Lord of the Rings III: “The Taste of Strawberries” – The Return of The King

LOTR cartoon ROTK

“I know my place”

In this week of all things Hobbit (part 1), the third set of complete Tweetnotes on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Extended edition, but DVD – not Blu-ray-masochistically so…  Three’s a big, bloody, brutal dream…

DO YOU REMEMBER THE TASTE OF STRAWBERRIES?  DO YOU FRODO?  NO.  BASICALLY, NO…  THIS IS BLEAK, FAR BLEAKER THAN IT SEEMS. 

Tolkien stated that his war experiences had a limited impact on his writing, but the writer of the account of the War of the Ring, rife with description of a land of evil, had not only survived the Great War, but Somme.  By the time of Return of the King, after The Two Towers has split the Fellowship but reduced the fronts, the story is little more than one large and brutal battle.  The scale is on a whole new level and the first prize in this raised game is not a trusted keep, scattered villages or ruins, but Minas Tirith: The White City that represents all of Man’s promise, while containing all his weaknesses.

Return is as huge as an oliphaunt, but the majority of the tale takes place in a small corner of Middle Earth, already stacked (literally) with the ghosts of the dead from millennia of previous battles.  Much of the tale is bleak – until the ring is returned, allies of Middle Earth’s victory is not guaranteed – and would remain pointless if Frodo failed.  It’s so bleak, a series of hopeful and much commented codas can surely be forgiven.  After quests and countless battles that could prove Pyrrhic, Return shows the fight to be worth it.

With such a focus on war craft, some war logic inevitably fails to hold up.  Strategy and movement may be difficult to track on a map when it comes to live action, but certain scenes such as the confusion over the direction of attack on Osgiliath seems strange when it’s been under siege for months.  In other ways, the battles’ hectic approach carry things along at a pelt.  There are no timing doubts as there were when the Rohirrim arrived at Helm’s Deep.  Much as I liked it, I couldn’t help thinking they’d been standing around looking at their wrist-dials for a few hours beforehand.

A certain degree of momentum comes with the introduction of two new lieutenants of evil; not a new thing in the films – they have previously come and gone like Sith apprentices.  Gothmog is a fantastically and twistedly rounded creation in his brief appearances (see the way he resists help to dismount his warg); his accent is also refreshingly mean when surrounded by Aussie/cockney orcs.   In the air, the Witch-King entrance seems a little sudden – even if we do get to see his walk-in wardrobe.  Fine, we’ve met him before – but why didn’t he have a crown, or demonstrate any leadership skills then? – bar skewering a hobbit.  If there are any faults with Return, it’s that this Nazgul could have been built up a little  more, especially as he’s a presumed ancestor of Aragorn’s.

Returns is of course more than just a war analogy.  The trilogy draws on many sources from the Nordic sagas, to Arthurian legend to Christianity.  Many of these had cross-pollinated long before Lord of the Rings was written – the paganism that fed into Christianity was in turn and itself retconned into Arthurian legend.  But combined, the effect is more than complementary, especially as Jackson adds his own cinematic nods.  He pays tribute to many conventions and classics of film.  From score to shooting, there are contemporaneous reactions to Harry Potter as well as ribs on The Godfather and Star Wars – the latter, particularly, and pleasingly in the multi-partite climax.  When scenes turn to Mordor and its Black gate, things even go a little – and unavoidably – Labyrinth.  The reference is cyclical and reassuring: many of these films had been heavily influenced by Tolkien’s story before.  One key part of Returns is Aragorn’s flight to the land of the dead.  The make-up and imagery don’t even attempt to hide the neat throwback to Peter Jackson’s early horror film roots.

Whilst in zombie-land, Aragorn’s prolonged absence gifts a chance for other humans to seize their moment, but it’s a mixed-bag.  Théoden gets his rightful martyrdom/punishment as a conflicted man, albeit via the Klingon school of motivation.  Of his kin, Eomer remains a peripheral figure while Eowyn picks up the mantle of strong female character.  Her compassion drives much of the development of Merry and Pippin, but her resounding success in battle – albeit a rather odd semantic get out – also neatly signifies ‘man’s’ further development.

It’s as easy to pick holes in Return as it is to lavish it with a trilogy’s worth of Oscars.  Even with multiple codas some strands remain undeveloped, particularly those relating to those ‘other’ men.  Faramir and Eowyn’s romance is vague and considering what she achieved, let alone how bloody little he did (bar remove a White Wizard from the front line!) it may have been better to see some of that rather than that overlong long hobbit bed hopping sequence.  Still, as their names aren’t in the title, maybe we’ll just have to wait for a spin-off soap opera.

There is another major player whose name bestrides the whole trilogy.  The final moments of the One Ring, its volcanic fate one drop away, are wonderfully done.  Jackson increases visual echoes and references to Isildur that were always simmering in Frodo’s scenes.  Even at the end he struggles with his insurmountable task, and Sam proves to be the strength carrier.  It’s only Gollum’s single minded and unique desire of the ring that really saves Middle Earth.  When he finally regains his precioussss after 80 years, His pleasure before realising they’ve lot each other forever is brilliantly captured and a fitting sign-off.  In fact, after some dietetic and non-diegetic stumbles on the way, the end to the Hobbit’s linear tale is wholly satisfactory.  Even the arrival of the Eagles serves to reinforce the point that they couldn’t have just flown there in the first place.  Sacrifice is key and not just for Frodo.  In Return, Hobbits are seen sacrificing their nature, men their lives and Aragorn realises he must sacrifice himself regally for Middle Earth.  Perhaps a key change in tightening the story is Aragorn’s resistance to this; in the book, his simply waiting for the right moment has its point, but increased reluctance ensures that the spring is coiled tighter.

And so, the Elves, and  couple of Hobbits set sale for the Grey havens, the Dwarves mine further and deeper under mountains, the Maiar wizards are forgotten in the minds of men, who multiply on the plains of Rohan and the towers of Gondor in peace and prosperity.  Over in the East, during the Fourth Age the Hobbits fade away too – though not cleansed, not in these films; that would have been too severe.  They could keep themselves to themselves safe in the knowledge that one day a few of them went on a trip to the publisher.

Jackson’s main trick may be overcoming the fact that we know the fate of so many of The Hobbits’ characters before that trilogy has commences…  But I’m sure he has some tricks up his long wizard sleeves.

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon Tweetnotes for The Two Towers live Storified in this Crack of Doom

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon concluded: 682 mins (11.37hrs)

Also consumed during part of this pre-Hobbit marathon:  Shore’s magnificent full trilogy score, X-box resurgent ‘Lord of the Rings: the Third Age’ (VG), Wii add-on ‘Aragorn’s Quest’ (VG), Brian Sibley’s ‘The Making of The Lord of the Rings’, Virgin’s sorry missed film companions – and heir guide to ‘Lord of the Rings’, the draw-dropping illustrations of Lee and Howe…  All of which simply wouldn’t exist without JRR himself.

Lord of the Rings II: “Let’s Hunt Some Orc” – The Two Towers

Lord of the Rings Dwarf Jokertoon
TTT

“I look down on him because he is lower class…”

In this week of all things Hobbit (part 1), the second set of complete Tweetnotes on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Extended edition, but DVD – not Blu-ray-masochistically so…  On to the Two…

‘LET’S HUNT SOME ORC’.  It’s a phrase that is not going to pass for Tolkien’s own no matter how good Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Aragorn is.  But then, not much of the dialogue in Peter Jackson’s trilogy is lifted from the tome itself; its trick is capturing the gist so it appears faithful.  But then, with those rather combative words, Fellowship made way for The Two Towers; a different kind of film.

The generally linear plot of the first part is replaced with multiple strands following three distinct parties of the original fellowship continuing their quest; but that is too is a bit of an illusion.  While Merry and Pippin remain, rather importantly, stationery for the majority of the film, any urgency that Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli’s haste to save them injects into proceedings is ultimately rather pointless.  Most of The Two Tower’s journey follows a loop wider than the turning circle of a Rohirrim.  Of course, this fatalistic treading of water is a pretty heavy handed metaphor for man’s general weakness.  That said, that and the analogy do provide a pretty solid build-up for one of the most gripping parts of the trilogy (Set-piece Mark VI, below…).

In the book, despite years of suggestive front covers, the identity of the titular two towers is rather vague.  The film chooses to explicitly draw the link between Sauron’s Barad-dûr and Saruman’s Isengard, an invisible line that cuts right across Rohan, land of the Rohirrim, and threatens all Middle Earth.  Rohan is an interesting place.  A kind of sub‑kingdom of men it’s broad Anglo-Saxon set-up a rather stark counter point to the lost and now mythical kingdoms of Aragorn’s north and the more majestic, decadent and dare I say Aspirational Norman Gondor.  It’s effective in presenting ‘man en masse’ for the first time and Théoden’s rural kingdom also administers a sharp shot of Shakespearean tragedy and intrigue into proceedings that was lacking from the Arthurian mix of Fellowship – before administering a fine keg of history at the end.

Split into three ‘journeys’, The Two Towers makes ideal use of its ‘middle’ status.  But it is really is the beginning that sells it.  Jackson wisely kickoffs off at the very heart of the climax of Fellowship’s main highlight.  It’s a fine catch-up, a great action sequence at the front once again and also a neat conveyance of depth.  Gandalf and his demonic foe battle while Aragorn leads the Fellowship to Galadriel and their inevitable breaking.  It’s a soft and effective arm around the shoulder, leading us away from Fellowship’s simpler narrative to a world of parallel concerns.  Even if Gandalf the White’s initial impression of Saruman is rather mean/irresponsible/inexplicable (depending on your perspective).

In those same woods, the Ent scenes seem rather frivolous when you think of Tom Bombadil’s fate in Fellowship – but their ultimate contribution to the plot is considerable.

In Gondor, by contrast, Gollum is an addition that keeps the rather cloying twosome of Sam and Frodo bearable.  The technology and performance are rightly lauded, but it also shows how good Fellowship is; anticipation for the small grey one should have been far greater.

The extended version of The Two Towers really highlights how staccato the theatrical releases of the films could be. Additional runtime creates room for Denother’s first appearance and a brief cross-over with Boromir which does much to bridge the trilogy.  It even adds a little more to (a still quite insipid) Faramir.  It is there in Osgiliath, the ruins of Gondor’s old capital, that the heart of The Lord of the Rings really lies.  Man’s time is coming, the Elves are leaving them to it while the corrupted Elves (Orcs) stop at nothing to halt it.  Here is the despair, retreat pride and hubris ripe for the Return of the (still reluctant) King.  Of course, Lord of the Rings is a totally faithful historical account of a few thousand years ago, but remembering that would rather spoil the danger (nudge, nudge).

The ‘historical’ elements of the book really hits home in the last and greatest set-piece of The Two Towers.  Before that, the wizard and Balrog’s battle with gravity is neat and stylish for the service it provides the film.  Gollum’s little chat with Smeagol is the highlight of performance in the film, and certainly ranks as a set-piece.  Later on the warg attacks on the fields of Rohan are well realised, another great example of another action piece finding its own voice.  Rohan’s more familiar Viking imagery of settlements amidst the vistas is a long way from either the mines of Gandalf’s or the woods of Boromir’s demise.  Even against the decade old CGI, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a lot to take on when it confronts a similar set-piece

But it is in the beautifully built up siege of the last act that something special happens.  Set-piece Mark VI: Helm’s Deep.  The threat carefully grows while Saruman’s ‘magic’ in mixing gunpowder adds a new and real military aspect; the mighty Helm’s Deep itself draws on countless sieges against impossible odds, not least Rorke’s Drift or the Battle of Thermopylae.  In its build up, every crumb is placed delicately:  The weakness of man, the retreat into that ‘unsinkable ship’, the noble last-minute sacrifice of elves.  After tour-de-force brutal action, Gandalf’s arrival is a new invention, but provides a far more satisfactory conclusion than the book’s.   Meanwhile, many miles away, Saruman finds himself similarly besieged in his One Tower: an odd, comic and bleak assault all in one.

The Two Towers, despite its wildly loose structure and rather illusory narrative is but a Hobbit hair, the best of the bunch.  It lacks the focus of Fellowship and the Bombast of Return but perfectly nails the sterling work that any middle film should do while also failing to show it like good special effect.  It kicks off with an audacious opening and on an emotional level it seldom gives up.  By the time Helm’s Deep appears on screen, the worry of whole species is palpable; far from the individual crises and burdens of Fellowship – not that this aspect ever really leaves).

And so by the end of the film, while little land has been gained, the focus of the story has completely changed.  With Isengard paralysed, the two-front war is over (The Hobbit looks to play up the idea that the third front was eliminated in anticipation some 80 years before); and Return of the King is set up to cover the simple slog of Man versus Mordor.  If there is a weakness in the piece, it’s Frodo,  Sam and their bloody elf bread – it drags, but there’s little way around that; it seems to be in a Hobbit’s nature.  This frailty is almost completely is lost behind the impressive Gollum.  Still, it seems strange that, with the ring bearer so dislocated, their conclusion of the film hangs on the suspense of Gollum’s luring Frodo into a rather inconsequential trap.  By pushing that Shelob sequence back to Return of the King, Sam and Frodo’s journey lacks that clinical punch it really needs here, but ultimately it’s for the greater good.  A new story has finally, properly arrived:  It’s no longer so much about the one ring, but the future king.

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon Tweetnotes for The Two Towers live Storified in this Keep in the Rock

Lord of the Rings I: “A Wizard is never late” – The Fellowship of the Ring

Lord of the Rings Elf Jokertoon
LOTR cartoon FOTR

“I look down on him because I am upper class…”

In this week of all things Hobbit (part 1), the first set of complete Tweetnotes on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Extended edition, but DVD – not Blu-ray-masochistically so…  First, a quick 101 on Middle Earth history…

THERE ARE BENEFITS TO ALL TRILOGIES, BUT NOT ALL TRILOGIES TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THEM. 

Criticism of Hollywood trilogies have often walked a well worn track; one that new trinites are general measured against.  In general, the first part is weighed down by its duty to origin, while the third part may struggle to tie up all plot strands as it strives for a suitable send off.  In between, part two can go in any direction; Constraint free, there’s no need for a beginning or an end and that open-endedness is only constrained by the creative team behind it.

In the Lord of the Rings however, there was a distinct advantage.  Circumstances (World War II) had led to a sweeping single story told across multiple books and published in three distinct volumes.  The names of each film and a rough structure, though rather inadvertently, was already set.  Easy.  But then again, no other adaptation, film, or radio had ever really done followed that… So it can’t be that easy…

Despite a fervent fan base, adaptation also brings the advantage of something tangible to react against.  With such a literary and fairly unwieldy tome, 14 years in the writing, the need to modify the narrative for the medium of film wasn’t just recommended but essential.

Simply, all Fellowship needed to do was begin and that was that.  Structurally much of it draws on Ring’s lighter prequel, The Hobbit and countless other quests.  Starting at the Shire, a danger is developed, a fellowship formed and then the journey undertaken across Middle Earth.

On film, Peter Jackson imbues proceedings with a new speed ; in fact, a perhaps indecent haste which struggles under scrutiny.  In any event, that Gandalf takes hours to realise the importance of the One Ring and practise his Marathon Man routine, rather than the book’s years, is a signal of intent.  Across the many hours of the story, there has to be a strong narrative drive through and past countless villains and trials which could otherwise appear weak or sporadic.  The enemy point is a key one; while there are many heroes on show, there are also many foes, not all of whom operate directly under the all seeing eye.  The epic opening, rather strangely narrated by a powerful but fairly inconsequential elf (a consequence of a story lacking in strong female characters), provides not only instant action gratification but the big bad himself.  Striding out onto the plains of Mordor to slug hundreds of man and elf pins is an interesting touch, considering main villain duties subsequently fall to a large orange eye…  But it’s visceral, it’s physical, and that’s its main contribution.

And if there are any words that sum up this adaptation, they’re visceral and physical.  Emotion is widened in what can be a terribly academic tale, the action drawn out and the scale constantly on show.  Even without the 3d or 48fps, Jackson instils a real tactility to proceedings that’s commendable considering how much of it lives on a hard drive.  From the squint of Elrond’s eyes as elf arrows volley past his face to Boromir’s thudding perforation.  This really is no mean feat where so many of the cast on screen are synthespians and its most quoted ‘creation’ is motion captured.  It shows how demanding the schedule was that Fellowship’s Gollum, with his green pallor, is quite different to the one we would meet in the subsequent films.  But in his own brief and sinister appearance, it works.

Two legendary set-pieces fall within the film.  The first is outstanding, and potentially the most important of the trilogy.  For whilst Fellowship simply had to begin the story, it also had to ensure the audience would come back to watch further two films that had already been made; and the Mines of Moria sequence does that brilliantly, especially in the context of the open plain and siege battles that would follow.  It has added resonance in the context of The Hobbit, but manages to stand on its own all the way to its fiery finish.  Set-piece Mark II is the singular journey of the Bane of Boromir Uruk-hai from Saruman’s Isengard to meet the fellowship.  Again, it’s physical, it’s scrappy, but it also works very well in slow-motion.  It helps that as a general rule, films where Sean Bean dies a horrible death are generally quite good.  And then with the fellowship disbanded, the story can begin proper.

For an opening assault, Fellowship isn’t actually constrained by origin as lore would have it.  Beginnings are shared across the trilogy, as rather befits a tale that’s all about death and rebirth.  Gollum’s origin was supposedly bumped back from each film, but makes a fine beginning to The Return of the King.  Arguably, we see Gandalf’s (necessarily cloudy) origin in the second film.  The sense of origin adds strength to the trilogy; guiding structure and keep things fresh while also providing a constant thematic reinforcement (Aragorn even has an extra resurrection analogy dragged over a cliff with him in The Two Towers).

Many changes have been made for timing, but the main character omission from the book is perhaps the most obvious nut understandable change.  Rhyming immortal Tom Bombadil is a bit of an anomaly, hard to represent on film, and as character voted most likely to ‘misplace the One Ring’ would only really serve to undermine the plot.  In fact, while speed played a role in many narrative changes, most serve one other distinct purpose: to put the focus firmly on the One Ring.

In this adaptation, no character is immune to it, with only Gollum seeming to desire its possession rather than its power.  It’s a clear, direct yet intangible horror than creeps through the films to such an extent that it highlights the ambiguity of the series’ name itself.  After all is the Lord of the Rings the Dark Lord, or in fact the One Ring?

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon Tweetnotes for The Fellowship of the Ring live Storified in this hole in the ground

Batman: The Lite Knight (The Dark Knight Rises part one)

Batman and Superman - Public Enemies

Batman (alone) cartoon

As the final part of the Dark Knight Trilogy rises into homes, the first of two posts on the most successful superhero trilogy of all time.  First, a look at how much of Batman was in the Dark Knight.

LIKE MOST OF A TIME-CONSTRAINED POPULATION who didn’t see The Dark Knight Rises nine times on the big screen, I’m still a little conflicted about whether Return of the Dark Knight is quite as good as The Joker Strikes Back.

In a year of many faint praise reviews, most critics tussled with rewarding The Dark Knight Rises (DKR) as a film in its own right or as the end of a rather impressive trilogy.  Most went with the latter.  The same happened with the final part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy of course, but I doubt DKR will challenge that on the Oscar front.  However, as with The Return of the King, if DKR does come up a little short in its own right, then it doesn’t by much.  Because an impressive trilogy it is.

The Dark Knight trilogy differed from other Batman films in one crucial respect

Seldom has such a fully formed universe been realised consistently on celluloid, regardless of genre – especially 15 short years since the franchise was creatively bankrupted.  In fact, what Chris Nolan has achieved is incredible.  Until The Avengers, his Dark Knight saga was the superhero franchise to emulate.  In the last few years, many new films have sought to describe where they sit on the Dark Knight scale as part of their publicity splurge.  Only Marvel’s Avengers were collectively strong enough to swim against those ‘darker’ waters.  But while The Dark Knight made billions, Batman had already been making millions in his other iterations in the preceding decades.  Upon it’s release, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman had a similar influence, albeit in a less superhero saturated market, on many films such as Russell Mulcahy’s Shadow five years later.

Now the Nolan trilogy has concluded, Batman will again be rebooted and repackaged by another creative team for further assaults on the box office.  In 20 years, a complete Batman box set may well include UV copies of the Dark Knight trilogy with four other films either side of it.  Even if the imminent reboot proves disappointing, it will still be unclear how significant the seven year reign of this Dark Knight will prove to be.  There is however, one real problem which was not so much acknowledged in the DKR, but integral to it.  As successful, deep and even epic as the films are, they differed from other Batman films in one crucial respect.  They weren’t really about Batman.

The Bat Begins

To be clear, the Dark Knight trilogy is a great achievement and a fitting chapter for a deservedly cultural icon.  Countless comparisons that can be made to other trilogies, both better and far worse, illustrate that.  However, while many may struggle to decide which their favourite part is, one thing is clear: I still remember how I felt when I walked out of Batman Begins (BB) in 2005.  That feeling marks me apart from many who’re tussling with the question of favourites: I didn’t think it was all that.

Seven years and one concluded trilogy later, that feeling has abated slightly.  A few of my apprehensions dwindled and actually a lot of them were blown completely out of the Bat cave.  But still, a few niggles remained.  Something wasn’t quite right.

I was partly to blame and some of my reasoning was clearly restrictive: I perhaps didn’t want to like BB because there were already good Batman films in existence, particularly the Burton duo, and there will undoubtedly be more good versions in the future.  This was reinforced by the fact that it didn’t really feel like a Chris Nolan film.  I was already quite a fan of Nolan’s work.  Memento and Following were wonderful and his Insomnia remake even better.  In BB Nolan’s touch seemed very light.  There was a typical Nolan totem true, here in the form of Wayne senior’s stethoscope, but nothing so personal as those that appeared in the director’s previous films or would be subsequently developed in the sublime Prestige and perhaps reach their ultimate form in the incredible Inception (both of which fed considerably into The Dark Knight (TDK) and DKR respectively).  But it wasn’t so much that Nolan’s hand was lessened as much as perhaps both his hands were tied.  It was a massive studio IP…  And it was an origin film to begin with.

No Batman fan should have any problem with another retelling of the Caped Crusader’s origin.  I probably read the Bob Kane original twice a year or so – it’s only two pages, so I can generally stretch to it – but in BB, as integral as it was, it fell a little flat.  BB was the third celluloid retelling of Batman’s origin in 16 years, and while repetition may contribute to a malaise, it rather its mishandling by multiple previous creative teams that cast a long shadow.

The otherwise sublime 1989 Batman was ruined by one thing: once the Burton/Keaton Batman had killed the man who killed his parents, the character’s motivation was gone.  There my still be crime in Gotham, but on a personal level the Waynes’ murder had been avenged: Bruce may well have just moved to the Med with Catwoman.  The Bat franchise, no matter how loosely connected, struggled on with this pretty significant problem for the best part of a decade.  It prompted a virtual remake in Batman Returns (1991), a laboured origin flashback in Batman Forever(1995) and then, well… Maybe it would have helped with Batman and Robin (1997).  It was hardly a problem that dogged the 1940s or 1960s films which concentrated on crime rather than the psychology of the character but of course, that treatment  was no longer acceptable in the 21st century (outside cartoons).  The Nolan-machine duly made sure that the same problem wouldn’t surface in BB and in fact this facet and its open ended-complications fed into the film and its sequels at every level.  Indeed, Nolan’s recent comments confirm that it was linked to the overall and concluding theme of the trilogy.

In the Dark Knight Trilogy Batman never stopped beginning

But for all the acceptance of the Batman origin being paramount, and requiring constant reinforcement, there are times where it has to develop.  The comics have battled with this for years and necessarily come up with all sort of answers.  Among them have been the introduction of Robin (several times), faceted villains (the al Ghul’s) and an extended Bat family (all the way to the Justice League).  In the Dark Knight Trilogy however, Batman never stopped beginning.

War of Attrition

The Tumbler was never going to streamline into the Tim-Burton-mobile…  Hits you like a grappling hook

BatpullThere were aggravating factors in BB’s version of Batman’s origin that were easier to dismiss.  If so inclined, you could buy into the Tumbler as the first of a long lineage of Batmobiles which would eventually become the Tim-Burton-Mobile when Batman grew up.  But that Batman never came.  The Tumbler was never going to streamline into the Tim-Burton-mobile.  A fact that can hit you like a grappling hook.

Personally, I always found far more interest in the mature Batman locked in his role as guardian of Gotham City, rather than the many accounts of his origins. The guardian Batman is one built into the fabric of his city, locked into an unending fight against crime not by just one tragedy, but many and constant tragedies which continue to curse him to endlessly paper over an abyss he could fall into at any time.  It’s a war of attrition and there is always the possibility that he might not win.  Melodramatic and gothic it may be, buy many of those ideas surface in every iteration of Batman.  While the Nolan films did tap into those elements, the attrition and the multiple tragedies, in the course of the trilogy they served to stop him beginning.

Time should be as inconsequential as plot holes when it comes to works of fiction, but in the Dark Knight Trilogy, it’s an integral part of the story.  BB covers the longest stretch of time, even disregarding the flashbacks to young Bruce, as the 20s Wayne develops his Kevlar persona.  Then, despite a great sequel hint, TDK certainly doesn’t take place immediately after BB.  The world’s greatest detective clearly thought a playing card call sign bank robber quite inconsequential.  Gotham Knight, the canonical animated film that led into TDK bridged the gap by showing a still fresh faced Batman tackling comic mainstay Killer Croc in the sewers.  It was a minor miracle to fit that villain into the Nolanverse, but it’s only real contribution to the ongoing story was to establish Arkham as an island.  It surely can’t have been too long following that before Batman faced the Joker, and Two-Face’s cameo (but really, what else can you do with that character on film)  and then immediately take an eight year hiatus, or as he saw it, retirement.  Instead of operating as a vigilante, DKR reveals that Batman just disappeared, the main cause being the second great tragedy of his life rather than the GCPD.  In DKR, we catch up with Wayne in his 30s, but after eight years out of the game, he isn’t the iconic and controlling force the comics show at that stage of his life.  The fact he’s still beginning is something DKR’s plot reinforces.  The cop chase resembles those against a young vigilante, he’s still meeting and greeting villains and crucially, one consequence of a Batman stuck as a rookie is inescapable.  He has a great need for father figures, something Nolan provides in plenty.

Each father figure in the Dark Knight trilogy carryies a virtue of Batman

Those father figures are hardly new in Batman, in fact they’ve been rather integral over the last 70 years.  But here they are extended to the maximum, with each father figure carrying a virtue of Batman: Alfred is Bruce’s wisdom and conscience.  Ra’s provides drive and revelation that lasts the trilogy.  Gordon is the inspiration, clarity and motivation.  Then of course there’s Lucius Fox.  The gadgets and toys that once invoked jealousy in the Joker take on a different role in the Nolanverse.  They are a visceral definition of Batman, Bruce Wayne and Wayne Enterprises.  In fact, they so define Batman that he can’t function without Fox, even when he’s lost Alfred and Gordon.  The Wayne legacy of money can be easily disposed of on the stock market, but Thomas Wayne bestrides the trilogy in forms far beyond that incident int hat alley.  It’s not an ineffective take on Batman by any means, and it certainly creates a nuanced and layered hero for Nolan to work with.  In fact, it’s also neat get out of the Robin issue.  You can’t have a Robin mentored by a Batman, when the Dark Knight himself is still Robin.

But of course, when you share Batman out among a load of different characters, there is little left of Bruce Wayne.  And perhaps that’s the point.  Nolan has recently stated that the intended conclusion was to develop the concept that anyone can be a Batman (also neatly quashing the rumours of Gordon-Levitt taking on the mantle in the future).  It’s effectively realised in the trilogy, but again ensures the Batman of prolonged attrition would never appear.  It could be argued that in film’s natural narrative shortening, Bane’s impressive isolation of Gotham condenses decades of that attritional war from the comics – it certainly references several story lines.  But it was crucially Nolan’s decision to remove Batman from the frame for eight years and allow Gotham to naturally thrive that ensured he could never become a guardian with longevity.

It was also a deliberate step to draw villains into Batman’s origin.  This is not unprecedented in the comics, and BB drew on some characters from the printed stories, but is certainly enhanced in the trilogy.  In fact, each of the villains really draw out the impact of the Bat’s extended origin.

A Serious Punch line

The Joker is the greatest villain ever created

While it may not be the deciding factor in itself, it was immediately evident that the villains of BB were untouched by the previous four Batman films.  Not so coincidentally, they were also villains who, though not household names, could neatly lay out the new realistic take of the Dark Knight trilogy.  They were in effect, untarnished but also disposable.  If BB had failed, then there would have been another relaunch a few years down the line which would have been even better placed to reboot the 1992 Penguin.  Conversely, if BB was a success, the path was laid down for villains to return by one simple playing card.  And that is a trump card that many sequels would die for.

The Joker, frankly, is the greatest villain ever created.  Not only conceptually brilliant, he draws on cultural references and fears from the dawn of civilisation, politics and phobia.  He’s as versatile, empty, complex, dark and comic as you want him to be – and many different writers have provided many different takes.  Surfacing from very little, six decades have sculpted him into a brilliantly realised yet constantly enigmatic foe.  Not only is he a character perfect for reinvention, but also a palette that can lift and elevate a story or deliver the savages twist.  In the comics he’s killed a Robin, paralysed a Batgirl, and had the greatest number of different origin stories and yet, none (as TDK referenced).  Some proof comes from Grant Morrison’s late 2000s piece The Clown at Midnight.  Not many comic book villains can sustain a completely prose newsstand comic book.  And then, as inevitably as that clown on your doorstep at midnight means the worst… And at the end of BB, Batman gets handed that playing card.  It was enough to dispel any other trifling concerns.  It was serious: How could any variant on the Joker fit into that realistic universe?

Of course, TDK dispelled those concerns.  Heath Ledger’s Joker was brilliantly realised.  True to the producers’ words, he sprung from the first comic stories and from then the script gleefully and haphazardly straddled every compelling character point.  He was a bank robber who was an anarchist who was a nothing… Without the Batman.  The eternal joke, the unstoppable force.  Further proof of the verity of this Harlequin of Hate was Azarrello and Bermejo’s Joker graphic novel.  That developed a very similar version of the character at the same time as the film, but had the misfortune to come out afterwards.

The Joker booted Bruce Wayne back out of the cowl

But while I was pleasantly, horrifically surprised by how pencil-blindingly great TDK was, it brought the concerns of BB to fruition.  Like a good Joker, he’d banished the silly problems and highlighted some large ones.  Nolan’s focus on origin in BB continued to overcome his hand.  In TDK, the Joker is introduced with an adaptation of his first appearance in the comic, but soon becomes the film’s anarchic metaphor made flesh.  He didn’t develop Bruce Wayne into Batman, his actions booted him back out of the cowl.

A film later, Nolan would again draw heavily from early villain origins, particularly the 1970s Batman wonder stories, where Denny O’Neill’s script and Neal Adam’s art rebooted, reframed and elevated Batman above the recent and mercifully short-lived 60s period.  It was O’Neill who created Ra’s al Ghul, aiming for a villain who posed a modern and intellectual challenge to a Knight in desperate need of darkening.  O’Neill also brought globetrotting to Batman, something Nolan has drawn heavily into each film.  In the Nolanverse, the al Ghul and Bane stories wrap around Bruce Wayne like (Poison) Ivy.

In Batman, Nolan not only drew on the 1930s origins, but the constant ongoing explorations of Batman’s early years: Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s wonderfully recent additions to the myth The Long Halloween and Dark Victory.  These comics were less reboots than gentle massagings of retconning; eking out character traits and sticking manure in the shoes of background characters.  That’s necessary in a medium where so many characters – Catwoman, Batman and the best rogue’s gallery int he business – exist in the cultural consciousness and so deserve and require constant re-exploration.  This is generally why you can’t begrudge a retelling of any comic origin.

But so strong were the trilogy’s leanings toward Batman’s beginning that when Catwoman was confirmed for DKR, speculation focussed on tales of Batman’s origin to find her role.  The irony of this entangled origin was the intangibility of each villain that appears in the trilogy (bar Dent, although ‘villain’ is probably a little strong.  Most of the villains in the Nolanverse have little approaching an origin in the classical sense.  DKR comes the closest, but arguably only for the sake of a twist.  The difference to the Caped Crusader’s extended origin, to which many of them relate, is stark.  Throughout the decades, the arrival of new villains constantly provided new challenges for the Dark knight, alongside the chance to explore different facets of his character: a quest for The Grail every time.  But it was crucial to the Dark Knight trilogy that these built on each other.  The attritional war was actually one of the villains versus Wayne psyche.  And this struggle was set against the real, constant, major player in the Batman myth as the franchise crept further towards reality: Gotham City.

Two Tales of One City

The last of the trilogy enabled the emperor’s cloak to fall

In the first decade of the 21st century, Nolan had created the superhero film of to which all others aspired.  And it’s a big field.  In the days following DKR I recklessly bought a ticket to see The Amazing Spiderman.  It was a nice solid film, well made and engagingly acted.  That said, in the end I wasn’t surprised at the lesser box office this iteration generated in comparison to Same Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy; after all it followed hot on the heels of that successful trilogy and for all its faults, Spiderman 3 was no Batman and Robin.  But following a couple of hours of light plot and re-origins, my overall impression was that it had terribly bad luck to be the worst New York-set superhero film in Summer 2012.

Gotham from the Anglo-Saxon for Goat’s Town

Long before DKR, Gotham was a rather blunt metaphor.  But after three films, Nolan had abandoned any pretence that Gotham wasn’t New York itself.  In the comics the dark industrial East Coast port town of Gotham has been constantly abandoned by America, its name piercing the ear alongside other DC Comics fictional cities such as Star and Central City.  However, removed from those other fictional metropolises, Gotham has always carried a grain of truth.  It’s not just an important character in the Batman universe in its own right, but a fine Dickensian caricature.  The name Gotham was in fact coined as a nickname for New York in ever disparaging terms by Washington Irving in 1807; from the Anglo-Saxon for Goat’s Town.

And when the last of the trilogy enabled the emperor’s cloak to fall, Nolan’s vision of Manhattan were stunning.  Few films have shown off the city better, and New York is filmed often.  That is also in acknowledgement that the film was directed by Chris Nolan, not the most visually pioneering of directors it’s fair to say.  His shots are often stunning in their clinical precision, functionality and mechanics and that’s not at all faint praise.  His love of IMAX is natural – tailored to the scope of the action and all its contributing elements rather that simply the 25 or so paintings that appear on screen per second.  Nolan’s films are never simply big fake robot smash big fake robot.  You get what few blockbuster director’s can deliver: all parts of the film working in unison.  In DKR this worked brilliantly from the outset; though more than reminiscent of the opening to License to Kill, the plane hijack combines menace, character introduction and stunt on the IMAX screen like few other films could.

The reality of the trilogy is a huge contributing factor to its overall success.  It doesn’t matter that Gotham has a bridge that is Manhattan Bridge or that Gotham’s financial district is in fact Wall Street.  The city metaphor had shortened since BB’s Gotham of monorails and Kowloon, just as the villain metaphor, interestingly, had stretched it.  Bane’s motivation may seem the most far-fetched, but it feeds directly into contemporary concerns of the western world in a way that Ra’s or the Joker couldn’t.  In comparison, The Amazing Spiderman’s main problem was that despite a confident reboot with excellent casting and superb chemistry, it focussed on a bland, completely CGI villain.  Quite a mistake considering Spiderman hardly had less time in development than DKR and, as with other Marvel properties, it has a far longer run of direct comics continuity to draw from (albeit dragged down by the unnecessary decision to include an origin).  While Spiderman had some narrative and plot faults which it carried right next to its web slingers, so did DKR (just a little less sticky).  The real difference is that The Amazing Spiderman is incredibly light froth compared to the shaded complexity and sheer scope of DKR.  Some may highlight this as a fundamental difference between Marvel and DC Comic, but I’d never be so downright incendiary…

The Wrong Cape

The themes and focus of the Dark Knight trilogy are one franchise out

To reveal Batman’s city to be bona fide New York but under it’s 19th century nickname was a necessary one.  While at various points it was patrolled by the Batmobile, Batpod and then The Bat it was always a novice behind the wheel.

Despite all the little things that have ebbed and flowed over the last seven years, adding and building on a familiar character, this Batman never lost his Begins.  And the true effect of this concentration on origin was really drawn out by DKR.  While not a fundamental problem to the films themselves, their themes or function, it is a fundamental problem for Batman.  It’s not that the Batman Begins title lasted the series, but that the last two films’ titles are mischievous.  In making the characters origins so crucial, yet showing the ‘rise’ of a legend that could fall to anyone meant the Dark Knight never appeared.  In fact, while it hits close, the themes and focus of the Dark Knight trilogy are one franchise out.  Nolan actually made a damn near perfect Superman film.

Next: The Dark Knight Rises: How Christopher Nolan made the perfect Superman film…

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