My first toy car was my dad’s Batmobile. I still have it – sleek black metal, blue tinted windshields, a plastic flame that pulses from the exhaust when the wheels spin… But it’s seen better days – the windshields are broken, the rubber tires have crumbled away, and the little plastic doll of Adam West sits alone. The state of disrepair my Batmobile is in, however, barely casts a shadow over the ruin that was the Batman franchise following the crime against film-anity that was Batman and Robin.
I can’t imagine many happy childhoods without the Batman. Every generation has its own version of the superhero, and everyone thinks theirs is better. Except for George Clooney. If you actually believe the Batman & Robin movie had any redeeming qualities before the credits finished rolling, slap yourself and go away.
No really, go away.
Good, now for some more hard truths: I think Heath Ledger’s death made Batman popular again. When Batman Begins came out, it wasn’t considered for any prestigious awards, it didn’t break any records, and people bitched and moaned about Christian Bale’s ‘Batman’ voice being weirdly different from his ‘Bruce Wayne’ voice. I would be comfortable wagering that 60% of moviegoers did not give a single shit about The Dark Knight until they heard that Heath Ledger died due to speculation that the role of the Joker drove him to overdose.
Here’s the thing: once upon a time, you couldn’t just be a fan of Batman, you suffered being a fan of Batman. As a kid, it didn’t help my social standing at recess that my superhero of choice didn’t actually have any superpowers, never mind that he was a grown man keeping company with an underage orphan. As soon as Batman got rubber nipples, it felt like there was no way to recover – they might as well have given Superman actual underpants to wear over his tights.
`So please forgive – or at least tolerate – my nigh-parental defensiveness of everything Batman – he’s been a part of my life since before words.
The Dark Knight Rises
Memento, The Prestige, Inception. If you’ve seen any or all, you’re familiar with Chris Nolan’s mind-bending directorial style. You’ve seen him play with the dimensions of time, space, and memory. So what business does he have in the gritty city corridors of Gotham?
All the business.
I still stand by what I said earlier this Spring – The Avengers is the best comic-book movie ever. But I don’t consider the Batman trilogy “comic book movies” – at least, not in the same vein. Nolan’s Batman has become more real than a comic book character. More consequential. Gotham City became a microcosm for our fears and our problems – unchecked political corruption, the escalation of violent crime, economic disparity and collapse – it was a place where one man could make the world a better place for everyone else.
But a fire rises.
Bane was the perfect villain to close out the Batman trilogy, and his story was perfectly constructed. While I’m normally not a fan of changing origin stories when there are years of canon that have established a story already, Nolan and his brother have only ever altered, or better yet, enhanced DC’s characters for the big-screen. Subtle additions like Jim Gordon giving solace to Bruce the night of his parents’ murder or the connection between Bane and the al Ghul family gives the story all the more depth.
You’ve heard it a million times by now, but Bane is the man who broke the bat. The Knightfall storyline clearly establishes that Bane is not just a skinhead thug – his time in the inescapable prison hones both his physical and intellectual prowess. He knows Bruce Wayne is Batman just by looking at him. First he burns Gotham down, and then he breaks his back.
Tom Hardy’s interpretation of the character is markedly different than most other representations of Bane. He’s European instead of South American, he’s excommunicated from the League of Shadows rather than being the lone mastermind behind Gotham’s burning, and he wears a mask much more badass and intimidating than a luchador mask. For the sake of the story, they also changed the mechanics of the drug, Venom. Instead of bulking up Bane with the ultimate synthetic steroid, his mask supplies a direct dose of Venom in order to suppress the horrific pain of his injuries sustained long ago.
But back to Tom Hardy. Never getting to see his entire face, I found myself looking at his eyes. Calculating. Intense. Maniacal. From what I can tell he sure as shit had fun in the role – and who wouldn’t with “unprecedented access to extensive stunt training and equipment that he could enjoy knocking around.” You can almost feel the ground shake when he walks. His brutal physique commands your attention already, but when Bane speaks it’s hypnotizing. “You were adopted by shadow. I was born in it.” The new figurehead of the League of Shadows has his own noble origin, and suffice to say, it will break as many hearts as Bane breaks necks.
Which brings us to the next shadow-stalker, Selena Kyle. People never seem to trust Chris Nolan’s casting choices, so I wasn’t surprised to hear some mild outrage over Anne Hathaway putting on her tail and whiskers (not literally) for the role of Catwoman. It’s her chemistry with Christian Bale that really sold me on her performance. Though to intensely different degrees, both Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle are balancing dual-identities.
While I can appreciate what Michelle Pfeiffer brought to the role in Batman Returns, she didn’t do anything for me. I think it was the crazy cat-lady vibe. And don’t get me started on the Halle Berry movie. It was nice to see her character done justice, let’s say that. A “cat burglar” is much more appropriate than a loner who talks to cats as the prime suspect and love interest for the World’s Greatest Detective.
When Marion Cotillard was cast after the Catwoman role was filled, it didn’t leave many characters relevant to Batman’s endgame for her to play. And when it was announced that Liam Neeson would be reprising his role as Ra’s al Ghul, I was all but certain that her character “Miranda Tate” was just a facade for her true identity: Talia al Ghul. The thing about the al Ghul’s is that they’re not supposed to die. In the comic books there’s a Lazarus Pit – you lower yourself in, take a bath – boom, immortal(ish). But the supernatural holds no ground in Nolan’s arena, and that concept of immortality had to become more than just bodily persistence.
If the movie hadn’t ended the way it did, I’d tell you that Bruce and Talia have a son named Damian who eventually becomes the new Robin when the old Robin becomes the new Batman. But there is no old Robin, just a guy named Robin, and he’s the new Batman… if he becomes Batman at all. I thought his leather jacket indicated his jumping right into the role of Nightwing. (Again, for clarity’s sake: they did not introduce Robin the Boy-Wonder. The new Batman/Nightwing name happens to be Robin – it’s the symbolic passing of a generation, no more than an allusion.)
Joseph Gordon Levitt. I don’t even think I have to say more than that at this point because who doesn’t love this guy? And have you seen the trailer for Looper? Uhh… MAZING! At least you can’t say the GCPD only hires idiots… though they are a weighted majority. With Commissioner Gordon hospitalized for a good chunk of the movie, Officer/Detective John Blake is the only one left on the ground with any idea of what’s going on.
Being set up to adopt the Bat-mantle, Blake makes the necessary discoveries on his own, like finding out Batman’s secret-identity, why he works outside the law, and most importantly, coming to understand his “no guns” rule. And though he isn’t scared to fight without a mask, Batman reminds him that it’s a way to protect those he cares about, not himself. I really wanted to see Levitt in the suit, but we may still get the chance if Warner Bros reboots the Batman franchise as quickly as they say they want to. There’s a definite opportunity to make JGL the Batman for the eventual Justice League franchise that new Superman movie, The Man of Steel, may or may not be building towards.
If there’s another thing I’d like to see in the rebooting of the Batman franchise, it’s the characterization of Batman as a genius detective. Even when all of the enemies’ plans go off without a hitch, Batman has a plan that relies on it. Hell, there’s even the trope called the Batman Gambit to describe the type of storytelling typical of not only Batman comics, but a lot of Western media. When it’s done properly, it’s extremely satisfying.
Otherwise, I think my only qualm about the film is the happy ending. Batman’s conclusions are bittersweet at best – if you can call them conclusions. Even when he’s a grizzled old man, Bruce Wayne mentors the new generation of crime-fighters to protect Gotham. And still, even then – you remember the hydraulics he used to support his knee? Well, he gets his whole Batsuit outfitted with it, then fights and beats (and seriously, fucking beats) Superman one-on-one (with a little help from Kryptonite).
But in order to bring his own story to a close, Chris Nolan had two characters to write a conclusion for: Batman, and Bruce Wayne. In most of his stories, Bruce Wayne disappears altogether into the persona of the Batman – there is no redemption for him. This time around he gets a reprieve, even though only two other people know he’s still alive. Gotham needed to see Batman’s sacrifice, but they also needed his return. Whatever fear Batman struck into the hearts of criminals before, won’t compare to when they see the Batman still guarding the night after getting caught in a nuclear blast.
I realize now that I haven’t said anything about the returning cast. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine can each carry a movie by themselves – hell, they just have to narrate over a blank screen and the world will watch. Gary Oldman, who somehow still doesn’t have an Oscar, is the only Commissioner Jim Gordon in my eyes. That being said, Bryan Cranston’s voice-acting in Batman: Year One makes him the perfect replacement for when Batman is eventually rebooted.
Christian Bale, of course, perfectly balances his part again. As far as the live-action movies go, he is the only actor, except maybe Val Kilmer, to pull off the separation of roles convincingly. Once the mask is on, you should not be able to tell who is behind it. Looking past the obvious voice changes, Bruce Wayne walks, sits, stands, turns, probably even uses the bathroom differently than Batman.
And so ends another trilogy. My new favourite trilogy. Everyone else can keep their original Star Wars and Indiana Jones, they can stay in the Matrix, or herald the Lord of the Rings as the lord of their movie collection. Maybe it wasn’t a perfect set of films (I’m looking at you, Katie Holmes), but it was deliberate. Every character had a purpose, every scene had an internal relevance that always pushed the story forwards.
It was never redundant, and never boring. Forgiving its meagre continuity errors, and some patchy dialogue, the only shitty aspects of the series are its batshit crazy villains. We even get to see Jonathon Crane, The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) one last time, holding trials against Gotham’s police and the otherwise once-powerful. There were also subtle nods to Killer Croc and The Red Hood, two more icons from Batman’s extensive Rogue’s Gallery.
If and when Batman gets rebooted – assuming it’s not as Terry McGinnis and the Batman Beyond storyline – the new showrunners will ultimately find themselves faced with the Joker problem. They can’t try and find someone to outperform Heath Ledger – it simply can’t be done. The character needs to be reimagined, and the only way I know how is to introduce Joker Venom. With the right makeup artist, it wouldn’t be hard to bring some horror elements into a superhero movie, and the character could return to the iconic portrayal made popular in the cartoons by Mark Hamill. Only the most close-minded of us won’t give anyone else a chance at the Joker.
But the best way to introduce the Joker is to give him a small part in the Justice League movie. If everything goes according to plan, the Man of Steel movie will somehow reference Wonder Woman / The Flash. The following summer, the next Green Lantern movie will likely come out (hopefully as a reboot, but probably as a sequel); and a movie for one of the two mentioned before. Summer 2015 will be Superman 2, in which they should introduce the Martian Manhunter; the new Batman movie should be ready to go; and whichever one between The Flash and Wonder Woman still needs to be made. Summer 2016 will be the Justice League movie, and DC will finally have some real competition to put up against Marvel’s Avengers.
And all thanks to Christopher Nolan’s standalone Batman trilogy.