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Batman: A Retrospective

19 July 12 words: Iain Robertson

With The Dark Knight Rises about to explode, we trawl through the history of Batman films...

This month sees the release of The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final part of director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale’s Batman trilogy. Set several years after The Dark Knight, this time Bruce Wayne is confronted by Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, and possibly his most formidable adversary yet, Bane, portrayed by British actor Tom Hardy.

Batman’s big screen adventures started in 1966, with a spin off from the popular TV series, the self-titled Batman. To anyone only familiar with the current dark, brooding take on the character, this will be something of a surprise as it’s as camp as they come with Batman and Robin (Adam West and Bert Ward) taking on the four big villains - The Joker, The  Riddler, Catwoman and The Penguin - who have teamed up and planned to use a dehydrating machine to turn the United Nations into piles of dust. Obviously... The film, like the series, never came close to taking itself seriously and remained a great deal of fun. Comedy fistfights, a submarine decorated like a penguin, porpoises who sacrifice themselves to save our heroes, bat shark-repellent and much more all put in an appearance. However, it had little in common with the comic books from which it originated.

Where it all began in 1966
Bat-fans had to wait over twenty years for the first serious cinematic take on Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego. An unprecedented level of hype helped 1989’s Batman become the cinematic event of the year. Director Tim Burton, only on his third film, bought in his Beetlejuice collaborator Michael Keaton as an introspective, quirky Bruce Wayne, Kim Basinger, and, memorably, Jack Nicholson as The Joker in the most over the top performance of his career – no mean feat for Jack Nicholson. Burton proved he was one of the few directors capable of working on a huge blockbuster and retaining their individual style. He was less interested in plot than in the atmosphere of the piece, and in showing the comparisons between Batman and The Joker. They’re portrayed as opposing sides of the same coin, both freaks with no place in civilized society, the only difference being that Batman has a moral code, The Joker doesn’t.

Jack Nicholson in Burton's Batman
Three years later Burton directed the sequel, Batman Returns, again starring Keaton as Batman, this time pitted against dual villains: Danny DeVito’s bizarre Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s slinky, unforgettable take on Catwoman. If the plot was an afterthought in the original, this outing threw it right out of the window as the characters are given full reign to wreak havoc on Gotham. But plot isn’t what Burton’s films are about. He creates a fun, twisted world, then invites you to hang out there for a couple of hours. If Burton’s Batman movies have a theme, it’s the abandonment by a parent and the chaos it creates. Batman’s parents were murdered, The Joker is betrayed by his mob boss, The Penguin was abandoned by his parents for being a freak and Catwoman survived a murder attempt by her father figure like employer.

After two movies the studio decided it was time to take the franchise in a more family friendly direction. Tim Burton and Michael Keaton weren’t interested, so the studio bought in Lost Boys director Joel Schumacher to continue the franchise. His first movie was 1995’s Batman Forever, starring Val Kilmer as Batman. The film also brought in Jim Carrey as The Riddler, Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face, as well as introducing Chris O’Donnell as Robin. Out went the brooding, tortured heroes and villains, in came more campy, one dimensional characters, all the while retaining both the look and vague plotting of Burton’s movies. The result is a weird mish-mash, a kids movie with an incomprehensible plot and moody, noir-ish visuals. Carrey made a passable Riddler, albeit just playing on his standard OTT shtick. Tommy Lee Jones (replacing Star Wars’ Billy Dee Williams, who portrayed Harvey Dent in Burton’s original movie) struggled to make a poorly written Two-Face convincing and Nicole Kidman was given little to do in an undeveloped role as Wayne’s token love interest.

Batman Forever - the comic book garishly comes to life
If Batman Forever was skewering the franchise in a kiddie friendly direction, it was nothing compared to what was to come next. For 1997’s Batman & Robin, Kilmer was replaced by a criminally miscast George Clooney. It unwisely attempted to combine the visual look of Burton’s movies with the campness of the sixties series. It failed on both counts. Out went any pretence of the films being for adults, in came Schwarzenegger as a wise cracking Mr Freeze (“Chill out”), Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl and, most notoriously, batsuits with nipples. It was, and remains, the worst of the Batman movies; a tribute to blockbuster excess and an object lesson in how to kill a franchise.

Following the commercial drumming handed out to Batman and Robin, the franchise lay dormant for several years. Assorted ideas were proposed, including a Batman vs Superman movie, before British director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005. Like Burton, Nolan was a respected director, but with no blockbuster experience. He’d made a few well received movies, chief among them Memento, but nothing on the scale of Batman.

Christian Bale as Nolan's Batman
Batman Begins wisely re-booted the franchise, disregarding the previous films, and showed us how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is darker than previous versions, with more than a hint of his American Psycho character, Patrick Bateman, about him. Nolan wisely realised that a major problem with the previous films was that they’re dominated by the villains, and that Batman almost becomes a secondary character in his own movie. Because of this, he elected to introduce the character by pitching him against two lesser known villains from the comic books, The Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul. He also took a definite leap away from the gothic look of previous movies. His Gotham is almost, but not quite, our world. Nolan’s films are known for their intricate plotting and devious plot twists; Batman Begins is no exception.  It’s the first Batman film with a proper, coherent plot, and is all the better for it.

Three years later, the sequel, The Dark Knight, was the franchise’s boldest move yet. Still recognisably a comic book movie, but set as much in the real world as possible. The film all but abandons the artificial, soundstage constructed Gotham of previous films, Going for a much more realistic look, shot mostly on location, with Chicago largely standing in for Gotham. Gone too were the cartoonish villains of previous installments. The late Heath Ledger’s Joker is all too real, a convincing psychopath who just happens to dress up as a clown. His Joker has a psychotic edge sorely lacking from previous cinematic versions of the character. He’s all the more terrifying for his lack of motive. He’s not motivated by greed, he just wants to cause chaos because he can. As Michael Caine’s butler, Alfred notes “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

The king of The Joker's
Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face is also portrayed in a more convincing manner, a world away from Batman Forever’s cartoonish version. His descent from idealistic District Attorney to criminal is realistically played out, as the Joker rips his life apart.

While the Batman films are, with a couple of notable exceptions, very good, The Dark Knight is, so far, the definitive Batman film. Not as cartoonish as its predecessors, it is aided greatly by its real world setting, and a towering, Oscar winning performance from Heath Ledger. However, early reviews suggest The Dark Knight Rises may be the best of the bunch.  Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway are attracting a lot of praise for their performances, and critics are suggesting this is the perfect send off for this incarnation of Batman.  All will be revealed…

The Dark Knight Rises will be showing at Broadway from Friday 20 July. There will also be a Dark Knight Rises party night from 7pm on Friday 20 July.

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