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Batman Reborn: Looking Back on Nolan’s Gotham Crime Fighter.

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Over the last few months, Batman fans across the globe have been drip fed trailers and TV spots of director Christopher Nolan’s up and coming third and final instalment in his vision of life in Gotham City. The Dark Knight Rises is so far promising to be the definitive summer blockbuster of 2012, as Batman (Christian Bale), Bane (Tom Hardy) and Catwoman (Anna Hathaway) prepare to battle it out on screen, in a film that will finally reveal the fate of Bruce Wayne and his crime fighting alter ego. As early as a year ago, audiences’ appetites were whetted as the first teaser trailer was shown in theatres everywhere and subsequently spread across the Internet like wildfire, and the first glimpse of the ever-domineering Bane was briefly exposed. While some Bat-fans expressed disappointment in The Riddler seemingly having no place in Nolan’s vision of Gotham, and with Nolan already expressing no room for The Penguin in his more realistic world, none could question the fact that Bane was finally the physical match Batman needs in an all out fight. Could Bane be the brute strength required in a villain that The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and The Joker (Heath Ledger) didn’t possess? After all, both previous foes certainly gave Batman a run for his money in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight respectively. With this in mind, now would be a good time as any to revisit Nolan’s previous two instalments, and take a retrospective look on how they hold up today, reminding ourselves exactly what it is that people love about the post-2000 cinematic presence of the Caped Crusader.

 

Between 1989 and 1997, Batman’s celluloid existence went from cool Gothic to, well, a bit of a disappointing joke. After a darkly promising start created by relatively then-new film maker Tim Burton, with his dark, twisted Joker origin story in Batman, through the rise of Catwoman and the sewer-dwelling Penguin in Batman Returns, Joel Schumacher turned the franchise into a tale of high camp and bat nipples, featuring a hero whose fight sequences were one punch away from a cartoon THWAKK! being splashed across the screen. Even ‘90s big name stars Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Nicole Kidman and Uma Thurman did little to save the sinking movies, with Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze firmly hammering a nail in the franchise’s coffin. The Batman of the ‘90s was done and dusted, much to the relief of many fans.

 

It should come as no surprise then, that when a reboot was announced just a few years later, Bat-fans were divided between the slightly dubious and the ecstatic. Giving some fans even more room for doubt was the fact that Schumacher’s name was circling the project. But, good fortune came in the shape of director Christopher Nolan, and as a new Batman cycle was beginning to form, and a breath of fresh air was breathed into the life of the Caped Crusader. It was exactly what Batman needed: a new spin on an old tale. A re-invention, and something as far removed from Batman and Robin as possible. It was hard to imagine anyone taking Batman further away from the 1960s iconic Adam West TV series than what Burton did, but, Nolan has done just that, offering audiences the grittiest, most tangible Batman yet, but one which also manages to stay true to the comics and graphic novels that came before it.

Batman Begins takes our hero right back to the start, in the form of an origin story, as the title suggests. But, as far as Batman’s filmic presence is concerned, this was the untold story in the truest sense of the phrase. The first act of the film consists of flashbacks and flash forwards, flitting between a young Bruce Wayne (Gus Lewis) witnessing the traumatic death of his parents before his eyes, to thrusting a grown up Wayne to the farthest reaches of Asia in a Chinese prison. Having been recruited by the mystifying Ducard (Liam Neeson), Wayne finds himself training to become a member of The League of Shadows, under the watchful eye of comic regular Ra’s Al Ghul.

 

Unlike the 1989 film which is set solely in Gotham and has Batman in full view within the first few minutes as he fights criminals on roof tops, a move regarded as some as premature exposure, Batman Beginsholds back, giving time for Wayne’s motives and back story to be fleshed out in full before he even becomes Gotham’s caped crime fighter. 45 minutes into the film, and Wayne returns to Gotham following his encounter with The League Of Shadows, The Scarecrow makes his first appearance, and the film finally becomes more linear. It is then a further ten minutes before an early version of Batman appears, seen questioning Jim Gordon (superbly played by Gary Oldman, in one of the finest casting moves of the film), and finally just over an hour until the final phase of Batman’s presence is brought to the screen.

 

It is clear to the spectator that Nolan is at home when dealing with protagonists with a multitude of mental states. After all, Memento is hailed as a masterpiece of filmmaking by many film fans alike, no easy feat for a fledgling director, and like Batman, the psychology of the protagonist is represented in the non-linear editing of the film. Unfortunately, however, many of the fight sequences of Batman Begins are shown in close-up. So close in fact, a lot of the action seems to be happening just off screen, and the viewer is left wishing the camera would pull out and show the fight in all it’s glory. This questions how confident Nolan was at shooting fighting sequences in an action film of this level, however it is totally forgiven when the audience is offered the astonishing action pieces involving a high speed roof top chase between the Gotham police and the Batmobile. While Memento and Insomnia have their fair share of action and drama, in Begins, the action seems so enveloped in shadows and strategic editing, and much is left to the imagination of the viewer. This, of course, isn’t without benefits from a story telling point of view. The first fight sequence offers glimpses of Bats courtesy of the perspective of the criminals, with Batman playing the part of an unknown threat lurking in the dark. Of course, this harks back to films such as Jaws and Alien, neither of which offer a full view of the creature until well over an hour in, an element that only adds to the sense of menace.

 

The film features a generally strong supporting cast, consisting of Morgan Freeman as tech and Tumbler expert Lucius Fox, Tom Wilkinson as mob boss Carmine Falcone, Ken Watanabe as Ra’s Al Ghul, and Rutger Hauer as Earle, the man threatening to pull Wayne Enterprises from under Bruce’s feet. The only weak link in the chain appears to be Katie Holmes as childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes, and it remains to be seen how much exactly Holmes added to the film, if anything. Not that the character of Dawes is completely inane – like the ever faithful Alfred (played by the brilliant Michael Caine), Dawes provides Wayne with a much needed link to the real world, a more grounded world where cape and cowl take a backseat. However, while Caine portrays Alfred as both witty and charming (in a more contemporary, one-liner, cockney sort of way, unlike the high camp humour of his comic counterpart), Holmes often fades into the background and proves to be under threat of being overshadowed by such a stellar ensemble cast.

 

An important point to make is Nolan’s decision to omit long-time sidekick Robin from not just Batman Begins, but any future films featuring his involvement. Nolan was once quoted as saying he would only have Robin in the films if Ellen Page played her, although this never came to fruition. Later, she turned up in Inception, however with Bale promising he would leave the franchise if Robin appeared, it seemed Chris O’ Donnell’s portrayal of Batman’s companion would be relegated, for the time being at least, to Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, to the relief of many fans of Nolan’s films. Not that O’Donnell was a particularly bad Robin (as far as films go we only have Burt Ward’s portrayal to compare to), it just happens O’ Donnell was a mediocre Robin in two awful films.

 

The general consensus of Batman Begins is that it is a fine piece of work. While the CGI appears to have not aged as well as certain other elements (certain night scenes featuring aerial views of smoke filled slums now appear a little obviously computerised compared to special effects in more recent films), this does not take away the fact that the film is the beginning of what is destined to be a great Batman era. As the final scene concludes, and Gordon presents a Joker playing card to Batman, giving obvious hints to a sequel, fans were hungry for more, and eager to see Batman fight more familiar favourites. A few short years later and they got what they wanted, in the guise of The Joker in The Dark Knight, a film that changed the superhero franchise forever.

The Dark Knight is the hugely successful sequel to Begins. Again helmed by Nolan, it went on to become the first superhero film to rake in over one billion at the box office worldwide, as well as garnering a posthumous Academy Award for Heath Ledger’s significant reinvention of The Joker. Unlike Begins, Batman appears in the action from the offset, finally capturing The Scarecrow who escaped Arkham following The League of Shadows attempted destruction of Gotham in Batman Begins. However, what sets The Dark Knight apart from its predecessor is the inspiration it has clearly taken from real life tragedy, and the allusions towards real-life terrorism.

 

Moving on from the drug and paranoia fuelled themes of terror campaigns from the first film, The Dark Knight appears to have taken its inspiration from the tragic events of 9/11, making the film a much more relatable and corporeal piece of work. The promotional poster for The Dark Knight offers the audience a symbolic image of terrorism. Behind a statuesque Batman, the Bat Symbol is shown emblazoned across a skyscraper like an engulfed flame, offering an image not only reminiscent of a New York skyscraper, but reminding viewers of the impact point of the planes involved in 9/11. Another observable image connected to 9/11 and terrorism is The Joker’s homemade videos of captured hostages. One particular video shows him tormenting a captured Batman copycat, exhibiting it for the public on live TV, with promises to kill more people and create more havoc in Gotham if Batman does not reveal his true identity. The low-resolution video is notably evocative of the video showing the death of Daniel Pearl, and a video made by the journalist’s killers, showing him moments before he was killed. Along with images of Batman standing amid ruined buildings (reminding people of the destroyed Twin towers) and the Bat Symbol being reminiscent of the lights projected into the sky at Ground Zero, the imagery gives the film a distinct 9/11 aesthetic.

 

Unlike Begins, The Dark Knight is a much more linear film, which relentlessly projects the threat of The Joker to the audience, and, unlike Burton’s 1989 film, keeps The Joker alive at the end. The CGI has improved, most notably in newly elected district attorney Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) later incarnation as Two Face, his grotesque manifestation giving an unsettling appearance. Another notable improvement is the casting of Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes. Following Katie Holmes’ departure from the series, Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Dawes allows the character to have more depth, more of a backbone and is substantially more sophisticated. It would be hard to image Holmes’ Dawes standing up to The Joker, and Gyllenhaal’s performance leaves the audience wishing she had been cast in the first place.

 

Additionally reprising their roles are Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and a brief appearance from Cillian Murphy, however the standout performance belongs to Heath Ledger as The Joker. Unlike the Nicholson portrayal of The Joker in Batman, which considerably overshadowed Keaton’s performance as Batman, Ledger’s performance fits in perfectly in Nolan’s world. That said, this portrayed of The Joker is possibly the definitive performance, and one that could potentially go down as the ultimate depiction of Batman’s greatest enemy. Ledger is perfect as the bizarre, nasty and maniacal Joker, illuminating threat and terror in a way that no actor before him as managed. The ultimate terrorist.

 

The Dark Knight is an immense spectacle from start to finish, and at 152 minutes, allows for an epic achievement by Nolan, with a labyrinthine plot that never dulls or sags. The action sequences are now less intrusive on Bale’s face, and allow for more on-screen action to be seen, and the Batmobile makes a welcome return, in a chase sequence that even manages to top that seen in Begins, with the new addition Bat Pod making it’s first appearance. Additionally, Batman appears as more of a detective than his previous appearance, attempting to track The Joker’s every move with a wonderful array of gadgets and high-tech toys.

 

In the four years that have passed since the release of The Dark Knight, it is apparent that the films are still incredibly enjoyable and that audiences clearly will never tire of repeat viewing. It is of little shock then that the buzz surrounding The Dark Knight Rises is incredibly high, and Bat-fans are expecting big things from Nolan’s third and final film in the trilogy. Compared to the previous Batman films of the 1990s, which arguably get progressively worse, The Dark Knight Rises promises fans the end to a franchise that, in polar opposite, gets progressively superior. Whatever the case, few would deny that The Dark Knight is a tough act to follow, however if the trailers so far are anything to go by, fans are in for an explosive end to a mesmerizing vision of Gotham. In Nolan we trust.

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