Thursday, 26 July 2012

Bat-Extravaganza Part 3: The Dark Knight Rises Review


In 1997, Joel Schumacher's risible Batman and Robin effectively buried the Batman film franchise, and all but destroyed the superhero action film as a genre. It was only with hits in the early noughties, such as Byran Singer's X-Men, and Sam Raimi's Spiderman, that the superhero genre began to recover. And it wasn't until 2005, almost a decade after Ground Schumacher, that the industry dared to return to the caped crusader, this time with a young, talented director named Christopher Nolan. The result, Batman Begins, took superhero films to an unprecedented level of realism and seriousness, and restored the menace to Batman that had for years been sorely lacking. It's difficult to overestimate Begins' influence on the industry: as well as spawning two sequels, for better or worse it ushered in a new era of blockbusters that centred on gritty realism, with this year's The Amazing Spiderman borrowing many of its character arcs and visuals from Batman Begins' template. Its sequel, 2008's The Dark Knight, is one of the most successful films of all time and is widely regarded as the best superhero film ever made. Heath Ledger's Joker was revelatory, Aaron Eckhart as the doomed Harvey Dent was magnificent, and the film featured some of the best, most breathtaking action set pieces since Raiders of the Lost Ark. So, to 2012, and the end of the Batman legend. And make no mistake, this is the end of the Batman as we know him, despite the wishful thinking of some commentators. The Dark Knight Rises is the final chapter in Nolan's Dark Knight saga, referring to and combining elements of both its predecessors (more on that later). For now, let's get out of the way the one question everyone has. Is it better than The Dark Knight?

Well, no. 

The Dark Knight Rises does not better its predecessor, just as Return of the Jedi couldn't ever hope to beat The Empire Strikes Back (although any dip in quality is far less apparent here than with Jedi). What we have instead, is not a Dark Knight beater, but rather, arguably the most challenging and visceral Batman of the entire trilogy. Although garnering an overwhelmingly positive reception, it is no surprise that TDKR has received more mixed reviews than the other two installments. Structurally, it's a far looser film than its predecessor, and, yes, Bane is neither as compelling nor as complex a villain as the Joker. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, TDKR is by far the longest of the three films, and as such the script experiences a slow beginning and a langorous mid-section. Similarly, where the themes of the first two films were easy to hook on to: fear in Begins; chaos in Dark Knight, getting a line on the central thesis in Rises is far less straightforward. However, for all the the thematic complexity of Begins and Knight, there is no denying that both films hit their points pretty hard on the nose at times, with characters often spelling out meaning with all the subtlety of a lamborghini ramming a police van. Dark Knight Rises certainly has its share of clunky lines, but it allows its themes to develop  more naturally than the expositional dialogue of Begins and Knight. Moreover, it very successfully juggles the arcs of four main characters (Bruce, Bane, Selina Kyle and John Blake), as well as Bruce's ongoing relationships with Alfred, Lucius and newcomer Miranda Tate. But perhaps most importantly, Rises picks up and re-threads plot points laid down in its predecessors, namely, the lie that Harvey Dent died a hero, and the League of Shadows obsession with uprooting corruption, into an unexpected, compelling and believable narrative. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Rises is in weaving a narrative through all three films where before there were only two distinct stories united by a common Batman. Inevitably, this places the narrative of TDKR under a tremendous burden, and at times it struggles under its own weight. Where the through-line of the previous two films was apparent from the start, it takes until towards the end of the second act (I count four acts, and a coda, in total), for the film to snap fully into focus. But when things do line up, we get one of the best finales of the summer, and easily one of the most riveting and tense sequences in the Bat trilogy. 

What I found particularly interesting about TDKR, especially on the second viewing, is that it doesn't present a singular thematic question in the way that Begins and Knight do with fear and anarchy. Instead, it asks what happens in the aftermath of those conflicts, and in so doing answers a question that was originally posed by Batman Begins: how far are the legend and the man connected, and can one outlive the other? This is the heart of The Dark Knight Rises, and a motif that is tied inextricably to the plot that bent on fulfilling Wayne's apparent death wish. Some may baulk at the ending, but to do so is to miss the point of the film, and the answer to the conflict between myth and reality. Alfred makes it clear that for Bruce to go to his death willingly, even wantonly, would be the ultimate failure of his life. For Bruce to finally realise that is to cement the myth of the Dark Knight in a far more thoughtful and meaningful way than would be the adolescent,  petulant urge towards entropy. In this sense, The Dark Knight Rises gets to the heart of the Batman as legend more so even than The Dark Knight did.

On a technical level, everything is at the high watermark you would expect from Nolan's team. Wally Pfister's photography is sharp, crisp and often beautiful, and really deserves to be seen in IMAX. Similarly, Hans Zimmer goes all out with a heavy, industrial score, amping up the tension (and volume) with what sounds like an army of percussion, and he provides highly effective and memorable themes for both Bane and Selina Kyle. Bane's voice, a source of consternation following trailers where he was barely audible, has been clearly tweaked, with mixed results. His voice is now mainly clear, although occasional words and phrases do escape detection, and often the levels sound so out of sync that his performance has a peculiarly dubbed quality. However, this doesn't diminish Hardy's wonderful, theatrical performance, and really is a minor technical flaw rather than outright irritation. Additionally, the action editing is much better than the previous instalments, and for the first time in any Batman film, we really get to see Batman fight, with none of the shaky-cam nonsense that dogged Begins

Indeed, it is in The Dark Knight Rises that Nolan gives us some of the most brutal, visceral action we have yet endured. For all the pyrotechnic, truck-flipping mayhem of the last outing, Batman never really felt in peril. Here, Batman seems frail and vulnerable throughout, and as a result Rises gives us the trilogy's best fight, symbolically staged in a sewer, scored only by Bane's fantastic monologue as he knocks seven shades of shit out of Batman, pummelling his head until his cowl breaks. Furthermore, Rises treats us to by far the most incendiary, political, and striking imagery of the trilogy. Bodies hang from bridges, people run icy gauntlets for the pleasure of Bane's faithful, while snow silently blankets Gotham's deserted streets in a prophetic forboding of the promised nuclear winter. In one of the film's richest visual moments, an aptly-appointed judge sits atop a mountain of torn paper, passing sentence on members of Gotham's old regime in a scene that recalls the imagery of the French Revolution. There has been much debate around the politics of Nolan's film, and there is, I suspect, more to come. Some accuse Nolan of siding with the 1%, whereas others have argued that his attack on the banking system amounts to no more than surface rhetoric and a warning against political messiahs bearing false promises. While these perspectives are valid and have been well argued, I suspect there is a little more to the film's politics than this simple dichotomy, and as always with Nolan, answers are not immediately forthcoming.

So what of the legend, Batman himself? The film opens on a reclusive Wayne, hobbling around on a cane after submitting his body to years of punishment. It is a full forty five minutes before we see him re-don the cowl, and then only briefly before he is whisked off to a prison until the film's explosive final act.  On the one hand, it's fascinating to see Wayne as an emaciated, crippled man approaching middle age, but on the other there at times seem lengthy stretches where we're waiting for the film to get on with things and get Bruce back in the suit. The decision to leave take Batman out of the picture for the majority of the running time won't be for everyone. What also will leave some people cold are the differences  between this instalment and the last. Having now seen Rises, it's apparent just how optimistic much of The Dark Knight actually is: Rises gets very, very dark in places (in one screening I saw parents leaving halfway through with their children), but its pessimism occasionally tends towards gloominess, particularly in those early, problematic acts. In addition, although it has a fantastic supporting cast, Rises presents us with no characters with either the charisma of Ledger or the complexity and Shakespearean grandeur of Eckhart's Dent. Indeed, it's telling that the ghost of Harvey Dent looms over the narrative of Rises, informing it throughout and rearing its inconvenient head every time the plot needs a kickstart. That said, Hathaway, while not as revelatory as the Joker, gives us arguably the best interpretation of Selina Kyle yet. She invests her character with warmth, depth, and a sexuality that never topples into fetishism or male masturbatory gratification. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is typically brilliant as rookie cop John Blake, and while its very obvious where his character is going, it  always feels natural, with his character's arc proving to be the most satisfying in the film, and a triumph for the series overall. 

Robin Rises: JGL is wildly impressive as John Blake
Indeed, if nothing else, TDKR is the character piece of the trilogy. In terms of performance, it seems as if every player has upped their game, with Bale and Caine continuing to bounce off each other. Their scenes together are by turns funny and heartfelt, and in one stand-out exchange, Bruce and Alfred's relationship is strained to breaking point, with Caine giving one of the best performances of the year. In contrast to Hardy's obscene bulking out for his role, Bale looks visibly emaciated, not quite as skeletal as his role in The Machinist, but far diminished from the peak-level fitness when we saw him last.  Where Oldman and Freeman are reliably excellent as Gordon and Fox, Gordon-Levitt gives us yet another standout performance as Blake. Alongside Wayne, it is Blake's arc that feels the most complete, and for a series that promised never to return to the realm of the dynamic duo, Rises gives us in many ways the perfect Robin. It is surely a remarkable achievement that this film makes that concept palatable, let alone enjoyable. There are of course, weaknesses, and as always with Nolan they tend to be with his female characters, who often play more as plot devices than human beings. Brilliant as Hathaway is, I would perhaps have liked to see more of her jewel thief. Moreover, I loved the Miranda / Talia twist at the end, but felt that her meagre screen time up until then lessened the impact somewhat. In addition, Matthew Modine's police chief Foley felt superfluous, and his heroic turnabout scene in the finale was one the film's few truly bum notes. The good, however, far outweighs the bad, and it is testament to the script and direction that an ensemble cast this large is able to give as good an account of itself as it does.

The Dark Knight Rises has already drawn its detractors, and undoubtedly it is a more problematic film than either of the previous two. But with these problems come bold choices, subverted expectations and a deeply satisfying, pitch black final chapter. We may lament the lack of the Joker, or a fall as tragic as Dent's, but the ultimate success in TDKR is in not attempting to emulate the successes of its predecessor. Sure, Rises' script is a little loose, but it is also the most daring of all three Batman films. What the film loses in narrative focus it more than makes up for in scope, spectacle and emotion, ultimately providing the epic, thundering conclusion that Nolan's definitive trilogy deserves

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Bat-Extravaganza Part 2: Mask of The Phantasm

This post must begin with an acknowledgement of the terrible news of the shooting at the cinema in Colorado on Friday. This was a senseless, shocking and unfathomable act of violence, and my thoughts and sincerest condolences go to the victims and their families. Christopher Nolan has responded to the tragedy in a far more sensitive, articulate and poignant way than I could, so I have left a link to his statement here.

After weeks of intense anticipation I saw The Dark Knight Rises on Saturday, and have just returned from seeing it a second time. There are plenty of reviews already available, ranging from the exultant to the disappointed, but on this occasion I'd like to add my own voice to the mix. A nice, full review of The Dark Knight Rises will be forthcoming sometime in the next week, hopefully before the end of the week. Most reviewers have been careful to avoid spoilers but there are a few issues I'd really like to discuss where spoilers can't be avoided, so consider this an early and very major spoiler warning for the next post. If you want to know whether I liked it or whether you should see it, then my initial reaction was that I loved it, and it was a great end to the series, though I had one or two minor issues with it. And yes of course you should see it: it's Batman 3 for Chrissakes!

So, on to the subject of today's post: Batman: Mask of The Phantasm, the all-but-forgotten but quietly brilliant 1993 animated feature. Mask of the Phantasm was released in cinemas following the success of the 1990s TV show, Batman: The Animated Series, which ran for two seasons in its original incarnation from 1992 - 1995. The show itself won many critical plaudits and awards, and is widely regarded as one of the best adaptations of Batman ever produced. The Animated Series is easily one of my favourite TV series, animated or otherwise, combining a beautiful, art deco-influenced aesthetic, mature storylines, a great central performance from Kevin Conroy as Batman, and a terrific supporting cast which includes Mark Hammill as the Joker. Mask of the Phantasm continues the style and mature storylines of the series as a feature, and boy, does it deliver as a full-blown Batman film. The plot revolves around a masked, seemingly invincible spectre that arrives in Gotham and who starts systematically killing mob bosses. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is confronted by the reappearance after many years of his lost love, Andrea Beaumont. The action jumps back and forth between Batman's investigation of the mysterious Phantasm as he offs more mobsters, and the flashback scenes in which Bruce's romance with Andrea blossoms. In these scenes, we are presented with a young Wayne, preparing himself to take up the mantle of the crimefighter  that will eventually become Batman. However, he meets Andrea, and in the most emotional scene of the film, questions whether he really wants to fight crime any more. The bare skeleton of the plot of Phantasm seems like pretty standard superhero stuff, particularly with the conflict-from-romantic-entanglement angle, but it's in the execution of these well-worn tropes that Phantasm truly shines, and succeeds in offering emotional maturity and focus that few live-action superhero films have achieved. Audiences familiar with Nolan's superb Batman Begins may find many similar story beats in Phantasm: Bruce's early fights with crooks before he dons the batsuit, for example, and his reasoning behind using a bat as a symbol of fear are prevalent in both Phantasm and Begins: both films are heavily and explicitly influenced by the superlative Frank Miller / David Mazzucchelli Batman: Year One, often regarded as the greatest Batman graphic novel ever written. 

In my view, Mask of the Phantasm is second only to Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy as the best feature-length Batman film. The Animated Series and Phantasm both took their visual aesthetic cues (as well as their music theme) from Tim Burton's stylised and visually striking Batman and Batman Returns, both of which are very good Batman films in their own rights. But where Burton's films sacrificed emotional depth and narrative coherence (particularly in Returns) for visual splendour and spectacle, Mask of the Phantasm gives us all the stylistic trappings of Batman, and an emotionally compelling and focussed narrative to boot. All the familiar visual cues remain; as well as the suit, the Batcave, and the Burton-era Batmobile, we see Bruce lay the iconic red roses at his parent's grave, complemented by the sky that burns red as a perpetual reminder both of Bruce's anger and of the darkness that he inhabits. Indeed, the depth that the visuals convey is frequently disarming and quite beautiful. For example, the first scene that we see Bruce Wayne (as opposed to Batman), he has slunk off from a party, and his humorous, sociable facade has dropped. In his study he looks up mournfully at a portrait of his parents, tears brimming in his eyes. In a moment of silent reminiscence and grief, Alfred walks in on Bruce as he stands with his back to the door:

The frame presents us with a remarkable amount of characterisation. Firstly, the camera is up high and away from Bruce, giving us full access to the room. Bruce is a tiny figure, away from the centre of the frame and dwarfed by the room he is in, appearing small and vulnerable. The walls are practically bare, save for the portrait of his parents: a constant reminder of their murder when he was a child. The window frame casts shadows in harsh, chiaroscuro lines that are reminiscent the black and white lines of film noir, and refer both to the shadow of murder and grief that forever hangs on Bruce, as well as to the comic-book origins of the Batman, when Bruce Wayne originally saw a bat at his window, vowing to adopt its image as a symbol of fear against 'cowardly, superstitious' criminals. Alfred stands at the doorway, light flooding in from the party as his shadow is cast on the floor. This sudden influx of warm orangey light contrasts with the cold blue dimness of the rest of the frame, and emphasises not only Bruce's emotional and physical location in the dark, but also that he is there alone, isolated from the external world. Bruce's mentor Alfred remains at the door's threshold, and even the audience's viewpoint is kept away up in the ceiling, reminding us of that separation. Later, in a flashback scene, Bruce proposes to Andrea, and she accepts. Bruce knows that if he is going to have a life with her he will have to give up his career as Batman before it has begun, and he has already chosen to do so. Because the scene is in flashback, we know ultimately how this is going to end for Bruce and Andrea, but in that moment it seems as is if there should be no reason that it won't work out for them. Just as they embrace in the sunset, a mass of bats erupts out of a crack in the rock, swirls around them and flies into the twilight sky reminding us of the inevitability of Bruce's fate and his doomed relationship with Andrea. Not only is this is a visual callback to Batman: Year One  Mask of the Phantasm packed with this kind of rich, visual sensibility, augmented by a very good script that, especially in the flashback scenes, gives Bruce gravitas and depth.

A title page from Batman: Year One

A visual nod to Year One in Mask of the Phantasm

In the scene where Bruce chooses Andrea over a life of fighting crime, he visits his parents' grave to beg forgiveness for the promise he's about to break. Framed by gothic thunder and lightning, and a huge stone gravestone, the most effective part of the scene is where Bruce tries to explain that 'it just doesn't hurt so bad any more'. It's a succinct, emotive line than really humanises Bruce as a young man, beset by a terrible tragedy, who simply wants to get on with his life. For all the nuanced character analysis in Nolan's Bat-series, this scene in Phantasm really encapsulates the ongoing tragedy at the centre of Bruce's life in a way that no other Batman film has achieved. It's all the more sad because we know, at some point, he does become the Batman, and ultimately leave behind any semblance of a normal life. 

Bruce's fate is sealed when Andrea absconds, leaving him her engagement ring. This is what finally convinces Wayne to don the suit and become the Batman, and it's nice to see a new take Batman's origins, complicating the story by having Bruce Wayne's life getting in the way of a promise he made as a child. Back in in the present, the police believe that Batman is behind the mob killings, and before long his old enemy the Joker becomes involved in the fray. Here, the Joker plays as a secondary, though key, villain to the Phantasm, and although you'll probably spot the identity of the Phantasm a mile off, it doesn't diminish the impact when he is finally unmasked. The finale takes place in an abandoned museum of the future, which Joker has made his hideout, which not only makes a great location for some great pyrotechnics, but also provides an ironic setting in which to explore Bruce's inability to escape the past, tortured both by his parents' murders and his lost love. Just like the empty study, Bruce can't leave the decayed, traumatic world of the past to join the living world of the present. It's no surprise then, that he adopts an image of the night, of death, as his symbol. The batsuit, tied as it is to Andrea leaving him, becomes emblematic of Bruce's inertia. What is brilliant about Mask of the Phantasm is that, Nolan's films aside, this really is the most complex presentation of the Bruce Wayne / Batman dual identity we have ever had on screen. Moreover, despite being primarily aimed at a young audience, the emphasis is on nuanced character analysis, not on action. The violence that the film does have is there in service of the story, and while never graphic, is often quite gritty and never feels hamstrung by the film's target family audience. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm really is one of the best Batman films, and offers a unique, compelling and emotive take on the character. With the release of Nolan's final Batman film, it's a great time to find a copy (you can get it on the 'net for a couple of quid) and check out what is in many ways the most faithful, and even definitive cinematic adaptation of Batman.

Next time it's the review you've all been waiting for: The Dark Knight Rises, with plenty of spoilers, so watch this space!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Some Days You Just Can't Get Rid of a Bomb: Bat-Extravaganza Part One

Full Disclosure: I love Batman. I love The Dark Knight Returns, I love The Killing Joke, I love A Serious House on Serious Earth, I love giant pennies, I love the fifth dimension. I love Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. I love Adam West, I love Michael Gough, I love Michael Caine, I love Gary Oldman, I believe in Harvey Dent. I love Batman Begins, I ADORE The Dark Knight, and I have never, ever been as excited for a new film as I am about the release of The Dark Knight Rises tomorrow. To put it mildly: I fucking love Batman. Admit it, you love Batman too. Everyone does. Batman's easily the most bankable superhero, with The Dark Knight earning a staggering $1bn worldwide at the box office, the recent Arkham video games receiving widespread critical acclaim as well as commercial success, not to mention Bats' original comic form, in which he has remained in print for over seventy years. Batman is old enough to be your Grandad, and he's still cooler than anything at the cinema this month.  

With the new film about to be released, it might seem an obvious choice to do a retrospective on the previous Batman films, but, as I mentioned last time, that's already been done by better men than I. It goes without saying that Chris Nolan's about-to-be-completed Batman Trilogy is one of the most popular and successful film franchises of the last twenty years, and many remain fond of the idiosyncratic 1989 and 1992 Tim Burton films Batman and Batman Returns. The follow ups, the Joel Schumacher-directed Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, are widely regarded as two of the worst comic book movies ever made. When we think of the 'Batman' films, these are the seven that spring to mind, for better or worse. But there have actually been a total of eleven theatrical, feature-length Batman movies over the years, not including the numerous straight to video animated releases.*

This is not cool.
This is cool.

Over three very special Bat-posts, I want to discuss three of those theatrical films, beginning with the oft-derided-but-pop-culturally-brilliant 1966 Batman: The Movie. Secondly, we'll look at the 1993 Batman: Mask of the Phantasm: the only animated Batman feature to have been released in cinemas, and almost completely forgotten by mainstream audiences. This is a terrible shame, as it's amongst the very best of the Batman films. Following Mask of the Phantasm, I'll round off Bat-Extravaganza with a full review of The Dark Knight Rises. So without further bat-ado, here is:

Batman: The Movie

This may just be the finest magazine cover
I have ever seen, and testament to Batman's cultural impact.
Batman: The Movie is a masterpiece of camp, technicolour silliness. I find it bizarre that when people talk about the 'Batman films', this one is often left out, despite the huge pop-cultural impact it had as a TV show and, later, as a motion picture. Indeed, the litmus test of something being irreversibly ingrained into public consciousness is how often it has been parodied in The Simpsons. Parodying the 1960s iteration of Batman is something that The Simpsons has become particularly adept at. The reason for The Simpsons' multiple bat-parodies is that Batman: The Movie is awesome, and has affected our perception and expectations of comic-book movies more than you might think. The common reason cited for the failures of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin is that they became too camp, like the 1960s version of Batman. Unfortunately anyone who finds themselves repeating this popular but simplistic mantra are wrong, and as a result have missed the fundamental reasons that make those films terrible. I've got news for you, kids: it ain't the camp that makes Schumacher's bat-films crap. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are vacuous, commercial turds made only to sell toys to kids without a shred of heart or creativity. It's not because they're camp. In fact, Batman Forever is less camp than you remember. Admittedly, it did introduce the infamous nipples on the batsuit, was the first Batman film to feature Robin, and included the some of the hammiest villains ever in Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face and Jim Carrey's Riddler. But amongst all the seizure-inducing neon was a lot of Val Kilmer brooding away as Bruce Wayne, tension between Bruce and Dick Grayson and a (relatively) complex love interest in fetishistic psychiatrist Chase Meridian, played by Nicole Kidman. In fact, part of the reason Batman Forever fails is because of its identity crisis. It doesn't know if wants to be a fetish-psycho drama or silly toy advert for kids. These problems with tone don't trouble Batman and Robin: it's just a straight-up pile of dog shit. The writing is crap, the sets are cheap, sub-sy fy channel quality, the constant changing of Bruce and Dick's costumes (steady) is wearying and cynical, and the villains alternate between boring and annoying. But these problems are not because they are camp. It's because they're crapBatman Forever and Batman and Robin both fail on the levels of camp entertainment and as kids flicks because they're shoddily made, cynical cash grabs with both eyes on the merchandise and none on the script.

Following the disaster of Batman and Robin there has been a tendency in popular discourse to use 'camp' and 'ironically crap' as synonyms, but we really need to cut that shit out, because it gives crap films a free ride on the back of irony, and levels unfair and unjustified criticism at good camp films. Want more evidence? Sam Raimi's first two Spiderman films are rightly regarded as high watermarks of their genre, but you can't get much camper than a man in a green Power Rangers on a flying skateboard, or a fellow with four metallic arms that talk to him and tell him to do bad things. For all its flaws, Spiderman 3** had a killer theme for Spidey's black suit: a brilliant composition in a minor key with everything thrown at it: horns, strings, percussion, woodwind and choral elements. It brilliantly underscores and gives personality to the black-suit sequences, and it's probably my favourite piece of music in the whole franchise (and that's high praise, given how great Danny Elfman's original theme is). But it's also camp as fuck. Listen to it:

Compare that to the Joker's theme in the 60s Batman and try to tell me they're not similar:

When the horns come in on the Spiderman theme they sound an awful lot like the Joker's theme, no? Not convinced? Try this one on for size:

Are you telling me the theme for Batman Forever's Two Face doesn't remind you of Spidey's black suit theme? No, of course you're not because it totally does. Primarily, character themes like these tell us something about who they represent, so with three very similar characters it's unsurprising that their music should resemble one another's. Of course, they're all comic-book movie villains, and two of them are Batman baddies at that. But more importantly, they're all a particular type of villain. You don't associate this kind of music with, for example, Darth Vader, or, tellingly, the Joker in Nolan's The Dark Knight, because those villains are not the same type of camp, dastardly foe found in Batman Forever, Spiderman 3, or indeed, Batman: The Movie. The Dark Knight's Joker is a terrifying, psychotic murderer, and we feel uneasy every time that he is on screen. In contrast, the Joker in Batman: The Movie is deliciously evil, gurning and cackling his way through absurd and comical devilish plans to undo the caped crusader. We revel in his pantomime wickedness, and his music reflects this. What is so absolutely great about the combination of panto-villain performance and music in Batman: The Movie is that its influence is still felt in modern superhero flicks. The reason that the dastardly-villain-music trope still works in something like Spiderman 3, where it's used not to identify a bad guy, but rather, to emphasise an emotional shift in the hero, is because it is already familiar to modern audiences as a trope of bad-guy-music. Using this musical trope alerts audiences to the emotional and narrative development in the scene. Spiderman 3's narrative is largely a disaster, but, here at least, the movie shines with an economy of characterisation and story telling. In the scene where the black-suited Spiderman fights the Sandman in the sewer, everything we need to know about the character, the narrative and the emotion of the scene is given to us in a few bars of music. Everything in that scene works because of a convention for which Batman: The Movie is largely responsible.

The reason that the same musical trope doesn't work in something like Batman Forever isn't because of the camp: it's partly because the tone in that film is all over the place -  moreso even than Spiderman 3. Check out Tommy Lee Jones' performance and you'll see it's far more over the top than anything Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith or Frank Gorshin did in Batman: The Movie. More importantly, it feels out of place for a film that otherwise seems to want to explore some (relatively) interesting psychological themes. In contrast, everything in the 60s version is camp and silly, and so the silly villains and music themes work in context. It's the same reason that the scripts for Spiderman 1 and 2 work well despite being, at times, extremely overwrought and on the nose: it's all to do with tonal consistency. Where Batman Forever is all over the place, the utter silliness of Batman: The Movie is nothing if not consistent.

The plot of Batman: The Movie finds Batman up against four of his infamous rogues gallery, in which the Joker, Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman have a weird ray-gun thing they use to dehydrate the members of the council of the United World (a transparent  parallel of the UN) into dust. This, apparently, is the best way of kidnapping the council and thereby taking over the world. The fearsome foursome are hiding out in a submarine, which is inconspicuously disguised as a giant penguin, complete with yellow rubber flippers. The villains spend most of the film alternating between skipping around gurning at each other, blowing up sea creatures and sending Batman and Robin riddles, generally in the form of rockets that can write in the sky. In one of the film's most hilarious scenes, Batman finally realises that the woman he has fallen in love with (over the course of a single evening, mind), 'Miss Kitka' (Kitka, geddit?), is really Catwoman. In a moment of paralysing grief, he stares bong-eyed into the middle distance as distant music plays, before he gathers himself, burying his grief and declaring, 'It's just one of those things in the life of every crimefighter. It means nothing. Snap on the batcuffs'.

Holy heartbreak, Batman! Adam West gives it his all in the film's most emotionally charged moment.
One can only assume this is the expression Bruce Wayne exhibited when as a boy his parents were brutally gunned down in Crime Alley. Batman's boyish vulnerability is juxtaposed with the silliness of, well, everything. Adam West plays the scene absolutely straight, with the whole thing coming together as a wonderfully crafted piece of comedy. This scene, I think, encapsulates precisely why Batman: The Movie works so beautifully. Absolutely everything in the film is daft, silly and funny, from Batman's painted-on eyebrows, to Cesar Romero's joker moustache, the brilliantly ridiculous punning riddles, and of course, this magnificent sequence:

If these things don't bring joy to your bat-heart, then I really think you need to wipe that dull, grey scowl off your face and get a fucking clue. Batman: The Movie is a wonderful, hilarious, thrilling pleasure, and I mean that without irony. Let me be clear: 1966 Batman is not a so-bad-it's-good-movie: it's a brilliant movie. It's just a different kind of brilliant than Burton's gothic aesthetics or Nolan's existentialist grumbling. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are hideous, cynical, heartless cash grabs, made as a marketing ploy to sell toys, and it's utterly unfair to lump Batman: The Movie in with them. Even on a technical level, Batman: The Movie is far superior: the cinematography is sharp and bright. The whole film is colourful and snappy, brilliantly evoking its 1960s era. For those who complain that this is the Batman that destroyed the character's grim and gritty origins in favour of camp pop art, I direct you to 1) pull your heads out of whatever orifices they are inserted, and 2) check out the sci-fi-centric Batman comics of the 1950s, which at times make Batman: The Movie look like an episode of The Wire. If you still cry foul, the episode entitled Legends of The Dark Mite, from the deceptively smart animated show Batman: The Brave and The Bold, should succinctly point out your embarrassing error in judgement.

Every scene in Batman: The Movie involving the villains is full of over-the-top Dutch angles, and as we already know the score is fantastic. The performances are uniformly brilliant: by turns intentionally hammy, dastardly and heroic. In contrast, the Schumacher Batman era is characterised by obnoxious, neon-infused  visuals that add nothing to either the art-deco gothic architecture of Burton's films or the technicolour spectacle of the 60s version. The performances, particularly from the villains, are terrible. Jim Carrey, for example, clearly draws inspiration from Frank Gorshin's 60s version of the Riddler, but while Carrey aims for camp and funny all he hits is irritating in that distinctive mid-90s Mask / Ace Ventura / Dumb and Dumber flavour of grating. Where the sets of Batman: The Movie are full of sight gags, colour and iconic design, Schumacher's sets are crammed with ugly neo-gothic vomit and an overabundance of glow-in-the-dark paint and blacklights. Adam West's Batman inhabits a world of bright colour schemes and composition; a visual style that complement the narrative content. The aesthetics in Schumacher's films are the visual equivalent of a migraine: bright lights flashing at you that serve only as a nauseating visual distraction from the confused and incoherent narrative.  

Although the plot of Batman: The Movie is really a by-line to get the dynamic duo into a series of scraps with the Penguin, Joker, Catwoman and Riddler, the pacing of the film is great, bouncing from exposition to action with a quick and engaging sense of rhythm. The script is hilarious, full of preposterous, alliterative declarations, which are a marvel to listen to. The absurdist 1980 film Airplane! is often credited with cramming more gags into its running time than any other film, but consider that almost every line in Batman's script is written with perfect comic precision. It's really difficult to beat corkers like 'Kindly activate the remote control Penguin magnet', 'Batman, we're helpless in this monstrous invisible grip', and my personal favourite, 'Gosh Batman, the nobility of that almost-human porpoise [...] it was noble of that animal to hurl himself into the path of that final torpedo. He gave his life for ours'. These three whizzbangers are all delivered in the space of four mere minutes. The scene that immediately follows has Batman ring up the navy to bollock Admiral Fangschliester(!) for selling a 'pre-atomic' submarine to a certain 'P. N. Gywnne'. It begins, as every scene should, with the line 'Hello, Batman speaking', as the Admiral and his perky assistant are interrupted playing a game of tiddlywinks. In just ten seconds they've made a visual gag with the tiddlywinks and gotten in another cracking line from Batman, before concluding the scene with another of Riddler's baffling, nonsensical riddles written in the sky by a missile, 'from that submarine, no doubt', as Batman cunningly deduces. Not a single moment or line is wasted in the effort to keep the story ticking along and the jokes flowing. You might not notice it, but the economy of the whole thing is brilliant, and it really shows up Schumacher's Bat-entries for the flabby, shoddy productions that they are. More to the point, where Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are remembered largely for the fact they buried the Batman film franchise for almost a decade, Batman: The Movie, along with the TV series, remains an iconic piece of pop culture. Nicholas Cage did a great impersonation of Adam West's performance in his role as Big Daddy in  Matthew Vaughn's 2010 superhero spoof Kick-Ass, and even Nolan's Batman series has been influenced by the 60s iteration. Despite Heath Ledger's terrifying take on The Joker in The Dark Knight, there is undoubtedly a touch of Cesar Romero's mania in Ledger's rendition of the Joker's iconic laugh, and check out Anne Hathaway's Catwoman costume and compare it to the 60s version:

Julie Newmar looking very slinky
in a still from the 60s TV series. 
Anne Hathaway in The Dark 
Knight RisesLook familiar?

In short, everyone remembers the swinging, technicolour Batman, immortalised by Adam West's brilliant performance, terrific theme tune and score, memorable, manic villains, and iconic set designs and art direction. Pointing out that Batman: The Movie is hammy and camp is as redundant as pointing out that Batman Begins is dark. Just because something is camp doesn't mean it isn't good, and Batman: The Movie is a fantastic, unique and blisteringly entertaining addition to the cinematic Bat-canon. Long may it be remain so!

Next time at Magnificent Tramp:
In the next post, which will be appearing in the next few days, I'll be looking at another of the 'forgotten' Batman films, the 1993 animated feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, followed closely by a review of Batman's latest derring-do in The Dark Knight Rises.

What can a Batman spin-off from a kids' cartoon possibly offer a modern adult audience? Can Christopher Nolan's new film hope to live up to the Elevated Expectations of the Maleficent Magnificent Tramp? Find out in the next exciting instalment of the Tramp's Bat-Extravaganza, same Bat-Blog, same Bat-Time!

* The complete canon of Batman films released in cinemas, if you're interested, is thus: Batman (1943), and Batman and Robin (1949) - these two were released in cinemas as fifteen-part serials; Batman: The Movie (1966); Batman (1989); Batman Returns (1992); Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993); Batman Forever (1995); Batman and Robin (1997); Batman Begins (2005); The Dark Knight (2008); The Dark Knight Rises (2012). If you're still interested, there have also been loads of animated films and crossovers with Superman and other characters from the DC comics. The non-theatrical films and shorts featuring only Batman are Batman and Mr Freeze: Subzero (1998); Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000); Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003); The Batman versus Dracula (2005); Batman: Gotham Knight (2008); Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010); Batman: Year One (2011). 

** I promise that one day I'll stop bringing up Spiderman 3 in every single article I post. It's just that's it's so rich as an example of a film that potentially had so much going for it, yet went so utterly wrong. Spiderman 3 is a fascinating disaster because it tries until its sticky little gives heart out, but still fails at almost every turn.