Tuesday 22 March 2016

Batman: The Franchise So Far....

With ‘Batman v Superman’ just around the corner (we should be getting the first full and detailed reviews by tomorrow morning) I’m going through every entry in both the Batman and Superman franchises. For my rundown of all of the Superman movies, go here (or just scroll down slightly if you’re on the main page). The man of steel has kind of a mixed bag when it comes to movies. But now onto the defender of Gotham himself, the world’s greatest detective, the dark knight. He’s Batman. Because of time restraints I only had time for all of the live action ones so please don’t get angry if you can’t find ‘Mask of the Phantasm’ here. Very quick review; it’s amazing and you should see it if you haven’t already.

We start with the 1966 version ‘Batman: The Movie’. Dramatic, gritty, thrilling, these are just some of the many words that cannot be used to describe the Adam West version of Batman. It was developed to promote the TV Series that was running at the same time and was mostly intended as a parody, recently it’s been theorised that the creators actually hated the whole concept of comic books and set out to neuter its most iconic character as revenge, which does seem worryingly malicious especially when you consider how much fun this incarnation was. Yes it’s campy, corny and ridiculous but in the best possible way. The opening scene involves Batman being attacked by a rubber shark and defeating it by using his famous shark repellent spray that’s passed down by Robin (so you have to ask who was flying the helicopter and when it’s later revealed that they have a boat you also have to wonder why they were even using a helicopter out at sea at all). Credit where it’s due they did set the tone early on.

It’s almost mind numbingly ludicrous. Bat far be it from me to even attempt to take that away from the film, after all the Batman comics of the time were also unusually campy and upbeat, a departure from the darker tone they started out with and would later readopt. Watching it as a comedy is the way to view it as in many ways this is a straight up parody. Everything in the Bat-Something, Batman is easily the smartest person in the world and every time someone gets punched, kicked or thrown the screen is filled with a giant word like ‘Pow’, ‘Kaboom’ or ‘Thrwomp’. You can hate this film for ruining the character in the public eye for a certain era but it’s just as easy to love it for how idiotic it is. It isn’t as painfully bad as the Schumacher movies and is actually enjoyable enough to re-watch.

I always felt that when it came to the Tim Burton 1989 ‘Batman’, he did two things. Firstly he created a very dark natured movie, one that was a massive departure from the previous incarnation almost as much as the Nolan era was from the Schumacher one. Secondly Burton created what may be one of the most Burton-esque movies he ever made. Looking at this film as a Tim Burton movie rather than a Batman movie has always made more sense to me, it’s dark, gothic, quirky at times, full of tortured and deranged characters, but ultimately hopeful.

I know there are a lot of devoted fans to this film, but for me it’s far from the perfect movie even though there is a lot to admire. Let me briefly state what I am not as keen on, for starters the pacing feels slightly odd, taking a while to commence with the central plot, it also lacks dramatic depth for most of its characters (the main exception being Bruce Wayne himself), Vicky Vale seems like an unnecessary character especially compared to the amount of screen time she has as she has no chemistry with Wayne and adds nothing to the story and Kim Basinger isn’t exactly great in the role and the movie feels somewhat dated for me with the amount of special effects and nonstop Prince music. Also, people complain about Heath Ledger outshining Christian Bale? That is nothing compared to how much screen time is devoted to Jack Nicholson’s Joker as opposed to Batman himself, it’s insane.

But as for things I did like, well it is style over substance but given that it’s Tim Burton doing the style, who cares? At the same time Keaton is great as Batman with a sense of intimidation and thoughtfulness although I only really buy one aspect of his Bruce Wayne performance, while he manages to reclusive and unhinged side of the character he doesn’t quite have the charisma to convince anyone in that world that he isn’t Batman (I feel as if anyone with a good amount of intuition could have worked it out). Nicholson is also amazing as the Joker, although I take issue with taking the ambiguity out of his origin he still conveys a sardonic and dark comedic tone, though essentially that is just Jack Nicholson rather than a genuine transformation. I must admit though, that soundtrack is absolutely amazing and though it seems like I’m only pointing out flaws, it’s because virtually everything else in the film is brilliant.

But if Burton put his own stamp on ‘Batman’ then he went even further for the sequel ‘Batman Returns’. I feel essentially the same way about this film as the 1989 one, it’s good but flawed. As with the first film Batman himself is essentially a supporting character and overshadowed by the likes of Danny De Vito’s The Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Both are cast perfectly within this world and give amazing performances, but especially Pfeiffer, to this day that remains the quintessential on screen Catwoman she’s magnetic, energetic and hypnotic in that role, why they decided to gove Halle Berry a solo Catwoman film instead of Pfeiffer is beyond me, I don’t care if it was fifteen years later she still would have been perfect. Keaton is still excellent as Batman, but it’s just a shame that he has so little screen time, especially given that he is playing the title character. Most of the hints of his damaged psychosis come from Keaton’s performance but as far as the writing of the character goes he seems rather one dimensional.  

In terms of style, yet again the movie is wonderful to look at, retaining that dark and gothic look from the first film. Tonally however, it seems all over the place. While it’s subject matter and style are immensely bleak and cynical the movie is populated with so many outlandish characters that they seem to have been picked up from another film and dropped into this one. Once again none of them are really developed beyond their initial origin story. The film just feels unsure over what it wants to be and as much as I love Christopher Walken, Max Shreck isn’t really that interesting a character. What turns me off most of all is that this feels like it would have been a much better Burton movie than a Batman one, I would have watched an original superhero by Burton and these kind of stylistics.

That being said, it was infinitely (no that’s still too small an amount) better than ‘Batman Forever’. The studio had had enough with Burton and terminated his role as director (just thinking about it maybe a third act would have improved the other two, by completing the story that seemed to end on such a sour note). I often find that when put against ‘Batman and Robin’, the true terribleness of ‘Batman Forever is often forgotten. The film manages to be so excessively active and yet so amazingly boring that it almost baffles me. There are just as many ridiculous aspects as ‘Batman and Robin’ such as Batman’s photo on the cover of TIME Magazine, I mean for that to happen they would have had to contact him, arrange a time of meeting and then organise an actual photoshoot with him, and the secretive caped crusader agreed to all of this for some reason. Or what about Two-Face drinking two drinks at the same time, because he has two faces so that apparently means he has to do everything twice and is split even in his preference of alcoholic beverage.

Let’s talk about Tommy Lee Jones’ as Two-Face, though I’m glad that he seems to be having the most fun he’s ever had on a film set, the idea that an actor of his talent playing a character that is supposed to be so conflicted, is reduced to a cheap caricature angers me immensely, as does Jim Carrey’s The Riddler which may have seemed perfect on paper but ultimately just becomes Ace Ventura with less dark undertones. Chris O’Donnel and Val Kilmer are just so strangely miscast as well. Joel Schumacher’s direction is just so outright bizarre, with his various tilted shots and neon stylistics that make the movie feel like a bad drug trip. I assume.

But on to the main event, ‘Batman and Robin’. What do you want me to say about this film? We all know it’s terrible beyond belief, I don’t even find it hilariously bad, it is one of a few terrible movies that I can’t even enjoy as a bad film. It is genuinely horrific in every sense of the word and more depressing than ‘Batman Returns’. How could a one make George Clooney this bad? ‘Batman and Robin’ found a way to do so. The film is just so shamelessly commercialised, almost as much as it is needlessly fetishized. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze may be the most random, nonsensical and terrible piece of casting in film history. Alicia Silverstone is playing someone but it isn’t Barbara Gordon or Batgirl. Robin becomes the most annoying character in comic book movie history. The dialogue is on another level of badness, from the god awful one liners to the unexplainable moments of exposition and moments that make no goddamn sense like “This is why Superman works alone”, “Batgirl, that’s not very PC, what about Bat-Person”, says the person who is called Batman. I haven’t even mentioned the bat credit cards or bat nipples. You know it’s bad when literally everyone involved has apologised for the film, it ran the Batman franchise into the ground and buried it with a bulldozer.

The only silver lining is that had ‘Batman’ and Robin’ been anything less than the colossal failure it was, Christopher Nolan might never have had the chance to reinvent the franchise with ‘Batman Begins’. This film holds a special place in my heart, I remember going to see it for the first time and not only enjoyed the film itself, but be impressed by the whole process of making such a movie, what the actors went through to pull off these characters, how the writing evolved and how the action was staged. Watching it today I admire how so much of it is driven by character and emotion, they really put an emphasis on how Bruce Wayne chooses his own fate and though we’ve seen Batman’s origin before it has never been given this much depth or explored in such a way that would make his association with bats and resort to donning a mask to fight crime seem logical.

The result is that characters resonate more deeply with the audience. I never really truly felt that Gotham city was worth saving until now, not because it was portrayed any more favourably but because I connected more with Batman as a character and because he cared about the city I felt compelled to do so as well. Even the supporting characters become compelling, none more so than Michael Caine as Alfred, who wants to preserve the Wayne legacy and the wellbeing of his friend (because they are most definitely friends in this movie, that much is obvious) but at the same time, realises that this is the life Wayne has chosen and must support him in that. Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon is also excellent as is Liam Neeson. Nolan filmed his action in such a grounded and realistic nature right down to the inclusion of human error. No one is indestructible and therefore I’m more invested within the action as anything could happen. He well and truly reinvigorated the franchise.

But no one could have expected what would happen next as Nolan not only went on to craft a superior sequel but what is, for me at least, indisputably the greatest comic book movie ever made. It almost transcends the whole genre to become an epic tragedy, a thrilling crime drama a haunting portrait of good and evil. The writing, the direction, the performances, they all redefine what a film of this genre can be and serve as a reminder to anyone currently working in the genre. I can understand people thinking the film is overrated (it seems like nearly everyone proclaims it as one of the greatest movies ever) or disliking certain aspects of it, but if you outright hate this film then at the risk of causing controversy you have no concept of what good filmmaking is.

Some people feel that in ‘The Dark Knight’ Batman is overshadowed by The Joker but I’ve always disagreed. The film keeps Bruce Wayne at its centre and concentrates on the choices he must make to overcome the challenges before him, the character is allowed to reflect a range of genuine human emotions and becomes a man of depth and complexity. Harvey Dent is also portrayed as the tragic hero of this saga and in many ways is written as c ounterpart to Bruce Wayne. They each want to be the other, Dent has a desire to act beyond the law and under a shrouded mask from which he cannot be scrutinised by the public (which is perhaps a secret, personal motive to claiming to be Batman later on the movie, not just to protect the crusader’s identity but also because he wants to be). At the same time Wayne finds himself in a position where he no longer wants to go unrecognised and unrewarded, almost wanting to cast off is mask and let the world know his true identity. It is what makes his end sacrifice all the more poignant, he sacrifices the only sense of recognition he has left by making Batman the enemy in the public’s eye. That ending is so brilliantly composed because it’s so tragically hopeful. Though it’s not the victory we wanted, it is a victory. One that is undeniably necessary and immeasurably meaningful.

When you look at each character, their relationship with Batman and how they develop they all just come across as perfect representations. Jim Gordon, Rachel Dawes, Lucius Fox and of course Alfred, they are all vital to the story and its development but are never reduced to one dimensional exposition vehicles. They all serve a purpose and undergo some form of development. Let’s talk about Heath Ledger though, it’s one of the few performances in which I have seen an actor truly transform into another human being, truly one of the greatest performances in cinema history. It’s such a perfect character as The Joker understands his own role within Batman’s world, he knows he is the folly to him and he understands the morals and limitations of his counterpart and exploits them through these morally bleak conundrums. And he doesn’t care. That may be what is most terrifying about the character, he fully understands his role and fate and he revels in the idea.

Add to that Nolan’s masterful direction, the fact that each action scene has such a visceral feel to it with genuine weight behind it as well as the pitch perfect tone and excellent style. That interrogation scene is one of the best scenes ever filmed just through performance and writing. As well as how the film feels so tightly contracted yet epic in scope and Hans Zimmers score (though I can understand why some dislike it) for me is absolutely brilliant. In case you can’t tell, I like this movie, a lot. Again it was one of those early movies that I saw at the right time and ignited my interest in film as an art form. For me it really is that good, and it always will be.

So that brings me on to ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. When I first saw this film I thought it was amazing and now, years later….it’s gone down in my estimation a bit. I feel as if it’s good, but not great in the same way that ‘Batman Begins’ and especially ‘The Dark Knight’ were. For a start it seems to be tonally confused, whereas ‘Batman Begins’ had the look of a classic noir and ‘The Dark Knight’ resembled an epic crime drama, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ just feels broader and less focussed (I think Nolan would have benefitted by taking more inspiration from gangland dramas like ‘City of God’ or even ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ as societies plunge into chaos with the violence within them). That tone also reflects some problems with the film, through it starts and finishes strongly it gets lost within the middle. I understand that Nolan felt as if he had to ramp things up further but by trying to include so much the film felt scattered and not nearly as watertight as the other instalments.

While Tom Hardy’s Bane is fine, I’m always comparing it to his performance in ‘Bronson’ or ‘Legend’ where he can be intelligent and eccentric but also frightening and psychotic at the same time. In comparison to those roles Bane feels somewhat tame and underdeveloped, we saw the calm and controlled side of him but we never see him loose control or get genuinely angry. His eloquence isn’t contrasted by a form of sheer brutality (how’s that for criticism?). His whole demotion to henchman at the end is just outright idiotic. I praised the earlier films for allowing every character to develop beyond just a vehicle for exposition but here a lot of them become just that. There are also far too many scenes that just fall through, upon re-watching the film I was surprised by how many moments I had completely forgotten. I also feel as if there should have been a major death, someone like Gordon or Fox (but not Alfred, no one’s killing Alfred) to inject a major sense of tension. By killing Rachel halfway through ‘The Dark Knight’ there was an unpredictable and thrilling nature to it, but as it becomes increasingly apparent that no one is going to die in this film the tension is somewhat defused. It would have been even better for Bane to have killed them to provoke an emotive response and cement his position as a genuine threat.

But again there is a lot to enjoy. The likes of Bale, Oldman and Freeman are still just as good in their roles. Anne Hathaway is surprisingly brilliant as Catwoman (I just wish she had more screen time, I would have replaced J.G Levitt’s character with her instead and if anything it would have shaved off some unnecessary scenes). I admire how Nolan introduces Batman a good forty minutes in and still makes the film mostly enthralling to that point and those final fifteen minutes are amazing spectacle. The stakes are set out, each actor can shine, tension is ramped up, it’s brilliantly directed and the overall payoff for both this film and the whole trilogy are excellent. There are also plenty of emotional moments that come mainly from Alfred, if there’s one star of this movie it is definitely Michael Caine who has some of the best human scenes of the entire trilogy, let alone this film. While there are plenty of missteps and flaws ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ serves as a fitting end to Nolan’s trilogy and an enjoyable film, just not a great one.

But what are your thoughts on the Batman movies? Comment below to let me know.

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