With “Batman v Superman” opening this week, we will see just how well director Zack Snyder handles the Batman franchise. Thus far, the reviews have been pretty bad. Which is not a great sign since this is a huge film with a lot on the line in pushing this new DC cinematic universe, and from the trailers it certainly looked overstuffed and clunky. It also has another hurdle: It will be very difficult to top what Christopher Nolan did with the franchise.
There is no doubt about it: In 2005, Nolan saved a Batman franchise that was beaten, broken and bloodied by the misguided hand of director Joel Schumacher. Schumacher’s two films in the franchise, “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin,” were terrible — just, awful. Bat-Nipples, Bat-Credit Cards, Bane as a mindless zombie, Jim Carrey as an annoying Riddler and Arnold Schwarzenegger lobbing ice puns with a frightening ferocity made these films unwatchable for me and many others.
Then Nolan brought it back to basics with “Batman Begins.” A believable Batman in a believable world. We had Christian Bale as a tortured Bruce Wayne, traveling the world to understand the criminal element that took his family away from him and destroyed the city he loved. He falls into the League of Shadows, a mercenary band of martial arts experts who have kept the world balanced for centuries. It was the first Batman film that made Bruce Wayne just as interesting as his alter ego.
He turns into a fierce Batman, utilizing his training to spark fear into those who cross his path — and battling villains who cause him to judge his own set of morals, sanity and physical strength. Over three films, we saw a nuanced Batman/Bruce Wayne battle bad guys and his own inner demons.
Nolan had a great eye for how these films looked, and a great eye for casting. Bale was great (minus his Batman voice, which sounded like Tom Waits chugging broken glass). Obviously Heath Ledger stole the show in the second film with his creepy, disturbing take on the Joker. Hell, even Tom Hardy gave a great performance (and justice, unlike “Batman & Robin”) to Bane, one of Batman’s more interesting and brilliant adversaries. And I loved Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul.
And Nolan made it OK for super hero films to be dark once again. Batman certainly warrants that treatment, since he is a dark character. Nolan certainly didn’t invent that concept. Tim Burton’s first two Batman films were pretty damn dark. Burton made probably the darkest film in the franchise with “Batman Returns.” He just went way overboard on that one. This, for instance, still disturbs me to this day:
Nolan struck a nice balance with light and dark — even though he gets the blame for the “dark and gritty” super hero films that followed. He made the characters interesting. I mean, how great was it that his Joker had no real origin in “Dark Knight?” Ledger’s Joker has multiple stories detailing why he looks the way he does, but we the viewer are not sure which, if any, of his stories are the truth. In fact, we didn’t even care. And he was a pretty disturbing character. There were times I was creeped out by Ledger in that film. And that is another feather in this trilogy: The villains are interesting on many levels. There is more to this Harvey Dent than Tommy Lee Jones’ (whose take on the character felt like a knock-off of Nicholson’s Joker).
And sure, the third and final installment wasn’t perfect (how did Bruce Wayne get back to a highly locked-down Gotham after being in that pit in the desert with a bad back?), and Bane’s voice sounded like Sean Connery huffing helium, but it was still an overall satisfying film. And again, Tom Hardy’s Bane was a great villain for Batman — a fellow soldier in the League of Shadows who is his greatest challenge. And I really enjoyed Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman.
And that was one thing I enjoyed about the third installment: It linked back to the first film with Ra’s al Ghul’s shadow army (there really isn’t any big connection with “Batman Begins” and “Dark Knight” besides the same cast and director). And seeing Bane break the Bat onscreen was as disturbing as when I saw it in the comics as a kid.
Sure, Nolan took a ton of liberties with the source material — these films, after all, are adaptations, something I think the fans often seem to forget. Fans of the comics often balk at Nolan’s attention to keeping it realistic. But that’s what made it work. This trilogy gave us a world where we often forgot was based on a comic book. And I’m glad Nolan decided to stop after three. He went out on a great note, and gave us a great Batman trilogy.
And now, we have a new Batman with a new director. The reviews for “Batman v Superman” thus far haven’t been great, but one thing does seem to stand out: Critics seem to like Ben Affleck’s take on the Dark Knight. And I am excited to see what they do with him — introducing him well into his crime fighting career was interesting (and relieving since we’ve already seen many origins already of the character). I like how he resembles Frank Miller’s Batman from the graphic novel “Dark Knight Returns” — though that well is pretty dried up after Tim Burton’s and Nolan’s Batman films, and I hope they start using other sources with the character.
We will have to see. The JOE-DOWN will be reviewing “Batman v Superman” on this blog this weekend.