Monday 18 December 2017

Bat's all, folks!

Batting confidently: Christian
Bale’s Batman grapples with
Tom Hardy’s Bane in a scene
from The Dark Knight Rises
Batting confidently: Christian Bale’s Batman grapples with Tom Hardy’s Bane in a scene from The Dark Knight Rises

Forget Prometheus, and Avengers Assemble. For most film fans, the movie event of 2012 will take place in a couple of weeks when Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is released.

Both Nolan and Christian Bale have announced that this will be their last Batman film, and if the trailers are anything to go by, they look set to go out with a bang. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman becomes a hated vigilante but must come to ungrateful Gotham's rescue when the city is threatened by a muscle-bound maniac called Bane.

In a crowded market, Batman remains the most popular screen superhero of them all, and this is at least partly due to Christopher Nolan's efforts. When the franchise died after the spectacular failure of Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin in 1997, it was Nolan who reinvented the caped crusader's story and turned it into box office gold.

His first two Batman films, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), grossed almost $1.5bn worldwide. They also turned the conventions of the superhero film on their head, and set a bar in terms of creativity and sheer spectacle that others have struggled to match.

The Dark Knight Rises may well surpass Christopher Nolan's previous Batman films in earnings, and while Nolan will not direct any other sequels, Warner Brothers have tentative plans to combine Batman and Superman's fortunes in a series of Justice League films.

In all, there have been 10 live-action Batman films to date, and over a dozen animated ones, which is not bad for a 1940s dime comic hero who started out with a bad outfit and no special powers.

Created by artist Bob Kane, 'The Bat-Man' first appeared in a DC Comics publication in May 1939. Unlike DC's other hero, Superman, Batman couldn't fly or see through walls and wasn't super-strong.

He was a mere mortal, a millionaire businessman called Bruce Wayne who created this alter ego in order to rid his native city, Gotham, of crime.

From the very start, Batman was a darker character than all the other superheroes. For one thing, he was primarily motivated by revenge: as a child Wayne had seen his parents gunned down by a mugger, and as a result he was not the most balanced of chaps.

Batman was no goodie-goodie, and was not above torturing and even killing from time to time. But when the character was first adapted for the screen, all this darkness was filtered out.

In 1943 Columbia Pictures made Batman the focus of a 15-episode movie serial.

Batman starred B-movie actor Lewis Wilson as the Caped Crusader, who enlisted the help of his sidekick Robin to defeat the villainous Dr Daka.

This being wartime, Dr Daka was Japanese, and audiences must have cheered when he eventually fell into a crocodile pit.

But the 1940s movie Batman was essentially a colourless B-picture hero, and after a second film serial in 1949, he disappeared off the screen altogether. He made his comeback in 1966, but the result was equally problematic.

Like many other little boys who grew up in the 1960s and 70s, I was very fond of the Batman TV show starring Adam West. What I did not know was that the show was full of camp jokes and homoerotic undertones based on the suspicious living arrangements of Batman and Robin.

These found their way into a 1966 film based on the TV show, in which Batman and Robin did battle with the massed forces of Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman and The Joker.

Fights were accompanied by cartoon bubbles saying 'Splat!' and 'Pow!', and the film was great fun. But the film and TV show made it impossible for audiences to take Batman seriously, and for several decades he went right out of fashion.

In the late 1970s, following the huge success of Richard Donner's Superman, Warner Brothers began toying with the idea of making a new Batman film. Several scripts were written, but nothing came of them until 1986 when Tim Burton became attached to the Warners project.

Although not originally a Batman fan, Burton had read and been impressed with a 1980s Frank Miller graphic novel called The Dark Knight Returns.

In Miller's story Batman was a middle-aged and disillusioned crimefighter in the mould of Dirty Harry. Burton brought these ideas to bear on his 1989 film Batman, which grossed over $400m worldwide and launched a very lucrative franchise.

The casting of Michael Keaton in the lead role was controversial. Keaton was mainly known at that time for wild comedies such as Burton's Beetlejuice, and seemed an unlikely choice.

He did better than expected but not everyone was convinced, and Jack Nicholson's Joker was also problematic.

While there was no doubting the entertainment value of Nicholson's performance, his wisecracking villain was so big and cartoonish that it dominated the entire film and obliterated Keaton's Batman.

Keaton did better in a second film, Batman Returns (1992). But Tim Burton left the franchise at this point, and that's when the problems really started.

After Burton left, Warners decided to go for a less gothic and more mainstream effect on Batman Forever (1995), and hired Joel Schumacher to direct it. Schumacher certainly had a commercial knack but his directing style can lack finesse, and his engagement with the Batman franchise was not a happy one.

In fairness, he had a lot to deal with on the set of Batman Forever, as Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones fell out, and the director himself clashed with Val Kilmer.

All that tension told in the finished film, which was loud and charmless, but worse was to come in a Schumacher sequel, 1997's Batman & Robin.

George Clooney replaced Kilmer on this film, but Batman & Robin was a sorry mess, and brought the Batman juggernaut to a juddering halt.

Despite a number of attempts to resurrect the Caped Crusader during the late 90s and early 2000s, it took Christopher Nolan to set the ball rolling again with Batman Begins in 2005.

Nolan wanted to erase the excesses of the Schumacher films by going back to basics and explaining how Bruce Wayne became Batman.

The English director combined strong action sequences with an ominous visual tone to create a nightmarish Gotham fit for a masked avenger.

Christian Bale was a gritty, tortured Batman, and Nolan's film made Burton's work look like Disney movies. And while Batman Begins was a little long and overly intellectual for some, an even better sequel was to follow with The Dark Knight (2008).

Perhaps the most accomplished and stylish superhero film ever made, The Dark Knight reimagined Batman's crucial confrontation with the Joker, played as a terrifying sociopath by the late Heath Ledger.

This film had it all: substance, humour, superb set-piece action sequences and a rollercoaster plot. If The Dark Knight Rises earns favourable comparisons with its predecessor, it will be doing very well indeed.

Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan may be moving on, but Batman will surely survive.

Despite many setbacks and slides from fashion, the Dark Knight remains the most complex, flawed, interesting and believably human action character of them all, the Hamlet of superheroes, if you will.

The Dark Knight Rises is released nationwide on July 20.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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