Saga Review: Batman

Possibly one of the most iconic, well received and respected “superheroes” created, Batman’s success is thanks to the relatively down-to-Earth nature of the character, a billionaire with a taste for vengeance, with training and a lot of gadgets.
It is the villains that broaden Batman’s scope, and are always the most interesting and mesmerising elements in any story.

I speak as a fan of film, not comics; I’ve never read a Batman comic, but a lot of friends tell me all about the stories and major developments. As a fan of films, Batman has been with me since the beginning, and I only realise this now with this Saga Review; I was five when Tim Burton’s Batman hit the scene, and I was watching it and Batman Returns at home before I finally got to see Batman Forever in the cinema.

From 1989 to 2008. Riddle me this, riddle me that…

Batman (1989)

The theatrical, Gothic gem that started it all.

Before Tim Burton was Tim Burton, his early interpretation of the DC comic book hero Batman would show Hollywood what is possible with the genre; it was dark, adult orientated and thick with atmosphere. It was before comics were “cool” and mainstream, Batman isn’t even accurate to the origin story and if it were made for today’s audience, it would have been slandered. But this was all we had, and looking back at it you can still forgive its flaws because of its theatrical, quirky darkness. That, and a truly awesome score by Danny Elfman.

(Whatever happened to Elfman and Burton?)

Jack Nicholson gets top billing as Jack Napier, a gangster who’s dream of taking control of Gotham’s crime syndicate becomes reality when he is viciously transformed into the maniacal Joker. Blaming the spectre-like Batman vigilante, he seeks revenge, while at the same time Bruce Wayne discovers his own vengeance isn’t far away.

You can already tell how I love this film’s mood and tone; Burton’s heavy use of shadows and keeping Batman almost entirely obscured (visually and in terms of the story). The city and costume design make it more timeless than retro, while it boasts the undisputed best Batmobile put to film.

Its strengths can be its weaknesses too however. The plot and character development are relatively shallow, taking a back seat for the theatre and straight up loopiness of Nicholson’s Joker, while I have to say – asides from Michael Gough who will always be Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred in my eyes – the supporting cast is far from spectacular. Kim Basinger goes from subplots to screaming damsel, while the irritating comic-relief Alexander Knox is mercifully forgettable.
This is Nicholson and Keaton’s movie, without any doubt.

As a film I grew up with as a kid, I will always respect it, and must say to anyone growing up with Nolan’s trilogy to check it out! It may be goofy at times, but it has subtle strengths that do outmatch the new trilogy.


 


Batman Returns (1992)

Tim Burton’s second outing is even bleaker and even more unsettling, yet I love it, I know it all beat for beat.

Batman is called into action once more when the monstrous Penguin rises from the sewers to take over Gotham with the aid of a double-dealing businessman Max Shreck. Meanwhile Shreck inadvertently creates the psychotic Catwoman after attempting to kill his snooping secretary.

There’s quite a bit more going on in Batman Returns, and it would begin a common trend of doubling up comic book villains in the series. This makes for an action packed sequel with several characters to develop. Christopher Walken’s Shreck may seem like the odd one out, but given how the story ties him so closely with our two antagonists, you cannot imagine the film without him. It is an origin story for Catwoman and Penguin, to the point where Batman himself takes a back seat; reading into their own inner demons and terrible psychosis (I always find myself oddly sorry for the Penguin…)

The casting remains solid since the first film; Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito are great, and for me they embody the characters they portray. Keaton perhaps proves even more how he can pull off both Batman and Bruce Wayne extremely well.
It is very bleak (spearheading perhaps Burton’s obsession with such tales) Catwoman’s story especially, but it keeps some of the completely nutty aspects of the first film; Penguin’s army of penguins armed with rocket launchers, anyone, or Catwoman’s duel nature being very much catlike rather than a cat burglar (her transition is easily the most bizarre and spontaneous).

It got a lot of criticism for its nightmarish visuals, especially from parents, and would see Burton give up the directing role for future films. I personally love it. It has crisp, clean visuals, the Danny Elfman score is still epic, the casting is superb (supporting cast much improved) and you have to love its pop song accompaniment Face to Face by Siouxsie and the Banshees.


 


Batman Forever (1995)

From the backlash against Batman Returns, Val Kilmer takes on the role and Joel Schumacher directs this intensely marketable and family friendly instalment. Do I have mixed feelings or what!

During an ongoing battle between Batman and the ex-District Attorney Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face, jealous Wayne Enterprises employee Edward Nygma becomes the power-crazed Riddler.

In 1995 I was completely hooked on Batman Returns, and while I knew this was different it was the first Batman film I saw in cinemas and it easily sparked my interest in the Two-Face character and Tommy Lee Jones forever after.
It is a real shame then that watching it again now… proves how unbearable (and inaccurate) that character is to watch, at least most of the time.

The film is an interesting hybrid of what came before and what will… arrive later. It takes some unique perspectives on Batman’s personality, and the conflict between him and Robin is intriguing (if poorly written) in some ways it goes further with the Batman character than the second film.

However all of Burton’s atmospheric grace is gone. The soundtrack is a weird mash of blaring trumpets and pulpy “spooky” tunes straight from retro horror movies; these and several pop songs for good measure. The lighting is out of this world, making Gotham less Gothic and more TV-show, while there is so much neon. SO MUCH NEON!

I can’t say I hate it; this is about as cartoonish as Batman could ever get away with. The script is to blame here, Jim Carrey is great as the Riddler but sometimes it goes a little too far, while Two-Face’s character is criminally wasted here. Easily one of the most complex villains is reduced to a cackling madman, and Tommy Lee Jones could have easily pulled the character off nicely.

It is good fun, there are plenty of problems (both little and large) but in hindsight, it could be a lot worse….

Oh god, don’t make me do this…

 


Batman and Robin (1997)

How can something already bad get even worse with time? I feel genuinely stupider having watched this again… I guess the joke’s on me.

So, Batman and Robin are a malfunctioning team as the maniac Mister Freeze runs rampage over Gotham City, while a deadly femme fatale Poison Ivy (and her “muscle”, Bane) seek world domination.
Okay, so let’s get the good stuff out of the way first, since that will take less time.

There is no good stuff.

Batman and Robin is a vacuous void of positively loathsome filmmaking, so bad you could imagine Uwe Boll himself swooning at its disastrous proportions. You have to be drunk, or with a load of friends, to dare watch this… this piece of footage, to watch alone is to deduct years from your life.

I don’t know where to start; this is probably like repairing a city after a holocaust. Arnold Schwarzenegger, why is he in this? No Batman movie could ever survive having him cast in it, not to mention they treat the surprisingly deep Mr Freeze character with the same dignity they gave Two Face; the character is dead on arrival (unless you have a warped sense of humour). Uma Thurman is actually a good cast for the voluptuous Poison Ivy, but again the script makes her a train wreck of puns too.

It is boldly and foolishly harking back to the Adam West TV show, so much so we get “whhheee!” sound effects as people fly through the air, stupid, stupid fight sequences and utterly campy scenarios that defy all conventional belief. So many I cannot begin to list them.
Despite the mountain of repetitive garbage this thing produces (from Arnold spouting one-liners to Robin whining all the time, the plot is drivel) we have poor butler Alfred actually attempting to have a meaningful subplot and character development, a plot that is gut-wrenchingly wasted here.

I… I don’t even know. I watch a lot of films, a lot, I marathon films, yet this has to be the longest two hours put to celluloid; I kid you not I was falling asleep, despite the film’s zany bright colours and disgustingly camp nonsense it kept hurling at me.

I wanted to try and like something from this… but it is so, so difficult. Alfred’s storyline is unique and the villains are good villains in theory (heck, they are almost faithful to the materials) but the script and story are just such travesties! I just don’t see why Batman Forever’s tone needed to be made even dumber for this movie? Forever was a huge financial success, why go the extra mile to make something so horrible??


 


Batman Begins (2005)

Oh thank goodness. Batman fans across the globe owe a lot to intellectual director Christopher Nolan for giving the cape crusader a new, intense look.

Going back to before Batman, a lost and enraged Bruce Wayne seeks the ability to fight injustice after the tragic deaths of his parents. His training comes from The League of Shadows and their leader, Ra’s Al Ghul, but seeing their code as immoral, Wayne looks for his own symbol to defend Gotham City.

We see Gotham in a state of depression; once glorious but now tarnished during Wayne’s absence, and now rife with criminals. The gangster Falcone and insidious Dr. Crane are working for a mysterious third party in a bid to ruin Gotham completely, only to find a shadowy vigilante pursuing them.

There is a lot going on in this film for just over two hours. The film goes into Bruce Wayne’s psyche much further than any of the previous instalment, showing us his vulnerabilities but also how these directly empower Batman. The film’s motif is fear, and one’s bravery to control that fear.

The casting is unbelievably top-notch (the cast and crew predominantly British I might add!) and love him or hate him, Christian Bale does an excellent job as a Batman who’s violent drive is almost uncontrollable, while also being an excellent Bruce Wayne. Though I must admit, Katie Holmes doesn’t have great presence here, and I have to adjust for Michael Cane as Alfred (he is amazing, but I still see Michael Gough as Alfred… forever).
The visuals and lighting aren’t as arresting as Tim Burton’s Batman, but they are certainly striking and shadowy, while Hans Zimmer’s music is triumphant (especially in the incredible third act) it doesn’t stick with you like Danny Elfman’s haunting melody.

It is a massive “Batman’s is back!” and a faithful interpretation of the lore, loaded with references but watchable by all. It has a great vein of humour too, but it is subtle, lighting the intensity. Oh, and I remember my distrust of the Tumbler when I first saw photos… but no, that car chase has to be one of the best chase sequences in all of the Batman films so far!


 


The Dark Knight (2008)

Like a fine wine, director Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece only improves with time and viewings!

Following the events of Batman Begins, the story sees Gotham City in a state of change; Batman’s presence has the criminal underworld running scared, and hope begins to emerge as a charismatic and passionate new District Attorney, Harvey Dent, emerges. However a psychotic madman, known only as The Joker, wants nothing more than to spread anarchy, and prove everyone is corruptible.

The film is epic in proportions; a lengthy two hours and twenty minutes which is jam-packed with story and most importantly character development. While Heath Ledger’s Joker character is phenomenally terrifying (and sadistically amusing) he is merely a means to an end, and the more I watch this film the more I am drawn to one of my favourite Batman characters, Harvey Dent, and his tragic story. I’m a sucker for tragic heroes, and The Dark Knight sells it perfectly (says one viewer who initially felt short-changed by the film in this respect).

Bruce Wayne’s internal struggle has never been harder than here. With Gotham on the brink of salvation only to have it disintegrate around him, Batman’s strengths are proven virtually useless as lives of those he cares about are put at risk.

While the film may distance some viewers (it is longer and deeply unsettling at times) the story’s pacing and escalation is immersive, while the tone and mood is delicately merciless. Hans Zimmer’s score here is far better than in Begins, going from tranquil to nails-on-chalkboard chilling, intensifying Joker’s influence on a terrified Gotham City.

One thing I do miss is the rustic orange look of Begins, while that film was set in “The Narrows” and TDK was set in central Gotham, it does look like Chicago now rather than a Gothic city (where exactly did all the monorails go?) but Chicago or not, it is beautifully shot.

It is a marvel of action/drama cinema, and I implore you to re-watch it if you weren’t impressed initially (which is unlikely!) the use of music, camera work and lighting only adds to the fracturing mood, while the casting and acting is perfect across the board.


The Dark Knight
is an extremely tough performance to surpass… 


The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Prometheus was supposedly “the most anticipated film of the year”, but The Dark Knight Rises has certainly become the most hyped.

Eight years after the events of 2008’s The Dark Knight, we find Gotham City in a peaceful state after the sacrifices that had been made. Bruce Wayne has however become a total recluse, and Batman is no more. But the peace is fragile, and a brutal mercenary known only as Bane is arriving in Gotham to fulfil a devastating agenda.

To follow The Dark Knight is a task few could ever stomach, and now I have to admit, perhaps impossible?
I will say straight off the bat, Rises is an excellent film, and continues to prove that director Christopher Nolan can bring intelligence to a massive blockbuster epic. It is still wonderfully photographed, the cast look right at home and newcomers are superb in their roles; Tom Hardy as Bane is awesome, while Anne Hathaway brings some sparks and light humour as Catwoman.

For me, it is all about the characters and how they mature, and most key in Rises is the relationship between Bruce Wayne and his loyal butler Alfred. Their scenes are dynamos of emotion as Wayne finds himself lost and without purpose, and Alfred struggles with an ever bleaker future. The sort of hard questions that should be addressed in such a scenario.
There is also a great subtext designed to hit our nerves within this financial crisis we are facing today, it isn’t forced, but it is very much there.

Now my main problem with the film is an ever fading sense of theatricality… While Nolan’s trilogy was always meant to be “realistic” there was always a shadowy Gothic feel remaining in Batman Begins, and the Joker’s mere presence in The Dark Knight was mesmerising, while they both had vast, shadowy shots of buildings and cityscapes, Batman swooping down at his prey from the dark. Here, Nolan’s turned Batman into urban warfare, quite literally by the end. Most of the film is shot in daylight and revolve around the secondary characters coping with the disasters around them. (Perhaps the daylight is symbolic over the three films, this being the “dawn”?) I hate to say it though, but this is probably the least “Batman” feeling Batman film so far.
Another issue, after some consideration, is Catwoman. Now she is excellently portrayed, and I like the character in general, but I didn’t see a lot of point for her being there. Unlike the other films where characters are used to their full potential.

The plot harks back to Begins and TDK nicely though, making it feel like an ending, but it has none of the second film’s chilling dread, and if it weren’t for Alfred and Wayne’s scenes, I may not have felt as emotionally connected to any of the characters either.
It sounds like I didn’t like it… which isn’t true, but it felt long, and that isn’t good. I had my issues with TDK initially and they have faded completely, so perhaps Rises will do the same in time?

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