Tag: DC Comics

Batman at 75: Gotham City on Film II – Cracked Actor in the 21st Century

Batman's Gotham City on film Jokertoon

Gotham II Bane

The tale of a paved and cracked actor. As Gotham turns one of the most the famous fictional cities into a television character, a look at how the city that has Batman as its guardian has fared on screen since the tun of the century…

THE FIRST PART OF THIS RETROSPECTIVE TOOK A LOOK AT THE FICTIONAL CITY AS IT WAS PORTRAYED ON THE BIG SCREEN THROUGHOUT THE 20TH CENTURY. With a new century the hero was fast entering his seventh decade, so what could that mean for one of America’s oldest cities? Well, the cinematic adventures of the previous decade had forced the bat glove, with a need to reboot and retune. It was time for something darker, edgier and less comic book. So, Warner Brothers turned to Christopher Nolan.

Batman Begins (2005)

Bruce Wayne couldn’t simply be a creation of his home town

It would be wrong to simply describe Batman Begins as more realistic, but its palette was instantly expanded to include it. No film had really touched the origins of Batman; the nearest stabs being 1989’s freshly minted suit and Forever’s trawling through childhood trauma. Starting with the discovery of the Bat Cave in the grounds of Wayne Manor, on the outskirts of Gotham’s Palisades, Begins then takes us out of Gotham for long swathes. Bruce Wayne couldn’t simply be a creation of his home town.
Continue reading “Batman at 75: Gotham City on Film II – Cracked Actor in the 21st Century”

Batman at 75: Gotham City on Film I – Ill Met By Moonlight in the 20th Century

Batman's Gotham City on film

Batman's Gotham City on film

The tale of a paved and cracked actor. As Gotham turns one of the most the famous fictional cities into a television character, the first part of a look at how Batman’s city that has fared on screen, From the Manhattan of the 1940s to the nadir of 1990s excess…

“GOTHAM CITY… CITY OF JUSTICE, A CITY OF LOVE, A CITY OF PEACE, FOR EVERYONE OF US…” IS HOW R KELLY SERENEDED GOTHAM CITY ON THE TIE-IN ALBUM FOR 1997’S BATMAN AND ROBIN. One of the greatest mis-readings in popular music for one of the stupendously misguided films in cash cow history.

A jump to the comics may help. “I’ve forgotten what Gotham feels like… Night after night, hopelessness just tries to beat down anything good”.

That’s more like it. An optimistic analysis from the primary coloured, long-livid and original Green Lantern Alan Scott on a rare occasion he worked with the Dark Knight (Ed Brubaker’s Made of Wood).

From Green Lantern, through Catwoman, Gotham Central, all the spin-offs, contagions, earthquakes, Scott Snyder’s skilful rebooting as a City of Owls in the New 52 through to Lego:Batman, Arkham Origins and the expansive animated portrayals… Gotham has probably been detailed more than any other fictional city. Since it replaced New York as the Caped Crusader’s hometown in the 1940s it’s become a character in its own right, a definitive part of the myth of the Batman.

But on the big and small screens it’s a different story. Continue reading “Batman at 75: Gotham City on Film I – Ill Met By Moonlight in the 20th Century”

Batman at 75: Ra’s al Ghul…The Dark Knight Villain to Beat

Ra's al Ghul Winner Batman

Ra's al Ghul Winner Batman

At the forefront of the campaign to bolster Batman’ darkness in the early 1970s, Ra’s al Ghul has taken a journey to the core of the Dark Knight’s story befitting the Demon’s Head himself. In fact, as Batman turns 75, could he have possibly become the indispensible Batman villain?  Spoilers guaranteed for those not up-to-date with Ra’s on screen and page…

HE’S NOT QUITE THE HOUSEHOLD NAME, BUT TAKE A MOMENT TO CONSIDER THE TALENT WHO HAVE PORTRAYED THE ENIGMATIC VILLAIN ON SCREEN IN THE LAST TWO DECADES…

David Warner, Peter Woodward, Oded Fehr, Lance Reddick, Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe (well, yeah), Jason Isaacs, Giancarlo Esposito, Don Leslie, Dee Bradley Baker, Steven Blum…

A mixed bag, but one stashed on the shelf of extreme quality, and he only made it out of the comics in 1992… 22 years on and it’s difficult to envisage a new iteration of Batman that doesn’t feature Ra’s al Ghul – from Christopher Nolan’s box office stomping Dark Knight trilogy to cash cow Arkham videogames. So, who is he and why has his media career mirrored his fictional rise?

Paper

Origin of the Demon

A villain every bit the Caped Crusader’s equal…

Ra’s first appeared in 1971, the creation of legendary creative team writer Denny O’Neill and artist Neal Adams and a reaction to the campery of the Batman TV series that had finished just a few years earlier.

Master criminal Fu Manchu, who had also recently completed his peak run on screen and 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – arguably the highlight of Blofeld’s cinematic exploits – fed into the creation of a villain every bit the Caped Crusader’s equal. Ra’s was a globe-trotting tour-de-force, albeit one who could engage all the key levels of Gotham’s first son. Ra’s ongoing mission was one that could reawaken Batman’s deduction, increase his international exploits, gift him a physical match and necessarily darker those shades of grey.

That creative dynamic duo not only succeeded in creating an effective and distinctive character, but one who quickly headed to the top tier of threat in the DC Comic Universe. In the pantheon of super villains he was soon established as a global threat who could not only hit Batman on multiple levels but also the Justice League of America.

In many ways, despite the lack of innate supernatural powers, he provides similar opposition to the Justice League of America as immortal mutant Apocalypse does to the X-Men, soon to be seen as the X-Men ‘s greatest cinematic threat yet. The 1996 Amalgam project even fused them into Ra’s Al-Pocalypse.

And in 1971 it all started with a girl…

The Demon’s Daughter

..>When he’s not dead or stark raving mad or both.

Batman’s girl that is. Ra’s first appearance, Batman 232’s Daughter of the Demon was a complicated trap to test the Dark Knight as a suitable suitor for his daughter Talia. Well, it was more a test to see if the man Talia was infatuated with was worthy. He was, earning Ra’s ongoing respect on the way. It’s no coincidence that this original plot was seized on at the start of the arc that ended Batman’s pre-New 52 run (RIP). Through strenuous canon-or-not debate, Talia and Wayne’s relationship resulted in a son, Damian, who in a few short years has become a well regarded part of the DC universe. On the al Ghul side, Talia wasn’t the subject of a forced or false marriage; the attraction was mutual, and so any machinations on Ra’s part were replaced with the fact that he had a point and was essentially open to logical reason.

And he often is, when he’s not dead or stark raving mad or both.

Eternal Mystery

Ripped straight from the pages of Dorian Gray…

That would be the supernatural coming in to play. There is the inherent mystery of the ill defined Arabia he hails from of course, and the inbuilt Bond villain / Fu Manchu army that comes as the head of the League of Assassins. Christopher Nolan would take this as an additional, or main, motivation for the Mantle of the Bat in his Dark Knight trilogy. But then there’s the immortality. He may be over 600 years old, but it’s actually a cheat. Ra’s rejuvenation comes from Lazarus Pits, chemical wells laid out on the ley lines of the Earth that grant the Demon’s Head life extension, at the cost of temporary insanity. A short spell of enhanced strength encourages the idea that these Pits are rabidly crazy ways to extend one’s life. There is also the hint that over use could lead to the gradual mental instability. Ra’s long life is ripped straight from the pages of Dorian Gray.

That gifts Ra’s not only a supernatural stint by default, tied into his motivation, but also a reason for his sporadic appearances. The New 52 played soft boot with the DC universe, changing the use of Lazarus Pits but retaining story points such as Ra’s apparent death in the 2004 storyline Death and the Maidens.

Eco-Terrorist

Tied into the fabric of Gaea, rightly or wrongly…

Ra’s is therefore mortal, and possibly couldn’t be ‘more of Earth’. From the off, his motivation has been humanity’s cradle itself; the achievement of balance that often necessitates the eradication of the majority of humanity. Unlike fellow ‘immortal’ Vandal Savage he does not seek mastership particularly, simply that balance. Often Ra’s methods are biological. Plagues and viruses in particular. When the concisely named DC Universe Animated Original Movies Doom replaced Ra’s with Vandal Savage as villain of their adaptation of the monumental Tower of Babel storyline it just didn’t feel as wholesome.

Of course, Batman himself meant that genome and lineage was tied into the Ra’s story from the start, and that has an overall impact. He’s tied into the fabric of Gaea, rightly or wrongly, and that can only reflect well and to the credit of Batman, the man suitable to be his heir. Just as the League of Assassins can be seen as a splinter of The Demon movement, the lineage of al Ghul or his children is utterly unknown. Recent years have seen the introduction of Talia’s older sister Nyssa Raatko and their White Ghost brother. Ra’s adds inflation to every storyline he’s brought near. World danger elevates any story and what is Gotham but a microcosm for the world?

Mirroring

His is not the equalling yang of Joker…

Perhaps most compelling is how Ra’s reflects the key facets of the man he honourably calls ‘The Detective’. He’s no slavish copy or inverted Man-Bat. Ra’s had soon deduced the Dark Knight’s true identity, although the secret could hardly be in better hands. While Batman’s alter-ego is to a degree open for exploitation, Ra’s own is lost in mystery and his relationship with The Detective based on a level of respect.

He respects Batman’s skill through the eyes of centuries of accumulated knowledge, which is no bad reference. And of course, he wouldn’t lead the League he does without considerable fighting prowess. His is not the equalling yang of Joker, the jealousy of Riddler nor the benchmarking of Bane. He’s a father-in law-in waiting and both have a grudging respect for the other’s methods and abilities.

As a Batman villain however, he requires a level of gothic grotesque. There’s no mistake he verges across his Arabic roots and British Empire, often portrayed by European actors. He’s a shadowy variant of Dickens as much as Wilde.

Relevance

With every passing day since his conception he becomes more relevant

His motivation is one made for the modern age. No matter any other consideration, Ra’s could not have been conceived as a villain of the Dark Knight in the late 1930s, but with every passing day since his conception he becomes more familiar and more integrated to the Dark Knight’s agenda. And the veracity of that has been proved on film more than anywhere else.

Batpull

Celluloid

A Theme for the Dark Knight

A major preoccupation for the trilogy

Following Batman and Robin, Ra’s was an eminently sensible villain for the Bat-franchise to pick-up. Untouched by previous films, breaking the TV series expectations of camp and classic villains, but also bringing a strong back story with good fan following but ripe for reinvention. Christopher Nolan fused him with Ducard, the French fighter who had trained young Bruce Wayne a decoy that totally threw me just as Ken Watanabe decoy fooled Bruce Wayne. It all worked rather well in a film I thought an otherwise underwhelming start.

It was a further surprise when it became apparent that Ra’s provided the thematic link of the Dark Knight trilogy. The surprise was lessened however, given Bane’s links to the al Ghul family in the comics and Marion Cotillard’s casting – just too perfect not to be Talia. The Dark Knight Rises had the pit, but there was no venom for Bane, no resurrection for Ra’s – except in the mind, a major preoccupation for the trilogy.

Fight Training

Chief educator of Queensbury Rules

An interesting offshoot was the need to retcon and revise Batman’s training. Post-New 52 there’s a clear tendency to build up Alfred’s role as Bruce Wayne’s chief educator of Queensbury Rules. Perhaps a natural conclusion as original fighting role model Wildcat and other Justice Society Members become increasingly less plausible 70 years on from World War II. In comics, this recently became apparent in Geoff John’s Earth One where Alfred Pennyworth is appointed head of security by Thomas Wayne. On the small screen, it will be pursued by Sean Pertwee’s role as Batman’s batman in Gotham, this time a former SAS officer.

It would also come to bear in Batman’s latest animated exploits, along with a certain mystical super villain…

Ras wcu

Beware the Bat

Ra’s makes a significant contribution…

A sad legacy of Beware the Batman is that it appears to have been shelved in Batman’s anniversary year.

The first solely CGI animated series, Beware the Batman was designed as a more serious reaction to the marvellously joyful and successful Silver Age campery of Brave and the Bold. After many continuous years of Batman stories, a more serious soap storyline in Gotham necessitated a shift. Robin was out, but in was a Katana ready to reference her traditional Outsiders role alongside Metamorpho.

The CGI created crisp, dramatic, fight scenes but there’s always something a little flat to my taste as you can read here. Care was made to make villains as grotesque and over the top as possible, yet never quite hits the high it should despite the interesting run of lesser known villains. In Catwoman’s place is stolen by Magpie, filling in for the Joker’s anarchy is, well, Anarky. Recent additions are Grant Morrison’s Professor Pyg and Toad, bringing a demented Wind in the Willows to town.

Fittingly for a show that was itself a reaction, Ra’s also makes a significant contribution. Again, the supernatural is deflected. There is no talk of Lazarus Pits, but Ra’s is transported in cryogenic suspension. The MacGuffin of the Soultaker sword is the chief nod to the mysticism surrounding him and proves to be his, probably not ultimate, downfall. His chief underling is Lady Shiva, in the comics another trainer of young Bruce Wayne. Here it is an aging Alfred who trained Batman, a former Mi6 agent who interestingly had previous with Ra’s. It’s strange to hear The Demon’s Head refer to the butler as Agent Pennyworth as much as the flashbacks to Alfred in combat action.

Post Dark Knight, something different is expected and Beware the Batman doesn’t falter. Ra’s huge Gotham-centred plot picks up some comic exploits, especially Knightfall, and when foiled it leaves a vacuum that inadvertently leads to Harvey Dent’s arrival and decent to Two Face.

The battle concluded, it now looks unlikely that we’ll see the war continue on that show. But with the cinematic reboot underway, it’s unlikely we’ll have to wait long for the League and The Demon’s Head to reappear. Although it’s unclear how the cinematic and rapidly expanding televisual adaptations of DC will fit together, Nyssa al Ghul (Raatko) has recently made an appearance in The CW’s Arrow described as the ‘child of Ra’s al Ghul’.

It’s a considerable nod to Ra’s al Ghul that it’s difficult to envisage a new iteration of Batman that will be able to resist him.

Batman at 75: Dark Knights, Lite Knights & the Time of the Bat

Batman (alone) cartoon

It’s the time of the bat, haven’t you heard?  Although Tim Burton’s 1989 masterpiece turns 25 next month, no patient of Arkham Asylum can forget that it’s the leading character’s 75th birthday this month.  As he reaches that milestone it’s clear that the character’s in greater shape than ever.  How things have changed for the awkward outsider of comic book adaptation…

NEXT MONTH IS THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE RELEASE OF TIM BURTON’S BATMAN.  That film stands in the same short field as Jaws and Star Wars, creating a new wave of blockbuster movie-making.  That was when summer movies came out in June, not May and men were bats.  It’s worth nothing that Batman came it came only 14 years after Jaws and just six years after The Return of the Jedi.  It’s been a long 25 years of blockbusters since Jack Nicholson’s Joker laughed his last.

Infinitely more important is this month’s anniversary:  75 years since Bob Kane unleashed Batman into popular culture.  Yes, I know:  it’s unbelievable that Warner Brothers scheduled one month out from the Golden anniversary in 1989, but back then the reign of the comic film was a long way off.

In context, Tim Burton’s Batman was released a mere 21 years after the Batman TV series was pulled from the schedules.  In part, that enjoyably hokum show resigned batman to a camp scrapheap for some time.  It was the earnest work undertaken by comic creators such as Neal Adams and editor-in-excelsis Denny O’Neil that confronted that overpowering softening of Batman and created the chameleon of comics that we know today.  The result of their and others’ exemplary 1970s work were characters such as Ra’s al Ghul – a villain who has and remains at the core of modern Batman films and animated series.

Batman was released a mere 21 years after the Batman TV series

While good work was being undertaken on the printed page. Warner’s caped screen antics fell onto the super powered box office potential of Superman, ably filling the gap between 1978 and 1987, although not quite avoiding a dive into his own camp dreariness at the end.

Enduring Bat

Since 1989 though, Batman has barely been away from the screens, even if Joel Schumacher’s laughably credible third sequel Batman and Robin kept the Knight away for eight years.  Still, he clung on by the Batarang to the small screen.  From the incredibly influential Batman: The Animated Series, through Batman Beyond, Justice League (a commendably continuous animated universe under the guidance of Bruce Timm) and onto the current CGI trinket Beware the Batman (alongside countless spin-off movies).  Special mention must go to Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a wonderfully referential and good natured show that showcased a host of DC characters in three seasons between 2008 and 2011.  I’ve written at length about the quality of intention behind that show, but it could escape falling slightly foul of those intervening years between Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Of course Nolan’s universe was a not an easy fit for a cartoon, even though earlier series The Batman gave a half stab at the young Batman theory and Gotham Knight, prequel to The Dark Knight added a Matrix-style universe expansion.  As a result The Brave and the Bold proved once again, that a light knight will always bring a reaction.  I fear that show will be wrongly dismissed as frippery in the canon, but Beware the Batman makes a brave stab at obliterating it.

Beware the CGI

The Brave and the Bold proved again that a light knight will always bring a reaction…

Beware the Batman is an intriguing concept.  While the CGI is as hard to warm to as ever, it’s an interesting expansion in the fast evolving Bat-universe.  The ex-spy, glabrous Alfred signals the direction of Sean Pertwee’s upcoming ex-spy guardian in television series Gotham.  It’s a far cry from the classic pencil moustached Alfred of legend, Michael Gough’s four film stint and (presumably/hopefully) Jeremy Iron’s next big screen iteration.  Michael Caine of course, falls peerlessly in the middle.

While a character – and Outsider – with her own comic legacy, Katana still takes the role of a Robin here.  It’s really with its foes that Beware the Batman stakes its claim.  A series-long arc of villainy steers well clear of the well established rogues’ gallery – well, mostly.  Catwoman is missing, replaced with Magpie.  Arkham Asylum has less of a presence, Blackgate Prison more.  Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Anarky makes a welcome (re)appearance while the main fodder is supplied by the rather better known League of Assassins.  That brings Lady Shiva, though here she’s not addressed as one of Batman’s early mentors, and inevitably, Ra’s himself.  Ever since I first came across the long-lived, beardily eerie eco-terrorist I’ve been hooked – I’m not surprised that he forms a major part of both this and the Nolan trilogy.

Perhaps most interesting in this new animated series is the appearance of Grant Morrison’s Professor Pyg and Mr Toad (the latterly brilliantly voiced by Udo Kier I was delighted to see).  Yes, those fiends are rather differently presented than in their 2008 comic debut, but once again, the inclusion of Wind in the Willows shows just how well Gotham takes to being the land of fiction…

The glut of Batman in the last 25 years signals and creates one thing: confidence.  Warners didn’t seem put off by the relatively minor haul of 2005’s Batman Begins and that, er, wildcard Joker and patience proved astute when the sequel, the stand-out example of Batman on film, crossed $1 billion.

With Nolan, things changed.  While the comic scene has increased yet further, only Marvel has remained strong enough among blockbuster producers not to mine at least some of the perceived ‘dark realism’ of the Dark Knight trilogy.

Party like it’s 1989

That is and ever will be the Batmobile

True, Tim Burton’s Batman started a mini craze in 1989, but that was for blockbusters as Indiana Jones took a false-retirement.  A prime example of its impact being felt five years later was Russell Mulcahy’s extraordinary homage, The Shadow in 1994.  That example showed how definitively brilliant some part of Batman were.  It’s the late Anton Furst’s delectable production design meeting Tim Burton’s singularly artistic vision and bold casting that made that legend.Batman - and Robin

With this week’s reveal of Zack Snyder’s new Batmobile, it’s no surprise that immediate thoughts turn to Anton Furst’s superior 1989 design,

just as the late 2000s had everyone wishing that the Tumbler would develop that same sleek aesthetic.  That is and ever will be the Batmobile.  And Batman versus Superman’s design seems to acknowledge that debt.

It’s undeniable that Burton’s Batman made that one crucial mistake: giving Batman ultimate revenge for the death of his parents, credit for which screenwriter Sam Hamm lays with Burton.  That redemption set the franchise up for a fall, not to provide Joel Schumacher any excuses.  It meant that in the three successive films, no matter who wore the cowl, Bruce Wayne had to retread and uncover further trauma in his earlier tragedy.  Last decade Nolan got it right. Well, apart from that ending, but let’s just call that an Inception moment.

 

The Comics are Coming

Comic book movies cannot and will not ever over-saturate

Since that film kicked off Batman on the big screen (really, it did), he hasn’t left us.  But his is a celluloid history often slightly removed from comic book trends.   It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t Sam Raimi’s very successful Spiderman trilogy that kicked off the comic film boom in 2002, nor Bryan Singer’s stable if under-powered X-Men two years before.  That honour belongs to Stephen Norrington’s Blade in 1998.  A well made but under-sold film of the titular Marvel character, it opened up the box office for the super-powered assault we see today.  And crucially, just to futilely banish those same suggestions made each year: comic book movies cannot and will not ever reach over-saturation.

And Wesley Snipes’ Blade sliced into cinemas just one year after Batman and Robin had supposedly stopped the comic trend cold. Mr Freeze cold.  But although Batman wasn’t there during those early years of Marvel taking a foothold through three different studios, Warners were still simmering in their bat cave.

At the turn of the century Miles Millar and Alfred Gough III pitched an idea for a young Bruce Wayne television series, but Warners dismissed it, eager to pursue the Dark Knight’s more lucrative career on the big screen.  That series morphed into the incredibly successful Smallville.  It wasn’t that Superman wasn’t box office property, but it seemed that Nic Cage’s pay-or-play contract for Tim Burton’s aborted Superman Returns had burnt them a little more than Batman ever could.  Either that or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was really far worse than Batman and Robin.  Well…

Traits of the Batmen

The Dark Knight’s one simple appeal keeps him relevant

Nonetheless, Smallville’s 10 seasons happened because Warners’ aspirations for Batman on film signalled a brand conflict.  14 years later, it couldn’t be more different.  We live in a universe of multiple batmen.  New animated series are lined up to reboot the last when their natural lives conclude.  Gotham will bring us classic villains before they’d even heard of Arkham and Jim Gordon before he grew a moustache.  And at the flicks, Ben Affleck’s Batman takes on the Man of Steel in what must be one of 2016’s big hitters.  And that’s not even including the wildly successful Arkham videogame series, it’s Lego counterpart and the Caped Crusader’s constant appearances in the well produced line of DC Universe Animated Original Movies.

So why the increasing multiplicty?  Well, you can read why Batman’s a fascinating character, if not quite with the potential of Superman, here.  But some clear indicators lie in his key traits.  There’s the inherent darkness, the Jekyll and Hyde, the fact he’s the world’s greatest detective and most dangerous human (modern adaptations suggest that the great detective’s morphing more into Batman than the other way around). There’s the fact that he’s mortal, he’s a playboy, he has the greatest rogues’ gallery in comics, many representing a psychological disorder or primal instinct.  He’s a bat, that atavistic and distinctive symbol conjuring up vampires, darkness, base fear… He’s the protector, the winged guardian angel who overcomes all odds…

But really it’s the Dark Knight’s one simple appeal that keeps him relevant – it’s that alluring 101 to psychological damage that stands him alone as a character who can carry this off.  Batman exists in multiple guises at the same time because that is what the character is.  When he doesn’t, he’s diminished.  Not even Warren Ellis did that in Planetary…  But his guardian’s increasingly realise it.  And in each and every guise, the Dark Knight stands watch over the ultimate fictional city.  That once and maybe never were New York, Gotham.

A great figure in the Batman story, Darwyn Cooke’s 75th anniversary animated tribute get’s it about right, with a fitting and good spoonful of other pop culture to go with it.  As that shows, Batman’s in very good health this 75th birthday and as more and more share the Mantle of the Bat, it’s certain that he’s going to be with us a good while yet.

Now, time for a Batrospective…

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