The Dark Knight (2008): How About a Magic Trick?

This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.

Background & HistoryThe Dark Knight (2008) Poster
Prior to the release of Batman Begins, screenwriter David S. Goyer had written two potential sequels that would introduce the Joker and provide the origin story for Two-Face. Much like Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel Batman: Year One served as the inspiration for Batman Begins, another graphic novel called The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale served as the inspiration for The Dark Knight, though the second film deviates more from its source material than the first film did.

Of particular note was the filmmakers’ approach to the Joker. Director Christopher Nolan said that he wanted the Joker to appear fully formed, thus circumventing any origin story for the character as had previously been done by Tim Burton and his team for 1989’s Batman, where we see how the Joker came to be. Instead, we come across a Joker in his rise to power. Nolan said that he made this decision in order to preserve the threatening and menacing persona surrounding the character. “To me, the Joker is an absolute. There are no shades of gray to him – maybe shades of purple. He’s unbelievably dark. He bursts in just as he did in the comics.”

maxresdefaultProduction
The Dark Knight began filming in April 2007 and was the first major studio release to use IMAX cameras in production. Nolan said that he had always wanted to shoot something in IMAX, and with the slated IMAX release of the film, this was an ideal opportunity. Four sequences were filmed in IMAX, including the opening bank robbery and the car chase scene toward the middle of the film.

Prior to the film’s release, the studio pioneered a form of marketing called “viral marketing,” which created an audience-participatory journey in which anyone who stumbled on different websites would be given clues regarding tasks they were asked to perform. These scavenger hunts would lead to undisclosed locations where teasers, posters, and other bits of the movie and its storyline were released, immersing fans into the film’s universe long before its release date.

Following the passing of Heath Ledger, the studio shifted the focus of marketing onto the Joker, posting a tribute to the actor on the film’s official website.

The film’s world premiere took place at an IMAX theater in New York City, where composers James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer conducted an orchestra that performed portions of the soundtrack live for those in attendance.

dark-knight-joker-bank-robberyStoryline/Plot
The film opens with an elaborate bank robbery perpetrated by a team of robbers wearing clown masks. As the robbery is taking place, the clowns kill each other off one by one, presumably to increase the size of each share, under the instruction of the individual who ordered the heist.

After the robbers succeed (and are killed off by each other), the final clown removes his mask in response to the bank manager, who had asked him, “What do you believe in?” The robber replied, “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger,” revealing the face underneath the mask to be covered in sloppily applied white makeup and a Glasgow smile painted with red lipstick.

1f7d0f74_harvey-gordon-batman-rooftop-meetingThe Batman, Lieutenant Jim Gordon, and District Attorney Harvey Dent form an alliance in order to target organized crime in Gotham City. As they work together, Batman/Bruce Wayne becomes increasingly impressed with the DA’s idealism and commitment to the improvement of Gotham City. Wayne begins to consider Dent a worthy successor to the Batman as the type of man who can lead the city into an era free of organized crime.

Wayne Enterprises moves forward with a business deal with Lau Security Investments Holdings, but after Wayne CEO Lucius Fox shares his misgivings with Bruce Wayne, they decide to call the deal off.

Lau’s CEO turns out to be an accountant for the three main crime rings in Gotham City who all hold a videoconference with him in order to discuss the movement of their money given some of the recent success the Gotham Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit has been having at closing in on them. The man from the bank robbery—known as the Joker—shows up at the meeting to discuss his willingness to rid them of their real problem: the Batman.

Mob-Meeting-the-joker-8546378-500-208Batman travels to Hong Kong to retrieve Lau and places him in GPD custody. Harvey Dent and his girlfriend/Assistant DA Rachel Dawes convince Lau to testify against the Gotham City crime lords, and Dent arrests all of them.

The heads of the crime rings make bail, and in response to the DA, Gordon’s MCU, and Batman’s quick arrest, they turn to the Joker to rid them of their problem.

The Joker kills a Batman copycat vigilante and broadcasts a message across Gotham City informing them that if Batman didn’t reveal his secret identity, he would continue murdering unless Batman were to come forward. He successfully murders Police Commissioner Gillian Loeb and Judge Janet Surillo, who had presided over the case involving the Gotham City crime bosses. He attempts to murder Mayor Anthony Garcia, but Lieutenant Gordon jumps in front of the bullet, sacrificing his life to save the mayor’s.

To put a stop to the killings, Bruce Wayne decides to reveal that he’s Batman, but before he does, Dent steps forward and claims to be Batman, knowing that his actions will draw the Joker out, giving the real Batman an opportunity to take him down.

Dark Knight screen2Lieutenant Gordon reveals that he faked his own death in an attempt to help capture the Joker and takes the criminal into custody at his precinct. However, the Joker has already set in motion a plan to blow up a hospital and uses that leverage to get two of Gordon’s officers to kidnap Dent and Rachel separately.

While being interrogated by Gordon and Batman, the Joker reveals the locations of both Rachel and Dent, but lies about which hostage is at which location, which sends Batman to the location housing Dent. He rescues Dent, but not before half of his face catches fire from an explosion igniting the half of his body that had been covered in oil. Rachel dies in the blast at her location.

An accountant at Wayne Enterprises reveals that he knows who the real Batman is and attempts to disclose the information publicly in the hopes that it will put a stop to the Joker’s murders, but the Joker interrupts him to say that he doesn’t want Batman’s identity revealed. Instead, he announces that he’ll blow up a hospital if the accountant isn’t killed within the hour.

the_dark_knight_1Visuals/Cinematic Design
The Dark Knight is much more visually grounded in reality than the previous film, spending much of the production on location in Chicago. It feels like it takes place in the real world, which is a mood that the filmmaker’s were going for. Where Batman Begins was clearly a reality-based “fantasy” film (and I use the term “fantasy loosely, since the comic-book supernatural doesn’t exist in Nolan’s world), The Dark Knight is a crime drama set in as realistic an urban world as can be portrayed on-screen.

The film pulls away from the sepias and browns of the previous film and steers towards a more natural color palette for the city. The final scene hearkens back to the first film a bit, but maintains the more realistic edge when compared to the majority of scenes from the previous film.

Main Characters
Capture
Bruce Wayne/Batman: Christian Bale.
Some have accused this film of making Batman a passive character, but I think that accusation misses what’s going on in the film. The character is Bruce Wayne, and we certainly see a fully fleshed out character arc for him. He’s anything but a passive character.

There were several moments in this movie where Bale truly shines in his portrayal of the character, but the one that stands out to me is the moment where he’s sitting in his penthouse—in agony over having just lost his best friend and the woman he loved, confounded by his inability to effectively eliminate the threat that the Joker poses to the city, and inching closer to the realization that he is utterly failing in his mission to make Gotham City a better place.

Bale makes Bruce so thoroughly relatable in that moment that he brings this untouchable character down to the audience’s level. I could see myself in his shoes, but I’d never want to find myself in his shoes.

1fRNJThe Joker: Heath Ledger.
At the risk of echoing every other blogger’s praise of this performance, I’m going to add my own. We can all agree on just how stunning the late Heath Ledger’s work was in this film. This character is absolutely frightening and mesmerizing at the same time. He is omnipresent in this film; in the scenes where he’s absent, his existence is still significantly felt.

The character as portrayed in The Dark Knight warrants quite a bit of exploration, but I won’t go too far into it. I do, however, want to peek a little bit into the Joker’s psyche just a bit. In the opening scene, upon the character’s unmasking, he utters the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stranger,” a one-letter deviation from the overly popular Nietzsche quote. Nietzsche and several of his philosophical contemporaries explored what has been popularized as Existentialism, and this character is the very embodiment of Existentialism. That could be what makes the Joker such a popular character these days.

Ledger dove so deeply into this character where others (like Jack Nicholson) had merely scratched the surface. This performance was altogether chilling, enthralling, humorous in a dishearteningly and morbidly unfunny way, and hauntingly enticing. To me, this is the defining interpretation of the Joker and the yardstick by which all others will be measured for many years to come.

the-dark-knight-aaron-eckhart-as-harvey-dentHarvey “Two-Face” Dent: Aaron Eckhart.
One of the most fascinating studies of human morality is Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Dent. He was such a believable character, and the performance was so well executed that I couldn’t help but feel legitimate sorrow over the tragic events of his life.

Prior to The Dark Knight, there hadn’t been any convincing interpretation of this character with the notable exception of the version in Batman: The Animated Series, which played up the heartbreaking narrative behind Harvey Dent.

Where Eckhart truly shines is in the honesty of his portrayal of Dent. He plays the character with such verisimilitude that he’s eminently believable and relatable. It wasn’t difficult to see myself in his shoes, snapping the way he did after such a tragic event. He’s Capture2confident, strong, and devoted to his cause, but he (like other characters throughout the film) treads the line of moral ambiguity incredibly well. His good actions prior to his accident are sprinkled with some morally questionable execution. His evil actions following the accident ring true to some degree and while his actions aren’t acceptable, his perspective is morally justifiable.

Nothing embodies the character more than the ominously foreshadowing phrase he utters: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Chilling even in the moment since most audiences already knew what would happen to him down the road.

maggie-rachelRachel Dawes: Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Katie Holmes would not return to reprise her role from Batman Begins, and some would argue that was a good thing. I’m not among those, as I think Holmes would’ve been up to the task, but Gyllenhaal certainly played the character well.

However, despite the fact that I found it to be a convincing performance, I did feel that the character changed rather drastically (not just in looks, of course) between the first two films. Holmes’ interpretation of the character was someone who was okay with bending the rules to get what she was after. She was a bit more intimidating and often pushed her boss (then Gotham City District Attorney Carl Finch) to uncomfortable places to get a conviction. Her version of the character was also more confrontational, facing off with Jonathan Crane when she suspected something wasn’t right.

Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, played the role a bit more modestly. That’s not to say she was timid or unassertive, but I didn’t find her to be as strong a character as she was in Batman Begins. She deferred often to Harvey Dent and relied on him to get the job done. She confronted Bruce a few times throughout the movie, but I was never convinced of her ability to truly sway him. Some of that could be the screenwriters’ fault, but I just felt that the chemistry between Bale and Gyllenhaal wasn’t as strong as between Bale and Holmes.

Capture3.PNGLucius Fox: Morgan Freeman.
In his second go-around as the Wayne Enterprises CEO, Morgan Freeman shines even brighter. He’s smart, witty, and provides a moral compass for the characters and a groundedness for the audience.

The character progression for Fox is fun to see. In Batman Begins, he served as a minor protagonist with his own minor antagonist in then Wayne Enterprises CEO Richard Earle. This time around, the stakes are higher, and Fox faces off against Batman’s own moral ambivalence.

Morgan Freeman is an incredible actor, and he gives another outstanding performance in this film. It’s fitting that the “voice of God” provides the voice of reason for the titular character.

Capture4Alfred Pennyworth: Michael Caine.
Bruce Wayne’s butler and surrogate father figure is the reason he doesn’t show up at the hospital with inexplicable cuts and bruises. His calm partnership with Batman provides a foil through which we can see Bruce’s unwillingness to think outside the box created by his preconceived ideas about criminal motivations.

I loved the way Caine brought some criticism of the Batman persona. He understands the need for Batman, but he also knows better than anyone what the Batman can become beyond a simple crimefighter. Caine shows that wisdom in a way few others can. He has excellent chemistry with Bale, and their banter in this film continues to improve over the last one.

Themes/Motifs
Where the primary theme of Batman Begins was obvious to the point of being preachy, The Dark Knight revels in ambiguity. Some have pointed to the theme of chaos, but my response to that assertion is an accusation of reductionism. Additionally, there appears to be a thread in the story that points to the negation of chaos: that ultimately there is always a goal.

The film’s complexity provides a window into the perceived psyche of the primary personal antagonist. He is mysterious, his plans and actions multifarious, and his motivations enigmatic. In fact, he has seemingly no motive other than pure enjoyment. But the character, as the director stated, is absolute. The story arc in this film belongs to Harvey Dent, not to the Joker. This is part of what helps the movie succeed on so many levels. The antagonist follows no arc at all; he merely exists and reveals to us the depth of character in Harvey and Bruce.

the-dark-knight-the-joker-batmanSomething I enjoyed in this film is the subtle arrogance that Bruce maintains in fighting the Joker. He never appears to heed Alfred’s warning in his story about the bandit from Cambodia. Instead, he relies on his own deductive abilities, his skills as a student of the League of Shadows, and his mythical status as Gotham City’s silent protector. Even by the end of the movie, he fails to fully understand how everything could have fallen apart, and therein lies some of the beauty of this film.

The Batman is not the incorruptible, inerrant hero we imagine him to be. Rather, he is a flawed, single-minded man who doesn’t pay attention to the advice of those who love him most.

A common critique of this film, particularly from the comic-book-fan crowd, is that Batman and Gordon could have easily pinned the blame on the Joker or even told the truth and cleaned up the consequences of letting the truth out. But I think that critique misses the internal path that Bruce Wayne takes in this film: he has journeyed from the city’s mysterious savior to its greatest failure.

bruce-wayne-and-batman-snapshot20080504110957Why does Bruce believes he failed? Because he was the inspiration for Harvey Dent’s run at the DA’s office. Because he bears the responsibility for the Joker’s crimes after never revealing his identity. Because he orchestrated and catalyzed the plan to take down all of Gotham’s crime lords in one fell swoop. Because he allowed Harvey to take the fall for him in claiming to be the Batman. Because he removed Carmine Falcone from power which opened the door for the emergence of a man like the Joker. In his attempt to make Gotham City a better place, he turned it into a breeding ground for chaos and destruction.

The first moment that Bruce truly understands what has taken place is the final breath of the film: when he takes the fall for Harvey in what he feels is his last chance at personal redemption for what he has done to Harvey, to Rachel, and to Gotham City.

The first film began a journey toward portraying Gotham City as a character in itself, and the second film continues that trajectory. The city’s response to the Joker’s repeated threats is a fascinating study, and the turn where the people on the ferries decide not to react (which is in stark contrast to their reaction to his threat to blow up a hospital) is fascinating a fascinating study in the progression of the city, particularly when coupled with the personality given to the city in the third film.

Reaction & Impact
The Dark Knight Rises continues to blow me away after what’s quite possibly the eleventh or twelfth time I viewed this film. Rarely does a film make such an impression on me that I’m left speechless after watching.

Every aspect of this film was nearly perfect, and even its imperfections (the editing during the truck chase scene, Batman’s voice, etc.) added to the overall beauty and magic of this film. It is still, in my opinion, among the finest films ever created.

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Batman Begins (2005): More than Just a Man

This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.

Batman Begins (2005) PosterBackground & History
In 1995, comic book fans were sorely disappointed by the drivel that was touted as a Batman movie with the release of Batman & Robin.

That film’s director, Joel Schumacher, had another film planned, but upon the movie’s release, it became evident rather quickly that he would no longer be a part of the Batman film franchise.

Warner Bros. was unsure of how to continue the franchise, and for the next six years, they looked at hundreds of ideas by nearly as many filmmakers just to come up with an idea of what to do with Batman.

In 2003, the studio settled on a take by young untested auteur Christopher Nolan, whose previous work at the time was comprised of two movies: the frighteningly cerebral indie film Memento, and the mid-budget thriller Insomnia. Screenwriter David S. Goyer joined Nolan to tackle the then-unnamed Batman movie.

The idea Nolan put forward included Batman’s origin story, which is something that had never been depicted on the big screen before. He also wanted the film to be a “grounded” one, written in such a way that audiences would be able to relate to the characters and the universe they exist in. That became the launching pad for one of the most successful film series to date.

Production
Filming began in March of 2004 at a glacier in Iceland (mimicking icy mountains in Bhutan) and moved to Shipperton Studios in England, as the film was a British-American production. Other filming locations were used for key scenes involving Wayne Manor including Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire. Several Gotham City scenes were shot in Chicago, such as the Tumbler chase sequence.

The film released in June of 2005, and it opened to rave reviews from critics, cinemagoers, and comic-book fans. To many, it represented a return to form for the previously ailing Batman franchise and injected new life into a nearly dead film franchise.

Storyline/Plot
Batman Begins is presented in a nonlinear fashion for much of the first two acts of the film. The storyline is purposely fragmented and disjointed, which serves to create a sense of urgency for all the story’s elements. For the purposes of this synopsis, however, I’ll recount the story linearly.

2The film opens on the child Bruce Wayne and his friend Rachel Dawes playing on the Wayne Manor grounds. Bruce falls through a weak spot in the cover of a well, breaking his leg and frightening a nest of bats that come out of the shadows to attack him.

Shortly thereafter (an undefined length of time, though presumably a few months since Bruce appears around the same age he did in the opening scene yet his leg is fully recovered), the Wayne family attends a production of Boito’s Mefistofele. During “Rampiamo, rampiamo, che il tempo ci gabba,” Bruce finds the performers dressed as demonic creatures reminiscent of the bats he encountered in the cave, frightening him to the point of asking his dad if they could leave the opera house.

In the alley behind the opera house, a man named Joe Chill holds the family at gunpoint, demanding Thomas’ wallet and Martha’s pearl necklace. Thomas complies with Chill’s demands, but when Chill points the gun at his wife, Thomas steps in, causing Chill to shoot him and his wife. Young Bruce is left kneeling over his parents’ corpses.

Fourteen years later, Bruce drops out of Princeton and returns to Gotham with the goal of avenging his parents’ death at Joe Chill’s parole hearing. The opportunity doesn’t come as the crime boss Carmine Falcone has sent an assassin to murder Chill for providing the DA’s office with valuable information about Falcone’s crime empire.

batman-begins-parents-deathRachel Dawes, who is interning at the DA’s office, shows Bruce the dark underside of Gotham City, where the city’s corruption has perpetuated the problem of crime and poverty. There, Bruce meets Carmine Falcone and attempts to prove to him that he can put an end to the Falcone crime ring. Falcone laughs him off and demonstrates to Bruce just how much power he has in Gotham.

Bruce disappears to Tibet, where he explores the criminal underworld in an attempt to find a way to come to terms with his inability to avenge his parents and put a stop to the crime in Gotham City. While in prison in Tibet, he meets Henri Ducard, who invites him to train with the League of Shadows, which will prepare him to return to Gotham and fight crime and corruption with a new purpose.

Visuals/Cinematic Design
Christopher Nolan mentioned that he based much of his design for the film on the look of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. While the film remains heavily grounded in a recognizable reality, there are elements of the design that betray some sympathies for science fiction and fantasy. Many of the scenes from the Narrows district of the city hearken back to Blade Runner‘s look and feel.

Visually, the film has several setpiece moments: the mountains of Tibet, the wide views of Gotham City. However, the movie overall has a more intimate feel, creating an atmosphere of intensity and driving home the idea that this is a deeply personal movie with an emphasis on characters more than landscapes and action.

Main Characters
Batman Begins has a fairly large cast of characters, so I’ll attempt to touch on as many of them as possible.

batman-begins-267x300Bruce Wayne/Batman: Christian Bale.
Bale’s characterization of both Bruce Wayne and Batman is among my favorites of this character. He truly sells the idea of a conflicted and frustrated young man, unable to properly mourn the deaths of his parents. My main (very minor) complaint overall with Bale’s portrayal is that his character often gets swept up in the story. While he is certainly the driving force of the movie, I sometimes get the feeling that the events of the movie are happening to Bruce, rather than Bruce deciding the trajectory of his story. There were several moments where I felt like the characters around him were stronger than he was.

That’s not to say that I didn’t think of him as a strong character with a well developed arc. On the contrary, I found Bale’s Bruce/Batman to be a truly forceful character. He’s at once menacing and calculating, distant and relatable, providing the perfect lens through which to view this story.

CaptureHenri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul: Liam Neeson.
To be honest, I was/am a bit frustrated about the whitewashing of this character. In the comics and other media, Ra’s is of some kind of Middle-Eastern descent, likely Arabian. It was a slight annoyance that his name’s pronunciation was altered, that his character was turned white, and that the League of Shadows (League of Assassins in the comics) was headquartered in Tibet rather than the Arabian Peninsula.

My annoyances aside, Neeson played the role well. To be fair, I’ve always enjoyed Liam Neeson’s acting, but I found this character to be particularly fitting for him. He’s smart, calculating, and collected; but he creates a persona that is frighteningly devoted to his cause.

Capture2Alfred Pennyworth: Michael Caine.
Prior to the film’s release, casting news was coming out about the characters for the movie, and I was a somewhat perturbed by the decision to cast Michael Caine as Alfred. I had always considered Alfred to be a more refined character than Caine could likely portray, but I was so thankful to have been proven wrong. While this depiction of Alfred is certainly not “refined” as fans had come to know him (particularly in reminiscing on Michael Gough’s fantastic performances), I thought it was a perfect fit for this film’s world. He’s witty and loyal, and provides some of the most timely moments of depth, wisdom, and even comic relief that only Michael Caine could provide.

gordon-joven-bruce--644x362James Gordon: Gary Oldman.
Batman Begins is loosely based on the graphic novel Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, in which Jim Gordon is the primary perspective character for the reader. His relationship with Batman is the focal point of the novel, and thus the film’s character needed to be just as strong.

In many ways, I felt like Gordon was an even stronger character than Bruce in this film, and Oldman’s performance is one of the finest I’ve seen. He’s relatable, fun, and disarming, and some of my favorite scenes from this movie include him.

oEKqKLucius Fox: Morgan Freeman.
The inclusion of Lucius Fox in this movie was an incredibly brilliant move for the filmmakers. One of the key characteristics of the Batman character in any medium is his gadgetry, but it’s difficult to believe that he and Alfred put all of that together themselves. Enter Lucius Fox, the former head of the Applied Sciences division of Wayne Enterprises.

Morgan Freeman was an impeccable choice for this character. He’s almost a perspective character, providing several winks and nods for the audience, and Freeman does that perfectly. As with Gordon, Fox is one of my favorite characters from this film.

RachelDawesKatieHolmesRachel Dawes: Katie Holmes.
The character of Rachel Dawes is far more than a mere love interest for Bruce Wayne. She provides a catalyst for the character and offers a fascinating voice for Thomas Wayne into Bruce’s life following the elder Wayne’s death. At the start of Bruce’s journey, Rachel tells him that his father would be ashamed at him for his attempt at vengeance. At the completion of his arc, knowing that Bruce has become Batman, she tells him that his father would be proud of him.

I liked this character a lot, and I felt like her inclusion in the story provided an interesting motivating element. She serves as a moral compass of sorts, reminding Bruce of the responsibility he has to his father’s legacy. Holmes did an excellent job in that regard, but something about her seemed slightly unfitting for the courtroom environment that her character needed to be in. She honestly wasn’t terrible, and I’ve got a feeling that some of my perspective might be tainted by the fact that I know the character is better portrayed in those environments in the next film.

BATMAN_BEGINS-011Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow: Cillian Murphy.
My first exposure to Cillian Murphy was the film 28 Days Later, so when I heard that he would be playing Scarecrow, I couldn’t have been more excited. He was fantastic in the earlier film, and the casting decision worked perfectly. The demented genius that Murphy brought to the character was chilling, but keeping in line with most portrayals of the character, he’s also somewhat of a foil for Ducard, even though they never share any screen time.

Other than his literary role, however, I couldn’t find a purpose for the character in the plot of the film. He wasn’t a member of the League of Shadows, but Ra’s al Ghul was using him for some reason. What was that reason? Was he the one who weaponized the blue poppy from Bhutan? If so, that was never explained, and it seemed that the League already had that capability with the final training exercise that Bruce goes through with the League. As great as the character is on his own, he appears to serve very little purpose to the story.

Themes/Motifs
Batman Begins presents a number of intriguing themes, but the one I want to look into here (and the one that’s been touted as the most obvious) is the theme of fear as both the motivator and the object of both the protagonists’ and antagonists’ actions throughout the film.

Before I get into that theme though, I want to acknowledge the fact that despite the heightened realism and groundedness of this film (especially in contrast to Batman Forever and Batman & Robin), it’s still relatively friendly to some of the silliness of the comic-book tropes used in previous Batman films: a boisterous and colorful villain, an over-the-top plot that involves the destruction of an entire city, and spectacular action sequences that stretch the line between believability and the ridiculous. Even the film’s production design leans just a bit into the fantastical, stepping away slightly from the movie’s goal of groundedness.

None of this detracts from the experience, and despite the fantastical design and comic-book tropian silliness, the film’s straight-faced approach and honesty in its storytelling provide its “ridiculous” elements with meaning and purpose, pairing reality and fantasy in a unique and beautiful marriage.

The film follows a complex three- (maybe four-) act structure that incorporates a confounding use of flashback in its storytelling, likely a holdover from Nolan’s Memento (a beautiful technique that offers the flashback points with more urgency and poignancy than a traditional flashback methodology might provide).

lead_960All the acts present the concept of fear as its underlying theme. The theme is obvious to the point of nearly becoming heavy-handed, even preachy. But the thread exists beneath the face-value layers as well. Act I and the flashback scenes present fear as the true motivation behind Bruce’s actions, both as a child and as a Princeton-University dropout. Act II is where the theme becomes a sermon, with the introduction of Jonathan Crane presenting fear as his modus operandi. Act III  (along with Act IV) turns fear into the antagonist when both Batman and Rachel are confronted by fear itself and when it is unleashed on the Narrows district of Gotham City.

There were a few observations I made while watching the movie this time (admittedly my sixth or seventh viewing of the film) that I didn’t notice before. The first is the numerous ways the movie points to Bruce’s relationship to his father and how it influences or foreshadows Bruce’s decisions throughout the movie. In the scene immediately following the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne, a young officer Gordon puts the late Dr. Wayne’s coat around Bruce’s shoulders. The coat quite emphatically symbolizes Batman’s cape as though Bruce’s taking on of the Batman persona is directly related to his connection with his father. Ducard’s desire to turn Bruce into a leader in the League of Shadows is thwarted by Bruce’s unwillingness to be an executioner, and that rebellion is motivated by his memory of how his father lived his life.

Another example of this is his father’s stethoscope, which serves as a symbol for Bruce’s ability to listen to three key “heartbeats” in the movie. The first is his own. He can’t discern his goals and desires until he effectively listens to his heartbeat through his father’s ears. He’s not seeking vengeance, but justice for those whom his father cared for. The second is closely tied to the first, and that’s his father’s heartbeat. When he better understands what his father wanted, he finds a better way to address the problem of corruption and crime in Gotham. And the third is Gotham City’s heartbeat. This is the first time in cinema that we begin to see Gotham City as a living, breathing character, which will be fleshed out even further in the subsequent two films.

ThomasMartha_trainAnother observation I made was the overt way in which Thomas Wayne was written as a Christ figure. Perhaps it’s my own theology that’s imposing the image onto him, but it stood out to me in a few ways. First, Thomas Wayne loves Gotham City, particularly the impoverished and underprivileged. He’s devoted his wealth and his skills as a doctor to caring for the people of Gotham. But the current system of power in Gotham has created and perpetuated a type of crime that Dr. Wayne is powerless to eradicate on his own, and he instead falls victim to that system when he and his wife are tragically murdered in an alley behind the opera house.

Second, at his death, Dr. Wayne utters to his son the words, “Don’t be afraid,” a phrase used around 70 or 80 times in the Christian Bible and repeated often by the Christ himself. The concept serves as the impetus for a “resurrection” of sorts as Bruce gives new life to his father when he becomes Batman.

Reaction & Impact
If it wasn’t already quite obvious by the sheer size of this post, I absolutely loved this film. The movie provided a new cinematic take on one of my favorite characters while also hearkening back to his roots.

Batman Begins helped to redefine the superhero movie and its success spawned one of the greatest film franchises to date.

Why I Wet Shave.

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Shaving was a chore. When I first started shaving as a teenager, I was using a Gillette Mach 3 razor. I never found shaving enjoyable, but all the commercials on television told me that it could be a great experience. So I upgraded to more blades in my cartridge. Then I got a razor that pivots. It still wasn’t enjoyable. So I switched to electric to make the whole process go by faster, but I found that I wasn’t getting the close shave that I wanted, so I switched back to a cartridge razor.

A few years ago I stumbled on a company called Harry’s that made inexpensive razor cartridges with stylish handles. I bought one of their razors with a shiny metal handle and thought that maybe if I introduced a bit of “artistry” into my shaving routine, I might begin to enjoy it a bit more. I ordered some old-fashioned shaving cream and a badger hair shaving brush and decided to learn how to build a lather.

I hit YouTube for tutorials on lather building, and I discovered that none of the videos featured cartridge razors. In fact, all of them referred to something called “wet shaving.” I researched it more and more and ended up completely enthralled by the idea. There were double-edge razors, single-edge razors, straight razors. There were creams, soaps, balms. It was like a brand new world had been opened before my eyes. So I decided to give it a try.

I’ve been wet shaving with a double-edge razor for almost three years, and I can honestly say that I’ll never put a multi-blade cartridge razor against my face again.

Here are the reasons I enjoy wet shaving.

  1. It’s better for your skin. Contrary to popular belief, more blades on a razor does not lead to a smoother, closer shave. In fact, the extra blades lead to more tugging and more damage to your skin. Additionally, the extra skin care required to effectively wet shave provides added benefits to facial health.
  2. It’s less expensive. Okay, so this is entirely dependent on how much of a hobby this can become. In the most utilitarian sense, it is far less expensive than standard cartridge razor shaving. While the initial investment can be pretty high (a good double-edge safety razor can cost around $30, a badger-hair brush can cost $40), the maintenance cost is a lot lower. A pack of 100 razor blades will cost around $10, and that can last up to two years. A shaving soap can last almost a year, and they cost around $15. But if you start collecting shaving accoutrements, it can certainly get expensive.
  3. It takes practice. It’s a skill, and like any skill, it requires practice. I spent time learning technique, and that gives it a sense of ritual for me. I learned to appreciate the discipline it takes to get a perfect shave, and mastery has become a goal I look forward to attaining.
  4. It’s therapeutic. There are so few rituals we have these days; everything needs to be done as quickly as possible. With wet shaving, there’s a ritual that is both distinctly masculine and beautiful. I love taking the time to build a good lather from a tallow based soap, the steady strokes with a weighty razor, and the aromas of my shaving soaps and post-shave balms.
  5. It’s better for the environment. Cartridge razors are often made of a lot of plastic, and the razor cartridges create a lot of plastic waste. The aerosol cans that are often used with cartridge razors also create hazardous waste. Double-edge safety razors, on the other hand, are made almost entirely of stainless steel. The blades are also stainless steel and are easily recyclable. The shaving soaps and creams used are often organically made, providing a healthy alternative to the chemical goo that comes from a can.

I could probably list a dozen more reasons, but these are the basics. While I’m not naïve enough to think that wet shaving is for everyone, I do believe that everyone should give it a try. The experience is definitely worth the effort. If you’re interested in giving it a try, let me know. I’d love to hear about how it goes for you.

Batman & Robin (1997): Figures and Vehicles Sold Separately. Batteries Not Included.

This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.

Batman_and_Robin_PosterBackground & History
After the success of Batman Forever, Warner Bros. decided to fast track a sequel. They hired Joel Schumacher to return as the sequel’s director, and work quickly began. Most of the cast from Batman Forever returned, with the notable exception of Val Kilmer, who was replaced by George Clooney.

Production
Filming began in September 1996, and wrapped the following January. Much of the film’s production set the stage for what the final product would look like. When asked about his work on the film, Chris O’Donnell said, “On Batman Forever, I felt like I was making a movie. [On Batman & Robin], I felt like I was making a kid’s toy commercial.”

O’Donnell’s sentiments were echoed by John Glover, who played the character of Dr. Jason Woodrue: “Joel [Schumacher] would sit on a crane with a megaphone and yell before each take, ‘Remember, everyone, this is a cartoon’. It was hard to act because that kind of set the tone for the film.”

batmobile-batman-robin-1997Warner Bros. also hired several toy companies to help with the film’s visual design.

The movie was released on June 20, 1997 and had a record opening, but declined rapidly after its opening weekend.

Schumacher blamed much of the problems with the film on Warner Bros. constant desire for a more “family-friendly” film, along with the decision to fast-track a sequel. He took ownership of the disappointing film, however, apologizing for its shoddy workmanship: “If I’ve disappointed [Batman Forever fans] in any way, then I really want to apologize. Because it wasn’t my intention. My intention was just to entertain them.”

Film Analysis
Rather than break this film down as I have for the previous three Batman films, I thought I’d just discuss my reaction to this movie.

277297-batman-robinI have to admit, this was a very difficult movie to watch. It’s been said ad nauseam, so the assessment is hardly a novel one, but I figured I’d add my voice to the choir of other voices reciting this refrain: Batman & Robin is a two-hour toy commercial. It’s so blatantly toyetic that I couldn’t help but wonder if the movie hadn’t been written by a couple eight-year-old children who were given a bunch of Batman toys to play with. The opening sequence of the movie is riddled with phrases like, “Batman, a new villain has commandeered the Gotham Museum” (Are you sure that’s the right context for the term commandeered?), “Hi Freeze, I’m Batman” (Yes, Batman introduced himself to the “villain”), “Kill the heroes!” (SMH), “Destroy everything!” (It keeps getting better), and “It’s the hockey team from hell!”

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Poison Ivy wants to destroy everyone in the world and hand the planet over the the plant kingdom. Mr. Freeze wants to destroy everyone in the world because he’s angry and wants his wife back. So they team up and try to destroy the world together. But Batman and Robin stop them. Roll credits.

Les-coiffures-les-plus-WTF-du-cinemaIt’s painfully obvious that this movie is fighting itself at every turn. It’s trying to be more family friendly, but then it’s trying to appeal to adults. It’s trying to be funny, but it knows that the over-the-top campiness is tiresome, so it throws in some drama to give the audience a break, like a bizarre reversal of comic relief.

Which brings me to an interesting point about this film. There’s an arresting subplot regarding Alfred (which actually makes me sad knowing that Michael Gough’s finest performance as Alfred was stuck in this mess of a movie) that could have created some thematic elements for the film to build from and structure around, but these elements are tossed to the side because this movie doesn’t exist to explore themes and ideas. This movie exists to sell toys.

0013708_batman_and_robin_deluxe_blast_wing_batman_action_figureIf you’re around my age, you might remember the old Kenner Batman toy lines that came out. There were dozens of different action figures featuring ridiculous costumes Batman would never actually wear. There was Deep Dive Batman. There was Street Racer Batman. There was Lightning Strike Batman. In this movie, Batman actually wore these kinds of costumes.

Ridiculous costumes aside, what I think makes this movie so terrible is that it can’t decide who it’s for. It tries to be a kids movie, but it contains weird sexual humor that’s aimed at adults. The plot is completely outlandish and clearly written for (and probably by) children, but it has these moments that appear to point to deeper thematic elements.

ff562f_847a34274bad9373b6d0be10467ae404These dramatic moments, as few as they were, seem to be that reversal of comic relief I was referring to earlier. Comic relief in a film, when done properly, alleviates the dramatic tension to allow the audience a moment to breathe. What appears to have happened here is that the film is essentially a live-action cartoon, and moments of realism attempt to break through. The problem is that drama needs to be earned, and this movie spends most of its time in a flashy cartoon land instead of earning those dramatic moments.

In Batman Forever, there were several scenes that were overly silly or comical, but there was an attempt to balance the dramatic and the comical. The dramatic moments here in Batman & Robin serve as a break from the comedy, almost as if the movie knows how obnoxious it is. This is really not a good sign.

I think I would have loved Alfred’s scenes had they been in a different context. He actually has a powerful statement about the essence of Batman in Bruce’s psyche. “Death and chance stole your parents. But rather than become a victim, you have done everything in your power to control the fates. For what is Batman, if not an effort to master the chaos that sweeps our world?”

Batman Forever was taking time to explore Bruce Wayne’s motivation and how his parents’ deaths continued to cast a shadow over his existence as Batman. Alfred’s words would’ve carried weight and poignancy in Batman Forever. Here in Batman & Robin, his words are lost in the cacophony of this action-JTOQ87Y3gk0figure showcase. But had this been a foundation thought for the film’s storyline, we might have had a different movie entirely.

As it stands, however, Batman & Robin exists as the most notorious comic-book movie to date. Thankfully, it was awful enough for the studio to try something completely different.

Batman Forever (1995): A Splash of Color

This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.

batman_forever_ver1_xlgBackground & History
In 1993, the Batman film franchise faced a turning point. Just four years earlier, Tim Burton achieved the unthinkable: bring a darker, more comic-book-faithful adaptation of Batman to the big screen. But with Batman Returns in 1992, the studio felt the franchise was headed in a very dark direction and wanted to move toward a more “family-friendly” tone. As a result, Burton stepped back into the role of producer, and Joel Schumacher signed on as the director.

Michael Keaton didn’t want to work on a Batman film with anyone other than Burton, so he left the franchise. Val Kilmer was cast in 1994 to take on the iconic role.

Production, Release, and Reception
Filming began in September 1994, and the film released on June 16, 1995. While it surpassed its predecessor in box office intake, the film received mixed reviews with many saying that it lacked the pain and darkness of the first two films while others praised it for the faster pace and better action sequences.

Storyline/Plot
The movie opens with Two-Face robbing a bank and Batman foiling his operation. A Wayne Tech employee named Edward Nygma designs a device that manipulates brainwaves in order to create immersive 3D entertainment. Bruce Wayne denies Nygma any funding due to his misgivings about the morality of manipulating people’s brainwaves. Nygma continues his experiments anyway, and while working on his project, discovers that he can actually gain brainpower from other people’s brainwaves. He then murders his supervisor at Wayne Tech but makes it look like a suicide. Wayne is unconvinced.

Bruce attends a benefit circus with Dr. Chase Meridian, a psychiatrist assigned to the Harvey Dent/Two-Face case, and who also is obsessed with Batman. Two-Face and his henchmen show up at the circus with a bomb threatening to blow everyone up if Batman doesn’t turn himself over to him.Flying_Graysons

The “Flying Graysons,” a family of trapeze artists, attempt to stop Two-Face. Dick Grayson, the youngest in the family, successfully removes the bomb, but his family is murdered while he’s outside.

Bruce Wayne takes Dick in, and the young Grayson finds his way into the Batcave. He tries to help Batman, and even saves his life at one point, but Bruce decides to give up being Batman for the sake of protecting Dick’s life. Dick, on the other hand, wants to become Batman’s partner for the express purpose of killing Two-Face for his family’s murder.

Visuals/Cinematic Design
Batman Forever is a drastic departure from the design and style of Batman Returns. Where Batman Returns was almost a black-and-white film, Batman Forever is full of bright colors and neon lights. It still plays up the 1940’s art-deco design incorporated in the first two films, even taking it a step further.

batmobile-batman-foreverThe Batmobile (and other bat-vehicles) gets a major overhaul for this movie. Gone are the shadowy black, sleek steel, panther-like designs of the previous two films. Now the Batmobile (and the Batwing and Batboat along with it) looks like a tiger that ingested a few too many blue LEDs.

The Batsuit also received a slight redesign. The main suit Batman wears in the film returns him to the molded look from 1989’s Batman. I was disappointed to see that shift because I loved the Batman Returns plated-armor look. The Batsuit this time around is much sleeker. It’s a lot more form-fitting and streamlined than the previous two Batsuits and would probably be fantastic despite two massive oddities: bat-nipples and bat-ass. Schumacher decided to mold the armor in such a way as to accentuate Batman’s ass crack and added nipples to the Batsuit. I won’t go any further into it lest I get angrier as I type.

Robin’s Batsuit was pretty cool. I liked how it matched Batman’s armor while remaining true to what was introduced in the comic books and modified in Batman: The Animated Series (which is my personal favorite version of Robin’s Batsuit onscreen).

Batman-ForeverI might be alone in this, but I thought the modified Batsuit that Batman wears at the end of the film is actually pretty cool. I love its sleek design, removal of bat-nipples, and the slight gray tint it has that hearkens back to the black and gray suit Batman wears in the comics and animated show.

Main Characters
Batman/Bruce Wayne: Val Kilmer
Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Batman is quite good. While I certainly miss Michael Keaton, I appreciate Kilmer’s approach to Batman’s internal conflict. In his scenes as Bruce Wayne, I found him to be more honest in his characterization and more willing to explore what makes him tick.

Unfortunately, the screenplay included some poor dialogue choices. Kilmer delivers these lines weakly and without conviction, and I can imagine his own turmoil at having to recite lines like, “I’ll get drive-thru,” or “It’s the car, right? Chicks love the car.”

valKilmer’s Batman is the first one where we get to see a glimpse of why he became Batman and what motivates him to continue his crusade against crime. There’s a deleted scene (that I think is crucial and should have been left in) that gives us an even deeper look into what Bruce Wayne is motivated by. Sadly, the crew thought that scene made the movie too heavy, so they cut it out.

Overall, Kilmer’s Batman was excellent. He wasn’t as mysterious as Keaton, but some of that might have more to do with the screenplay than with Kilmer’s performance.

Robin/Dick Grayson: Chris O’Donnell
Dick Grayson in this movie is the vehicle for a very complex idea, and Chris O’Donnell does a good job of getting that across. He knows that Two-Face killed his parents, but he doesn’t want to kill him simply because of that. He wants to kill him because he also feels personally responsible for his family’s deaths. In other words, he feels that he could have done something to prevent them, but they were killed any way.

Batman_Forever_-_Robin_6This conflict bleeds over into Batman’s conflict as well. Like Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne lost his parents to a murderer; and again like Dick, Bruce didn’t do anything to stop it so he feels responsible for their deaths as well.

Batman got his revenge when Jack Napier died (despite its drastic differences, Batman Forever still exists in the same universe as 1989’s Batman, so Napier was the one who killed Bruce’s parents), and it has only brought him further remorse. He tries to convey this message to Dick, but it only strengthens the young Grayson’s resolve.

Dick Grayson’s journey is one of the more fascinating points of this film, and I’m grateful it was included and fleshed out as well as it was.

Chase Meridian: Nicole Kidman
This character seems like a joke. I don’t think Nicole Kidman did a particularly bad job playing her, but the character appears to exist just because they needed a romance in the movie. She’s a psychiatrist who develops an obsession with Batman that’s C6jNyx3little more than a schoolgirl crush. Her introduction to Batman is so bizarre, and she comes across as continually turned on that it’s a wonder Bruce Wayne could possibly find her attractive as a person.

She suddenly falls in love with Bruce, but then attempts a midnight tryst with Batman only to tell him that she’s in love with someone else (Bruce).

She’s supposed to be a professional, but she only appears as such in a few scenes. Throughout the movie she just shows up to be a pretty face (no offense to Nicole Kidman of course). I didn’t dislike her, but I didn’t really see the point of her involvement in the film.

The Riddler/Edward Nygma: Jim Carrey
While Jim Carrey’s Riddler wasn’t a terrible character, he was far too much of a Jim Carrey character. In the 1990s, Jim Carrey was the type of actor who needed to be reigned in (unless he was in the right type of movie, of course).

Batman_Forever_-_The_Riddler_13You can certainly see how Carrey took a number of cues from Frank Gorshin’s portrayal of the Riddler, and I’m appreciative of that. He definitely fits in this film, but he’s not as interesting a villain as I had hoped he might become when we were introduced to him.

His riddles leave a lot to be desired as well; I wish they were more difficult so as to showcase Bruce Wayne’s detective prowess even better. But that’s more the screenwriters’ fault than Jim Carrey’s.

Two-Face/Harvey Dent: Tommy Lee Jones
Two-Face is difficult to understand in this film. According to the comic books, he’s bound to the coin-toss because that’s what he believes true justice is: random happenstance between two options. He even states as much at the beginning of the movie. However, we see him time and time again going against this belief. The core of his character is that an alternate, obsessive personality has taken over Harvey Dent, but his obsessive behavior is more in line with complete comical insanity. He doesn’t truly rely on the coin for anything.

There’s a scene in which Two-Face has the opportunity to shoot Bruce Wayne, but he goes to his coin. This incident is in line with his character; however, he continues to flip the coin when he doesn’t get the desired outcome. For someone who is obsessed with the coin toss, his actions should be dictated by the coin toss. Yet he flips the coin seemingly for no reason because he goes ahead and shoots Bruce Wayne anyway.

Batman_Forever_-_Two-Face_4Tommy Lee Jones was pretty bad in this role. It seems like the only type of villain Batman faces in these movies are simply different versions of the Joker. Two-Face spends the whole movie laughing hysterically and whining like a small child. He isn’t the complex character from the comics at all.

Granted, Two-Face is an extremely difficult character, and despite how interesting he is, has rarely been handled well by screenwriters and comic book writers alike. Alan Burnett did a good job with him in Batman: The Animated Series, and Christopher Nolan’s approach to Harvey Dent as the tragic hero of The Dark Knight was a novel idea which paid off very well.

This version of Two-Face is annoying, and could’ve been any other Batman villain while still having the exact same impact on the plot.

Alfred Pennyworth: Michael Gough
Once again Michael Gough reprises his role as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler. He had more of a role in this film than in Batman Returns, allowing him to flex his acting muscles a bit more, and the payoff is great. I love how he takes on a fatherly role in Bruce’s and even Dick’s life. He’s clearly much more than just a butler to Wayne Manor—he’s the house’s mentor and dad.

Themes/Motifs
Unlike 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns, 1995’s Batman Forever attempts to give its audience more to think about. While it works surprisingly well, the campy atmosphere and silly one-liners really detract from the movie’s thoughtfulness. Additionally, the villains are so over-the-top that they distract the audience from seeing the layers of thematic depth the film presents. Themes like revenge, remorse, and responsibility all swirl through the movie, and they present us with some discussion material afterwards.

Reaction & Impact
I’m rather ambivalent with regards to this film. On the one hand, it leans heavily in the direction of camp, which is something I was thankful had disappeared in Tim Burton’s Batman films. The flashy design, silly one-liners, and over-the-top characterization and plotlines were rather annoying. This was also the movie that introduced bat-nipples and bat-ass, which are unforgivable.

On the other hand, Batman Forever presents some depth of character that was lacking from Batman and Batman Returns. The film attempts to explore Bruce Wayne’s psyche, and while it remains fairly lighthearted, it presents some fascinating material.

Batman Forever serves as something of a soft reboot. It doesn’t entirely do away with story elements and ideas from its predecessors, but it acts as a sort of “start here if you wish” presentation for those unfamiliar with the previous films.

batman-forever-batman-8649509-700-380I have to commend this movie for introducing some themes and trying to run with them, despite being relatively unsuccessful. Instead of just tossing superheros and villains into a movie and making them fight (with a dash of romance in there to attract a female audience), Batman Forever gives the audience something to chew on. It’s easy to write a villain who’s out for revenge (which they do with Two-Face and utterly fail), but they also write a protagonist who’s out for revenge, and I have to give them props for that. Dick Grayson’s journey is what propels this film, and it’s actually pretty good.

I liked the movie to a degree. The villains were weak and annoying. Bruce Wayne’s love interest was frustrating and lacked seriousness. But Dick Grayson’s inner journey and the slight exploration into Bruce Wayne’s motivation are almost worth the price of admission. They don’t cover the multitude of other sins this movie commits, however.

The deleted scene I alluded to earlier was beyond necessary, in my opinion. The scene ties together a number of incomplete plotlines, and gives motivation for Bruce Wayne’s actions in the film. Without it, we’re given almost no explanation for why Bruce decides to become Batman again after “retiring” from crime fighting for a while. It explains why he no longer feels obligated to don the cape and cowl and why he chooses to wear it as part of his identity. It also explains why he brings Dick Grayson on as a partner. Early in the film, Bruce resists the idea of a partner, but by the end of the film he welcomes Dick. Without the scene, the audience has no idea why he changes his mind. I might have considered this a pretty good movie had this scene been left in. Without it, the film is just okay.

Batman Forever is often maligned thanks to its successor, but there’s actually a good story in there with some themes to chew on, halfway decent character development, and tolerable acting. All in all, it’s not as horrible a film as some might remember it as. No, it’s not a great Batman film; it’s not even a that good of a film. Love it or hate it, don’t lump it together with what came next. Batman Forever is definitely worth spending the time to sit down with the movie.

Batman Returns (1992): The Burton Before ‘Nightmare’

This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.

Batman Returns (1992) PosterBackground & History
After the commercial success of Batman, Warner Brothers once again turned to Tim Burton to helm a sequel.

“Batmania” once again gripped the nation, and people everywhere wanted to get in on the Batman action. Toys featuring Michael Keaton’s Batman were flying off the shelves. I even remember eating Batman breakfast cereal! A sequel was inevitable.

Production
Burton initially refused to return for a second film due to mixed emotions about the first one, but when the studio agreed to give him more creative control over the film, he relented.

Filming began in June 1991, and the film was released on June 19th of the following year. Batman Returns had a budget nearly twice as much as the previous film, but the film grossed only half as much. Because of this, and a handful of other reasons, Burton was removed from the director’s chair for the forthcoming Batman Forever.

Storyline/Plot
Batman Returns opens with the birth of a baby to the Cobblepots. The baby turns out to be a deformed, monstrous child, and the parents throw him into a river. The baby’s carriage floats through the river and ends up in the care of—you guessed it—penguins.

Thirty-three years later, this mysterious child is the leader of a terrorist group known as the Red Triangle Circus Gang. The gang appears in Gotham City during the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony and causes a riot. Batman arrives to put a stop to the riot and help the police clean things up. During the chaos, the gang kidnaps one of Gotham’s most prominent businessmen, Max Shreck.

The Penguin uses Shreck as a way to gain notoriety in the city, while Shreck uses the Penguin to try to remove the mayor from office.

Meanwhile, Max Shreck’s secretary, Selina Kyle, stumbles upon Shreck’s secret plan to use a new power plant to suck power from Gotham. Shreck catches her and throws her out of a window, effectively killing her.

batman-returns-crop-2

While this film doesn’t suffer from the glaring plot holes its predecessor does, several of its characters have unusual, outlandish, or confusing motives. The Penguin plans to kill all of Gotham’s firstborn children, but then he wants to become mayor. Next thing you know, he wants to kill children again. The whole time I was watching the film I kept wondering why he was doing what he was doing. He seemed to have very little stated reason for his actions except revenge against his parents.

Catwoman teams up with the Penguin in order to eliminate Batman, but there’s no explanation as to why. Her first fight with Batman seemed completely unprovoked, and then following that fight she wants to get rid of him. Why? Because he’s a crimefighter and she’s a criminal?

The film works well if you view Max Shreck as the primary villain, but it’s still confusing and messy.

Visuals/Cinematic Design
Visually the film departs drastically from the tone set in the previous movie. Batman seemed interested in creating a very dark world, but it maintained a level of realism and relatability that is completely gone from Batman Returns. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Batman Returns has a beautiful visual style all its own. Where it suffers is in its lack of connection to its predecessor.

The movie seems to be set in a fantasy world. Where Batman sought fairly realistic explanations for things, Batman Returns enters a much more fantastical realm. Oswald Cobblepot is a deformed, elephant-man type of creature. Catwoman is someone who has evidently returned from the dead.

The world these plotlines are set in is a gorgeous fantasy world full of varying levels of blacks and whites. The stark contrasts are quintessentially Tim Burton, and even Danny Elfman’s score departs from his work in Batman to more closely match Tim Burton’s work. While it still draws on the themes created in 1989’s Batman, it’s less “Batman” and more “Burton.” I couldn’t help but think of Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and The Nightmare Before Christmas when listening to this score.

CJ8rJQfWIAAMYrLThe Batsuit received an upgrade as well. As cool as the suit in Batman looked, I never was too fond of the “molded-armor” look. The mask fits Batman’s face better and the plated-armor look is sleeker and more modern. It seems much more utilitarian and less showy, which I personally like. You might disagree, but I appreciate the change.

Main Characters
Batman/Bruce Wayne: Michael Keaton
Keaton returned to portray the titular character yet again, and his performance as Batman is even better this time around.

Catwoman/Selina Kyle: Michelle Pfeiffer
This version of Catwoman is interesting, to say the least. Pfeiffer does a fantastic job with the role, but I wasn’t convinced that this was the best way to portray the character. I think she had great chemistry with Batman, and her batman-returns-lickquirkiness fits well with Bruce Wayne’s own oddity. I’ve always seen Catwoman as a femme fatale, but in this movie she comes across as a woman perpetually in heat. It’s somewhat overblown and at a few points a bit unnerving. I think the performance was good, but the character wasn’t written too well.

I think at this point it’s good to note that the characters in this movie do not reflect their comic book counterparts at all. Whereas in Batman, the characters resembled the originals to a degree (backstories not withstanding), in Batman Returns, Burton seems less concerned with sticking to the source material. It works in some places, but in others, not so much. Catwoman is a great example of that. In the comic books, she’s a cat burglar who also happens to fight for social justice in Gotham City’s slums. She’s a spokesperson for equal rights and a champion for those living in poverty. In Batman Returns she’s an angry zombie-woman seeking revenge against the corrupt mogul who killed her.

penguin-surprisePenguin/Oswald Cobblepot: Danny DeVito
While I thought that DeVito did a tremendous job playing the Penguin, this is another case of my desire to see the comic book version of a character come to life getting trumped by Tim Burton’s desire to create a sympathetic monster. In the comics Oswald Cobblepot is a high-society, high profile crime lord who owns a casino and uses it as a cover for his black-market weapons dealing. The only reason he’s referred to as “The Penguin” is that he’s short, rotund, and likes to wear tuxedos and black suits.

In this movie, the Penguin is effectively an Elephant Man. He’s society’s outcast due to grotesque deformities, and Burton plays that up quite a bit. It’s rather ineffective though. It’s almost as if Burton wants us to feel sorry for the Penguin by the end of the movie; he’s a misunderstood, mistreated monster whose only true friends were the flightless birds from whom he derived his name. However, it’s extremely difficult to feel sorry for a character who devises a plan to kill all of Gotham City’s firstborn children.

pfeiffer5Max Shreck: Christopher Walken
While the movie’s marketing machine didn’t talk about him at all, this was the film’s primary villain. I enjoyed him as a character. He was conniving, misled, and quite evil. Christopher Walken’s performance was good (albeit a little too “Walken-esque”), and he convinced me to hate him by the last scene.

Alfred Pennyworth: Michael Gough
Alfred takes a step back this time, which I think hurts the movie to a degree. Michael Gough’s version of Alfred is still one of my favorites to this day, and it’s a shame he didn’t get more screen time. I definitely appreciated the banter he had with Bruce Wayne at several points during the movie. Particularly when Bruce brings up Vicki Vale. Fantastic moment between the two characters.

Themes/Motifs
The film is certainly dark, which was one of the major complaints of the movie, but I don’t think that was as much an issue as people made it out to be at the time of the film’s release. The real problem with this movie is that it’s needlessly grotesque. The character of the Penguin is frightening and cringe-inducing, but we’re supposed to feel sorry for him.

It’s been said many times before, but I’ll go ahead and add my voice to the din: Batman Returns isn’t as much a Batman movie as it is a Tim Burton film that incorporates characters from the Batman universe. Everything from the stark visuals to the fantastical world and the grotesque, misunderstood monster character left me feeling more like I was watching an amalgamation of Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sweeney Todd, and Beetlejuice.

Like the first film, it’s hard to find any real themes or character arcs in the movie. The attempts are there, but they tend to fall flat. Batman/Bruce Wayne doesn’t evolve much in the movie. The Penguin doesn’t either. Where it improves over the first film is in the fact that there is a bit of an arc that we get to witness. Catwoman’s arc is probably the most interesting we’ve seen in any modern Batman film thus far (from 1989-1992, I mean. I still haven’t touched anything between then and now.), and while it isn’t great, it’s still nice to see.

Reaction & Impact
Batman Returns is an odd movie. I started the film really wanting to enjoy it, but I finished feeling confused and annoyed by it. In one sense I actually liked it better than Batman. Its art deco evolved to a more gothic feel. The visuals are beautiful and the film feels much more personal. But with any superhero sequel, the stakes need to be raised from the previous movie, and that doesn’t really happen here.

batman-returns-bat-signalBatman Returns received a lot of criticism from parents for what they called a darker and more violent tone than the first film. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s darker, and Batman Returns was never meant to be viewed by children. It was certainly more grotesque, however, and I can understand how that would bother many parents. The studio reacted harshly though, and Burton was removed from directorial duties on any future Batman movies. With Burton no longer directing, Michael Keaton decided to step away from Batman as well. A big change to the franchise was about to occur.

Batman (1989): A Dark Knight Emerges

This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.

Batman (1989) PosterBackground & History
Prior to this film’s release, Batman had gone from a dark detective character in the 1940s to a silly, cartoonish superhero in the 1960s. Public perception of the character was one of bright, gaudy colors; fatuous one-liners; and outrageous plotlines. While the 1960s Batman television series and subsequent movie served to bring the comic book character into the mainstream eye, fans lamented the long-time departure from the Batman comic books of old: haunting stories, creepy characters, and a dark motif.

During the 70s and 80s, the comic books began to shift back towards Batman creator Bob Kane’s original vision for the character, but public perception had not yet caught up. Books like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One betrayed a longing inside the comic book industry to take the popular franchise back to its dark and haunting roots.

Fans and industry insiders received what they asked for in 1989’s Batman. Despite early misgivings, particularly surrounding the casting of Michael Keaton as the titular character, fans embraced the renewed vision of a somber and shadowy vigilante. Batman was a creature of the night once again.

Production
Batman began production at Pinewood Studios in October of 1988 and wrapped the following January. The original production budget was $30 million, but that quickly jumped to $48 million during filming. Much of the production was kept a secret; the police were contacted when two reels of footage went missing.

Batman opened on June 23, 1989, grossing $43.6 million in 2,194 theaters during its opening weekend. The film would go on to gross $411.35 million globally.

The movie was received well by critics and cinemagoers, who praised the “new” take on the Batman franchise. Some casual Batman fans were bothered by the dark and violent tone, and many disliked certain facets of the story, but overall, reception was positive.

Storyline/Plot
The film opens with a look at Gotham City’s crime problem. Two thugs mug a family in a dark alley. After they commit their crime, a shadowy figure attacks them and requests that one of them “tell all your friends about me.” When the thug asks, “What are you?” the figure replies, “I’m Batman.”

The film then shifts focus to the problem of mob control in the city. Police Commissioner Jim Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent are working to stop the crime problem prior to Gotham City’s bicentennial celebration.

Meanwhile, news reporter Alexander Knox and photojournalist Vicki Vale investigate reports of a giant bat terrorizing Gotham’s underworld. Vicki Vale finds herself personally caught up in her subject matter as she is dating Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego.

Mob boss Carl Grissom finds out that his second-in-command, Jack Napier, has gotten romantically involved with his mistress, and in response sends Napier to a setup where he arranges with corrupt police lieutenant Bob Eckhart to have him murdered. Upon arrival, Napier discovers that he’s been set up and murders Eckhart. Batman disrupts the shootout, accidentally causing Napier to fall into a vat of chemicals.

The film sets up its plotlines well, but it unfortunately doesn’t deliver on them. Unlike its counterpart, 1978’s Superman, this movie avoids the “hero’s journey” storyline, but to its own detriment. Director Tim Burton decided to steer clear of Batman’s origin story, which in a way works well for the film; it provides a sense of mystery surrounding the character of Batman and gives other characters a reason to fear him. I loved how we saw the criminal world’s superstition surrounding him along with journalism’s skepticism and disdain of him. The Batman is a polarizing figure in this movie.

However, what’s missing in this movie is a clear direction. If Burton wanted to avoid the “hero’s journey” arc, another genre or trope should’ve been selected. I personally think a mystery story would’ve gone along well with this film’s tone. But as it stands, it doesn’t really know what it’s trying to accomplish, and a film without goals tends to fall flat.

4223383-batman-1989-batman-confronts-the-jokerThere were several moments that I found myself scratching my head. Why did the Joker visit Vicki Vale’s apartment? Was it just to intimidate her? He wasn’t there to kidnap her or anything. Why is Batman going around the city kicking criminal’s asses? What is his motivation? Sure, his parents were murdered, but we are offered no reason for his existence. That’s fine if we’re viewing this story through the lens of another character, but the perspective characters in this movie are Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jack Napier/Joker. The filmmakers owe it to the audience to offer an explanation for Batman’s existence.

When Vicki Vale goes digging into Bruce Wayne’s past, she comes across the story of his parents’ murder. What’s strange is that this isn’t public knowledge. Bruce Wayne is supposedly a high-society billionaire. I might’ve bought the secrecy if the movie made him out to be a rich recluse, but I would think that one would have to be pretty high profile to host a city-wide benefit at his own mansion with the mayor in attendance. And I find it extremely hard to believe that Vicki Vale didn’t immediately recognize Bruce Wayne upon meeting him, but maybe that was the film’s way of trying to get the audience to believe that Wayne isn’t as high-profile as your average billionaire.

The third act of the film is sloppy, particularly as the story comes to a close. The Joker takes Vicki Vale up the bell tower of an old cathedral, but for what reason? And as Batman follows him up to the top of the tower, he comes across resistance from the Joker’s henchmen. Where did they come from? Did the Joker somehow know that he was going to end up at that particular location? When did he have time to get his henchmen to wait in the shadows for Batman to arrive?

Overall, the story lacks cohesiveness and a sense of direction. The plot is full of holes (pardon the old cliché), and the movie stretches the limits of plausibility in many areas. But a weak plot doesn’t a weak film make.

Visuals/Cinematic Design
One of the things I continue to love about this movie is its ambiguous design. Architecture is very 1940s, hearkening back to the era of the Batman’s creation by Bob Kane. The film carries a 1980s tone while still holding up to today’s style (though that could have something to do with the fact that 80s fashion is back in at the time that I rewatched the movie).

The “art deco” style introduced in the film went on to influence the next few decades of Batman design on film and television. The film was beautifully shot and framed, and if there’s one hallmark of Tim Burton’s work, it’s his ability to create visually stunning setpieces. Batman is no exception.

The costumes in the film are great as well. The Batsuit’s design, though ubiquitous today, was a vast departure from what was commonly associated with Batman previously. Bright colors and tights were set aside for an all-black, molded body armor. The look was sleek and menacing, creating a chilling interpretation for the Dark Knight.

The Joker’s look is just as terrifying, albeit for different reasons entirely. The eerie frozen smile solidified my fear of clowns growing up, and even watching it as an adult, I’m left with chills running down my spine.

Batman-1989-07-gI would be remiss to not mention the Batmobile. Few cars have as storied a history as the Batmobile, and this iteration of Batman’s iconic set of wheels is one of this film’s greatest achievements. It fits perfectly inside the world Burton created for Batman, and it stands as the perfect representation of it. Few pop-culture items are more instantly recognizable than the 1989 Batmobile, and its association with Batman is indelible.

Main Characters
Batman/Bruce Wayne: Michael Keaton.
I thoroughly enjoyed Keaton’s portrayal of Batman. He does a great job of being dark and menacing. I wish that this version of Batman had utilized his detective skills a bit more. He figures out the Joker’s plan for spreading a “laughing virus” that kills Gothamites, but beyond that, we don’t really get to see the comic book industry’s greatest detective at work.

Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is a bit confusing. He’s an odd character, and we don’t really get a sense for why he acts the way he does. Why does he pretend to not know who Bruce Wayne is when he first meets Vicki Vale? Why does he go crazy when the Joker shows up at Vicki’s apartment? Why doesn’t he fire Alfred when she brings Vicki into the Batcave?

The Joker/Jack Napier: Jack Nicholson.
The Joker is the real star of this movie. Nicholson’s portrayal of the character is impressive. He’s frightening, deranged, and mesmerizing. While this is indeed an excellent performance, I couldn’t help but feel that the character was typecast. Nicholson basically performs as an exaggerated version of himself in this film. That’s not to say that it was a bad Joker; quite the opposite, actually. Nicholson was the perfect choice for the Joker at the time, and it seems as though the role was made for him.

Vicki Vale: Kim Basinger.
Vicki Vale is a frustrating character. Kim Basinger did a great job here, but I didn’t feel like there was any real chemistry between her and Bruce Wayne. Their romance was rushed and short-lived, yet Bruce is ready to bring her in on his deepest secret. She played an authentic photo-journalist, but she doesn’t seem to have much to do in the movie except as a damsel in distress.

Alfred Pennyworth: Michael Gough.
Michael Gough’s Alfred is one of my favorite versions of the character. He’s a butler, but he clearly has raised Bruce and loves him dearly. Gough plays the role with such heartfelt honesty that I found myself wanting him as a butler. My biggest issue with the character is his decision to bring Vicki Vale into the Batcave. How long had Bruce been dating her? In the film’s perceived timeline, not long. I’m surprised Bruce didn’t fire Alfred after that.

Themes/Motifs
This film is fascinating. Like most of Tim Burton’s movies, Batman lacks narrative strength and instead opts for tones and themes. The movie isn’t preachy by any measure, but it doesn’t provide the rich and cohesive storytelling that 1978’s Superman drips with. Despite the lack of a “hero’s journey” narrative, the film still works thanks to Burton’s ability to create a visually engaging world.

I enjoy the idea of Bruce Wayne/Batman as a late protagonist; he remains somewhat ambiguous until almost the third act. Batman serves as a backdrop for the protagonist of Vicki Vale (who wasn’t a particularly well written character, but still holds her own in the film) and the antagonist of Jack Napier/Joker (who serves as the perspective character for much of the movie).

Reaction & Impact
It’s difficult to understand the impact that Batman had on the film and comic book industry unless you actually lived through it. I was just five years old at the time, so I wouldn’t consider my perspective worth as much; however, I did have the opportunity to see the shift. Until this film, Batman was perceived by general audiences as a broad-daylight, self-aware, transparent good guy who existed in a lighthearted, campy world. Sure, the comic books told a different story, but most people weren’t familiar with Batman from the comics; they only knew him from the 1960s TV show. This 1989 film changed all of that.

batman15I enjoyed this movie. What it lacks in narrative coherence it makes up for in authentic acting, stunning visuals, beautiful cinematography, and a rich score. Batman might not be a perfect movie, but it’s certainly a triumphant one.