Who’s afraid of the big black bat?

Here’s an article I wrote for TAKE ONE about how Batman has been re-interpreted down the years, and asks if it’s time to move on from Christopher Nolan’s take on the character:

If Christopher Nolan’s phenomenally successful adaptations of DC’s enduring caped crusader have taught us anything, it’s that some characters belong in the shadows. Cinema audiences just can’t seem to get enough of Batman, the darkest of superheroes. In the two film franchises he has starred in so far – Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, which concludes this month, and the original series begun by Tim Burton back in 1989 – he’s been at his most popular, and best, when literally and figuratively shrouded in darkness. Indeed, so successful was he that for years it seemed as though the only comic-book adaptations that could generate success at the box office were those whose central characters were either as morally conflicted or as psychologically scarred as Bruce Wayne. Yet the difference between these two approaches is vast: night and day, you might say. There are different flavours of dark, and, as successful as the current Batman series has been, a change of direction might now be in order.

Full article: Who’s afraid of the big black bat? | TAKE ONE

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Friday Favourites: Five threequels that blew it

The Dark Knight Rises posterIn the week that trilogy-capper The Dark Knight Rises is released, I thought it might be fun to look back at some past threequels which not only failed to meet the high standard achieved by their forebears, but did so by a wide margin. Not that I think Christopher Nolan has delivered a turkey to your nearest cinema – that seems almost inconceivable at this point – but it might help to deflate a little of the hype and expectation in which Rises is lavishly smothered.

There are LOADS of crappy Part IIIs of course, but I’m only looking at those that followed a strong original and a decent (or even great) part two; the second sequel thus ruining any legitimate chance of the trilogy being acclaimed as a whole. So films like Return of the Jedi, which are relatively inferior to their predecessors but still perfectly respectable entertainment, are disqualified.

TDKR follows Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, both very fine films in their own right. But will they go on to become an acclaimed trilogy? Early reviews suggest Yes, but I won’t find out until later today. (Oh, and who else thinks it’s a shame Batman Begins has Batman in the title? It would be much more fitting if all three had gone with the Dark Knight moniker. Could Nolan pull a ‘Lucas’ and retroactively change the title to The Dark Knight Begins? Too similar to The Dark Knight Rises, maybe. Can Batman both Begin and also Rise as well? What does he do in the middle chapter then? Just exist? So Part II should be re-titled The Dark Knight Is. Or maybe The Dark Knight Descends. Or how about The Dark Knight Emerges? Oh alright, I give up.)

Anyway, back to those dodgy threequels…

 

The Godfather Part III Poster1. The Godfather Part III (1990)

Where else can one start but here? The Godfather and its immediate follow-up were models of intricate plotting and superlative performances masterfully woven together by their director. But Part III frequently succumbs to flabby plotting and occasional stretches of dullness, interspersed with a masterclass in How Not To Act from Sofia Coppola. It’s not a complete loss – Al Pacino and Andy Garcia are on great form – but it’s a long way off the first two. Mind you, so is pretty much everything else.

 

2. The Final Conflict (1981)

The Omen and its sequel Damien: Omen II are both very enjoyable horror romps. The original stands up remarkably well today thanks to Richard Donner’s pitch-perfect direction and its fantastic cast, while Part II amusingly ups the ‘accidental’ deaths and gore. But Part III fumbles the ball badly. The series’ trademark set-pieces are very ho-hum compared to what’s come before, while the plot (concerning the End of Days) is a load of old twaddle. It’s a disappointingly tame end to what was otherwise a memorable franchise, though on the plus side Sam Neill is brilliant, and it’s still better than the made-for-TV Part IV and the pointless 2006 remake.

 

The Mummy Tomb of the Dragon Emperor poster3. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

Look, no-one’s suggesting Stephen Sommers’ horror-adventure pastiches are misunderstood classics. But I’m on record as being a bit of a fan of his 1999 Mummy remake, with its old-fashioned heroics and swoony star pairing of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. The first sequel, 2001’s The Mummy Returns, lost some of the original’s charm in the onslaught of special effects, but kept enough of what worked to make it a fun ride. Sadly, Rob Cohen’s belated Part III has absolutely no charm whatsoever. Weisz bailed, and replacement Maria Bello couldn’t replicate the chemistry she shared with Fraser, who looks as if he was just waiting for his cheque to clear. And let’s not even get started on those Yetis.

 

4. Shrek the Third (2007)

A catastrophic drop-off in quality occurred somewhere along the way between Shrek 2 and 3. The first two films are great fun. This third entry was a complete snoozer. It was followed by Shrek Forever After, which was only marginally less snoozy. Perhaps the novelty had worn off by the time Part III emerged, but I think the problem is simpler than that: an unfunny script that can’t find anything new to do with its characters. If you really want a Shrek trilogy, bundle parts I and II together with last year’s spin-off Puss in Boots, which was actually quite fun.

 

Batman Forever5. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Blade: Trinity (2004)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman III (1983)

Finally, here’s a few comic-book franchises that slipped up on their way to trilogy status – take your pick. Evidently there is a long-standing tradition for superhero threequels to shoot wide of the mark. I would argue that none of them are especially terrible (well, alright, maybe Blade 3); in fact they are quite enjoyable in parts. But all pale significantly in comparison with their respective parts I and II. Sometimes a change of director is to blame (a Bryan Singer-directed X-Men 3 would almost certainly have been a far better sequel than the bland Brett Ratner one we ended up getting), but in the case of Spidey 3 and Supes 3 the fault lies with pressure from the studio/producers who wanted the film to be made in a certain way, and the end result just doesn’t quite come together. On this evidence, it’s a brave man who takes on the challenge of making the third film in a superhero saga; but in Nolan we trust.

Franchise fatigue?

The Franchise. Simultaneously one of the most popular and unpopular words currently floating around the world of cinema. It’s popular with the studio bean-counters, who love the idea of having a guaranteed blockbuster year after year, providing a steady income from ticket receipts and merchandise opportunities. It also seems to be pretty popular with audiences, who queue up to see the latest sequel to emerge from Hollywood. I read today how Resident Evil: Extinction is the seventh “threequel” (i.e. the third episode of a franchise) to be released this year, and the seventh to reach No.1 in its opening weekend.

The Franchise is however unpopular with critics of Hollywood, who write about the dearth of imagination in modern movie-making and talk about the good old days of the 1970s when filmmakers were allowed a free reign on what was made and succeeded in producing some of the most remarkable and memorable films ever. And to some extent, they do have a point. The world of cinema today is a different one from the 70s, and the great films made then remain classics of their time. One has difficulty thinking of a recent film that could equal the dark majesty of The Godfather for instance.

But Franchise has now become a dirty word, used to describe Hollywood movie-making at its brainless, soul-destroying worst. And it is perhaps true that in some quarters this reputation is justified. Examples abound of inferior sequels to great or good originals. It is far harder to think of sequels that equal or even surpass their progenitor.

But I would like to offer a few words in defence of the Franchise. Firstly, I like sequels. Not all sequels, obviously – there have been some that should simply be buried underground in concrete bunkers, or blasted off into space on a collision course with the sun (Batman & Robin, I’m looking at you). But the notion of returning to a universe that I enjoyed first time around is a very appealing one, particularly as there is often little opportunity to do so. Movies are generally one-offs: they tell a story, and then they end. That’s part of their appeal. But return trips, when they work, can be just as great. Forgive me for dragging in the Alien franchise to my blog again, but James Cameron proved that building on Ridley Scott’s universe was fantastically worthwhile. And Francis Ford Coppola’s own The Godfather Part II successfully expanded the story of the Corleone family.

But these are genuine sequels you say, not Franchises with multiple money-making opportunities. True. Modern day Franchises like Spider-Man and Shrek were created from scratch with the aim of making billions of dollars in cinemas and homes in various forms. But so long as effort has gone in to each ‘episode’ to give it a strong story and equally to tell it well, why should we not enjoy it? Comic-book adaptations are particularly prone to sequels, and why not? That’s the nature of comics, to tell stories over weeks and even months or years. It seems wrong to me that Spider-Man, Batman or Superman should be denied the opportunity for further exciting tales of their fantastical universes.

Equally, films like Die Hard or the James Bond series prove that a character can be worth returning to. If Ian Fleming or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could write multiple stories involving their famous creations, why shouldn’t movie-goers enjoy the same privilege?

Naturally, there will be hiccups and downright awful abominations (er, Batman & Robin, stop trying to hide behind your desk…). But if the characters and their worlds are good enough, they will prevail in the end (Batman Begins proved that). So all I would say is, when critics yet again berate the slate of sequels and spin-offs that Hollywood lines up for us suckers, remember that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Obviously variety is the spice of life, and in no way would I want to only see Franchise films. Some films just wouldn’t support a sequel, and quite rightly so. But neither would I want to be denied the opportunity to see a new Spidey flick.