Wrapping up the Summer of the Bat with Part 4 of the series and part 3 of my look at the Batfilms, focusing on the reboot by Christopher Nolan.
(BLOGGER’S NOTE: This is not necessarily an exhaustive review of everything in my Batshrine. There is the matter of the animated stuff, encompassing The New Adventures of Batman (from the 70’s), various appearances on The Super Friends, Batman: The Animated Series and its movie spin-offs, Batman Beyond, The Batman, Batman: The Brave and The Bold, etc. Even with my copious free time, there are only so many hours in a day. So, I’m afraid the animated stuff got the shaft this summer. But hey, there’s always next summer and who doesn’t a love a good sequel? [Or the closest I can get to one.])
BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
I tend to think of these three movies as one story, though there’s little evidence that Nolan intended a trilogy. If that’s the case, he stumbled on to a masterpiece. In many ways, these films represent the end of a journey for superhero films.
In the 40’s and 50’s, superhero films and TV shows were considered kids’ fare. That was fine, given that comic books were mainly purchased by kids. But the perception of superheroes as kids’ stuff took decades to alter because nobody at the major studios bothered to notice that the median age of comic book buyers shifted upwards over time.
The first attempt to bring a superhero story to prime time was the 60’s Batman TV series. Rather than take the material seriously, producer William Dozier decided to make a pop art piece that took the grandiose nature of the 40’s serials and pumped it up to the level of parody. While I’ve written at length about the series’ greatness, it DID have the unfortunate side effect of convincing Hollywood producers that superhero films could only work if they went to that same realm of parody. This perception lingered around superhero films like a bad smell for 30 plus years.
By comparison, Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman was a shock to the system. Donner eschewed (most of) the comedy nonsense and treated Superman like a figure from Greek mythology (and thus got a hell of a lot closer to where the comics were at.) Although the film made gobs of money, Donner fell out with his producers, Ilya and Alexander Salkind and was canned before he could finish the sequel. Richard Lester was brought in to finish the film and re-shoot enough scenes to remove Donner’s name from the credits. The amalgamated Superman II retained some of Donner’s mythic approach while noticeably lightening the tone. By the time we got to Superman III, Lester was fully in charge and turned the whole damn thing into a yuk-fest (Superman and Richard Pryor…that wasn’t a high-water mark for either of them.) Apparently, producers figured superheroes + laughs = beaucoup bucks. And when that approach resulted in the series going right into the crapper, well, they figured fans must be tired of the character.
As I’ve written, this whole thing got a redux with the 80’s/90’s Batman series. Tim Burton’s dark version of Batman was finally in touch with the approach the comics were taking and appealed to the majority of comic book fans at the time (people in their 20’s and 30’s.) Both that film and its sequel made money hand over fist, but producers figured they should have made even MORE money. So, out with Burton, in with Joel Schumacher. We get a noticeably more lighthearted sequel (Batman Forever), followed by a yukfest that destroys the franchise (Batman & Robin.) Wash, rinse, repeat.
Clearly, superhero movies needed another shock to the system and they got it with Sam Raimi’s 2002 film Spider-Man. Raimi actually dared to bring to the table the same angst and emotion that had been present in the comic books for FORTY F’N YEARS. The result was a huge box office hit, thanks in no small part to finally tapping into an audience of superhero fans that had been heretofore neglected. Add in the fact that CGI was finally advancing to a point where many characters could be presented in relatively non-cringe-inducing ways and superhero films became the go-to option for Big Summer Blockbusters (which has both a good and a bad side, but that’s another essay.)
A few years later, Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman series. Although Nolan might be loathe to admit it (and certainly nobody at DC or Warner Brothers would fess up), without Sam Raimi’s efforts on Spider Man, Nolan probably would not have been allowed to reboot the character in the way he did. Nolan’s work became a summation of everything good in the history of superhero movies: the epic qualities of Donner, the darkness of Burton, the emotion of Raimi.
Nolan approached the character from a realistic point of view, trying to explain how someone would become Batman and what the effects of that would be. It’s an approach that works for this character and this character only. Nobody really needs to know the scientific reasons why the yellow sun gives Superman his powers or the exact biochemical reaction from the radioactive spider bite that turned Peter Parker into Spider Man. But Batman kind of requires an explanation. How does a guy create a technology-filled cave beneath his house? How does he build an ultra-cool car, an intimidating suit and about a trillion gadgets without anyone getting suspicious? Particularly when he’s about the only one in Gotham City who could fund such a venture?
Most of these questions are tackled in the first hour of Batman Begins and continue to be dealt with throughout the series. To his credit, Nolan doesn’t claim all of these questions can be answered neatly. Sometimes, Batman DOES screw up (the original cowl/helmet doesn’t work, a weasly underling at Wayne Enterprises figures it out and tries to blackmail Bruce Wayne, Wayne Manor gets burned to the ground by a supervillain.) While, as so many movies have to, Nolan occasionally gives in and takes the “Hey, it’s a movie” approach, he succeeds as best he can at keeping things believable.
Christian Bale steps into the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. While Bale is a fine actor (witness The Machinist, American Psycho and The Fighter among others) and dutifully carries the films, he does so with a curious lack of flare. While his commitment to the role puts him light years ahead of the likes of Val Kilmer and George Clooney, he’s not as fascinating to watch as Michael Keaton. Still, it never feels like Bale’s doing a star turn or taking the part for granted.
Nolan stocks the films with an outstanding supporting cast. Michael Caine as Alfred the Butler and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox both admirably fill the mentor roles for Bruce Wayne. Gary Oldman’s simmering-below-the-surface take on Jim Gordon perfectly conveys the notion of Gotham’s last honest man. Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal (I spelled that right without having to look it up. I felt you should know that) are less successful in their turns as Rachel Dawes. While I’ve always felt Holmes has a steely core about her that offsets the soft voice and the girl-next-door looks, she lacks the gravitas to truly turn Rachel into the tough, passionate voice of Bruce Wayne’s conscience. Gyllenhaal DOES have that ability, but sadly, The Dark Knight asks little more of Rachel than to be Harvey Dent’s (ultimately tragic) love.
The villains are generally successful, but a bit of a mixed bag as well. Liam Neeson is his usually great self as Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, but the use of the character ultimately feels a little empty. He’s in too little of the film to truly make an impact and the “twist” of his reappearance is undone by the very fact it’s Neeson playing the role (C’mon, we didn’t REALLY think they hired Liam Neeson to die off in the first 20 minutes, did we?) Cillian Murphy is fine as Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow, but did we really need him to make cameos in the next two films? Say “Oh look, it’s The Scarecrow” in your least excited tone of voice and you have an idea of my reaction to said cameos.
Heath Ledger was in a class by himself as The Joker (which is why I’m giving him his own paragraph.) While the actor’s tragic death has been tied to the role (fair or not), it remains one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Ledger not only creates the perfect Joker for these movies (in the words of Alfred, “Some men just want to watch the world burn”), he completely disappears inside the role. The transformation is so complete that the one moment he appears without the make up is jarring. Ledger takes Nicholson’s charisma-covering-the-void approach to The Joker and shoots it into stratosphere. It’s impossible to take your eyes off him anytime he’s on screen, even as he indulges his most horrific instincts. Appreciation of the performance is rendered somewhat piquant by Ledger’s death, but it should never detract from his brilliance.
Aaron Eckhardt commits completely to the heroic side of Harvey Dent, making his fall from grace as Two-Face just that much more tragic. Tom Hardy does a fine job as Bane, finally bringing justice to one of the best latter-day additions to the rogue’s gallery. (On the downside, Hardy overcomes the encumbrance of Bane’s face mask by apparently swiping Sean Connery’s voice.) Marion Cotillard seems to serve absolutely no purpose prior to being revealed as Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter, Talia. Again, the notion of the twist is somewhat ruined by the stature of the actor. (Clearly, they didn’t hire an Oscar winner to show up and be glorified set dressing.) Anne Hathaway won’t make you forget Julie Newmar or Michelle Pfeiffer anytime soon, but she does fine work as Selina Kyle (never actually referred to as The Catwoman, but c’mon…) and serves as a believable flip side to Bale’s Batman.
As with any series of films on an epic scale, not everything is sunshine and lollipops. While The Dark Knight Rises is an epic, satisfying ending to the trilogy, it’s fair to say that the series peaked with The Dark Knight. When your second entry is one of the best (and for my money THE best) superhero movies ever made, there’s no way the third one is going to be anything but a mild let down. Also, there’s a distinct lack of fun to the films, something that seems to run through every current superhero film. While I’m absolutely not advocating the lighthearted (read, Last Stop Before Yuksville) approach, these films, (like other current superhero films) threaten to drown in their own self-seriousness. In all this gritty realism, an essential element of wish-fulfillment fun is missing. And though the performances are uniformly good, there is this irritation: Batman is Welsh, Jim Gordon is English, The Joker is Australian and The Scarecrow is Irish. Mr. Nolan, there are good AMERICAN actors as well, y’know. (Then again, Val Kilmer and George Clooney are Americans and we saw how that turned out.)
There’s no denying that Nolan’s work carried forward the best elements of the 80/90’s Batfilms, redeemed some of the worst and added the modern approach to superhero movies. In the end, he created three films that are the bar by which every other superhero film should be measured.
Not a bad way to wrap up the Summer of the Bat, huh?