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Movie Review: Aaron Schoenke’s Batman: City of Scars

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I'm going to try something a little different here. What I'm going to ramble about isn't an established film, studio or otherwise. Instead, in keeping with the unintentional superhero focus of my own blog these past few weeks, I want to talk about a stirring fan-film I've just seen, not even two days ago. And, let's be honest — for as much love and passion as is usually put into them, most fan-films are considerably less than the sum of their parts.

This can be pinned down to any number of reasons, whether it be budget, or amateur actors, or whatever you'd like. For whatever reason, they usually miss the intentions of their makers by a mile, which isn't unusual with filmmaking in general, and in cases like these, it's never really anybody's fault. Still, more often than not they act less like the tributes to the characters that they were meant to be, and more like farce.

That is, with the notable exception of one company which has, since the early noughties, consistently produced reasonably high budget, excitingly constructed short films based around DC Comics' Batman character and his world, Aaron Schoenke's Bat In The Sun.  Until recently, they've all been snippet-length — four minutes, eight at a stretch. Then, three days ago, they released their first half-hour long film, City of Scars, to much fanfare in the fanboy community. Much like their other stuff, it's an exciting if flawed work whose passion for the character shines through even in its more churlish, cloyingly obvious moments – which is a problem, because with its new, extended running time, the flaws that had marked their earlier stuff become enlarged, made more obvious when displayed at length. The acting in particular is a fault, but I'll confront that in a moment.

Visually, this is probably some of the best work that's been done in a fan-film yet. Schoenke and company benefit greatly from the somewhat larger budget, and know how to put it up on the screen with a great deal of bombast, whether that's in the sets — which are surprisingly full of depth, in particular the rendition of Arkham Aslyum — or in Schoenke's implicit command of atmosphere, which gives the whole thing a reasonably contemporary pulp direction, not at all apart from anything you'd see in any of the character's monthlies. He's got a great handle on the visual iconography of the character, as well — great, quiet shots of the character amidst gargoyles, peering down at the city, or in the middle of a squall of rain in an alley rooftop. Whether he knows it or not, Schoenke's work gives full acknowledgment to the iconic worth of the character here, in a visual sense.

This is helped by the broad outlines of his actors, and the costumes he fits them in. There's naught here, as performances go — they're all sparse, and are less characters than they are cliches or archetypes relying on past popular images of the characters. Still, Schoenke's picked out two actors at the heart of it all that could not be visually a better fit for the two nemeses. His Batman cuts a huge, black figure against the moonlight sky, muscular but not a Hulk. And here he does something that no Hollywood rendition of the character has done — he puts him in the traditional black-and-gray tight-togs of the comic, and it comes off far better than expected, helped not a little by the production value invested in it, I'm sure. I can't quite tell if it's Spandex or not, but it looks astounding, an image cut right from the pages of Jim Lee (in all the right ways, for those who know my opinion on Snyder's Watchmen). His Joker is no different — a gangly, knobby-nosed, corpse-white ghoul done up in dainty-fit which isn't too far a stretch visually from Heath Ledger's own inimitable portrayal. Unintentionally, I'm sure, but the holes around his eyes and the raggedy nature of his once-great clothing can't help but recall that performance. His voice is a self-acknowledged rip on Mark Hamill's, but it works.

As I said before, this is not a film for performances or writing. The story is rote, and if not for its ending, would be pretty well indistinguishable from anything found before in the monthlies. Schoenke's actors are better seen and not heard – what dialogue they are given comes off as trite and emotionally unconvincing, whether that's because it's just bad, exposition-laden dialogue, or because they really just cannot act. The man playing Batman is actually The Rock's stunt double, and too often the words coming out of his mouth sound too much like the growly, pumped-up speech of a wrestler coming into the ring, through a veil of Conroy-esque animalism. You'd not be too far off in expecting him to say "Joker! I'm gonna break ya' face!" And the Joker is no different, given dialogue that's a little too indistinguishable from Mark Hamill's own take on the character. It's all just this side of cliche, but then again, I don't think any of that is the point.

Schoenke is establishing himself here as an extreme visual talent at the very least, and if a studio can wrangle him in and provide him with better trappings to work with — whether that's giving his established actors some lessons in emoting, or just finding another roster to direct, altogether — then he'll be quick to make one of the finer films in the genre without much time to waste, I'm sure, given that he has some time to hone his skills on more mundane, humane fare first.

But let's be emotional, for a second. As an admitted fanboy, oh man, this was just awesome.

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About Henry J. Baugh

  • Darwin

    I don’t think we should put bad acting as “besides the point.” Good actors are the core of any project, and just having people ‘look’ the part and stand there like dynamic paintings is not compelling enough. Casting is an important part of directing, as is wringing the best performance out of mediocre talent.

  • http://www.thefilmist.wordpress.com Henry J. Baugh

    Well, I don’t know if I’d agree with that notion. Sure, they’re drastically important to a film that is more dramatically or personally oriented, but not always with those filmmakers who are more concerned with the formalism and machinations of film, and all of that stuff. Not that Schoenke is one of those guys, but –

    But, like I said – I don’t think it’s the point of the project. Schoenke is obviously more interested in the visual, visceral aspect of the whole deal than anything else. And, it’s his visual sense of storytelling that’s the strongest. He’ll get better at directing his actors as he goes along, I’m sure.

    Problem is, it’s a trade off – with a character like Batman, you can either find someone who looks the part but isn’t really an actor, or you can find someone who can act but doesn’t really look the part. It’s kind of a catch-22, I think.

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