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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Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises posterChristopher Nolan winds up his Dark Knight trilogy with this highly entertaining action epic, told with energy and spectacle. Though it may fall some way short of its predecessors (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), it is nevertheless a satisfying ending to Nolan’s reinvention of the Batman franchise, rescuing it from the scrapheap after 1997’s Batman & Robin and rebuilding it in to what will surely be remembered as a high-water mark for the superhero genre.

The ambition and intelligence with which the director (along with his screenwriter brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer) infuses the caped crusader is a truly remarkable achievement. Raising a number of political and ethical issues within what is ostensibly a comic-book movie (including references to failed states and the Occupy Wall Street movement) and fashioning them in to a cohesive and genuinely exciting whole is little short of a miracle. The high calibre cast add yet further depth: regulars Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman are all reliable as ever, while among the newcomers Anne Hathaway makes for a suitably slinky Catwoman (never called by that name) and Tom Hardy is formidable as Bane; though unsurprisingly no-one is able to match the late Heath Ledger’s electric turn as the Joker.

Despite all this however, TDKR is for me the least personal of Nolan’s film to date, and the least effective. There is a niggling sense throughout that the director just wasn’t as engaged here as he was with the previous entries. Perhaps he had said all he wanted to say about Batman with the first two films, but felt compelled to repay the trust shown in him by the studio.

It’s the small things that give it away. The flow of the film is choppier here than before: what you might expect to be crucial turning points in the storyline are given short shrift, while the uncharacteristically contrived plot drags a little in the middle, and stretches credibility a little too far at times – something that’s not been a problem in the past. The sound mix is also problematic; dialogue (usually Bane’s, but sometimes Bruce Wayne’s too) is often inaudible or drowned out by Hans Zimmer’s score.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the characterisation of Bruce Wayne here either – his becoming a recluse for so many years doesn’t seem consistent with the man he became over the course of the earlier films.

Yet Nolan is clearly a consummate professional and doesn’t do films by halves. The opening hijack sequence is more than worthy of a Bond film (something that Nolan would surely excel at), while the breathless final act brings the film together in a much smoother and genuinely exciting way, with the closing scenes especially crowd-pleasing.

In a way, you might call this Christopher Nolan’s own The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: a more expansive (and more expensive) treatment of themes explored in the preceding entries. Though the analogy doesn’t withstand scrutiny because if Batman were the Good and Bane the Bad, then Catwoman would have to be Ugly – something that is self-evidently not the case.

So where next? A reboot is probably in order now – seeing a Batman film that isn’t embarrassed to call Catwoman by her name would be refreshing – but to be honest, I would love to see where a direct sequel takes the series. Plenty of tantalising possibilities…

[xrr rating=4/5]

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.