…but nearly all the Batmen? Actually, Clooney, Kilmer, Bale or Batfleck fans will have to look elsewhere. But forget that cowardly, superstitious lot. After the jump, five MostlyFilm writers shall shine a light on the most interesting iterations of the dark knight detective.
Or a Gregg’s to sell it in.
The point is, no-one cares about the Gotham City Police Department, the poor saps who always show up just in time to find villains tied up with a note from the Caped Crusader, the grunts who get their cars smashed and trashed by the Joker as he executes yet another ridiculous caper, the cannon fodder in Gotham’s epic battle between good (Batman) and evil (Literally everyone else). So pushing them centre stage seemed unwise. Telling the story of how Commissioner Gordon rose through the ranks doesn’t seem compelling if you just see him as “The guy who lights the Bat-signal”.
But… but but but. Dammit, Gotham is good. What you get for the price of admission (and at the moment, that seems to be “A subscription to Netflix”) are solid-to-excellent performances from the large ensemble cast, a striking but unflashy production and a robustly cartoonish world that rarely feels ridiculous or camp, a world ready for Batman to step into. Jim Gordon does his best to act as the upright, incorruptible bastion of justice that the city needs, but he is weak in many ways; a killer, a sentimentalist, impulsive and irrational. He’s nearly Batman, but he falls short. Similarly, at this point the villains are not quite in their final forms yet. The Joker isn’t quite smooth enough, hasn’t found his meaning in opposition to Batman. The Riddler is too consumed with personal vengeance, Penguin is scrappy, still climbing the heap.
So it is that Bruce Wayne is still just Bruce Wayne. David Mazouz is by necessity playing the long game here, growing with the role. This is, I think, the first time I’ve seen the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents presented in the present tense, and when we see flashbacks of it Mazouz looks VERY young. He’s literally grown into the role, become the man Bruce Wayne needs to be in order to wear the little pointy ears of justice. By the end of Season 3 (as far as Netflix has allowed me to see), he has taken to the streets in long black coat and a ski mask. It can only be a matter of time now before he decides that criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot. And I firmly believe that his will be considered one of the great portrayals of the Caped Crusader.
Sometimes, a sausage roll just needs a while in the oven.
I’ve read the comics, seen the films, marvelled at the moral and philosophical weavings within the graphic novels, laughed like a drain at Lego Batman and thoroughly enjoyed the kid friendly, yet dark, interpretation of the 00’s animated TV series and spin offs. And yet for me Batman will always be Adam West.
They say your first love is the one you remember most fondly. Well West was my first Batman. Carrying off grey and black spandex like a man born to it. Genuinely offering viewers gravitas and poise, despite his mask’s comedically arched pencilled on drag queen eyebrows and the fact that he was spouting lines so daft they would make any surrealist comic proud. That voice of his. Deep, resonant and with a similar speak-pause-a-beat-speak pattern to his friend and fellow TV hero Captain, (pause-a-beat-), Kirk.
But the show was held together by more than just West. Featuring a plethora of star’s who may have otherwise faded from view or passed us by entirely, like Ceaser Romero, latin lover and Cisco kid in the 30’s, born anew in the late 60’s as the Joker. Or Burgess Meredith, who many of you may know best as Rocky’s trainer but who will always be the Penguin to me. The wonderful Alan Napier, the most definitive Alfred with cut glass vowels, thick rimmed glasses and the poise you expect from a Butler far wiser than his master. Or Julie Newmar, the pin-up beauty who is best known and most associated with the show as Catwoman, although the kitty-cat I remember best was Eartha Kitt; now that woman could purr.
The Batman comics have always been dark, difficult not to be dark when you consider that your lead character is an exceedingly rich man using his money to fund his downtime pass time of being a vigilante. The 1966 TV show was anything but dark. From the costumes – heck even batman who wears black looks colourful – and sets to the script, nothing about this show was ever intended to raise questions deeper than ‘how are they going to get out of this one?”. I love the one-liners. Whether it’s Commissioner Gordon spouting “You know I’m violently opposed to police brutality!” or Robin summing up yet another predicament “Holy Atomic pile Batman!” I love the gadgets. The Batmobile may be cooler in the recent movie outings but everyone wants West’s Batmobile more, and whoever thought of making the bat phone an illuminated red telephone inside a cake stand is a genius.
I could say more, but I won’t, instead I will link to a montage of the West, Ward fight scenes with their (surely) iconic “Pow!”, “Boof!”, “Krunch!” captions, choreographed to the wonderfully kitsch and utterly 60s Batman theme tune. Sometimes you say it best when you say nothing at all.
Batman: Year One
by Spank The Monkey
Batman: Year One is an origin story. I know, I can see your eyes rolling from here. But back in the old days, retelling the tale of who a superhero is and how he came to be was something you saved for a special occasion, and certainly not as common as it is now. In 1987, when the comic of the same name was first published, writer Frank Miller was a hot property in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns. So Year One seemed like an ingenious idea: what better way for him to follow up the self-proclaimed Last Batman Story, than with the First Batman Story?
We actually get a couple of origins for the price of one, as the opening cuts between two men arriving into Gotham City. Bruce Wayne is returning to his family home after a dozen years away, still tormented by the murder of his parents. Meanwhile, idealistic cop Jim Gordon has been transferred to Gotham, and is dismayed to find that the police corruption that drove him out of the Chicago force is even worse here. Both men are looking for ways they can make things better, but have very different ideas on how to achieve that.
The DTV animated movie of Batman: Year One, produced 24 years after the book, is a faithful scene-by-scene remake, in many cases line-by-line. It’s an approach that’ll keep the fanboys happy, but it has to be said that Miller’s words were designed to be read, not spoken out loud. Large parts of the book consist of first-person narrative captions, displaying the inner monologues of Wayne and Gordon. Simply repurposing them as voice-over seems like the obvious solution, but the hokey pretension of the narration jars horribly with the hard-boiled dialogue performed in the same voices.
It’s also disappointing that the film doesn’t attempt to recreate David Mazzucchelli’s original art. Mazzuchelli’s loose style, sketchy but perfectly clear, made Year One quite different from any other modern Batman comic, bringing it closer to the charm of its 1940s roots. Unfortunately, the team of Korean animators who’ve worked on the film have given it a clean-edged, thin-lined look that’ll play well on HD televisions, but which makes it indistinguishable from any other anime-style cartoon.
Still, there’s no denying that before he went full fash, Miller knew how to tell a good story. The terrific pace of his comic is matched by that of the movie, fitting in a couple of huge well-staged setpieces and tidily wrapping up the whole thing in an hour. (Although the final in-the-nick-of-time action beat turns out to be one of those things that looks brilliant as a still image, but rubbish in motion.) There’s some cheeky typecasting in the voices, giving key roles to people who would work just fine in a live action remake: Bryan Cranston as Gordon, Jon Polito as the tubby chief of police, Eliza Dushku as a fighty young woman with a fondness for cats.
If anything, the weak link in the cast is Batman himself: Ben McKenzie is just there, letting the visuals do the work, and not bringing any personality to either of his roles. I don’t watch Gotham myself, so it came as a shock to discover that McKenzie has subsequently gone on to play Jim Gordon on the show. Is he a better fit for that role? Maybe someone else on this page has answered that.
Batman: The Animated Series
Every Batfan has their favourite screen version of the caped crusader. For me, and for many of a similar age, it’s Batman: The Animated Series (TAS), which ran from 1992 to 1995. I have fond memories of watching Adam West’s beer-belly Batman every Saturday morning on RTE, but the darker TAS is superior in almost every way to the camp adventurer from the sixties.
This darker tone and much of the art deco aesthetic of TAS comes directly from Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). Danny Elfman’s theme in the opening credits sets the mood and the direction for the atmospheric score. TAS stands up to repeat viewing twenty five years later, thanks in no small part to the timeless setting. The cars, the architecture, the police blimps*, the lighting, all add to the film-noir feel.
What makes TAS stand out from other animated shows is the voice casting. Everybody knows that Mark Hamill voiced the maniacal Joker, but it’s Kevin Conroy’s Bruce Wayne / Batman that is most memorable, following Michael Keaton’s lead using a different voice for the dark knight. The list of voice actors is impressive and throws up some familiar names: Ron Perlman, Ed Asner, David Warner, Helen Slater, and Michael York to name a few.
The quality of the writing is impressive, and adds to the show’s success and longevity. The nemeses are better developed than standard cartoon villains. Joker aside, they are treated with sympathy as complex characters that don’t fit the simplistic bad-guy narrative. Mr Freeze, for example, is primarily driven by his love for his sick wife. TAS plays around with many of the comic’s established characters, breathing life into minor ones and even creating new ones. Harley Quinn, created especially for TAS, became so popular that she has since become a regular in the DC universe, but let’s not talk about Suicide Squad.
TAS ran for two seasons. The first had 65 episodes, the second 20. Most of the first 30 episodes are refreshingly Robin-free. I’m a little too young to fully appreciate the animosity toward Scrappy Doo after he joined his Uncle Scooby, but Robin’s appearance in TAS gives me some idea. Bats doesn’t need a side-kick! Batgirl turns up as a regular shortly after Robin. The last 15 episodes include The Adventures of Batman and Robin in the on-screen titles, and after that came The New Batman Adventures, which appear as Volume 4 of TAS in the DVD releases to add to the confusion.
There were two features made: Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm, and Batman & Mr Freeze: SubZero. Phantasm works well as a standalone film, better than any of the post-Burton films of the nineties although that is a very low bar. SubZero is more of an extended episode and is really a Batgirl story.
If, like me, you raced home from school / college / work / wherever to catch the latest episode of TAS, you’ll know that this is the version of Batman that all others aspire to. Don’t just take my word for it, watch it and judge for yourself.
*There have never been police blimps, but they look good and fit right in to the Gotham of The Animated Series.
Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was something of a first for the young cineaste that was me. It wasn’t the first film I saw without my parents*, nor was it the first film I saw alone**, but it was the first film I saw that felt that like an event. Thing is, I don’t know why Batman felt so momentous to me– I wasn’t a Batman fan, particularly. I mean, who was? The sixties Adam West thing has a campy charm, but a campy charm isn’t especially appealing to a fourteen year old; and I hadn’t read the comics or anything, because I had both friends and an interest in girls.*** I’d seen Beetlejuice, and liked it, but I wasn’t exactly a Burton fan either. So why was I queueing up outside the ABC in Bristol with my friend Dan and actual grown men in costumes? I think it was the Prince soundtrack. It had come out a bit before the film and I’d been listening to it on my enormous knock-off walkman pretty constantly. Some of the songs featured lines of dialogue from the film, enabling me to turn to my mate Dan and recite them as they were delivered in the movie – he looked at me like I was some sort of witch.
How was the film? Well, you’ve seen it. It’s alright. It’s also the best Batman film ever made, obviously. It isn’t a full-on weirdy-spooky Burton experience as I guess he’d been tempered a little by the constraints of making a huge studio blockbuster. To be honest, though a little more idiosyncrasy might have been welcome in 1989, too much Burton whimsy is frankly unwatchable now, so it was probably a good move.
The most obviously Burtonian thing about Batman is the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Nerds were apparently furious at his casting, but this was 1989, a pre-internet paradise where no-one gave a shit what nerds thought. They were cross because Keaton was known mainly as a comedian and they felt that his casting suggested a move away from the “dark” (misogynist and a bit fascist) Batman they had enjoyed in 1980s graphic novels like The Dark Knight Rises and The Killing Joke. Anyway, they needn’t have worried. It was clear very early on that Keaton wasn’t going to play the Bat for laughs. Or, for that matter, drama. Christopher Reeve famously played Clark Kent as the important character, whilst Superman was shallower, one-note. Keaton makes the brave decision to play neither Bruce Wayne nor Batman, but rather to deliver the lines in a peculiarly affectless monotone, as if he’s sight reading them for the first time. Despite this, his is clearly the finest Batman ever. It isn’t inspiring, exactly, or engaging, or even consistently watchable, but at least it isn’t risible. And that’s an achievement that has eluded every single actor to wear the old cape and ears ever since.
Batman’s not that important though, is he? What matters is the Joker and, if Keaton was unlikely casting, then Nicholson was utterly inspired. Burton’s Gotham is heavily inspired by the cities of thirties gangster movies (and, actually, Metropolis (Lang, not Superman)) and Nicholson draws his template from the same source. His Jack Napier is a hard-boiled, sociopathic gangster even before Batman drops him into a vat of some sort of Jokerising chemicals and his personality isn’t massively changed by his transformation. The best thing about Nicholson’s Joker is, and this is just a mind blowing observation likely to change all subsequent consideration of the Batman oeuvre, is the jokes. I know we’re all supposed to wet ourselves over the crazy of Ledger’s Joker, but he never told any jokes, did he? One or two mildly amusing pulled faces and a silly voice was the extent of his schtick. Leto isn’t even vaguely amusing, he just sits in a circle of knives with writing on his face. Nicholson’s Joker though, he had a joy buzzer that electrocutes people! His preferred mass-murder method is a chemical that makes people laugh themselves to death, but the real joke is that it makes people stop wearing make-up and so we get to laugh at TV newsreaders looking like the portraits in their respective attics first. Even his handgun has a three foot barrel, making the drawing of it from his waistband into a sightgag worthy of Laurel and Hardy. Mainly, he isn’t damaged or sexy or any of that crap, he’s just a bastard who really, realy enjoys killing people, and he’s funny. That – cruelty untampered by mental illness, and leavened by good jokes, is what makes his Joker the best one. Burton’s Batman then has very little Burton, a basically absent Batman and a brilliant Joker. It’s the best Batman movie, and really, not an utterly terrible way to spend an afternoon.
* Rocky IV, (1985) I think.
** Karate Kid II, (1986) if we mean went alone; Mannequin (1987) if we mean literally alone in the cinema. When my life flashes before my eyes on my deathbed I imagine that 90 minutes will be particularly hard to justify.
*** I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Everyone knows nerds are cool, right? Plus, I went to see Mannequin on my own, so not a social butterfly.