BATMAN: DYING IS EASY— 4 STARS
The medium of movies fits the swelling urge to be big and loud. They are sensory explosions we love, but that only goes so far in that endless style vs. substance debate. No matter the noise or spectacle, in this critic’s opinion, story and character are what secure success the most. The crowdfunded Batman: Dying is Easy is precisely that example. The short film from Sean and Aaron Schoenke of Bat in the Sun Productions nails its characters without overplaying spectacle. That’s likely a lecture that we may very well revisit this very week with a certain hotly anticipated director’s cut fanning all the fanboy flames in sight.
Enough about the bloated stuff with big studio badges. Let’s get small. Let’s get intimate, and the world of YouTube and high-level fan films is the place to go.
Meting out justice in burly detective mode, Batman (Super Power Beat Down regular Kevin Porter) is introduced squashing a kidnapping ring run by the Mad Hatter (Jamie Costa of Robot Riot). Tangential to this small rescue is ongoing headline news occurring in Gotham City. Three GCPD officers have been missing with no leads on their survival status or locations. The department and public begin to fear the worst, which weighs heavily on Commissioner Gordon (Casper Van Dien) and Lieutenant Harvey Bullock (Michael Madsen).
When Bullock summons Batman with the Bat Signal to the roof of police headquarters, the two have it out. The gruff Bullock questions the hero’s usefulness, especially considering the urgency of the three missing cops. The flatfoot is also present to pass along an urgent request. The Joker (Aaron Schoenke) is dying of cancer and wants Batman’s audience for a talk at Arkham Asylum, the mental institution and prison run by Hugo Strange (recording artist Chris Daughtry).
LESSON #1: DWELLING IN MADNESS— Occupying more disdain than respect compared to his superior dealing with Batman, Bullock closes their meeting to bestow a label on the caped vigilante and his arch enemy that hits right between the cowl-covered eyes. He calls the two “madness dwellers” that are getting what they deserve, be it prolonged suffering or a slow death. Damn, that’s a dynamite description that is called back later with the notion of removing hope to heal such madness and pain. Madsen may be far beyond his intimidating prime, but he sure sells this effectively.
Strolling through the cameo-filled corridors of Arkham Asylum, Batman walks past a who’s who of the Rogue’s Gallery he put behind these bars to answer the invitation of the prison’s self-anointed king. The meaty core of Batman: Dying Is Easy is this psyche-challenging conversation of gamesmanship and veiled respect between a hero and his greatest nemesis. With a dream on linked legacies sold by his snake oil of “after all we’ve been through,” The ailing Joker has a special request for Batman that pushes moral limits.
LESSON #2: NAILING CHARACTERS— For a little under 30 minutes, Batman: Dying is Easy is a psychological character study of both the extreme dichotomy and the unbreakable bonds between these two comic creations. As this encounter escalates, boy, do they really read each other. Removing all the grand set pieces and explosions that sell comic books and big movies, this is a pure depiction of the shared essence between Batman and The Joker. This is nailing characters and it didn’t take millions of dollars and room full of screenwriter egos.
From delivering the scripted words of this short story to filling the designed visages, Kevin Porter and Aaron Schoenke maximize their moments. The makeup of Chrissy Porter is a hulking presence in his ReevzFX costume physically who, even more impressively, exudes the strong-willed patience of the character. Accentuated by Chrissy Lynn’s stellar makeup, Schoenke plays the Clown Prince of Crime as a sly amalgam between Hamill and Ledger.
This Batman will hit you if he needs to hit you, no doubt, but he’ll also wait and let his plotted traps spring in beautiful precision. The same can be said for a coiled Joker that can stab or snicker with equal deadliness. Within seconds of meeting both, you see their “it” factors. By the time this mental brawl closes, they are their characters.
Batman: Dying is Easy achieves this on a $75,000 shoestring. Out of that small budget, the matte work and visual effects of Nikolai Zamkovoi give a little luster to the stunts and choreography of Alfred Hsing and Peter Jang shot by cinematographer Aric Abraham. One could get out the magnifying glass and be very exact about what is rough and unflashy, but, at this level, that craft is secondary compared to a strong story. The perfect tonal aperitif of this short is the killer closing original song “Laugh Away,” written by Sean Schoenke and sung with smoky appeal by Madelynn Rae. Talk about the cherry on top.
Simply put, it’s amazing what independent creators can do when they truly get the core of something. Thematic achievement will always outweigh bells and whistles. Aaron and Sean Schoenke are those kinds of creators and they make the most of their resources. It’s refreshing to see grassroots grow and flourish before our streaming eyes. With successes like this, the bigger support will come.