Flashback: ‘ Batman Returns’

The summer of 1992 saw Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight faced with two iconic foes in Tim Burton’s second (and final) Batman film…

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The superb Michael Keaton dons the cape and cowl once more in ‘Batman Returns’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Year:  1992

Starring:  Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle

Directed by:  Tim Burton / written by:  Daniel Waters (story by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm)

What’s it about?

Batman faces a new challenge when a corrupt businessman plots with the villainous Penguin to seize control of Gotham City, with matters further complicated by the appearance of the mysterious ‘Catwoman’…

Retrospective/review

Given the blockbuster success of Batman in the summer of 1989, Warner Bros. Pictures were naturally keen on producing a sequel.  Released in June of 1992, Batman Returns, whilst not as good as its landmark predecessor (although for some the reverse applies) easily qualifies as a strong second outing for Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight.  Although there’s slightly less focus on Bruce Wayne/Batman, Batman Returns is still very much a Batman film lovingly produced through the dark gothic imaginings of Tim Burton.  It’s clear that Burton was given more creative freedom as Batman Returns has even more of an idiosyncratic and fantastical touch that makes it unmistakably a Tim Burton film, but still feels appropriate for a major Batman feature born in the era of seminal comics works The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns and would also serve to inspire the exemplary Batman: The Animated Series.

Having formerly taken on Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Batman Returns doubles the jeopardy with two main antagonists – the Penguin and Catwoman, who are reinvented for this iteration.  Danny DeVito lives and breathes the role of Oswald Cobblepot – otherwise known as ‘the Penguin’ – his podgy, diminutive build, pointed nose and flipper-like hands giving him somewhat of a grotesque and literally penguin-like appearance, effectively evoked via the brilliant make-up design.  Much like the ‘monsters’ of the classic Universal horrors, his villainy is driven by tragedy – specifically, abandonment by his parents as an infant – and a desire for acceptance.  Michelle Pfeiffer is a similar revelation as Selina Kyle, starting out as the meek underdog before the fateful incident that leads to her ‘rebirth’ as the sultry and formidable Catwoman who, like Bruce Wayne, finds herself grappling with dual personas.

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The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) provide double the trouble for Batman (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Colluding with DeVito’s Penguin is the excellent Christopher Walken (who previously proved his worth as a villain in James Bond outing A View to a Kill) as devious Gotham businessman Max Schreck – named after the actor who portrayed Count Orlock in the classic German horror Nosferatu – who brings further weight to the threat Batman must face.  As for Michael Keaton he continues to impress, deftly straddling the line between his two identities bringing emotional complexity to Bruce Wayne, aided greatly by the chemistry he shares with Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, whilst applying a confident measure of brooding and intensity once he dons the iconic cape and cowl of the Batman.

Batman Returns is a very atmospheric film (benefitting from another great Danny Elfman music score), the Christmas holiday setting and frequent snowfall adding a feeling of wintry crispness to the gothic chill evoked by Bo Welch’s wonderful sets which build upon Anton Furst’s Academy Award winning work on the previous film.  A gentle increase in humour provides an element of quirkiness and levity (especially in the exchanges between Bruce and Michael Gough’s Alfred) without undermining the darker and more dramatic themes of the story.  As with Batman, the stunts and choreography in the fight sequences are top-notch and coupled with superbly staged action set-pieces (bolstered by some deftly executed pyrotechnics) provide plenty of visual excitement.  It all makes for a fun and artfully crafted comic book blockbuster at a time when such a thing wasn’t so common.

Read the classics review of Batman (1989) right here.

Geek fact!

Batman Returns features an early screen appearance from Hellboy and Star Trek: Discovery star Doug Jones as one of Penguin’s circus clown goons.

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

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…

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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).

GBUK Film Classics: ‘Batman’ (1989)

Looking at some all-time favourites…

“Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?”

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Batman (Michael Keaton) and the Joker (Jack Nicholson) face off in Tim Burton’s seminal big sceeen adaptation of the DC Comics character (credit: DC/Warner Bros).

Year:  1989

Starring:  Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Pat Hingle, Jack Palance, Michael Gough

Director:  Tim Burton / Written by:  Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren

What’s it about?

Protected by the mysterious ‘Batman’, the innocent of the corrupt and crime-ridden Gotham City soon find themselves facing a new and deadly threat…a homicidal criminal known only as ‘the Joker’!

In review

Amongst the many screen iterations of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s comic book creation, for many Tim Burton’s Batman is perhaps the most perfect.

The highest grossing box office success (and merchandising behemoth) of 1989, Batman succeeds on numerous levels.  Whilst taking the iconic character and his world back to the roots of Kane and Finger’s vision and mirroring the darker and more adult comic book interpretations of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy also retains an element of the camp wit and charm of the hit 1960s Batman television series starring Adam West.

Michael Keaton makes for a perfect Bruce Wayne.  Effectively dark and brooding with just the right hint of angst, Keaton proved the naysayers of the time wrong and allayed the fears of millions of Bat-maniacs (here’s hoping the same will be true of Ben Affleck in the forthcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).  Beyond a flashback to the tragic murder of Wayne’s parents, the origin of Batman is not explored in too much detail yet provides the crux of Bruce Wayne’s story and the subtleties of Keaton’s performance are a key element.

Synonymous with the film’s tone, Jack Nicholson (who receives top-billing above Keaton) infuses the role of Jack Napier/Joker with a multi-faceted performance.  As gangster Napier, he exudes a steely calm but once reborn as the Joker we are treated to an electrifying and manic portrayal that melds the psychotic elements of Nicholson’s iconic turn in The Shining with a homicidal twist on the camp clowning of Cesar Romero’s portrayal of ‘the Clown Prince of Crime’ in the Adam West TV series.

The cast is rounded out by a list of noteworthy names including Kim Basinger, who brings a touch of sparkle and elegance to proceedings as love interest Vicki Vale, Michael Gough as Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler, Alfred, Pat Hingle as police commissioner Gordon and Jack Palance as crime boss Carl Grissom.

Beyond the performances of the principal stars, Anton Furst’s Academy Award Winning production design brings the decaying, crime infested streets of Gotham City breathlessly to life (all the more impressive considering it all comprises of sets constructed at Pinewood Studios) and the exhilarating action is elevated by neat stunt work, scintillating pyrotechnics and exemplary special effects and miniatures by the legendary Derek Meddings.  The costume design is also inspired, from the jet black armour of the Dark Knight himself to Vicki Vale’s elegant clothing and the pin stripe suits, hats and trench coats – all lending themselves to the otherworldly ‘pulp’ feel of Batman.  It would also be remiss to not mention Batman’s “wonderful toys” the highlight of which is the sleek and formidable Batmobile, complete with machine guns, armour shields and that iconic flame exhaust!

Equally important to the piece are the dynamic themes of Danny Elfman’s exciting and atmospheric score, complemented by specially produced songs written and performed by Prince.

Tim Burton’s Batman transports the viewer into the panels of the comic book world, brought to life by incredible sets and outstanding cast performances – a true classic of the genre.

Standout moment

Having thwarted the raid on the Axis Chemicals plant, Batman escapes the pursuing Gotham City police in a shroud of smoke – yet the damage has been done, from a vat of acid a white hand rises.  The Joker is born…

Three reasons it’s a classic…

  1. It presents a dark and moody interpretation of Bob Kane’s creation that’s still fun and retains an element of comic book camp without the silliness of later sequels.
  1. It features one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest and most intense performances, providing the definitive screen Joker.
  1. It boasts impressive production design, bringing the ‘character’ of Gotham City to life.

Did you know?

Batman co-creator Bob Kane was originally due to cameo in the film but fell ill, leading to the proposed scene being scrapped.

If you like this then watch…

Batman Begins : the opening chapter to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy presents a more grounded version of Batman and Gotham City that’s breathtakingly realised and benefits greatly from stellar casting with Christian Bale proving the perfect fit as a grieving Bruce Wayne who seeks to reinvent himself as a symbol for justice…

Batman Returns : although veering a little too far into the realm of gothic fantasy, Tim Burton’s sequel to Batman is still an impressively designed and action-packed affair with a confident return from Michael Keaton and memorable performances from Danny DeVito (the Penguin) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Catwoman).

‘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.