By: Daniel Reynolds
It should not be a surprise to those that know me to hear that I am excited to see The Dark Knight Rises. I’ve been exceedingly on board for each of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, ready on day one to watch each film. Looking back, however, I realize my relationship with the Batman franchise and its various incarnations is a bit different from most.
I still have a recollection of the early 2000s when a lot of talk was bandied about regarding who would relaunch the Batman franchise. There was Darren Aronofsky’s name being tossed around, oh and they were going to film the Year One storyline. At one point it was going to be called Batman: Intimidation. Looking back now, I think we (we being nutbar Batman fans) were just excited to have the franchise in someone else’s hands. After the apocalypse that was Batman and Robin and the Joel Schumacher reign of terror, it felt like Batman and comic book movies would never return. Fortunately for us (us, of course, being comic fans in general), we had some steady hands guiding Spider-Man and X-Men, slowly righting the comic book movie ship. Granted, some (some being the rest of the population that could care less about comics) would maybe say now that there are enough comic book movies, enough stories about guys in costumes, enough sequels and remakes involving those guys from the comic books, but I think if you ask any comic fan you’ll see that they aren’t tired of it yet.
Of course, back in the 80s, it seemed crazy to make a movie about a guy in a bat suit. At the time, I was too young for the original, Burton-directed, Batman (I was 5 years old) and my mother, in her desire to protect my innocent mind, decided to keep me away from Batman Returns. They have become two movies that I just never saw. Oh sure, I’ve seen bits and pieces of each here and there on TV. I know how Batman ends, I’ve seen Penguin bite that guy’s face, and watched Michelle Pfeiffer vamp in her cat suit. To be honest, I can’t quite explain now why I haven’t gone back and watched them in their entirety. Maybe it feels unnecessary somehow, like looking at an old high school yearbook after a great run at university.
Then again, I was the perfect age for Batman Forever. I was totally game for Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones and their scenery chewing contest (since I didn’t know what that meant at the time) and can even claim to own the film’s stupendous soundtrack (U2! The Offspring! Method Man! It was one of my first CD purchases). I admit I thought it was a great movie as an 11 year old kid. Photos bear this admission out; most pictures of me from 1995-96 show me wearing a Riddler baseball cap. Ah, the things we do when we are kids.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. The real image of Batman that is ironed into my brain is not from the gaudy Schumacher films (I’ve never seen Batman and Robin. Even at 13 I think I realized it wasn’t worth the time) but actually from the Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski developed Animated Series and, to my mind, the most underrated of Batman movies: Mask of the Phantasm. Going back to 1992, Batman: The Animated Series remains one of the best cartoon shows of the last 30 years. Just check out this opening sequence. Can you imagine me as an 8 year old kid absorbing that for the first time? I remember seeing an interview with Mark Hamill (voice of the Joker) where he reminisces on seeing that footage for the first time and being totally blown away by it.
Originally planned to be a direct to video release, The Mask of the Phantasm actually got a theatrical run back in 1993. The movie (directed by Timm and Radomski) told a surprisingly mature Batman story involving past regrets, burdensome guilt and repressed rage while displaying things the animated series just couldn’t show (primarily more blood and some pretty heavy and twisted relationship themes). Besides all that, however, is the amazing foresight it had into the current state of the Batman franchise. Here is an animated movie that develops a tremendous noir underworld storyline filled with aging gangsters, corrupt lawyers and ruthless thugs. It features a very real Batman full of doubt, struggling with his vow to fight crime, grappling with his burgeoning desire for a normal life. It fully anticipated the emotionally tragic and visually grim tone of the Nolan Batman movies. Hell, it even effectively employs the Joker, like its instant classic predecessor The Dark Knight, to punch up the proceedings and create an incredibly unpredictable momentum.
Tonight, we’ll finally get to see The Dark Knight Rises. I think it is fair to say that Nolan has crafted two amazing Batman films with a third that looks to be on track. Each has been very original while containing touches of great Batman stories from the past. Batman Begins definitely had elements of Frank Miller’s classic Batman: Year One, while The Dark Knight carries some of the great tension of Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween arc. Clearly, the Dark Knight Rises appears to be using some of the more harrowing aspects of the Knightfall storyline with Bane.
In all of this though, I can’t help but think back to my time in the theatre as a kid, looking up at the screen and watching this and having my young mind thrown for a loop. For all the absurdity of the Schumacher films, and the campy histrionics of the old Adam West TV series, I think it was Timm and Radomski (along with Paul Dini and a host of others) that had it right all along. You could take a man in a giant batsuit seriously, you could craft complex morality tales with him, you could develop an appeal for both kids and adults, and yes, you could take Batman into the 21st century.
Heads up for my actual review of The Dark Knight Rises next week.
As soon as I saw on your facebook “most underrated” I knew you were talking about Mask of the Phantasm. I think after picking this up a year ago on DVD it’s had about a view a month just to send me back to my childhood. The greatest thing about the film is it really helped to give way to more DC Animated features that we’re still seeing today. The animated series was one of the best shows from those years and this was definitely a beefed up version which allowed the series to pave way into more mature and dark territory.
Fun fact: shortly after the release of this film there was a special episode of the Animated Series which had to air in prime time due to some pretty intense violence considering the demographic of the show (Commissioner Gordon gets shot and is hospitalized during a raid on the mob).
Also of note is the rumours during the discussions of a new Batman film in early 2000s it was a toss up between Year One and Batman: Beyond (Beyond just finishing its run during that time). The concept of the live action version for Beyond drew the attention of Micheal Keaton and Jack Nicholson who were eager to reprise their roles. In the end it obviously didn’t happen and that script was recycled into the animated direct to dvd “Return of the Joker”. Still would have been awesome and I still hope they do that in the future.