(On Cable TV, February 2017) Hmm. I’m a moderate Batman fan at best, but I do own the Killing Joke graphic novel from which this animated film is adapted, and I’m not happy to report that Batman: The Killing Joke has taken the worst aspects of the source material and amplified them. In an effort to expand the rather short story into a feature film, the screenwriter somehow thought it would be a good idea to spend the first half of the film focusing on Batgirl, giving her temper tantrums and a sex scene with Batman (!) before cynically using her as a revenge motivator though mutilation and an implied side order of sexual assault. Geez … for a movie consciously aiming for an R rating (with blood, language and disturbing themes), The Killing Joke often feels like an adolescent discovering swearwords and adult topics … and then overusing them to the point of self-parody. By the time the central conflict between Batman and the Joker finally unfolds, viewers with the slightest moral scruples will have checked out of the film and withheld their suspension of disbelief. The result isn’t fun. It doesn’t even feel meaningful, important or even respectable: It feels trashy, exploitative and misguided. The low quality of the animation doesn’t help. I don’t mind gritty takes on superhero stories, but The Killing Joke goes too far and makes me feel dirty. Not recommended. Hilariously enough, trying to watch this film on Canada’s The Movie Network proved to be an adventure, as the film was announced early, but then showed up weeks later in listings as “Batman: Bad Blood”. As a result, I wasn’t too sure for a long time what I was watching—the pieces started clicking once the Joker was introduced midway through. In retrospect, this may have been a way from the universe to dissuade me from seeing the results.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) Is it possible to follow-up a modern classic such as The Dark Knight without making a few missteps in the process? Probably not, but writer/director Christopher Nolan makes fewer mistakes than most in trying to provide a definitive conclusion to the cycle he launched with Batman Begins: In The Dark Knight Rises, he’s willing to toy with the archetypes of superhero movies (Batman doesn’t make an appearance until 50 minutes in the film), blending it with real-world elements in order to deliver a thrilling, hefty, sometimes-philosophical take on the place of extraordinary people in society. Christian Bale once again stars as Batman/Bruce Wayne, once again flanked by Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, and this time ably supported by Tom Hardy as supervillain Bane, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt as a capable partner and less-ably by Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. (Let us be blunt: Hathaway has old-school grace and beauty, but it’s not the slinky-sex-kitten quality that the best Catwomen should have.) Still, the script is the most interesting element of the picture: it blends real-world markers with superhero crutches (so that we get CIA extraction planes, professional football games and references to social inequality alongside cities cut off from the rest of the world by hoodlums, people dressing up in amusing costumes and a quasi-mythical “League of Assassin”), scratches a little bit to reveal character motivations, re-uses elements of the previous two films to good effect and tells a surprisingly satisfying story despite numerous small flaws. For anyone else, The Dark Knight Rises would be an impressive achievement: as big and bold as an action blockbuster should be, while handled with a surprising amount of depth, darkness and complexity. Still, compared strictly to Nolan’s previous two films, it’s a bit of a letdown: the themes aren’t as strong as in The Dark Knight and the ingeniousness of Inception is considerably toned down. But never mind the comparative let-down: The Dark Knight Rises is an enormously successful film, another example that entertainment doesn’t have to be entirely brainless. It’s a spectacle with some depth, a daring way to handle an immensely popular protagonist and a subversive way to follow-up its previous two installments. It easily ranks as one of the good movies of 2012, and it should please even the most demanding fans.
(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): With the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, it’s becoming easier to forget about Tim Burton’s reinvention of the character, before it slid once again in franchise-killing high camp during the Joel Schumacher years. And that’s a shame, because despite some increasingly dated aspects, Batman still keeps an operatic grandeur that resonates even today. The story is thin and eighties-fashion still peeks through the self-conscious blend of historical references, but the entire film remains intriguing. Health Ledger may have taken over the Joker’s look, but Jack Nicholson’s take on the character remains magnetic. Only an underwhelming finale falters visibly: While everyone remembers the Batman/Joker showdown in the streets of Gotham, fewer will recall the following sequence taking place in a cathedral. Two decades after the film’s release, the special edition DVD can afford to be candid about the film’s rushed production, last-minute producer-driven script changes and casting choices. Alas, director Burton’s commentary track could have benefited from judicious editing: His “you know?”s start grating early on and never fade away.
(Third viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) I hadn’t watched Batman in more than ten years, but another look was more than warranted given rapid evolution of superhero movies since then. Tim Burton’s Batman turns out to be a significant step in the evolution of Batman’s movie portrayal from sixties silliness to Nolan’s grimmer portrayal. It’s certainly trying to be more serious, but it can’t completely manage it. It doesn’t help that Burton’s vision for his characters (and particularly the joker) is so colourful and exuberant: it’s tough to keep a straight face at what Jack Nicholson pulls off in his completely unrestrained performance. Otherwise, it’s fascinating to see in here the seeds of the modern superhero blockbuster, albeit with pre-digital effects, restrained cinematography and somewhat more silliness. (Not included in the movie, but far more important, are the media tie-in and marketing effort surrounding the film, which I remember more than the movie itself) Michael Keaton is better than anyone may remember as Bruce Wayne/Batman, while Kim Basinger is spectacular as Vicki Vale. The ending is a bit dull (the Joker shooting down the batwing is memorable, but the subsequent cathedral sequence isn’t), but there are enough good scenes along the way to make it worthwhile. It’s probably impossible to overstate Batman’s impact on the modern blockbuster industry, but there’s actually a worthwhile film underneath the hype.