Heath Ledger’s Joker, disappearing pencils, Harvey’s lucky coin, love triangles, Batpods and a Caped Crusader having to cross the line. Cinema’s greatest comic book adaptation was released 10 years ago.
It’s a decade since the majestic centre point of Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy simultaneously elevated the perception of what comic book films could be on film and set a tone, whether resisted or followed, for a genre making its way to the top of the box office.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the year of The Dark Knight’s release also saw the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, imperceptibly starting on its own journey to redefine Hollywood blockbusters. That behemoth began rather inauspiciously with the double-bill of an unstoppable force of chaos and a super crime fighting multi-millionaire playboy. Although there was little appreciation that the billion dollar box office barrier The Dark Knight smashed through would soon become de rigueur for the flagship films of DC’s great rivals.
Nolan’s vision soon proved to be definitive to the point of irony in the fast-growing comic book genre.
A decade on, The Dark Knight stands tall as Batman’s finest celluloid hour. That’s saying something for a film that’s part of a rigid, isolationist trilogy and for a character whose live action pedigree stretches across multiple iterations and 70 years. Nolan’s vision soon proved to be definitive to the point of irony in the fast-growing comic book genre. The trilogy was an impossible springboard for an expanded film universe, but it set the tone under the light guiding hand of Chris Nolan for the difficult DC Extended Universe that followed in the past decade.
The Dark Knight wasn’t the first comic book film that strove for a level of realism or ‘darkness’, but it’s effect was immediate. Given the successful but unfashionable steps to colour that DC’s big hitters Superman and Batman had taken in the 1960s and 1970s, in the 21st century their incarnations would be set by The Dark Knight. The DCEU that duly emerged half a decade later was dark, gloomy, robust, powerful and hard-hitting. This was the universe of gods, eager to set a strong and lofty tone that comic pages could translate to screen. It now seems odd now that this sprang from the grounded and gritty Dark Knight trilogy as much as Nolan’s film’s became a watchword for darkness (read ‘not kids films’) without being mired in it, unlike Batman versus Superman or Man of Steel.
There have been few disasters in the DC films that followed. 2011’s Green Lantern may be the true exception, although that came mid-Dark Knight trilogy. But there have been plenty of disappointments, a far cry from the heights of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. The impact of Nolan’s trilogy on the DCEU is still difficult to call. On the anniversary of The Dark Knight’s release this weekend, Warner Brothers premiered trailers at San Diego Comic Con for two new DC films that broke their so-called dark curse: Shazam and Aquaman. Alongside those was an early glimpse at the New Romantic-set sequel to one of last year’s great comic film successes, Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman may have felt like a fresh slice of quality amid other major DC output from the last few years, but it’s storytelling style, reach and multiple levels owed much to Nolan’s trilogy, proving that Batman’s greatest celluloid moment, has a legacy as complex as its narrative.
To celebrate the modern comic classic, Jokerside presents 10 ways The Dark Knight broke the mold and unexpectedly gave us one of the most influential films of all time.
1. It’s extraordinarily faithful
“I think you and I are destined to do this forever”
A struggle with origins have long dragged down the comic book medium, and the rot set into Batman’s modern film existence as soon as Tim Burton’s 1989 classic let a rather homicidal Dark Knight avenge his parents’ death. 2005’s Batman Begins made its more mature intent clear: there were no easy answers, and the crux lay in the battered tussle between Bruce Wayne and Batman.
It was a broad canvas ready to be explored in the sequel, but what was extraordinary was Nolan’s faithfulness to the source material. Joker was no stranger to public consciousness, but his film credentials were tied up in Jack Nicholson’s definitive 1980s take. The rather obvious idea of directly translating many great and classic storylines from the pages of comic books has only settled in over the past decade. After Begins Nolan had his sights set on the very beginning of Batman’s much explored and interpreted nemesis, and adapting an origin lost over decades of character development.
In the run-up to the film, eyebrows raised at Nolan’s assertion that his Joker would follow the character’s original 1940 comic book appearance. But there it is. The chillingly cool opening bank robbery, albeit to a different end, shows the same effective big dollar robber. Working alone for the most part, this Joker is quite at home with physical altercation, even if he doesn’t quite match his early comic book counterpart who could best Batman in a scrap. He comes from nowhere, with no identity but an intelligence to match the otherworldly comic horror of his appearance. And just as in Batman #1 the Joker issues warnings before commiting crimes. Now in a different medium, and not so clearly because he’s obsessed with his own brilliance, he still remains a man of his word.Continue reading “The Dark Knight at 10: 10 ways it Introduced a Little Anarchy”
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Difficult, supposedly vastly expensive carrying a weight of second-string comic book characters… DC’s Legends of Tomorrow’s first season embraced comics’ legacy of canned titles, team-ups and continuity re-defining events… But it also managed a significant coup – the return of that old staple of American genre television, the spaceship show!
A gleeful trawl through the Arrowverse and Legends of Tomorrow’s first year, where spoilers abound.
DESPITE ITS HIGH CONCEPT, LEGENDS OF TOMORROW REMAINS THE LEAST CERTAIN OF CW’S TRIUMPHANT RUN OF TELEVISION SHOWS BASED ON DC COMICS PROPERTIES. But that’s not down to any particular or peculiar weakness the show has brought to that growing mix. On one hand, its roots are firmly embedded in the existing Arrowverse, with most of its characters appearing there first. On the other, even in the ever-changing world of comics, the show’s temporal and paradoxical plots mean that a character’s death has an even higher probability of being reversed. But there’s no doubting that Arrow, The Flash and (the soon to be joining her cousins) Supergirl are simpler and purer concepts. Built around families of characters swiped from the comic books or intelligently bolstered, they mix enjoyable villain of the week shows with increasingly complex series arcs, always in the reliable cribs of DC’s fictional but well-established cities. Legends is the pinnacle of the oh-so-comic conceit of ensemble team-up that the other shows have played with, but has jettisoned the larger super-powered egos to pull them through multiple locations and times and become the closest thing The CW and Warner Bros Television can get to putting the Justice League on the small screen.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (Series One, 2016)
“Apparently, time wants to happen”
Last decade the laudably long-lived Smallville put its own version of the Justice League on screen, featuring a few of the familiar big players, but during a vastly different time for DC and Warner’s ambitions on small and big screen. While DC’s subsequently struggled to assemble that team for cinemas, there’s no doubt that alongside their animated films, the Warner Bros produced television series are their strongest suit. the brave new world began with Arrow in 2012, picking up one of DC’s, and indeed Smallville’s more interesting characters and building a show around him. Nothing was certain four years ago with the Smallville approach notably dating since its cancellation, a Wonder Woman pilot falling just before she met her first Olympian hurdle and Aquaman never making it further than a prolonged Entourage punchline. Arrow soon established a firm, soap-to action treatment of the source material, that while it may not quite represent the Oliver Queen seen in the comics, rose above the young superhero clichés that had perpetuated since Superboy and Supergirl to do what few expected. It established a stable, compelling world that sucked in and interpreted as much DC Comics lore as it could, and sett the foundations for the introduction of three more DC-based shows over the next four years. Star City’s Oliver Queen has long proven a fine building block in the Comic line. An everyman, lacking the super-powers but without the all-encompassing role and symbolism of Batman, he’s the arrogant spoilt rich kid who suffered a powerful fall down the rungs. That moralistic journey aside, his gruff manner and modern-day Robin Hood persona works as well in an urban environment as the battlements of Nottingham. One of the film universe’s great losses was David Goyer’s Supermax, a low-key unbranded film that would have seen the Emerald Archer take down assorted villains of the DC universe after a super-jail break-out in a kind of meta-meta-Die Hard. With the ‘rise’ of Dredd and The Raid since that was pitched, DC have cleared its desk and embarked on one of the least clear, direct assaults at big name franchise Hollywood’s ever seen.
On television, Arrow’s now readying its fifth season. While there’s a sentiment that the wealth of irresistible crossovers that dominate what’s now called the Arrowverse around mid-season has debilitated that original show, their power during sweeps period remains undeniable. They’re not going anywhere. And this being DC, there’s always a crisis round the corner ready to shake the status quo of shows that currently exist across multiple time zones and even different Earths (Zoom took Flash to Earth2 during his second season; Supergirl currently lives on another one altogether). That could all change as the third outing of The Flash confronts the comics’ Flashpoint storyline and the multiverse makes its presence felt. In the DC universe, the Flashpoint Paradox merged multiple worlds into the new multiverse of the New 52. On TV, with all four Arrowverse shows joining The CW network for the first time later this year, that’s just one gift this immense Source Wall of a property provides.
But that potential has also been allowed by a few deft decisions. The real strength of these shows is their continual growth and momentum. If there are any criticisms in the season-end reviews, it’s not that these shows stand still. A major help was Warner and DC’s decision that the film and television lines would be kept distinct, a sentiment that’s true to the comics and the multiverse. And although the major players of the DC universe were unlikely to make an appearance, a clash that was once led the adventures of young Bruce Wayne to quickly and oddly develop into Smallville, all the more odd when Superman Returns materialised in 2006, all bets are now off. An inadvertently hilarious Krypto-elephant in Supergirl’s National City this past year was that her more famous cousin appeared in shadow, by SMS or just as a pair of boots. Fortunately, this unintentional silliness has been resolved with the casting of a Superman for the premiere of Supergirl’s second series. Again, this is a multi-verse, so why not? And as soapy as The CW shows may be, there’s a lot that DC’s take on the small screen could feed into the comic’s all too serious short-form adventures on the big screen.
Past is the Prologue to the Present
“As the first Time Master was so fond of saying, ‘That was then, this is now’”
Yes, the twist, is a great power source of the Arrowverse. Fast-paced, almost glossed, not hanging around to worry about fully explain things whether in the grit and techno-bubble of Star City or the physics-stretching science of Central City. It sounds unfair, but it’s a blistering pace and scope that hangs together thanks to the goodwill it engenders. There’s barely a bad episode of pelting 40-minute comedy drama among the bunch, even when those old staples of evil doppelgangers and Red Kryptonite pop up. They’re shamelessly referential to pop-culture and other science-fiction; always happy to go for a quick joke before sinking teeth into some deep drama and moral quandry. The shorthand of pizzas in The Flash (every night) or the coffees in Supergirl (every morning) just help to build this four-colour universe.
And behind the scenes, they’ve all had an agenda to steadily explore the wealth of the DC universe. Like Marvel, the decades have produced thousands of characters that can draw in hundreds of genres. From Arrow’s urban roots to the entrance of magic and a certain John Constantine during its fourth season. To the rapid entrance of the Flash two years ago, introducing meta-humans, time travel and the multiverse. And then the pincer movement of Supergirl (over on CBS for its first year) and Legends, that opened up the universe to Kryptonians, Martians and Thanagarians among other alien races. Arriving just four years in, sucking up characters mostly introduced on Arrow, The Flash or through crossovers, Legends took that ball of momentum and ran back, forth and all over with it. In a universe already known for its sly references and team-ups, Legends emerged fully made. Continue reading “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow: The Surprise Return of the Spaceship Show”
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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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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