Film Review: ‘Joker’

Joaquin Phoenix is the man beneath the clown make-up in Tod Phillip’s Scorsese inspired reinvention of DC’s iconic villain…

Joker (a)

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a powerful performance in Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘Joker’ (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson

Directed by:  Todd Phillips / written by:  Todd Phillips & Scott Silver / 122 minutes

What’s it about?

Grappling with mental illness amidst the crumbling society of Gotham City, a victimised and broken man walks a dark path as he adopts a deranged persona known as ‘Joker’…

In review

After riding a wave of festival focused critical plaudits and finding itself subject to some pre-release controversy (cancelled screenings and increased police presence rising from concerns that the film may incite acts of violence), Warner Bros. Pictures’ Joker, based on the iconic Batman villain, has landed in cinemas.  Featuring an intense and Oscar-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Joker is much less a traditional “comic book” interpretation of DC’s Clown Prince of Crime and far more a bleak, at times disturbing and often unnerving character study of a man cast aside by society, broken and pushed to the limit and through violent means – pushes back.  As has already been suggested since the film’s inception, Joker finds its roots within the celebrated works of director Martin Scorsese (who at one point was attached to produce) – specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a loner struggling with mental illness and afflicted by a condition which leads to uncontrollable bouts of laughter (something that may sound silly on the surface but is realised painfully by a startlingly gaunt Phoenix).  Caring for his mother (played by Frances Conroy) and making a meagre living as a sign twirling street clown, Fleck looks to pursue a career in stand-up comedy…but one bad day too many sees the tragic figure consumed by his demons as he transforms himself into the deranged and homicidal persona of ‘Joker’.

Joker is certainly a good piece of filmmaking (captured beautifully by cinematographer Lawrence Sher) and in many ways compelling, unshackled from its comic book origins and unburdened by any requirement to connect to a wider universe, favouring it’s Scorsese inspirations – the character of Fleck very much informed by Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, perhaps more so than he is by the Joker as we’ve seen in previous iterations.  Director Todd Phillips (who also co-writes) takes these influences and runs with them, proving his capabilities beyond the crowd-pleasing comedy fare of The Hangover trilogy.  It does, admittedly, make it a tad derivative and adds an element of predictability to proceedings, but at least provides a viable approach to this reinterpretation of a classic comic book foe.  Joker also benefits further from a small but key role for acting legend Robert De Niro (as talk show host Murray Franklin, who Fleck idolises), who certainly brings a heap of gravitas to the project – yet, the film unmistakably thrives on Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal.

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Joaquin Phoenix as the haggard and troubled Arthur Fleck (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Despite some of its creative laudability, the film is not exactly “fun” in any sense, but nor does it aim to be given the themes it explores (the societal tensions and spiralling crime rate sadly all too relevant) and Fleck’s descent into madness can make for a difficult viewing experience.  Truth be told, Joker cannot match itself to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight which was able to depict a satisfyingly dark and dangerous version of the Joker whilst offering some semblance of hope via Bruce Wayne’s war against crime.  It’s also arguable that the Joker is very much defined by his ‘relationship’ with Batman which makes the approach of Joker, although invigorating, ultimately lacks something without that counterbalance.

Joker does however maintain its links to the comics, the Wayne family playing an important role within the story and the (seemingly early 1980s) Gotham City setting, though a more grounded extrapolation of a crime-ridden New York of the 1970s, a familiar placing.  Fleck’s failure as a comedian is also, of course, an identifiable homage to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.

Joker leaves itself open to the interpretation of viewers and is likely to provoke fierce debates about not only the film itself but in its world-view and subjects it doesn’t take lightly – it may not be “entertaining” in a manner most would expect and the Joker is arguably better presented in his battles with the Batman but this is still a bold take on a particular, standalone, version of the character.

The bottom line:  ‘Dark’ in every sense of the word, Joker pulls no punches in its depiction of crime, violence and a society in decline, driven by Joaquin Phoenix’s powerful and mesmerising performance.

Joker is in cinemas now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘Man of Steel’

DC’s cinematic universe began with a fresh take on the world’s first superhero…

Man of Steel flight

Superman takes flight in ‘Man of Steel’ (c. Warner Bros).

 

Year: 2013

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Henry Lennix, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne

Directed by: Zack Snyder / written by: David S. Goyer (story by David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan)

What’s it about?

Transported to Earth as his home world is destroyed, the infant Kal-El is raised as Clark Kent by a kind farmer and his wife. As an adult, Clark struggles to find his place in the world until he discovers his true heritage and sets on mastering his amazing powers…

Retrospective/review

With Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns failing to connect with audiences and plans for a sequel abandoned, the summer of 2013 saw the release of Man of Steel – arriving just in time for Superman’s 75th Anniversary. Whilst Superman Returns sought to be a spiritual successor to Richard Donner’s seminal Superman: The Movie, Man of Steel would take a slightly edgier and more modern approach in an effort to make the iconic superhero more relatable. The film would also be seen by Warner Bros. Pictures as the first entry in a Marvel-style shared universe (once unofficially referred to as the DC Extended Universe, or DCEU, but now officially branded as ‘Worlds of DC’) featuring DC’s stable of comic book characters.

Enlisting The Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan as a producer and to craft a story with screenwriter David S. Goyer (who previously worked with Nolan on his Batman films), Man of Steel was built from an intriguing premise – what if Superman existed in the real world, today? How would humanity react and what would a man with incredible abilities choose to do with them? Given the critical and commercial success of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Warner Bros. naturally felt a similar take was needed for Man of Steel in order to make Superman a more identifiable and dramatically engaging character for a contemporary audience without intentionally alienating existing fans.

Directed by Watchmen’s Zack Snyder, Man of Steel is a Superman film for more complex and troubled times whilst still conveying an underlying sense of hope and providing the blockbuster spectacle viewers had come to expect in the wake of The Dark Knight and The Avengers. It may have become divisive, but it works rather well and favours that Nolan ‘heightened reality’ over the family-friendly fantasy of Superman: The Movie.

The story is solid – there’s the traditional opening on Krypton (depicted as a more organic Star Wars-esque world in comparison to the cool crystalline aesthetic of Donner’s Superman), its ultimate destruction and the baby Kal-El escaping doom to arrive on Earth. Shifting to some thirty years later, Kal-El is now Clark Kent, a drifter who finds himself lost and without purpose but often faced with the urge to help those in need. Through a series of flashbacks we learn of Clark’s struggles to reconcile his abilities with the life of a normal person. Searching for answers, Clark ultimately discovers his origins and embarks on a journey to master his gifts and utilise them for good, but the arrival of Kryptonian survivors, led by the militant General Zod presents an unexpected threat to Earth and its people and throws an inexperienced Superman into a dangerous conflict.

Man of Steel Zod

General Zod: a formidable foe.

The cast is equally as good. Henry Cavill has a firm grasp of the central role and provides a grounded and very human portrayal of the man who will become Superman. Amy Adams is impeccably cast as the Daily Planet’s star reporter Lois Lane, bringing dramatic weight to the requisite qualities of professional drive and personal strength. As General Zod, Michael Shannon delivers a powerful and formidable antagonist whose threat is further enhanced by Antje Traue’s Faora-Ul. The casting is made all the more impressive by the inclusion of Russell Crowe, who succeeds Marlon Brando in the role of Jor-El, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent, respectively and Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White.

The action is exciting, especially during the film’s final act. Some have found themselves at odds with the level of destruction in Man of Steel, but it both shocks and enthrals in a way that’s realistic and entertaining. It’s also seemingly a response to the reception of Superman Returns which many felt was too slow and lacked action and physical conflict. Zod’s death has also proven controversial, yet it’s arguably one of the film’s most emotionally effective and powerfully acted scenes. Henry Cavill’s performance in that particular moment is gripping – his gut-churning yell grabbing the viewer and making you feel all the anguish, frustration and regret of the situation.

Man of Steel Lois & Perry

Laurence Fishburne joins Amy Adams’ Lois Lane as Daily Planet Editor Perry White  (c. Warner Bros).

The production design is accomplished (particularly in respect of Krypton), the costuming superlative and the effects are great, all captured beautifully via Amir Mokri’s cinematography and Zack Snyder’s kinetic direction. A real highlight of Man of Steel is Hanz Zimmer’s wonderful score – atmospheric, emotional and exciting it’s one of Zimmer’s finest providing themes that enhance the visuals greatly (especially during Superman’s exhilarating first flight). As classic and unforgettable as John Williams’ Superman theme is it would feel out of place here and not fit the world of Man of Steel.

Ultimately, Man of Steel establishes hope as Superman makes it known that he’s here to help. The events of the film would end up driving the titanic clash of 2016 sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice but as it stands, Man of Steel is highly underrated and a superbly executed redefinition of Superman for modern times.

Geek fact!

Man of Steel cleverly incorporates a Christopher Reeve cameo with a brief glimpse of the actor’s face inserted into Henry Cavill’s performance during Superman’s battle with Zod’s Kryptonian World Engine.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Film Review: ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’

Starring (voices):  Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise

Directed by:  Sam Liu / Written by:  Brian Azzarrello / 76 minutes

What’s it about?

Hunting for an escaped Joker, Batman finds himself in a race against time to rescue Commissioner Gordon form the clutches of the deranged Clown Prince of Crime…

In review

Having already adapted Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it was always inevitable that Warner Brothers Animation would turn to tackling that other celebrated DC Comics work of the 1980s, writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.  A dark and psychologically complex tale that’s equally unnerving, The Killing Joke adapted as an adult-rated animated feature would surely be a ready-made success?  Though enjoyable in many areas, Batman: The Killing Joke also proves flawed and never manages to hit the heights of the two-part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns (which in all fairness is an entirely different story and set on a much larger scale).  The main issue lies with the source material, though Moore and Bolland’s graphic novel is an undisputed and flawless classic, it’s relatively short length would have resulted in too brief a running time had it been adapted ‘as is’.  As a result screenwriter (and fan favourite DC Comics scribe) Brian Azzarello has produced a wholly original 30-minute opening act focusing on Barbara Gordon/Batgirl that ultimately offers less to the overall story than it would hope to add.

There is a positive point to the opening act of The Killing Joke in that it provides Barbara Gordon with a larger role and resultantly a richer character arc in the story as Azzarello draws a complex and controversial relationship between Batman and Batgirl, set against her obsessive quest to bring down gangster Paris Franz (Maury Sterling).  It certainly helps the viewer to establish a deeper connection with Barbara adding some emotional weight to events later on yet it’s the almost jarring transition from this new material to the familiar where things falter, as nothing from the Franz sub-plot and very little from the Batman/Batgirl dynamic carries over into the rest of the film.  It’s appreciated that this would cause further deviation from Moore and Bolland’s original story and thus might have resulted in a messier final product but it’s a shame that even a small attempt to tie the two elements together couldn’t have been made.

The opening Batgirl story aside, the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke works relatively well.  It’s pleasingly faithful, the adult rating ensuring that director Sam Liu is able to depict every gut twisting moment uncensored, with some beautiful animation work utilising a style that sits somewhere between the realistic look of the Batman: Year One (also helmed by Liu) adaptation and the slightly more caricature visuals of The Dark Knight Returns.  Wisely, some of Brian Bolland’s most memorable and evocative panels are replicated perfectly at several key moments in the film which will give many a reason to pull out their copies of the graphic novel.

Of course, one of the greatest joys of The Killing Joke is that it features the return of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in their respective and much loved Batman: The Animated Series roles as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the Joker.  They’re as great as they’ve ever been, Hamill in particular as he deftly straddles a fine line between serious and outright manic, his evermore gravelly tones delivering a reliably unsettling yet still silly Joker (aided by an odd but nifty musical number).  Tara Strong also reprises her Batgirl role from The New Batman Adventures and makes a decent job of conveying the more layered approach to the character featured here, whereas Robocop’s Ray Wise is a little flat as Commissioner Gordon which is slightly disappointing given what happens to him in the story.

Sweetening the deal are a number of nice little easter eggs for fans to lap up including visual references to Jokers from Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (both of which were heavily influenced by The Killing Joke) and a twist on that iconic cover image from Detective Comics #27.

Despite some positive points, there’s an overriding sense that the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke comes off feeling a little slight and at times lacking the impact of the graphic novel (especially in the often dissected and endlessly debated finale) and the additional material would have arguably been better served expanded into its own feature.  Still, with Conroy and Hamill on hand and some striking visuals and a respectful adherence to the work by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland there’s still enough reason for fans to check out this latest DC Comics venture from Warner Brothers Animation.

The bottom line:  Though flawed, the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke still makes for an enjoyable watch that will ultimately lead fans yearning to revisit Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s original graphic novel.

Batman: The Killing Joke is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) face off in the Warner Brothers Animation adaptation of seminal DC Comics graphic novel 'Batman: The Killing Joke'.

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) face off in the Warner Brothers Animation adaptation of seminal DC Comics graphic novel ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’.

Five worthy ‘threequels’

The third entry in any film series is by large considered a disappointment and whilst in some cases this is certainly true (“hello” to Superman III and Jurassic Park III), there are some ‘threequels’ that threaten to stand toe to toe with numbers one and two.

With the recent Blu-ray release of Iron Man Three, I thought I’d look at a selection of five other noteworthy threequels that are far from disappointing…

ONE:  ALIEN 3 (1991)

Follows:  Aliens (1986)

Lt. Ellen Ripley crash lands on the Weyland Yutani prison colony “Fury” 161.  Although her companions are killed in the crash, Ripley is not the only survivor…

Aliens would always have been a tough act to follow but Alien 3 was definitely a step in the right direction, not bigger in an attempt to outdo James Cameron’s blockbuster, but much smaller and more claustrophobic and visceral in the same vein as the franchise’s 1979 progenitor (Ridley Scott’s Alien of course).  Directed with a smattering of art house flair by the then 20-something David Fincher, the Alien 3 that audiences eventually saw had risen from the ashes of a troubled production but stands as an underrated piece of cinematic SF horror that’s oozing with atmospheric chills and should really have been a conclusion to the Alien film series.

Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon aside, Sigourney Weaver is supported by a wealth of British acting talent – Brian Glover, Charles Dance, Ralph Brown, Danny Webb and Paul McGann.  Coupled with Fincher’s youthfully artistic direction Alien 3 has its own distinct flavour.

What came next:  Alien Resurrection (1997) – a sequel too far?  Whilst Alien 3 was ‘arty’ in the best possible sense, Resurrection overstepped the mark and resulted in a poorly conceived and over ambitious mess that lead to the guilty pleasures of two Alien vs. Predator films.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) faces her worst nightmare - again - in 'Alien 3', directed by future Oscar nominee David Fincher.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) faces her worst nightmare – again – in ‘Alien 3’, directed by future Oscar nominee David Fincher.

TWO:  STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984)

Follows:  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The crew of the Enterprise are mourning the loss of their shipmate, Captain Spock but when Doctor McCoy begins exhibiting strange behaviour, Admiral Kirk is compelled to defy orders and return to the Genesis Planet…

As established Star Trek fans will know, the most recent J.J. Abrams film is not the first time the franchise ventured “into darkness”.  Both Star Trek II and Star Trek III dealt with some dark yet mature themes including regret and loss, whilst still retaining the core ideals of hope and humanity that Gene Rodenberry had envisioned.  It made sense that the franchise grew with its audience and had relevance in the often dark 1980s.  The Search for Spock – despite relatively little screen-time for Leonard Nimoy’s Spock (he was busy behind the camera this time out) – showed us that Star Trek had matured without forgetting those afore-mentioned ideals that made it so appealing.  A large part of what makes it work so well is that you cared about those original characters and rooted for them as they banded together at the risk of losing everything for the sake of their friend and comrade.

The Search for Spock also features a (just) pre-Back to the Future Christopher Lloyd as the enjoyably maniacal Klingon Commander, Kruge.

What came next:  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – “the one with the whales” ranks as one of the most commercially and critically successful of all the Star Trek feature films (and the second to be directed by Leonard Nimoy), it brought levity in spades and upheld the key elements of Gene Rodenberry’s vision whilst paving the way for the franchise’s return to the small screen with the immensely successful Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Kirk (William Shatner) together with his shipmates steal the Enterprise, risking all for the needs of the one...

Kirk (William Shatner) together with his shipmates steal the Enterprise, risking all for the needs of the one…

THREE:  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

Follows:  The Dark Knight (2008)

Bruce Wayne must once again don the cape and cowl to prevent the terrorist Bane from fulfilling the League of Shadow’s plan to destroy Gotham City…

Whilst many will argue that The Dark Knight is the best of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises was the perfect conclusion and brought the focus back to Bruce Wayne’s story (despite less actual screen time for the Batman himself), bringing everything neatly full circle.

The film features arguably the strongest cast performances of the trilogy and a villain that literally stood toe to toe with Gotham’s Dark Knight and high stakes throughout to the spectacular and gripping finale.

For more on the Dark Knight Rises, check out the GBUK retrospective here.

What came next:  Man of Steel (2013) – although Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga concluded with The Dark Knight Rises his creative presence is felt in the recent Superman reboot, having served as producer and sharing a ‘story by’ credit with screenwriter David S. Goyer.

Another superbly cast ensemble  for the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's well crafted Batman film trilogy.

Another superbly cast ensemble for the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s well crafted Batman film trilogy.

FOUR:  GOLDFINGER (1964)

Follows:  From Russia With Love (1963)

007 must foil gold magnate Auric Goldfinger’s plot to irradiate Fort Knox’s gold reserve…

Goldfinger is generally regarded as the finest of all Bond films (for me it’s in contention with From Russia With Love) and identified as the point where Bond-mania truly exploded.  It established the template from which (for better or worse) all future Bond films would follow:  the pre-credits mission, a grand and operatic theme song, the gadgets, a compelling villain and an action packed climax as 007 leads a final assault to thwart the plans of said villain.

Gert Frobe (despite being dubbed due to his lack of coherent English) brought true presence and gravitas to the role of Goldfinger, a master villain able to match Bond whit for whit.  Sean Connery excels as the iconic super spy, his performance confidently infused with charm and vigour – leaving you in no doubt that (as good as Daniel Craig is) he was and likely always will be the best screen 007.

And of course who can forget that legendary Austin Martin…ejector seat and all.

What came next:  Thunderball (1965) – considered by some to be the downward turn in Sean Connery’s tenure it’s still a top spy adventure bolstered by Academy Award winning effects, another magnificent score from John Barry and yet another sexy Bond girl – this time Claudine Auger’s ‘Domino’.

Expected to die...James Bond (Sean Connery) faces the challenge of one of his greatest foes - Aric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe).

Expected to die…James Bond (Sean Connery) is challenged by one of his greatest foes – Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe).

FIVE:  ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)

Follows:  Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a surprising entry in the original Planet of the Apes film series not only in that it’s superior to first sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes but also for the fact that it’s a film of two very different halves.  The first ‘half’ is fairly light (even frivolous) as the evolved apes Cornelius (Roddie McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) are welcomed with open arms by the media and general public, being treated like celebrities before the sinister workings behind the scenes of the U.S. government lead to a much darker second half as Cornelius and Zira (the latter having just given birth) must run for their lives as they are hunted down.  At this point it’s a film that can be taken much more seriously and throws an uncomfortable spotlight on the uglier, inhumane aspects of human nature.

What came next:  Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) – arguably the best of the Apes sequels it continues the darker tone of the latter parts of Escape as humanity’s subjugation and mistreatment of apes (a comment on slavery, a subject directly referenced in dialogue by one of the film’s African American characters) leads to a violent revolt by Caesar (another wonderful simian performance from McDowall), the son of Cornelius and Zira.

'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' starts out fun before exploring darker territory as the film progresses to it's tense and shocking climax...

‘Escape from the Planet of the Apes’ starts out fun before exploring darker territory as the film progresses to it’s tense and shocking climax…

Do you have a favourite threequel?  Share your thoughts below!

Also on Geek Blogger UK:

Blu-ray review: ‘Iron Man Three’

Blu-ray review: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

GBUK film classics: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’

GBUK film classics: ‘From Russia With Love’

 

‘The Dark Knight Rises’ – a year on

So five years have passed since the release of The Dark Knight (check out the retrospective here) but it’s also a year since Christopher Nolan’s Batman film trilogy came to its epic and hotly anticipated conclusion…

‘THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ – LOOKING BACK

It’s been eight years since the last reported sighting of the Batman and eight years since the events surrounding the death of Harvey Dent, forcing Bruce Wayne into ‘retirement’ and seclusion.  The passing of the Dent Act has meant that the streets of Gotham are safer but in this time of complacency the legacy of Ra’s Al Ghul and The League of Shadows threatens to re-emerge – Gotham’s reckoning is at hand…

Taking time out from Gotham City to write, produce and direct the inventive sci-fi heist thriller Inception, Christopher Nolan would soon calm the anxieties of many a Bat-fan and confirm a third and final instalment of his Dark Knight saga.  Following a tightly secretive production and a series of hype inducing trailers – the end result was presented to audiences in July 2012 as The Dark Knight Rises.

The main principle cast reprised their respective roles, giving arguably their best performances of the trilogy – particularly Christian Bale, fresh from Academy Award success having received a Best Supporting Actor nod for The Fighter.  Michael Caine featured in a slightly smaller, but no less significant role as Alfred and Nolan brought across more of his Inception stars – Tom Hardy as the film’s main villain – Bane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Blake) and Marion Cotillard (Miranda) together with Anne Hathaway (Selina Kyle) and Full Metal Jacket’s Matthew Modine (Foley).  Liam Neeson appears in a neat cameo during a dream sequence, giving a realistic twist to the immortal (making use of a ‘Lazarus Pit’ to periodically rejuvenate) comic book counterpart of the Ra’s Al Ghul character.  We also saw another appearance by Cillian Murphy as the ever wicked Jonathan Crane.

When announced it was perhaps with both excitement and trepidation that the film’s main villain would be Bane – the hulking (sorry Marvel), muscle-bound, spandex and wrestling mask sporting character from the classic Knightfall comic book saga of the early 90’s.  Bane, despite his appearance is a great character much improved by a reimagining that remains true to the comics (gone was the spandex with the wrestling mask replaced with a more functional version serving to release painkillers) and given validity and stature by Tom Hardy together with some great dialogue.  If Batman Begins gave us the idealist in the form of Ra’s Al Ghul, The Dark Knight the anarchist in the Joker then The Dark Knight Rises presented us with the terrorist – Bane, excommunicated from The League of Shadows but non-the-less seeking to fulfil Ra’s Al Ghul’s plan to eradicate Gotham.

Anne Hathaway proved a treat (more than just mere eye candy) and is easily the best screen interpretation of Selina Kyle to date.  Referred to simply as the ‘Cat Burglar’ as opposed to Catwoman, she was given a more realistic and functional look (which the comics have continually leaned towards), her goggles flipping upwards – and given cleverly placed camera shots – the upward curves of which look suspiciously (and pleasingly) like those iconic cat ears.

Prior to release of The Dark Knight Rises there was much speculation as to the true identity of Marion Cottilard’s character, Miranda Tate and with a well handled twist we discovered that Tate was indeed Talia Al Ghul – daughter of Ra’s and another significant character of Batman mythology (in the comics she mothers Wayne’s son and future Robin, Damian).

This brings us to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, cast as Detective John Blake – a twist on the Robin character (or probably more Nightwing here).  The screenplay (once again by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan from a story by Chris Nolan and David S. Goyer) cleverly set up Blake as the likely successor to the cape and cowl, from his unease at the use of firearms to his eventual frustration – and loss of faith in – ‘the system’.  This set up also provided the trilogy with a satisfying closing scene.

Wayne Manor had finally been rebuilt and in terms of the on-screen hardware, the Bat-pod made a welcome return but the limelight was well and truly stolen by Batman’s new vehicle:  the ‘Bat’ – obviously Nolan’s version of the Batwing.  As with the Tumbler, the Bat was a well-designed military-grade reinvention of Batman’s iconic flying vehicle and allowed for some exhilarating action sequences in The Dark Knight Rises.

The action and excitement is second to none, from the Police pursuit of the Bat-pod, Batman’s initial (almost deadly) bout with Bane, Bruce Wayne’s escape from Bane’s pit prison right through to the edge of the seat climax through the streets of Gotham.  Despite a longer running time, the pacing seems to flow better than The Dark Knight.  True there is the odd plot-hole but the running time would have to have been significantly extended to fill in every detail and we’re not reading a novel after all.

The Dark Knight Rises built to a thrilling final act with Bruce Wayne’s afore-mentioned triumphant escape from Bane’s pit-prison, returning to Gotham to don the Bat-suit one last time as Gotham’s police battles Bane’s mercenaries all leading to Batman once again facing off against Bane, the betrayal of Miranda and the revelation of her true identity and Bruce Wayne’s apparent sacrifice, saving Gotham from the detonation of a nuclear bomb.

HOW DOES ‘THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ HOLD UP A YEAR ON?

The Dark Knight Rises proved divisive amongst some fans (despite positive critical reception and another healthy $1 billion plus at the box office) but for the majority (this writer included) it was a breath-taking and fitting final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s foray into the world of Batman.

The film is of course still fresh in the minds of cinemagoers the world over and I’ve found that it holds up just as well after several Blu-ray viewings since last summer’s theatrical release.

The production was as strong as the previous entries and resisting the lure (and no doubt studio pressures) of 3D, Nolan decided to once again employ the IMAX format (shooting over an hour of footage with the cameras, roughly double that of The Dark Knight) allowing even more grand and epic visuals (kudos once again to cinematographer Wally Pfister).  Hanz Zimmer’s (sans James Newton Howard this time out) score is more than worthy of a mention easily conveying the anticipation, tension and excitement of every scene.

With The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne’s story came full circle but leaves the Batman legend to endure.  Although I would still rate Batman Begins as arguably the best of the series, The Dark Knight Rises comes awful close.

The closing moments of the film have been (and still are) endlessly discussed and dissected with two outcomes:  Bruce Wayne is dead or…Bruce Wayne is NOT dead.  I’m firmly in the camp of the latter, it seems that Nolan ideally would have liked to kill off Bruce Wayne to end his Batman story but ultimately did not want to alienate die-hard comic fans.  Nor would the studio allow someone to kill off a 70+ year old icon – there can really be no Batman in the long term without Bruce Wayne (notwithstanding Dick Grayson’s tenure in the comics prior to the current ‘New 52’ run).

The evidence is there:  the software patch to the Bat’s autopilot system, the missing pearl necklace from the items in Bruce’s Will and his acquisition of the ’clean slate’ programme – however, it is all presented in a way that if you choose to believe Bruce is dead then, in fairness, each point could be argued.  Regardless, the debate over the finale of The Dark Knight Rises will perhaps never be settled.

When we next see Batman up on the big screen it will be in the recently announced (as yet untitled) Batman/Superman crossover with Man of Steel director Zack Snyder at the helm (and a screenplay from David S. Goyer) with a new actor to don the cape and cowl.  Although we are unlikely to see as sophisticated and artistic a take on the Batman mythos as presented by Christopher Nolan it’s reassuring that the character, so ingrained in popular culture, will continue to endure…we can only hope that there isn’t a return to the dark (and camp) days of Joel Schumacher’s tenure!

Top three moments of The Dark Knight Rises:

  1. Russian scientist Dr. Pavel has been captured along with another hooded man and taken into a plane where he is questioned by American agents.  Bane is revealed as the other man as a cargo plane flies above, heavily armed men dropping down to facilitate Bane’s escape with Pavel and the destruction of the plane…with no other survivors.
  2. After recovering from his back injury and a number of failed attempts to escape from Bane’s prison, Bruce Wayne summons all his will and strength to make one final climb – he ascends as bats swarm out of a crack in the wall, finally reaching the surface…and freedom.
  3. Batman has supposedly died saving Gotham City one last time.  Commissioner Gordon mourns, only to discover a replacement Bat-signal has been installed on the roof of the GCPD building; Blake collects items left to him in Bruce’s Will – giving his legal first name as ‘Robin’; Alfred relaxes at a French bistro where he sees Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle sat not too far away; Blake arrives at the destination Bruce Wayne has sent him to, he discovers a cave, a swarm of bats rushes forward and the ground elevates beneath his feet…the new Dark Knight…Rises!
Another superbly cast ensemble  for the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's well crafted Batman film trilogy.

Another superbly cast ensemble for the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s well crafted Batman film trilogy.

‘The Dark Knight’ – five years on

Has it really been that long since the release of Christopher Nolan’s mega-hit sequel to Batman Begins?  Who can forget the impact that The Dark Knight had, triumphantly leading the charge of cinematic comic book heroes in both scale and stature?

Of course as with any film, time moves on and the dust settles so let’s take a look back at The Dark Knight and see how it holds up five years after its explosive theatrical release…

‘THE DARK KNIGHT’ – LOOKING BACK

Having saved Gotham from Ra’s Al Ghul and The League of Shadows, Bruce Wayne continues his war on crime as the Batman and will soon face a dark threat that will push him to the limit.  An unstoppable force will meet an immovable object…

With the critical and commercial success of Batman Begins a sequel was a given, leaving nightmares of Batman and Robin truly behind.  Director Christopher Nolan developed the story with Batman Begins co-writer David S. Goyer (screenwriting duties being shared by Nolan with his brother, Jonathan).

July 2008 saw the release of The Dark Knight, pitting Bruce Wayne/Batman against (as teased – nay, promised – in the closing moments of Batman Begins) his most iconic nemesis:  the Joker.  Nolan’s mandate of a ‘heightened reality’ provided a fresh and credible interpretation of the character whilst staying true to what was envisaged in the comics.  The Joker of The Dark Knight was everything fans expected:  psychotic, maniacal and homicidal (drawing on the darkest takes on the character in the comics – Alan Moore and Brian Bollands’ The Killing Joke clearly being an influence) right down to the purple suit and sadistic sense of humour.  However, instead of the traditional chemically-induced green hair and white skin (as in the comics and Tim Burton’s Batman), this Joker had long unkempt hair, dyed green, and used make-up – smeared on like war paint, with scars either side of his mouth providing that perpetual menacing grin.

Christian Bale continued to own the role of Bruce Wayne and delivered an even gruffer, still gravelly voiced Dark Knight (how Clint Eastwood might sound before his morning coffee?).  The excellent Aaron Eckhart joined Bale and the returning cast (Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman) as Gotham District Attorney Harvey “Two-Face” Dent.

Maggie Gyllenhaal replaced Katie Holmes, picking up the threads of the Rachel Dawes character bringing her own nuances to the role and providing more emotional turmoil for Bruce Wayne as he contemplates a life beyond Batman.

With the destruction of Wayne Manor in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne relocates his Batman HQ to the underground ‘Bat-bunker’ beneath the docks of Gotham’s harbour.  Sadly it was goodbye to the Tumbler but hello to the ‘Bat-pod’ and a new modular plated Bat-suit was donned, making Batman’s thrashing of Gotham’s low-life that much more efficient.

The Dark Knight also featured another great score from Zimmer/Newton-Howard (the highlight being the Joker’s theme – evoking the menacing, clowning and mischievous nature of the character) building upon the themes of Batman Begins.

It’s also worth mentioning that as with the key relationships established in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight presented the relationship between Batman and the Joker perfectly with Bruce Wayne being pushed to the limit, all treated as just good fun by his nemesis – knowing that he will never break his one rule of never taking a life.

The Dark Knight continued Christopher Nolan’s mission to present a cinematic Batman in a way never thought possible and is an example of how the source material could be interpreted in a serious, relevant, but still entertaining manner, presented in epic proportions.

HOW DOES ‘THE DARK KNIGHT’ HOLD UP FIVE YEARS ON?

It’s fair to say that much of the focus at the time of The Dark Knight’s release was around the tragic death of Heath Ledger, stoking the curiosity of cinemagoers.  Ledger’s unnerving performance as the Joker still captivates just as much as it did on first viewing (fully deserving of that posthumous Academy Award).  This really is the main attraction of The Dark Knight and a large part of what makes it a strong and worthy, albeit not superior, sequel.  Many will disagree with me and declare The Dark Knight as the best of the series but it was easily improved upon by The Dark Knight Rises in my books.

The Dark Knight has often been cited as transcending the comic book genre and been compared to classic crime thrillers such as The French Connection and Heat which are fair observations.  At times The Dark Knight does feel more like those films and with Nolan’s push for realism it does tend to stray a little from its comic book roots.  It’s a shame that the CGI/physical set compliment to the Chicago location employed in Batman Begins was not continued in The Dark Knight but despite some loss of the ‘feel’ of Gotham City the visual scale was certainly grander and Wally Pfister’s cinematography remains breath-taking.  The film’s striking visuals were aided by the use of high resolution IMAX cameras (the first feature film to do so) which are now being employed by more and more filmmakers (J.J. Abrams shot portions of Star Trek Into Darkness using IMAX and Michael Bay will utilise the new 3D version for Transformers 4).  The focus of the story is also centred more on the anarchy of the film’s main villain and the spiralling tragedy of Harvey Dent as he undergoes his transformation from hero to villain.

Despite those minor grumbles this is still an excellent film some repeat viewings later, visually undated thanks to technical foresight (the afore-mentioned IMAX technology is a key example) and enriched by the well-crafted screenplay, epic scale production values and strong cast performances.  It is a solid middle chapter with arguably the strongest villain of the trilogy in Ledger’s Joker.

Top three moments of The Dark Knight:

  1. A group of Joker-masked criminals set about a heist of the Gotham National Bank, each determined to keep the proceeds of the endeavour for themselves by eliminating each other one by one until only one remains – the architect of the whole affair who believes that whatever doesn’t kill you will only make you “stranger”!
  2. Harvey Dent declares himself as the Batman and is taken into custody before being transported across Gotham in a GCPD van escort.  The Joker has already planned to capture Dent but didn’t bet on Batman being one step ahead…
  3. The interrogation of the Joker ensues, but Jim Gordon may have made a mistake when he decides to let Batman handle it…

Check out the GBUK classic film review of Batman Begins here

Coming to the blog next week:  a look back at The Dark Knight Rises

The late Heath Ledger brought an incredibly powerful, mischievous and unsettling performance to the role of the Joker - gaining rightful recognition with a posthumous Academy Award.

The late Heath Ledger brought an incredibly powerful, mischievous and unsettling performance to the role of the Joker – gaining rightful recognition with a posthumous Academy Award.