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But frustrated fans were able to enjoy an animated Dark Knight on television with Batman: The Animated Series continuing its run until 1999. Warner Brothers followed with Batman Beyond (1999-2001), a surprisingly effective futuristic take on the Dark Knight. In this version, Bruce Wayne is an old man who helps young Terry McGinnis in continuing the legend of the Batman. Even at his age, Wayne is quite spry in fending the odd thug and becomes the conduit in the Batcave for the new Dark Knight. An excellent direct-to-video Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker cleverly brought the Joker back from the dead, so to speak, and brought many elements from the classic Batman tales.
Batman was also featured in the Justice League (2001-2004) and the follow up series Justice League Unlimited (2004-2006) as well as a new animated version simply called The Batman (2004-2008) which borrowed an anime style. Finally, Cartoon Network's Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2009- ) is an old-fashioned fun series that is a great entry to introduce Batman to young fans.
Back on the big screen, almost a decade following the debacle of Batman & Robin, a new live action Dark Knight movie brought a new vision of Gotham City unlike ever seen before.
Batman Begins is an apt title and a huge breath of fresh air completely divorced from every version before it. When released in 2005, the movie proved you could make a Batman movie based in reality without sacrificing the drama and entertainment. What is striking is how the characters are treated with respect and feel real. It's just that the lead character wears a cape and cowl.
The casting is spot on starting with Christian Bale taking over as Bruce Wayne/Batman. There's soulfulness to his performance that had only been glimpsed before. His Bruce Wayne is a little vain in public but intense in private. His Dark Knight is actually intimidating, striking from the shadows or growling to a corrupt cop on a rooftop. The lead character is actually interesting for a change and time is spent delving on his development as the Caped Crusader. This Batman feels real, almost as if he could exist in our world.
Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox bring levity and weight to their roles while Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon couldn't be more perfect, straight out of the graphic novel pages. The villains are down to earth (even if their plans are gigantic) particularly Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard, a mentor to Wayne who turns out to be more than he lets on. Even Tom Wilkinson as Carmine Falcone electrifies in his few scenes.
Finally with Batman Begins we see some true iconic images of the Batman with great shots of him on rooftops. This is the first version of Batman that does not feel like it was mostly filmed on stages.
Batman Begins is not without its flaws, particularly involving the character of Rachel Dawes, as played by Katie Holmes. The role is not potent enough to match up to the other characters. The fighting scenes leave a bit to be desired. Yes, he is a creature of the shadows but we want to see him kick ass too. It's difficult to see how Batman defeats his opponents. And for all the time Bruce Wayne spends abroad before returning to Gotham City, it would have been nice to see a bit more training worldwide (as oppose to just the League of Shadows), including learning about science and other detective tricks.
Nolan raised the bar in the cinematic world of Batman (and influenced other franchise such as James Bond in Casino Royale). Hard to imagine he could do as well in his next outing. But The Dark Knight proved that Batman Begins was no fluke. Despite its length, The Dark Knight never feels long as themes like duality and morality are explored by various characters. Christian Bale again reprises the lead role in an understated performance. The story forces him to make difficult choices. You can feel the weight on Bruce Wayne's shoulders as he ponders the effect his alter ego has on Gotham society.
The Joker, played in an Oscar-winning performance by Heath Ledger, is an agent of chaos pitting characters against each other and imposing his will on an entire city. He simply doesn't care, wants to "watch the world burn" as Alfred (Michael Caine, once again) points out. Ledger disappears into the role, all the while not overplaying it like his predecessors. The Dark Knight features a pitch-perfect cast, including Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two Face. This is the toughest role in the movie but Eckhart delivers a soulful and intense performance.
The Dark Knight has, perhaps, too many characters not allowing ample time to the transformation of Harvey Dent into Two Face. The movie also briefly shows Batman doing a bit of detective work but not enough (some of the best stories in the comic books features the Dark Knight solving problems using his mind). In fact, Bruce Wayne/Batman gets diminished quite a bit in this movie. The respect between Batman and Commissioner Gordon has grown but, here too, you wish there was more scenes with these two characters.
The Dark Knight features arguably the best Batman scene ever filmed: the Dark Knight and the Joker in an interrogation room at a police station. It brings up everything the Joker stands for, chaos, against everything Batman believes in, not taking a life. How far can the Batman go before breaking his one rule in order to save other lives? It represents Batman on many levels, perfectly captured by Nolan.
The Academy didn't nominate The Dark Knight for Best Picture because it's a comic book movie, right? But Nolan's approach seems to be more along the lines of Heat (with an homage at the beginning of the movie) that it just happens the lead character dresses up as a giant bat but otherwise things are rooted in reality to a large extent. Yes, it's not real per se but feels almost like it could happen.
How does Nolan complete his trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises? The teaser trailers hint at the emotional and physical impact of being the Batman and the continuation of themes introduced in the first two films. In complete reversal of the portrayal in Batman & Robin, Bane (Tom Hardy) is expected to be a formidable opponent for the Dark Knight, physically and mentally. Add a pinch of Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and a mysterious French lady (Marion Cotillard) and The Dark Knight Rises promises to be a fascinating end to the current Batman on screen. One way or another, Bruce Wayne as a legend will end likely in his real death (inspiring the people of Gotham City to rise up and reclaim their city as hinted in the previous two films) or in his fake death (allowing him to retire but letting the inspiration and image of Batman to live on, symbolically and through someone else).
Where does the Dark Knight go from here? He is far too complex and popular a character in a fascinating world for Warner Bros not to revisit sooner rather than later. Hopefully, the studio has learned that putting this great franchise in the hands of real talent like Christopher Nolan rewards the fans, the moviegoers, the filmmakers and the studio. A new version of Superman will be released next year (Man of Steel) and rumors are that the WB is inching closer to a team-up of the top DC Comics characters, a la Avengers. Or, at least, a World's Finest team-up between Batman and Superman.
The world of Batman on screen has gone through various incarnations in the past 70 years of cinematic adventures. Each movie is a product of its time, for better or worse. Being able to watch each of them on Blu-ray or DVD allows you the opportunity to revisit Gotham City, imperfection and all. In the end, it is the characters and the stories that transcend time and Batman has met a number of challenges over the years. On Blu-ray, you can escape to Gotham City whether in bright daylight (the TV series), gothic (Tim Burton's), bright neon (Joel Schumacher's) or based in reality (Christopher Nolan's). There is nothing like sliding into the world of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City on home video.
- Mario Boucher
Most of the various Batman incarnations mentioned in the preceding article are available on Blu-ray and/or DVD. You can order them on Amazon.com now by clicking on the following links (BD is linked where available). They include but are not limited to:
- The Batman (1943 serial)
- Batman and Robin (1949 serial)
- Batman (1966 movie - the TV series is unavailable on disc pending a rights dispute between Fox and Warner)
- Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology (1989-1997)
- Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1994)
- Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
- The Adventures of Batman & Robin (1994-1995)
- The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999)
- Batman Beyond (1999-2001)
- Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
- The Batman (2004-2008)
- Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011)
- Batman Begins (2005)
- The Dark Knight (2008)