Comic book stories have been on an upswing since, arguably, 1998’s Blade. There were comic book films before it, but many that came after tried to replicate the style and authenticity of Wesley Snipes’s badass vampire hunter. Even as other films tried to bring the action and intensity, the big boom in comic adaptations came after the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), just three years before Robert Downey, Jr. would proclaim, “I am Iron Man.” Since then, to say that comic books have infiltrated the zeitgeist would be an understatement as everything from music to bed sheets has a connection to superheroes and supervillains. Television network The CW basically owes its entire success to variations on DC Comics characters: Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Batwoman. With so many stories coming from distributors small and large, is there room for anything new? Is there a perspective yet explored? Writer/actor/director Leah McKendrick (M.F.A.) obviously believes there is with her short film Pamela & Ivy, an exploration of the birth of well-known ecowarrior Poison Ivy, also known as Pamela Isley. Here, McKendrick posits an origin story wherein the vulnerable is never taken advantage of again.
For most, it likely wasn’t until the 2020 release of DC Universe’s adult-rated animated Harley Quinn that audiences became familiar with Poison Ivy. She’s been represented in comics since June 1966 in Batman #181, but other than the comics, she’s appeared Fox’s Gotham (2014-2019) in 27 episodes, once in Joel Schumacher’s critically condemned Batman & Robin (1997) or in Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995). The official DC Comics character description focuses a great deal on ecoterrorism and not very much on her origins. While Batman & Robin at least showed Dr. Isley getting betrayed and poisoned, the animated version doesn’t dig into the motivations at all, and Gotham gives her more agency. The new animated series, however, takes quite a bit of time exploring why Ivy is the way she is as a person, not just as a villain. Actor Lake Bell’s presentation of Ivy is certainly the best representation of Ivy thus far, going beyond superficial humanization and crafting someone you’ll root for. Upon finishing Pamela & Ivy, it’s quite clear that McKendrick wants the audience to do the same. Her Ivy is similarly abused and as betrayed as other iterations and McKendrick modernizes it, gives it a name and a face, and then presents to the audience the results of such exploitation.
The strengths of Pamela & Ivy exist in the ideas and the presentation of how Ivy is born. First, she’s abused by a man (Eric Roberts) who punishes her repeatedly for not being a “good girl.” The unobservant will presume this the use of stereotypical evil tropes, when it’s the start of an exploration into gender roles and the damage they inflict on all parties. Not that the man is in any way a victim here, he’s not, but what does it say about society when the pressure to conform to one or another gender role results in the violent punishment of anyone or anything existing outside those lines? What kind of trauma does that create within the afflicted when they are constantly held to a rigid standard? McKendrick’s violent origin story for Ivy reminds me of a Verizon ad released in support of STEM titled “Inspire Her Mind” wherein a girl is repeatedly discouraged by parental figures whenever she does something that might make her less ladylike. Women, just like men, come in all types of varieties and the constant pressure created by cultural norms almost always encourages them to push down or stop the things that bring them joy. In the case of McKendrick’s Ivy, those moments of joy bring incredible pain. This betrayal (the abuse from the man) is the first of two major moments in her life which give Ivy shape. Credit to McKendrick for taking the time to explore, even in brief, Pamela’s journey of healing and presenting her parents as engaged with the mental health journey. This is important, not just for the character, but the larger discussion the complexity of healing from trauma.There’s a common desensitization at play in society for women to seek help as they are seen as bottomless wells of emotional support, so the brief showcase shines as a healthy reminder. These are but a few of the things within Pamela & Ivy that showcase the interesting ideas McKendrick brings to the character as a writer.
As a director, there’s constant evidence of a clear vision and creativity within constraints. Doubtful that anyone would proclaim that Ivy looks like a big budget production, but it’s certainly no low budget affair either. You can see the time and craft that went into each scene and the significance of conveying the psychological via smartly constructed and edited scenes. For instance, in the scenes where the mental split for Pamela occurs, actor Aria Lyric Leabu (The Call of the Wild) is frequently shown playing opposite herself, executed not with shifting camera angles but a simultaneous depiction for the audience. It’s absolutely seamless, making the visual representation of the trauma entirely corporeal and heartbreaking to behold. Even the slightest depiction of Ivy’s power appears authentic and tangible, even in the growth of a tiny sprout.
The single issue with Pamela & Ivy is that it spends too little time on the moment of transformation. If not for being able to rewind scenes, it would be difficult to catch the quick dialogue from Patrick Zellar’s unnamed professor who is presented as responsible for Ivy’s abilities. One interpretation of the scene is that Pamela is once more taken advantage of and this betrayal of trust comes with incredible consequences for the world. Compared to the length of the presentation of the initial psychological trauma, this moment feels considerably less important when it should be something the audience gets to chew on. In doing this, the final moments of the film, spring-boarding off the energy of the transformation, clever and funny as they are, come across as far less triumphant and empowering. The end for us may only be the beginning, yet it doesn’t feel as enormous as it should.
All in all, Pamela & Ivy possesses real potential as an exploration of a character that often gives the light over to Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Lady Shiva, and other female villains in DC Comics. McKendrick’s approach presents Poison Ivy as more than a villain, but as the feminist anti-hero that she is, a side more often pushed off and boiled down to who she hurts versus why. By focusing in on the “why,” McKendrick grips you from beginning to end, even if just out of a strange curiosity, a reaction which is not so bad considering curiosity often leads to surprise and wonder. In addition to the interesting concept in the script, it showcases McKendrick’s direction, something which never feels derivative or uninspired. As an actor, she understands where best to capture the performance and utilizes her sets creatively. Even when things are more obviously on a budget, these things become forgiven and forgotten amid all the interesting goings on.
Available for streaming on YouTube beginning May 11th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.