Friday, August 3, 2012

Batman Marathon

All this Batman talk got me thinking about the older Batman movies. I'd seen Batman and Batman Returns many years ago as a kid, and sat down much later to watch Batman Forever at one point because I wanted to see The Riddler in movie form (although I wasn't very impressed). Then I realized, I'd never actually seen Batman & Robin. Of course, its reputation is generally terrible, and that probably has something to do with it, but I've always liked Mr. Freeze, and when I noticed (from the cover) that Poison Ivy and Batgirl both are in it, I figured, as a Batman fan, even if it's terrible, I have to watch it at least once. And having just marathoned the newer Dark Knight trilogy this past weekend, it seemed a perfect opportunity to go back and marathon the rest of the old Batman movies, too, in prep for seeing Batman & Robin. I'll record some of my thoughts about the movies as I go through them.

Batman (1989)

Batman hasn't aged very well. The movie has more of a fantasy feeling, especially in contrast to Nolan's Batman trilogy. The newer Batman saga seems as if it could be a more mature version of the story, made for adults who grew up with Tim Burton's Batman movies (and therefore, perfect for me). I remember really liking Jack Nicholson's portrayal of The Joker, even to the point of being hesitant to like Heath Ledger's new Joker in The Dark Knight, but now going back again, my appreciation for Heath Ledger's Joker has grown so much that Jack Nicholson can't hold a candle to him. Jack's got a great laugh for the character, and he plays up the whimsical joke side well, which is probably more in tune with some other interpretations of the character, but honestly, I really like the more serious Joker of The Dark Knight (guess that's proof that I've grown up).

Casting for Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent in this movie reinforce the feelings I have about how good the casting for those characters is in Nolan's trilogy. I didn't even realize that was Gary Oldman (hello, Sirius Black) playing Gordon in the new Batman movies - he just looked so perfectly like Gordon, that I didn't even consider him as an actor! And Aaron Eckhart made an excellent Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight - handsome, charismatic, just the kind of public face you want to trust. Ironic that watching this old Batman movie just makes me think about how good the new Batman movies are, but that's how it goes.

Batman Returns (1992)

I like Batman Returns a lot better than Batman. I think I always have. It doesn't feel quite as dated, has a more interesting story line, and the Penguin, as envisioned here, is an excellent villain (who, unlike Jack Nicholson's slapstick Joker, possesses my kind of intelligent, cynical humor). Christopher Walken makes a fiendish Max Shreck, and Michelle Pfeiffer turns in a wonderful performance as the mentally unbalanced Catwoman. With her it goes without saying, but I'm surprised at just how blatantly sexual the innuendo in this movie is, between Catwoman's obvious wiles and the Penguin's shameless perversity. Actually, there's an interesting scene where Catwoman turns down the Penguin's sexual advances, and he tries to kill her out of spite, that to my academic mind just screams an excellent example of victim-blaming (if you look and act all sexy, like the Catwoman does, then any man you come across is gonna think he's entitled to your body, and god help you if you don't give it to him). Gosh, Catwoman - sexy, and a feminist! That warms my heart. <3

Batman Forever (1995)

Batman Forever definitely has a different feeling from the previous two films, what with Tim Burton passing off the directorial duty and Val Kilmer (somewhat odd choice) stepping into the role of Batman. But I'm not sure I can articulate what that difference is - it's less gothic, more cartoony, I guess. There are parts that are really not all that bad (damn, Nicole Kidman is hot!), but so much of it has me rolling my eyes. Like, there are way too many stupid jokes that just aren't funny. And villain-wise, Two Face hardly has any background at all, except via a short TV spot that you could almost miss, long after he's been introduced. It's like, you're just being handed these villains without having them built up for you - and while any Batman fan worth his salt will already know the story, it doesn't contribute to a very engrossing or moving tale.

The Riddler, on the other hand, gets a full build-up, but I don't know that I like his characterization here. He's way too manic, instead of being a cool, detached genius - I suppose Jim Carrey wasn't the best casting choice, in hindsight. And it's too bad, because The Riddler has always been one of my favorite Batman villains (in the old days, I liked him even better than The Joker, despite The Joker's greater popularity). That's probably partly why I was so eager to see Nolan tackle The Riddler in his Batman trilogy - I wanted to see justice done to the character - but, alas, it was not to be. Both of the villains in this movie laugh way too much, by the way - it's ridiculous. With The Joker, that's normal - he's supposed to laugh a lot. But that's not supposed to be the prototype for all Batman villains. It sounds like Two Face and The Riddler are perpetually high on laughing gas...

Batman & Robin (1997)

Batman & Robin is way too flashy. It's beginning to feel like just another flavor of the week film and not a movie with real substance. If Val Kilmer was an odd choice for Batman, George Clooney is stranger still (I can see him as a cool psychopath a la From Dusk Till Dawn, but here he's too calm and fatherly, there's no dark side, he's not intimidating as The Batman). Mr. Freeze is an awesome villain, though. Unfortunately, Arnold Schwarzenegger's relentless action hero quips and terrible puns really undermine and cheapen the tragic nature of his character. This movie plays a lot like a silly Blockbuster vehicle to deliver cheap laughs and unrealistic action scenes (and push product lines), and that's disappointing. Cloud surfing? Really? "Cowabunga?" Seriously?

I could say this about Batman Forever, also, but though Robin acts like a stereotypical teenage brat, he sure doesn't look like a teenager. I was really excited to see Poison Ivy in a Batman movie, but Uma Thurman oversells it to an embarrassing degree. Her antics would be charming in a 12 year old girl, but she's a grown professional. She doesn't have to act like a sexy woman, she could just be one. And I had high hopes for Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. I would have thought she'd be a perfect match for the role (she was totally sexy and sassy in those Aerosmith music videos), but, alas, her performance fell rather flat. It's no surprise at all that this movie sunk the Batman franchise (although it wouldn't have surprised me, either, if it had been a financial success, and spawned yet more crappy sequels - so too often goes public opinion/marketing directives); thank heavens for Christopher Nolan stepping in to reboot the series and begin anew with a much higher quality product. As for this stinker, I'll just leave you with four words: fluffy pink gorilla suit.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Dark Knight Trilogy

In the immediate wake of viewing a blockbuster film like The Dark Knight Rises, my usual instinct is to want to write up a review. But honestly - and I swear this is entirely unrelated to the fact that I've gotten out of the habit of writing reviews regularly these past few months :p - I'm not sure I could write anything substantially different or more interesting than what a thousand other reviewers are probably already writing, and it almost seems pointless to write anything if all it consists of is "awesome movie, P.S. Catwoman was hot". But, I did just re-watch Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in preparation for seeing the conclusion to the trilogy, so I thought maybe it would be the perfect opportunity for me to - briefly - consider Christopher Nolan's Batman saga as a whole, and explain what I liked about it (as I did, very much, like it).

(Spoilers ahead!)

First and foremost, I like that Nolan approached the saga from a very serious perspective, with an emphasis on realism. Batman was always on the grittier and more serious end of the superhero spectrum (and is largely the reason I've liked him above and beyond most superheros), and so it's quite fitting. But even beyond that, it's fascinating to see Batman and Gotham City's charismatic villains interpreted as if they were real people with relatively realistic means and motives, as opposed to a campy caped crusader fighting colorful cartoon criminals.

Batman Begins (2005)

The beauty of Batman Begins is largely in the psychological background that provides Bruce Wayne's motivation to become Batman, as well as his psychological struggle against his fears, and his desire for justice. Fear (and overcoming it) is the overarching theme, reflected also in the character of The Scarecrow, whom I enjoyed very much seeing for the first time in a big screen Batman movie. Another of the successes of Nolan's Batman franchise was his successful combination of more and less popular Batman villains - creating a balance between the faces Batman fans wanted to see, and some of the less popular villains that nevertheless suited the movie's themes most perfectly.

Take Ra's al Ghul, for example. I hold no claim to diehard Batman fandom, not being an avid comic reader, but I'd like to consider myself more than just a casual fan, having grown up with the live action TV series and the acclaimed animated series (as well as the previous movie adaptations), but Ra's al Ghul doesn't stand out in my mind as being one of the quintessential Batman villains (maybe he just wasn't iconic enough). Yet in Batman Begins he takes on a position of primary importance, featuring prominently in Batman's origin arc, and setting up the conflict that bookends the movie series - that of Gotham vs. the League of Shadows. It works really well, and it also serves to give the movie a flavor of authenticity - "we're using the villain that suits the story, not just the one who's the flashiest."

The Dark Knight (2008)

That having been said, you can't have Batman without The Joker, and the second movie in the trilogy, The Dark Knight, features two of the saga's most iconic villains (the other one, in this case, being Two Face). The beauty of The Dark Knight, in my opinion, is in the ideas it confronts, both in the comparison between Batman, The Dark Knight, and Harvey Dent, Gotham's White Knight, and also in the character of The Joker himself. All hype aside, Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker is excellent, and the villain's role in the series is unique. He is the wild card, the psychotic who does not desire money or power or notoriety - he just wants to watch the world burn, and not for allegedly altruistic historical reasons, but just to show that it can. Batman Begins tackles the political philosophies of crime and justice, while The Dark Knight confronts anarchy, and the darkness within the hearts of all men.

Meanwhile, Harvey Dent's meteoric rise as a political celebrity after making unprecedented headway on cleaning the streets of Gotham City throws Batman's own vigilante actions into doubt and suspicion. Gotham needs a hero with a face, accountable for his actions, while Batman is willing to become a villain in the eyes of the public because he needs the advantages that only being outside the realm of law can provide. This theme is revisited in The Dark Knight Rises, as Batman's unknowing protégé, Officer "Robin" Blake, eventually comes to the same conclusion about the obstacle that rules present in the way of justice.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

But the purpose of The Dark Knight Rises is to conclude Batman's story arc, and in that process we're treated to a revival of the League of Shadows subplot, in the midterm aftermath of the late Harvey Dent's effective cleansing of Gotham's streets. But under those streets a new threat is growing, in the form of Bane, another less than iconic Batman villain (impressively constructed in this adaptation) who nevertheless poses a major threat to Gotham City, and who is able to go so far as to overpower an aging and weary Batman in sheer brute strength, and very nearly succeed in his plan to raze Gotham to the ground, after already turning the city's political order on its head.

Batman recruits some doubtful aid, however, in the form of a truly iconic Batman character, the not-quite-hero, not-quite-villain Catwoman. Here she is played to excellent effect by Anne Hathaway, who manages to do the character full justice, without stepping on the toes of (or trying to outdo) Michelle Pfeiffer's unforgettable previous performance in that role. Eventually, the loose ends are tied up, Gotham is saved once more, and Batman retires (for good this time) and starts a new life away from the troubles of his hometown. The city finally recognizes unambiguously the service Batman has paid to them, and a new light shines with a promise of protection from potential future threats.

The trilogy finished, I am left partly satisfied, and partly desiring for more. There are so many other iconic characters to tackle! The Riddler, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Batgirl, Harley Quinn (I thought Maggie Gyllenhaal, who played Rachel Dawes opposite The Joker in The Dark Knight, would have made a perfect Harley Quinn, and so was considerably disappointed when the movie failed to go that route). I realize that if they kept pumping out movies just for the sake of bringing these characters to life, the quality of those movies would probably suffer, and that that's probably largely what destroyed the previous Batman movie franchise (that, or Tim Burton's lack of involvement in the latter sequels). But my desire to see these characters reinterpreted in a new age, from the serious and realistic perspective that Nolan has brought to the saga, is strong. I may have to go back and re-watch those older movies just to satisfy my craving, for whatever good that may do...