Dr Strange on the big screen

Last month I got got to see my personal “most anticipated” Marvel film: Dr Strange.  The good doctor has always been my favorite Marvel character, and while I don’t know if I’d call this entry my favorite Marvel film, I was very pleased with it, overall.

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First up, I knew we were in good shape when Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as Strange.  Everything I’ve ever seen this guy in has been great, and he’s proven with Sherlock and The Imitation Game that he can do the “super-intelligent oddball” routine very well (if you’re going to be typecast, there are worse labels to bear than “smartest guy in the room.”)  He didn’t disappoint, and the rest of the cast was terrific, as well.  Beyond that, the special effects were fantastic, as well as the music (Michael Giacchino is probably my favorite film composer working today), so I have few complaints.

There’s been criticism from some quarters that the script is too derivative of earlier Marvel entries, which I anticipated, but actually the reverse is true.  The first thing I said to Laura when we came out of the first Iron Man film was “they stole the origin from Dr Strange,” by which I meant “super-talented but selfish, arrogant jerk redeems himself through heroic acts.”  In the comics, Tony Stark was a millionaire genius inventor, yes, but — at least in the early days — he wasn’t presented as a self-centered jackass.  Yes, he made his fortune from munitions, but in the early, Commie-bashing Marvel Age, that was presented a virtue, not a sign of moral compromise.  The movie’s presentation of Tony as a tragic figure with boundless creative potential yet locked in a tragic cycle of bad behavior, scandal and substance abuse was NOT a feature of the comics; it was a meta-textual nod to the real life story of star Robert Downey, Jr.  As much as Downey became Iron Man, with that film Iron Man became Downey.

Having proven a box-office winner, Iron Man went on to…let’s say “inspire”…other super-hero films, like “Green Lantern” and “The Green Hornet,” both featuring selfish, immature jerks who fall more or less sideways into heroism in spite of themselves, even though this formula runs entirely counter to how either character was portrayed in their decades-long histories in other media.

In the comics, it was Stephen Strange who was the self-absorbed jerk who for all his talent as a surgeon was falling far short of his potential as a human being.  Obsessed with fame and fortune, he refused to help patients who couldn’t afford his fees, or to contribute to any efforts that might advance medicine unless they were sure to increase his personal fame.  After a truly life-changing experience, he ends up at the extreme opposite end of things: dedicated to the welfare of all mankind at great personal risk to himself, and with no hope of recognition or reward. (Since he battles threats mankind must never perceive, to reveal his victories would, in effect, reverse them.)

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The movie did a pretty good job of portraying this, I guess.  It’s established from the start that he’s a brilliant surgeon, but it’s not until the last few moments before Strange’s fateful accident that we see he’s only willing to take on the “glory” jobs (later reinforced in a scene with Benjamin Bratt as a would-be patient once rejected by Strange).  Certainly he turns into a Class-A creep after the accident, driving away the woman who loves him (Rachel McAdams as Dr Christine Palmer) in his prolonged spiral into bitterness and self-pity. For me the pay-off comes late in the film, when Strange and The Ancient One converse in their astral forms and The Ancient One tells him that for all he’s learned, he’s still missed the most important lesson of all: “It’s not about you.”  This was the moment where I thought, “Yes.  This film gets it.”

I will admit, though, that the efforts to cast Strange in the “smart ass” mold were only partially successful, not really true to the character and not the best idea unless you want to invite comparisons to RDJ, who can never be beaten at his own game.  I also didn’t appreciate the couple instances of foul language in the film, especially from Strange himself.  I like to think I’m not prudish, but in a film with obvious appeal to kids, and which is on the whole far more accessible to and appropriate for young audience than any of DC’s sick efforts, these moments were jarring and unwelcome.

But let’s focus on what they got right.  One thing I always dug about Strange was that he operates in his own little corner of the Marvel Universe, with whole worlds and dimensions to explore on his own without running into other superheroes all the time or crossing over into company-wide “event” stories.  Both readers and Marvel accountants alike always loved the way Spider-Man was running into Daredevil, or the Hulk was trading punches with The Thing, because it meant in order to really enjoy your favorite book you had to know what was going on with the rest of Marvel, and every now and then if you wanted to see the end of your Avengers story, you had to buy an issue or two of The Defenders, or whatever.  I never dug that, partly because I frankly considered some Marvel characters nowhere near as good as others, or as deserving of my change, but also because I grew up in the boonies where I was lucky to find two consecutive issues of any title on the spindle rack, much less the entire Marvel line.  Due to his nature, Dr Strange could usually be counted on to star in self-contained storylines in his own little sandbox, and that’s carried over into the film, which despite a few Easter eggs and call-outs to other characters is not at all dependent on the rest of the MCU to work.

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Second, I always enjoyed Strange’s trippy sojourns to other dimensions, as first imagined by artist/creator Steve Ditko and later by such talented illustrators as Gene Colan, Frank Brunner, Marshall Rogers, Paul Smith, etc. Again, the film does a great job of this with its take on The Dark Dimension, home of the Dread Dormammu. Like Ditko’s original, it’s a topsy-turvy dimension full of weird, seemingly organic structures, including orbs connected by creepy tendrils. Laura mentioned that they looked like neurons and dendrites, which I confess never occurred to me but, if intentional, makes wonderful sense in a film about a superhero neurosurgeon.

Also great fun are scenes that fold reality in on itself like a sort of origami-on-LSD. Rooms, buildings, streets, whole vistas are twisted sideways and upside down in kaleidoscopic fashion, lending an Escher-like quality to several battle scenes.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

Then, there’s a third effect at the end of the film as Strange invokes a time-reversing spell that causes everything and everyone to move backwards except the principal characters, all sorcerers engaged in half-magical, half-martial arts combat.

Throughout all this, bystanders go on about their lives unaware of what’s happening under their noses, which checks off another item from my wishlist. In the comics, Dr Strange conducts his battles above, below, around and through the forms of mortals who are oblivious to these goings-on, and the stakes involved. Besides just being a cool concept in general (who’s to say what’s going on right now on a plane we can’t see?) this also gets us past the thorny issue of collateral damage in superhero movie throw-downs, an issue which has caused some controversy in several films, including casting a pall over “Man of Steel” that more or less powered the entire plot of Batman v. Superman (about which the less said, the better). Dr Strange finds a way to have its cake and eat it, too, giving audiences the big-budget effects they’ve paid for, but without inviting the “disaster porn” label.

Waaaaaay back in the 70s, I watched the original Dr Strange TV movie with high hopes that came to naught. There, we got a permed Stephen Strange with a bland costume and cheapo special effects. It took four decades, but at last we’ve got something awfully darned close to the movie I was hoping for, with the Cloak of Levitation, the Eye of Agamotto, the Sanctum Sanctorum, Dormammu, Mordo and Wong, so I’m happy. With the success of this film and before it The Guardians of the Galaxy, we can now hope for all kinds of Marvel B-listers to have their day in the sun, and that’s awesome. Especially since after all this time, the only thing DC’s had any luck with is still Batman.

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Star Trek at 50

Star Trek characters

The first episode of Star Trek aired on NBC fifty years ago today, Sept. 8, 1966, kicking off a three-year run on network TV.  I missed the whole thing.

In my defense, I started that run as a baby and ended it as a preschooler, but when the show aired in syndication in the early to mid-70s, I made up for lost time.  I’m reasonably certain I was introduced to Trek by my grandfather, who was a big fan.  My earliest impression was that it was scary, but in a cool way.  Every new planet posed a new set of threats: deadly viruses, hissing lizard men, sparkly clouds that sucked out your red blood cells, the still-living spirit of Jack the Ripper…heck, even the landscapes could kill you, with acidic soil, flowers that exploded in your face and rocks that stood up and started fighting you.  Just the everyday routine of “beaming down” unnerved me, as it involved disintegrating living bodies to their component atoms and reconstructing them somewhere else (Dr McCoy shared my unease, and with good reason, as the technology frequently failed, with all kinds of nasty results).

pikeThe creepy Spock character, thought young me, was kind of like Barnabas Collins but with pointy ears instead of pointy teeth.  And I must not have seen Part 2 of “The Menagerie,” because I was convinced the scarred, disabled Captain Pike was forever lurking in a room somewhere deep in the bowels of the Enterprise.

Add to that an endless list of space-borne threats including enemy ships, ion storms, radiation surges, meteor strikes, giant ghostly hands, you name it, and space travel was basically one big, 24-7 danger fest. Like most kids, though, I was attracted to scary things, at least scary things that could be decisively conquered in an hour’s time, so this was right up my alley.  After all, that constant undercurrent of danger was also a part of the real-life Apollo missions I watched with fascination during the same period.

The official line now is that Star Trek has endured because of its “positive view of the future” and progressive messages.  I’m not sure how radical optimism was in its day, though: a “gee whiz” outlook towards invention and technology goes way back to Buck Rogers, and it considering the 50 years prior to Trek had seen us progress from the Wright Flyer to lunar orbital missions, I’d imagine lots of people had an “anything’s possible” outlook towards tech.  Or maybe the point is that in an era of race riots, assassinations and a nasty war in Southeast Asia, the mere declaration that we would survive into the 23rd Century constituted audacious optimism.  If so, the strength of the show was that this was never dwelt on at length, just presented as fact; “Oh look, we’re still alive in the future.  Cool.  Now what’s the story this week?”  As for Trek’s stories “meaning something” and conveying social commentary, well that’s nice when it works, but I guarantee you nobody tuned in then or now to be preached to.  What made the show compelling was the drama, the humor, the excitement, the relationships between the characters, the cool (for their day) special effects, the great sets and gadgets, the generally excellent production values (especially for TV) and music.  It was just a quality show, period.

trek-tracerAnyway it certainly loomed large in my childhood.  I remember running around the back yard, battling imaginary Klingons with a plastic “phaser” that shot spinning helicopter-like wheels; it was one of those cheap toys you bought off a peg at the drug store.  I even talked my grandma into buying me a toy gun that shot discs just because the packaging said, “Star Trek,” though it didn’t look like anything ever seen on the show. As soon as you pulled it off the cardboard, it ceased to have any connection to Trek whatever.  Pretty sure I also had the “Parachuting Mr. Spock” figure, which made no sense at all. (Check out the Plaid Stallions site for a list of the coolest Trek toys of the 70s, too many of which I owned)

Between us, my brother and I collected every member of the Enterprise crew available as a Mego action figure (well, except for Uhura.  Girl “action figures” were dolls!).  There was even a bridge playset with a “transporter” that spun around and — voila! — the figure disappeared.  It’s still in my garage.

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I had jigsaw puzzles featuring the “animated series” versions of the characters (Spock’s skin was bright green!), and a Corgi die-cast model of the Enterprise that got just about everything wrong, from a saucer section that fired discs to a shuttle bay on the bottom (!) of the secondary hull that housed a shuttle five times too large.  Probably the coolest Trek merchandise we had was a set of walkie-talkies that looked — sort of — like communicators, complete with little doors that flipped up.  In the TV commercial, one of the kids using the “communicator” called his playmate and said, “Scott, this is Kevin, my bike is broken!” Every now and then I managed to talk my brother into playing Star Trek, which wasn’t easy because he could never be Captain Kirk (one of the pitfalls of being a little brother; he was always Robin to my Batman, Tonto to my Lone Ranger, etc).  Invariably, after I’d gone to some lengths to set up a Trek-worthy plotline to enact in our yard, he’d summon me via communicator with a breathless, “Captain!  Do you read me?  Come in, Captain!”  In my most earnest, ramrod-straight Shatner impression I would respond, “Kirk here, what is it?”  And he would answer, “My bike is broken!  HAHAHAHAHA!”

41se0y83chlThose were the “dry” years for Trek, with the show long out of production and the later movies little more than a pipe dream.  We got by on novelizations by British author James Blish, with plots and characterizations that always fell somewhere between “slightly off” and “wildly inaccurate.”  The library in my small town school had a copy of volume 8 of this series and I kept it out on near-permanent loan. Then there were the Gold Key comics, featuring an Enterprise crew that might have been named the same as they were on the show, but looked, dressed, talked and acted nothing like the real deal.

At last the drought ended with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which I managed to stay awake through in December of 1979 on my first visit to a “multi-plex” theater in Richmond.  My folks agreed to bring along a couple of my friends on the roughly hour and a half trip to the city, which they may have regretted when we had to take them all home again in a mini-blizzard.  A couple years later came Wrath of Khan, which blew my socks off despite the guy in the back of the theater who, when the USS Defiant flew across the screen, yelled out, “De Plane!  De Plane!” in his best Herve Villechaize impression (because Ricardo Montalban was also on…oh, never mind).  And then the rest of the sequels were cranked out more or less bi-annually in a seeming effort to illustrate the Law of Diminishing Returns.  Finally, the old cast moved aside to make way for the next generation of characters, and now Kirk and crew have been re-imagined in the form of pretty youngsters who look more suited to a remake of Saved By the Bell, with scripts to match.

It’s cool that Trek has become something of an institution I guess, but in a way, four spin-off series (with a new one on the way), 13 movies and countless books, comics and video games have built up a thick crust of barnacles on the Enterprise hull and blurred somewhat the magic of those original 79 episodes.  It doesn’t help that every detail of the show has been researched, documented and analyzed ad nauseum, so now we know how those effects were achieved, who was in that rubber suit, why that cast member stopped showing up.  Worse, we’ve seen the crumbling away of the carefully-constructed image of a cast who loved working together, leaving us with the reality of embittered 70- and 80-something ex-actors sniping at each other in the press like pouty teenagers.

BUT…at the end of the day, it’s those original 79 episodes that matter; everything else is apocrypha, mere distraction.  When I view them on DVD (or more likely, Netflix), the years fall away and I’m back on the original Enterprise, where everyone is young and vital again, wearing colorful uniforms and pointed sideburns and tackling the threat of the week with courage and teamwork.  Even at its worst (and it could get pretty bad) Star Trek was always interesting to watch, but at its best it was some of the greatest television to hit the airwaves.  More, it’s something that still connects me with my grandfather, though he’s gone, and something I can pass on to my kids, to maybe enjoy when I’m gone, too.  It’s the past and the future all at once.

Happy Anniversary, Star Trek.  Here’s to the next 50.

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Summer Adventures

Late June/early July saw the Morefield clan on a loooong car trip to Missouri for Laura’s bi-annual family reunion.  To make it more manageable, we broke it up with stops along the way, notably in St Louis to see the famous Gateway Arch:

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Later we took Jason to visit the St Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center, which was really impressive compared to anything similar here in Richmond (which is, basically, zilch).  Lots of boards to play on downstairs and up, weekly classes and lectures, a nice chess-themed restaurant next door and just across the street is the World Chess Hall of Fame.  Jason was pretty excited to visit the very room he’d seen in the live stream of the US Championship back in April.

 

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Some friendly staffers agreed to sit down for a blitz game or two with Jason, then he got a real treat when Grandmaster and four-time US Champion Yasser Seriawan showed up to join them for a few rounds of bughouse.

While this was going on, Gracie and I took a walk around the block before settling down to a game of our own at one of the tables lining the sidewalk outside the Chess Club.

stlcc-4

 

From St Louis, it was on to Tan Tar-A Resorts at the Lake of the Ozarks, where apparently I was too busy relaxing to bother taking any pictures.  But anyway it was good catching up with family we hadn’t seen in quite a while, even if the temperatures were generally brutal.

On the way back, we broke up the ride again with a stopover in Louisville, KY and a trip to the Derby Museum.

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After all that time behind the wheel, I was ready to chill at home, but Laura and Jason had only a day to unwind before hopping a train to Philadelphia for five days at the World Open 2016. Jason managed to win 7 of 9 games for a fourth-place finish in the Under 2000 division, and pushed his rating up to 2015, placing him at “Expert” status.

At this writing, the boys and I are gearing up for a week at Boy Scout Summer Camp, so the fun’s not over yet.  I just checked the weather forecast to make sure we won’t be melting under a hot sun, and the good news is it looks like that won’t be a big concern.  The bad news is that’s because we’re supposed to get rain 6 out of 7 days we’re there, and most of that involves thunderstorms.  Yippee.

 

 

 

Election 2016: America RIP

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Seriously, America?  This is the  best you can do?  Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton?

Okay, I suppose Aliens vs Predator, Freddie vs Jason and MegaShark vs. Giant Octopus proved there are cheap thrills to be had whenever two monsters throw down, but let’s face it, what’s always missing in those conflicts is a contender to actually root for.  The fights may be spectacular, but in the end no matter which creature comes out on top, humanity’s on the losing end.

I like to consider myself an involved participant in the democratic process, having voted in every major election since 1984.  This time, though, I’ve seriously considered sitting it out, maybe just buying a bottle of bourbon on November 8 and toasting the end of the grand experiment that was the USA.  Hey, 240 years was a pretty good run, right?  But I know me, and I won’t pass up the chance to weigh in on the other issues on the ballot, so I’ll show up on Election Day, regardless.

That just  leaves the question: do I leave the “President” part of the ballot blank, or write in a name?  I’ve never done a write-in before, it might be fun.  Actually, I’m not even sure the ballots at my polling place allow for write-ins.  If I did write in a name, should I go for a fictional character?  James T. Kirk is a strong leader.  I’d consider a cartoon character, but we’ve already got one of those on the ballot.  Maybe a past, dead President?  I hear zombies are all the rage, anyway.  Laura says she’ll write in my name, explaining “If you’re elected, we both know who’ll really be President.”  Funny,  but true.

All I can say is thank heaven for Netflix and caller ID, so I have a slim shot at spending the rest of 2016 avoiding commercial television and robo-calls.  I’ll just try and pretend there’s no election happening at all.  In fact, the only thing that’s more depressing to think about than the upcoming campaign cycle is the four long years that will follow it.  As Simon and Garfunkel sang, “Any way you look at it, you lose.”

 

 

Batman 66 @ 50

Fifty years ago today on January 12, 1966, Batman premiered on ABC television.  I was nine months old.  The show ended its network run in March of 1968, just before I turned 3, so it’s safe to say I probably missed the whole thing.

Still, as noted in an earlier post, the pop-culture tsunami that was 60s Batmania left in its wake scads of colorful bat-merchandise that filled the toyboxes of my friends’ older siblings.  So it was that through items like the Remco Batmobile Dashboard toy and Topps’ trading cards painted by Norm Saunders (specifically one showing a rescue via Batplane) I was introduced to the Batman character, which in turn led to the comics and eventually back to Adam West.

bat-merch

It wasn’t until the early 70s that I finally got to see the “live action” Batman, thanks to a television broadcast of the 1966 motion picture featuring the same cast, sets and vehicles used on the show.  I think it’s fair to say it blew me away. Up until then, the only live action superheroics I’d seen were The Adventures of Superman, which I loved, but as awesome as George Reeves was, in the end he was always stuck rounding up two-bit gangsters, con men and bank robbers on a shoestring budget, compared to the comics, where he battled fantastic super-villains and alien invasions and moved whole planets with his bare hands. I had learned to set my expectations pretty low, so when Batman showed up I was awestruck.

Here, suddenly, was a flesh-and-blood Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder, duking it out with honest-to-gosh comic book villains The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin and Catwoman, tooling around in an actual Batmobile, Batcycle, Batboat and Batcopter and hanging out in a huge and wonderful Batcave. Where George Reeve’s Superman was the only really remarkable element/character in a typical 50s adventure show,  Batman was a comic book brought to life, with characters, settings and situations that had only existed on gaudily-colored pulp paper before. For an eight-year-old, it was pure awesome.  If we’d had a color TV set, I’d probably have had heart failure.

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Flash forward a couple more years and the show itself aired in syndication on a local TV station.  If anything, it was more amazing than I remembered the movie being, and certainly the whole enterprise was more effective in half-hour installments.  These days Batman always seems to air in two back-to-back episodes; the first ending in a nail-biting cliffhanger and the next resolving the crisis.  I preferred it the way I got to see it, spending the 24 hours between chapters in total suspense until another school day ended and I could run from the bus stop to have my fears allayed.  How were the Dynamic Duo going to escape that huge cake made of quicksand (and how does one make a cake out of quicksand)?  Can Bruce Wayne save himself from going over the cliff on that runaway stretcher? Did that giant clam really swallow Robin? Half the fun was arguing with your classmates about just how the latest peril would be resolved (and knowing no matter how crazy the kids’ solutions would be, the show’s writers would deliver something even crazier).  On the other hand, in those pre-VCR days, you always ran the risk of never seeing the end of the story if you were held after school, or the bus ran late, or your folks wanted to take you somewhere.  And then there was that occasional super-long wait when “part one” aired on a Friday.

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I was just anal enough to be bothered by the details they got “wrong.”  Batman and Robin’s utility belts looked different from the comic-book versions, Bruce Wayne’s hair wasn’t dark enough and, hey, was that a mustache on the Joker? But compared to what Hollywood had in store for Batman further down the road, the TV show was a model of fidelity.  In the first, best season, that’s where the comedy came from; situations and dialog that passed for acceptable on the comic page became outrageous and hilarious when acted out by flesh-and-blood actors, transferred as opposed to translated from the original medium.

For years after it left the air, Batman was despised by comic book fans who saw it as an insult to the character and the comics medium in general.  Certainly it was frustrating that every comic-related news article typed by every lazy journalist for decades started with “Zap! Bam! Pow!”  Personally, I never lost my affection for the show, even though the comic book Batman of my era was the darker, spookier version drawn by guys like Neal Adams and Jim Aparo.  Hey, I grew up with the original Star Trek and the Roger Moore version of James Bond, so I developed a taste for cheese early on.  Plus you had to love deathless dialog like this:

“I’ve heard that song before, Catwoman.  The last few bars are always the same.  The criminal is always behind them.”

Eventually, enough other versions of Batman came along, many of them dark and brooding and humorless, that the Adam West version seemed less threatening to fanboys.  Today the show is widely loved for what it is — harmless entertainment and a time-capsule of another era — while Mr West himself, type-cast and employment-challenged for years after Batman, has evolved into something of a pop-culture icon.

baddies

I confess the show doesn’t have nearly the same hold on me now that it did in childhood.  Once you’re out of grade school, you can see it’s basically a one-joke concept dragged out for 120 episodes.  Plus, after you’ve seen them all a few times, the law of diminishing returns factors in.  What’s fascinating is that my kids are totally indifferent to the whole thing; they can take it or leave it.  But I suppose here in the 21st century, where scores of celluloid superheroes fly around with magic hammers and hi-tech armor in films with budgets larger than the gross national product of some countries, the TV-scale adventures of a non-powered guy in a leotard and satin trunks aren’t as impressive as they once were.  In my day, though, it was slim pickings; almost no one considered comic books worthy of adaptation to the screen, let alone sure-fire money-makers, so discovering a show like Batman, replete with with otherwise respectable (even famous) grown-up actors dressed in spandex and capes, trading punches on outrageous sets that even a kid could tell cost a lot of money, was like getting an extra Christmas.  At the time, I was convinced it was the whole reason they’d invented TV in the first place.

If nothing else, Batman taught me life lessons that have stood me in good stead all these years: never operate a vehicle without fastening your safety bat-belt, be sure to drink your milk, mind the rules of proper grammar and don’t go anywhere without a full can of shark repellent.

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See you again in another 50, Caped Crusader.  Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.