ghostbusters. The pure joy of the film, coupled with the comedy and action, brought this to mind.

And as an action/comedy genre, how does Hellboy II stack up? Four and a half stars, we think, though we confess hesitation. Further viewing could one day make us regret withholding that last half a star.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Most of what we do here in The Middle Room tends to be light in tone and nature. In this way we think of ourselves as optimists. But there are times we are tested, when we find ourselves faced with something devastating. In these situations, we need to come together and confront the situation head on.

It has come to our attention that a friend, who will remain nameless here, has not yet seen some of the most significant superhero movies of the last decade.

Now, we know that there are many people who have this problem: that millions of people haven't been rushing to the theaters like they should, and that some, we've heard, might even avoid these films entirely (though we find such rumors hard to believe).

But this is a special case. The individual in question is a fan of the genre, someone who understands its importance, and appreciates its power. He is the kind of person these movies were created for.

We are not discussing trivial examples. The Incredibles. Hellboy. And Batman Begins. We understand that time can be in short supply, and that some things slip through the cracks. But not these.

Now, we appreciate the irony, since some of us have been remiss in our duties, as well. True, none of us are perfect, but these are important films. Two of them - Hellboy and Batman Begins - have sequels about to be released. The third, The Incredibles, is perhaps the best superhero movie since the original Superman.

These are movies that every geek needs to see. These are movies we know every geek will enjoy. If you, like our friend, have missed any of these movies, you owe it to yourself to seek them out.

And if you find that someone you know has yet to see films of such significance, then you owe it to them to bring this to their attention.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Fourth Edition, Part 3

For some time we have been considering the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Until now, our musings have been constrained to the realms of theory and literary criticism. But things have changed: at long last we have put dice to paper and miniatures to tabletop.

Yes, The Middle Room has gone to war.

And we've returned to tell of the game itself. More specifically, we've come to speak of the combat system, which permeates the rules like a gelatinous cube engulfing a gnomish bard.

In practice we were pleased with aspects of the combat system and bothered by others. There is something inherently satisfying about slaughtering one's enemies, and, by this metric, the edition does not disappoint. Even at low levels we found our characters able to hold their own, some more effectively than others. We were somewhat startled to find the group's Ranger to be more effective than we'd have expected, and we find ourselves wondering if this class may be a bit over-powered. Further study will be needed to confirm such suspicions, however.

We found ourselves less enamoured with the game's reliance on a grid and miniatures. While we expected this to a degree, we were surprised to the extent. In previous editions miniatures always seemed like a tool to keep track of complex situations: in Fourth we felt as though they took over the game.

Our response to the system itself is somewhat more philosophical. And when we think of philosophy, we naturally think of superheroes. To understand the Fourth Edition's approach, one needs to first understand the difference between the Justice League and the X-Men.

The Justice League is a team of highly competent heroes with diverse abilities and talents. When each member acts, they do so somewhat individually, accomplishing something only they can do. An action undertaken by Superman is therefore essentially about Superman, no one else.

The X-Men operate under a different dynamic. Again, each member has unique abilities, but it is the combination of their talents which yields victory. Wolverine is most effective against a Sentinel, for instance, when thrown by Colossus. Cyclops's optic blast may be a distraction for Beast to rewire the villains' computer network.

The Fourth Edition was designed to function more like the X-Men than the Justice League. A lonely Warlord or Priest, for instance, is nothing special, but put them on a team with a fighter, a wizard, and a Rogue, and their powers elevate the group as a whole.

It sounds so good on paper. But the simple fact is that, in our experience, the most fulfilling gaming experiences are individual character moments. When we think back on our greatest moments in combat, we find they almost always involve a single character achieving greatness.

Like Batman defeating Dr. Destiny, one might say.

This isn't to say that Fourth lacks these instances: in some ways it provides them in more ready abundance than any other edition. But due to the game's reliance on powers, there is a prepackaged feel to many of these heroic actions.

There is sense in which gaming is a surprisingly narcissistic activity. While we respect the attempt to focus on cooperation, we are skeptical such a shift will pay off.

Even so, there was much to enjoy. We have only begun to explore the opportunities, races, and character classes, and will need more time to determine whether our initial observations hold up.

Either way, we'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Few Notes

As you've no doubt already realized, The Middle Room is more analog than digital. We tend to avoid the topic of video games in most instances. It isn't that we look down on our electronic brethren; it's just that we feel the subject is better treated elsewhere. Besides, while we keep a Game Cube plugged in here, our funds are devoted to other ends: movies, comics, and of course the action figures you see around you.

But from time to time we feel the need to say a few words. In this case, it is DC Vs. Mortal Kombat (or Mortal Kombat Vs. The DCU or... whatever they end up calling it) that has captured our attention.

While the notion of Batman beating Sub-Zero into pulp intrigues us, there is something about the game's concept we find intrinsically troubling. Putting our reservations into words could prove problematic, but fortunately that won't be an issue. Everything wrong with this pairing can be distilled into a single image, ironically released as marketing for the game. Were we working for Midway, we might have spent money PREVENTING that image from entering the vast electronic sea known by some as the Internet.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that several elements of design in the game have managed to impress us. In particular, it occurs to us that this design for an "armored" Batman is far less offensive than, say, this one.

But we may have more to say on that subject when The Dark Knight enters theaters.