No long introduction here, I’m just going to dive right into two amazing, yet neglected, works.
Books: The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
Batman gets all the love. Seriously, who really likes Superman? He’s too distant, too strong, too...well...super. Spiderman? He has real-world problems but at least he still has superpowers. When asked about his favorite superhero, when was the last time you heard someone say the Hulk? But with all this, when was the last time anyone ever picked up a Batman comic? I shudder when I think that someone’s knowledge of Batman might be based almost solely on Batman and Robin. So of all the places in the vast comic book universe, in all the thousands of Batman comics, where should one start?
As a comic book nerd, I’d be lax in my duty if I told you to read only one comic. But seeing as how there are only a few spectacular nerds in the world like me, and seeing as how I don’t think you, dear reader, are considering locking yourself in a darkened room to play World of Warcraft for 23 hours straight while growing a neck-beard, I’ll stick with just one. If you’re going to read a Batman comic, you should read The Dark Knight Returns.
Imagine everything that is amazing about Batman, taken to an absurd degree. The hard-edged triumph of physical strength and wit is heightened when Batman shows up in Gotham 40 years after retiring. An old, graying man haunted by memories of his past fights the rampant crime in the dystopian future of Gotham City. Instead of batarangs and smoke bombs, Batman uses tanks and missiles. Instead of a young and imposing Bruce Wayne, Batman is a beaten, ultra-cynical old man. It’s an altogether darker and more pessimistic Batman, and it is the epitome of everything the masked detective is about. A dark and violent response to a dark and violent underworld. A man fighting the darkness in a world filled with it. A deadly Byronic hero, driven to fight on no matter the consequences.
Widely hailed as one of the greatest comic books of all time, by most counts finishing just short of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, The Dark Knight Returns is everything Batman should be, complete with a little light political satire and (gasp) a duel with Superman. You should read a whole host of comic books; they’re truly the mythology of our modern society and shouldn’t just be the realm of nerds. But if you’re intent on watching only the movies, at least read The Dark Knight Returns. And for the love of God, don’t watch Batman and Robin.
Movies: A History of Violence (2005)
Whatever happened to Arago—I mean, Viggo Mortensen? After Return of the King, Mortensen starred in the train wreck Hidalgo and seemed to cement his Mark Hamill–esque fate. I personally feared he would be doomed to the realm B-movies, type-casting, and voice-overs. That was until I saw A History of Violence. Mortensen plays the role of small town diner owner Nick Stall who’s accused by a one-eyed mobster (always creepy Ed Harris) of being part of the gang. This is after Mortensen kills two thieves with his bare hands in about five seconds.
The basic plot of the movie is a little ho-hum and predictable. One of the big mysteries is whether or not Mortensen is actually a gangster. But honestly, could Mortensen be anything but a serious killer? The small-town-Indiana look fits him in the beginning, but peels right off the first second you see Ed Harris. But despite Mortensen’s fame, the real stars of this movie are Maria Bello and William Hurt, who play Mortensen’s wife and “brother” respectively. Bello makes the whole conflict between Mortensen’s home life and dreadful past truly resonate with her sharp, yet innocent and feminine, features. Hurt obviously has a grand old time playing the wonderfully written Richie Cusack, and depicts him with a mix of hurt brotherly affection and mobster sociopathy. The premise of A History of Violence is decidedly stock: a mobster trying to escape his past. But the actors pull it together nicely, and (without spoiling the ending) the story itself doesn’t disappoint.
Despite being such a proponent of obscure titles, I am usually the kind of person who believes that if a movie gets bad reviews or doesn’t perform well, there’s something inherently flawed about it. In my mind, it has to be a lot more than just casual under-appreciation to cause a movie witnessed by millions to go unnoticed. History of Violence is one of the rare exceptions to this. It was marketed well, saw wide release, got good reviews, and was even nominated for a few Oscars, but yet has been almost totally ignored by the public. Mortensen is outshone (just barely) by his co-stars, but he still puts in a near Oscar-worthy performance. It would be a shame if all he was remembered for was The Lord of the Rings. Though seeing as how I will only be remembered for the smell on my computer chair and my level 49 Night Elf, Lord of the Rings isn’t half bad.