Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Many Masks of Batman

Batman is one of the most popular superheroes because he's so versatile. There are many different ways of playing the scenario of a masked, rich playboy using high-tech gadgets to take down crime. This is probably also why Batman has been adapted on screen more often than really any of his peers. There are now seven major blockbuster films, one famous live-action TV show and it's cinematic spin-off, several cartoon series and straight-to-video/DVD animated movies, a 1940's movie serial, and even quite a lot of bootleg movies such, as the 70's Philippine films; Fight, Batman, Fight! or Batman Fights Dracula. Since one of the biggest films of the year carries on Batman's legacy, we can start from one Batman's end and take a look at several ways the character has been interpreted in movies. The End Is The Beginning Is The End, as the theme song of one particularly well-remembered Batman movie states. I'm guessing we haven't seen the last of the Caped Crusader on cinema screens yet.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Director: Christopher Nolan

As there are several surprises in stall for cinema-goers, and they are more or less important in fully enjoying Christopher Nolan's trademarked bait-and-switch antics, I will try my best to keep the spoilers of the film at minimum. However, if you truly want to keep yourself from being spoiled, you shouldn't read reviews of the movie before going to see it. The reason why this time this is such a fine line to walk on, is because Nolan has done something no one had attempted before: he's done the last chapter of a superhero franchise. This doesn't actually work all in the film's advantage, as it has to dismiss some ideas it had presented in the previous films. The lack of presence by The Joker would be the most notable, since there's not even a mention of Batman's arch-nemesis and the process he began in the last film, due to the respect at actor Heath Ledger's memory.

Instead, Nolan introduces a new main villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), who has The Joker's contempt for authority and organizational structures, and knack of planning huge master plans, yet with the ideological reasons for completing them from Ra's Al-Ghul, the now-long-deceased villain of Batman Begins. Eight years since Batman took the fall from D.A. Harvey Dent's murders as the villain Two-Face for the greater good, the billionaire Bruce Wayne has become a recluse in his home Wayne Manor. But Bane machinates a plan to weed out both Wayne and his sought-by-police alter ego Batman from their hiding. The next step in Bane's plan is to push the alter egos to their breaking points, both mentally and physically. He has truly nefarious plans for Gotham City as well, and he revels in the want of seeing people's hopes crushed before killing them. The mysterious burglar Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) has her allegiance shift back and forth.

The film is, in a word, huge. The action is massive and even the near-three-hour running time doesn't feel too long since there's so much to behold. The acting is, as usual in Nolan's films, great, and Hathaway and Hardy in particular being surprisingly good in their roles. But they're not nearly as good as Ledger was, mind you, and they are hard-pressed in pushing the film forward in the same way. Most of the film's biggest problems stem from the script, not as tightly thought-out as in its predecessor.

One major character's viewpoint has been turned completely upside-down from the previous films, and this character also completely vanishes in the middle of the film, only to show up at the very end. The villain motivations are flimsy at best, particularly considering the set up of the film. My major summer movie crush Juno Temple exists in the film as merely arising suspicions that Catwoman is a lesbian that Batman manages to convert back to heterosexuality along with her allegiance. She disappears completely during the first 45 minutes.

The gruff-voiced, mouth-breathing Batman starts to get more and more unintentionally comical with every subsequent film, particularly as the character has so well been parodied by CollegeHumor's videos. The film is grim and even more serious an affair as its predecessors. Precious few intended dry humor lines almost exclusively belong to Bane.

Nolan has once again based his story on real-world political events. This one comments on the modern uprisings such as Arabian spring and the London Riots. Like in those cases, the case isn't much a giving power to the people as to take over the power structure and replacing it with mindless violence and uncertainty. Bane claims to liberate the people of Gotham when in reality he murders dozens of them without thinking twice, and has an even more nefarious plan in store for the rest of them. He arranges public executions and scares people to staying in their homes with a massive weapon. The film's main point is to warn us to trust riot-leaders and revolutionists by face value alone. One should look whether the uprising is done for selfish reasons, as Catwoman is willing to do, or to really help people reach up their best.

The cynical film surely doesn't really give fate for the little people out for their slice of social justice. The democratically elected officials are either corrupt, or ineffective, or dumb, or all three. The film argues that true strong icons that we should follow are not only altruistic, they simply care about the people too. But at the same time, the film argues that privatizing major inventions and keeping them locked up in corporate basements are the only way of keeping the world safe for their ill usage.So yes, it has a little right-wing agenda but hardly enough to warrant the claims of being fascist. The film is on side of order, but only if it comes from honesty, altruism and mutual trust.

Batman's purpose in Nolan's films isn't just to take on evildoers single-handedly, but also helping other good men reach their potential in helping others as well. Several characters in the film attempting this are Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Detective John Blake and Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox. Batman functions as a beacon of hope to allow people stand up to terror and calculating tyranny. The point, however is, that Batman isn't a balanced person destined to govern or to rule. He begins the film as being borderline suicidally depressive. At the same time as he's a symbol, he's also a insecure vigilante with a death wish and inner turmoils on how to do what's right. Surpassing the stuffed, bureaucratic and institutionalized rules, he's at the same time the only one who can save Gotham and also the one that lures such grand-scheme opponents so bent on destroying it. Suffice to say, this conflict is resolved by the end of the film.

★★★ 1/2

Batman: The Mask of Phantasm (1993)
Directors: Eric Randomski, Bruce W. Timm 

The 90's animated series was widely considered to be the most faithful adaptation of the comic book. The dark stylings used a lot of 1930's aesthetics, which brought Batman in a way to his roots as a character straight from that era's pulp literature. Art deco buildings, and simple yet expressive character models are a wonder to behold even today. Rumor has it that the backgrounds were actually done scraping black papers rather than drawing on white. The first movie developed from the show was actually also released theatrically, although the later efforts went straight-to-video. This one has enough bang for your buck that I wouldn't mind seeing it on the big screen. However, the composition is clearly thought out with a TV screen in mind.

Batman investigates on how to bring down several major mob bosses. Yet he has a rival on the case, as a deadly new vigilante dressed like the Grim Reaper appears. This vigilante, known as Phantasm, however isn't afraid to kill the evil-doers and disposes of the mob one by one. Since they share a similar costume, this brings Batman in conflict with the Gotham City Police, who suspect batman is behind all the gangland murders. While laying low, Bruce Wayne's old flame Andrea Beaumont walks back into his life. The couple were close while they were young, but her father's ties to the mob separated them all those years ago. Batman considers quitting, but must first find a way to capture Phantasm and clear his name before he takes target on Andrea. And during all this, a certain arch-nemesis of his also has murderous plans that interfere.

A big reason of why the show worked was it's incredibly apt and talented voice cast. Kevin Conroy sounds like a serious man of action and a brilliant detective at the same time. The voices of Batman and Bruce Wayne differ like night and day, yet never in as over-the-top fashion as Christian Bale would later do. The Special Guest Villain's voice actor's talents have also been praised from here to eternity so I don't have to do so further. The film also has cult character actors such as Dick Miller and Abe Vigoda using their vocal ranges as fear-filled gangsters.

The end result does feel like a long, stretched episode from the show, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The show certainly had a high enough quality to warrant for a bigger usage. However, as the series saw a number of quite epic episodes, even in multiple parts, there's little on offer here that would take full usage of the wider array of tools on offer. A crotch-kick there, and a couple of bad words there, and a big showdown. Yet the pacing doesn't fit a feature-length film as well as it could, as the interest points of the film seem to shift from a lengthy flashback sequence to Batman's run from the law to the scene-stealing main villain. Still, this is essential viewing for any bat-fan out there that hasn't seen this yet.

★★★ 1/2

Batman (1989)
Director: Tim Burton

Not a review this, just a few observations on how the character was presented in Burton's films. Burton's representation was a signpost on how the comic book characters were to be represented, until Marvel's more close to the comics approach and/or Nolan's more reality-based approach made it obsolete. Burton's Batman (as played by Michael Keaton) doesn't really resemble the world's greatest detective, an ace crime-fighter or a determined man bent on erasing all crime on Earth. Instead of stopping anything in advance, Keaton's Batman usually waits until the crooks are killing folks and only then comes for the punish. He isn't above killing henchmen with Batmobile's turrets. So, actually, Burton's view of the character is more based on old French (expressionist) pulp serials such as Fantômas and Judex, and the 60's revival of those characters and aesthetics. In those series, the (anti-?) heroic avenger is one to awake fear in criminals, yet can also be easily defeated with a club to the head just as he's making a dramatic entrance. Indeed, the very first thing we see Keaton's Batman do is make a dramatic entrance and then take a bullet to the chest (he rises again).

This approach works well in Burton's dreamlike films, where reality is distorted and psychological aspects are in line with the dark fears of gruesome deaths the film presents. Batman is more an observer of high-blown fantasy than a real protagonist. He doesn't talk much, just ponders. But still, as Mark Kermode noted, since all Batman's actor needs is a strong chin with which to act, it's weird that the chinless Keaton was given the role. That would be like me playing the role! Heaven forbid.
Seriously, Warner Bros, call me.

Batman (1966)
Director: Leslie H. Martinson

After the animated series, the most faithful adaptation from the comic books to screens was with the cult TV series, starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. The high-in-camp, goofy, and silly-for-silliness's sake production resembles a lot of the Silver Age comic books published at that time. The big screen adaptation is another instance of more-of-the-same. But since the TV show hasn't been published on Blu-ray, DVD or even Home video due to licensing conflicts, the film version is the best known piece of this pop culture relic.

Batman and Robin are called out to investigate a missing luxury yacht, carrying Commodore Schmidlapp, the inventor of the superhydrator. They soon find out that they've been led by a trap featuring an explosive shark. They escape due to the handy use of Bat-Shark Repellent, but start to investigate further to find out who's behind the nefarious plot. Turns out it is The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and The Catwoman (Lee Meriweather) – all together as The United Underworld. They aim to conquer Gotham City today, and tomorrow the whole world due to Schmidlapp's invention. But first they must dispose of the Dynamic Duo due to several elaborate schemes using each of their knack for death traps.

As one can guess from the plot synopsis, the film is more a collection of various silly scenes rather than a coherent whole. There's nothing wrong with campiness, particularly since it provides us with such classic scenes as Adam West dangling from a helicopter, punching a rubber shark in the head, or his desperation trying to get rid of a bomb on a bad day. In fact, the opening credits already dedicate the film to "the lovers of adventure, the lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment, lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre", and lovers in general. If only Tim Burton would've had as much class as to say as much in his film's opening credits.

Yet the film runs at least 20 minutes overtime (80 minutes would be the perfect length for this). There are parts where the film doesn't really go anywhere. And although Lee Meriweather in a cat suit, or a Russian fur coat is the definition of sexiness and elegance respectively, Catwoman suffers most in that her schemes don't really have much of a purpose to the Underworld's overall schemes. It's a colorful, funny, and overblown piece of 60's chic and pop art style, but sometimes, it's just easier to take those in smaller dosages.


Bathman dal pianeta Eros (1982)
Director: Antonio D'Agostino

I don't really want to start reviewing porn on this blog, but will suffice to present that a film such as this exists. It's a high-camp Italian porn version of the 60's Batman with psychedelia and absolutely no sense whatsoever. Mark Shannon's Bathman is an overweight mustached 80's porn actor, who uses a bicycle rather than Batmobile to get around. And instead of fighting crime, he participates in orgies and whatnot.

Bathman (Mark Shannon) and his partner, Klito-Bell, are apparently aliens from the Planet Eros, sent to Earth so they can reproduce. But as much as Klito-Bell wants to get in Bathman's pants, the more the man finds excuses. So Klito-Bell has more fun with other girls, and with larger groups. But the superiors at Eros aren't too happy with it and threaten the duo with destruction if they fail to copulate. And in attendance there are several obnoxiously weird subplots, including the very camp Not Commissioner Gordon (Guia Lauri Filzi) losing his virginity to a g-g-g-girl.

I watched this without subtitles with a big crew of drunken film fanatics, with the film being simultaneously interpreted by a scholar of the Italian language. So it might be that the conditions of viewing this were more than ideal and I laughed my bat-butt off. But still, I do unironically love that opening scene of Bathman driving across muddy fields in his bicycle as unbelievably cheesy background music plays. So it can't be said that porn parodies such as this never gave anything for the history of cinema.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...