Sunday, March 27, 2016

Wearing a Mask: A Cine-Thematic and Provocative Retrospect of the Dark Knight

Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
This weekend's release of the highly-anticipated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has already become one of this year's most debatable movies. Most of the reviews have been negative, citing the film as too brooding and dark, not to mention lacking a sense of fun. The film presents a grittier interpretation of two of DC Comics' most iconic characters--Clark Kent a.k.a. the Man of Steel, and Bruce Wayne a.k.a. the Caped Crusader--as they clash over opposing worldviews following the events that occurred during the climax of the former's recent cinematic outing (2013's Man of Steel). This portrayal of Batman (from Ben Affleck) is the latest in a long-list of many roles the character has filled, and not just for the actors who've played him over the years. And like his super-strength counterpart on screen, Batman is certainly no stranger to controversy. He has always been an equally compelling, provocative, and brooding character--at least the way creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger intended him to be in the comics. Here is a recap on some of the significant live-action outings (including their controversies as well as their thematic undertones) in the Caped Crusader's filmography. 

Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Batman
Batman (1989) 
Director Tim Burton's (Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice) dark-yet-highly-engrossing adaptation was the first that brought the character and world of Gotham City out of the campy setting that pervaded the classic 1960s T.V. series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. And although it spends most of its time with Jack Nicholson's interpretation of the Joker, the film does (more than the others in the original series) tap into the enigma of Bruce Wayne and why he does what he does. The making of the film was a ten-year odyssey, facing several roadblocks including backlash towards casting (Michael Keaton, in particular) and controversial revealings of the murderer of Bruce Wayne's parents. There is also a provocative and compelling visual motif of the difference between heroes and villains, as well as which one makes the other. 

(Top to bottom) Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Danny DeVito
in a striking poster for Batman Returns
Batman Returns (1992) 
It seems Burton was given complete creative control for this even darker and more violent tale of characters with animal-like instincts and misguided ambitions in an equally dark and violent world. Easily the most neo-noir, grotesque, and disturbing of the original films (definitely not one for children or families), there are still intriguing themes and character studies of Batman/Bruce Wayne (Keaton), the Penguin (Danny DeVito), and Catwoman/Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer). If only they could have given Keaton more screen time.

(Clockwise from top): Val Kilmer, Chris O'Donnell, Nicole Kidman,
Tommy Lee Jones, and Jim Carrey in Batman Forever
Batman Forever (1995)
Steering from the nightmarish nature of the previous film, Warner Brothers sought to lighten the tone of the Batman universe. Burton was replaced by director Joel Schumacher (The Client, A Time to Kill), who brought a new level of excitement and intrigue, and Keaton was replaced by Val Kilmer, who made the title role all his own, but with sex appeal. The subplots involving his duel pursuit of a psychiatrist (Nicole Kidman), his mentoring of Robin/Dick Greyson (Chris O'Donnell), and his battle with Two-Face/Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones) and especially the Riddler (Jim Carrey). This latter villain represents the film's motif of characters with multiple personalities. A surprise box-office hit, the film did, however, face backlash for the inclusion of rubber nipples on the batsuit, and arguably some questionable sexuality. And these were just a few elements, along with mind-blowing, razzle-dazzle action sequences and special effects, that made the widely-disregarded follow-up, Batman & Robin (1997), a disappointment.

Christian Bale in Batman Begins
Batman Begins (2005)
Fans and critics were given a surprise as director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) brought them a gritty and intense reboot of the franchise, promising a more grounded-in-reality story that gave Batman new life and meaning, and made both groups forget the previous outing that reportedly killed the series. Boy, were their expectations exceeded! Nolan, co-writer David S. Goyer, and star Christian Bale set a new bar for backstory, character study, and intense action as Bruce Wayne's origins are traced back to his childhood all the way through his motivations for dressing up as a creature of the night, and setting an influence on Gotham City.

Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, and Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight (2008)
Widely regarded as the greatest comic book movie ever made, Nolan delivers a more-engrossing yet ultimately-tragic tale of Batman's (Bale) quest to rid Gotham City of crime, and his ultimate showdown with the character of the Joker (an unforgettable Heath Ledger), questioning the role of the former as hero or villain. The examinations of these characters, as well as Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), are thoroughly riveting, and the direction of the story is constantly gripping and grim. In fact, several viewers felt the tone was far darker than it needed to be, and that the overall effect was (according to some) "nihilistic" and "violent". According to Nolan, in an interview with Newsweek in 2008, "Yeah, it is grim. But Batman is a grim character. It's a grim world. And that's part of the fun of it--it's operatic. It's exciting. But it's definitely grim." Although I do find the film thrilling and engrossing (and seen as an ensemble piece), I'm not as keen as Nolan is on calling it an entertaining film, nor am I content with all the publicity that the late Ledger (who tragically died of an overdose in January of 2008) has gotten for all the film's credit.

Anne Hathaway, Christian Bale, and Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Set eight years after the events of the last film, Rises finds Bruce Wayne as a bruised-and-beaten man who's hung up his cape and cowl. And then, a masked vigilante named Bane (Tom Hardy) and a mysterious woman named Selina Kyle enter the picture. What follows are character studies of people in masks, experiences of pain, a city on the brink of destruction, and the hero's journey to rid it of crime and bring life back to it. Shot with the most IMAX footage at the time, and featuring tremendous action sequences, the release of this film was only undermined by a real-life tragic shooting at a movie theater in Colorado opening weekend. Also, some fans found the third film didn't live up to the bar set in the previous installment. Nevertheless, it is a thrilling a well-made conclusion to Nolan's now-famous Dark Knight trilogy, which inspired co-writer Goyer to pen a more grounded-in-reality version of Superman.

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Actor Ben Affleck faced similar controversy, as Keaton did, when he was cast in director Zack Snyder's (300, Watchmen) follow-up to Man of Steel (and the second installment in the up-and-coming cinematic DC universe). Even Affleck had doubts about the role, until Snyder convinced him with the direction the film was going, and especially the take on Bruce Wayne he was going for. This risk pays off as Affleck portrays an older, more grim Wayne, who views the "Man of Steel" as a threat to mankind--ironic in how both represent opposing worldviews and provocative perceptions of what a hero is, how everything has a consequence, and how the world has fallen despite their well-meaning but misguided actions.

According to the current consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, the film "smothers a potentially powerful story--and some of America's most iconic superheroes--in a grim whirlwind of effects-driven action." To be fair, the film does suffer at times with its overbearing action and special-effects (a criticism that Man of Steel faced, regarding its destruction 45-minute climax), and the overall story is uneven and a bit convoluted from an initial viewing. Then again, so were Burton's films, as well as Nolan's predominant features, regarding the latter. Batman v Superman is still open for debate (as is the character himself). Yet it goes to show that there's no one way to interpret a classic character, and that everybody has their own take on him. 

1 comment: