Sunday, May 21, 2017

Short Film Spotlight: BATMAN: CITY OF SCARS

Welcome back to another installment of SHORT FILM SPOTLIGHT. This week, we begin a short series taking a look at specifically superhero themed fan films. Each week for the next five weeks, we'll be reviewing a different film, taking a look at what works, what doesn't, and what other filmmakers can learn. To kick off this series, we're looking at the acclaimed short fan film by Bat in the Sun Productions...BATMAN: CITY OF SCARS!

It's important to understand the audience of a fan film when figuring out how to approach critiquing it. Fan films are, as the title suggests, made by intrepid fans and budding filmmakers who dreamed of seeing their favorite characters brought to life the way they imagined it, and who decided that, if no one else was going to do it officially, they'd do it themselves. And as such, it's often fair to say that not only are they made by fans, but also for fans, first and foremost. Batman: City of Scars is perhaps one of the finest examples of a fan film that really makes an attempt to bring to life a version of Batman that many comic fans have always wanted to see and who, arguably, we still haven't quite seen on screen in an official capacity. City of Scars does its best to bring the world of Gotham City to life, and is pretty successful at that. And while it's writing and pacing can, at times, leave a bit to be desired, it's a film that absolutely delivers.

The story is relatively simple for a Batman story. The Joker has broken out of Arkham Asylum and has taken a politician and his son hostage after killing the politician's wife. It's up to Batman to follow clues to find the Joker and rescue the hostages. In the process, Batman encounters a few other members of his rogues gallery while examining the reasons why he refuses to kill. Just on its face, the film makes a huge attempt to be faithful to the Batman aesthetic. Visually, the film looks great. While I would've preferred more than just the cloth batsuit, the film makes it work. The city looks appropriately gritty, the visual designs for people like the Joker or Harley Quinn are appropriately classic, and the sets look great. The same can also be said for many of the actors. Kevin Porter does a great Batman, and his narration gives the story some heavy atmosphere, even if the writing itself isn't always so solid (more on that later). Paul Molnar also does a fantastic job as the Joker, this Joker seeming to be a more sadistic riff on an Animated Series type Joker.

Really, the only thing I'm not entirely crazy about is some of the writing and some somewhat sloppy plot-work. Some of it is incredibly minor. As an example, in the middle of the film, someone makes reference to the Joker seeing "the little man," a clue which Batman immediately identifies. Now, as a Batman fan (the target audience of this short), I hear "little man," see that this character owns a nightclub, sees that it has plenty of criminal activity associated with it, and that it associates with the Joker, I immediately think that it's going to be the Penguin. But instead, it turns out to be the Batman villain, the Ventriloquist. And while I appreciate the deep cut, it seems kind of odd. Other aspects aren't so minor, The nightclub scene is interesting and does good things for the mood of the film, but does bring the pacing down, especially since not much actually happens in the club. It's not an overly long scene, and it doesn't kill the film, but it is a part that I do wish was a bit shorter. That being said, it gives us a good chance to see the fight choreography for the film, which is excellent. Bat in the Sun Productions later went on to produce the popular Superhero Beat Down videos, all of which feature some great fight choreography, so the high quality of the fight scenes comes as no surprise. Batman fights like I always imagined him fighting in the comics, and was the best Batman fight scene we'd seen in live action until probably Batman v. Superman's warehouse scene.

The writing is mostly solid, but at certain points, the amateurish nature does shine through a tad. One of the biggest mistakes the film makes (without spoiling) is the narration at the end feeling the need to essentially interpret its own ending. The ending comes out of nowhere and is a great way to address ambiguous question brought up throughout the film, but it's also the kind of thing that should probably speak for itself. Some of the narration throughout also can come off as a bit too simplistic at times. Most of it is simply a matter of rewriting some lines, picking some different words, and rephrasing a few things. Compared to the issues with the ending, it's all relatively minor stuff that a second pass through from another set of eyes could've probably remedied.

Overall, though, none of these problems take away from the achievement of this film. City of Scars is a beautiful sight to behold. The characters feel real, the world feels dangerous, and the questions brought up are as integral to the character of Batman as anything else. Bat in the Sun took great effort to bring this world to life, and it paid off. Bat in the Sun is now a big name in the fan community, recently signing on to create short web videos for Valiant Comics based on their characters, and the dedication they put into their work tells us exactly why they're held in such high regard. City of Scars will continue to be a high watermark for exactly what a couple of fans with too much time on their hands can accomplish.

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