Tag Archives: Frank Miller

A Decade In Film – The Noughties: 2005

A series where the Failed Critics look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choosing their favourite films from each year of that decade.

When I was putting together the longlist for this article, I realised that this year seems to be notable for the number of eminently forgettable films it produced. That is, films I’ve watched that I’ve never had a desire to watch again or, worse, had forgotten that I’d even seen. Examples include Syriana, Wedding Crashers (come at me bro), Jarhead, The Island, The Business, Casanova, War of the Worlds, Revolver, Mr and Mrs Smith, The Producers, Robots, The Longest Yard, Assault on Precinct 13, Just Friends, Lord of War, Match Point, Cinderella Man, Wallace and Gromit, King Kong, whichever mediocre interpretation of Harry Potter was due that year…

Oh and apparently someone made a fan-film about how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader? And they even pretended to be George Lucas?! What a crazy idea. I’m just glad it’s not part of the official canon – I’d hate for the legacy of the Star Wars trilogy to be tarnished.

Anyway, my conclusion is that I may have watched more films from this year than any other so far, and yet I’ve struggled to pull together 5 films that are really amazing. Usually selecting 5 films is an agonising process. I just have very little emotional connection to many films – I’d say my Top 4 are strong and I chose the other fairly arbitrarily out a number of ‘meh’ choices. And please, as always, bear in mind that these are not supposed to be the ‘best’ films of the year but simply the ones I enjoy the most.

5. Kingdom of Heaven

kingdom of heavenThere will be a day when you will wish you had done a little evil to do a greater good.

I know this may be fairly controversial as many people I speak to think KoH is boring, but Ridley Scott’s epic tale of the Crusades has a lot going for it. Orlando Bloom is as good as Orlando Bloom gets (which admittedly isn’t all that great) and the historical world is lovingly created. Really though, I like this film because it has some awesome battle sequences, a rousing, sweeping soundtrack, and simply because I find that era of history utterly fascinating.

I won’t go into the historical accuracy or controversy about the film’s message on Western-Arab relations at a deeply sensitive time; far more qualified people than I have covered this in much greater detail. If you’ve not seen the film before or haven’t watched it in a long time, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of the Director’s Cut Blu-Ray and strap yourself in to the home cinema system for the film and accompanying documentaries.

4. A History of Violence

a history of violenceThere. You see how cozy it can be when you decide to play nice? Now come, Joey. Get in the car. You won’t need your toothbrush. We’ll take care of everything.

Criminally underrated by the general population but loved by critics, David Cronenberg’s film stars Viggo Mortensen as a man in a quiet town who responds with extraordinary, lethal skill when two men try to rob his diner. While not the most surprising or twist-filled narrative, the story is still gripping and as the film unravels, it is a pleasure to watch Mortensen’s consummate portrayal of the protagonist.

I’m not going to say any more about this film other than this: if you’ve not seen it, rectify this immediately. If you have, you’re probably overdue another viewing.

3. Hidden (Caché)

hiddenIsn’t it lonely, if you can’t go out?

It took me far too long to watch this film and I suspect many readers will be aware of the film without having seen it. As I said when raving about the film on a podcast many moons ago, the main feeling I was left with was simply awe at Haneke’s direction.

At the heart of the film is a mystery, a frighteningly real and possible mystery that it would be detrimental to discuss in case you, the reader, haven’t seen the film. Nonetheless, the way in which the narrative is unwound, meticulously, thread by thread, is a joy to behold. Without spoiling anything, I can say that the mystery continues right up until the final shot – which unlike most films doesn’t give the viewer closure but instead opens up a whole other line of enquiry for the viewer to ponder as they walk away from the film.

The beauty is therefore in Haneke’s intention; no explanation is fully satisfactory. There are flaws in any theory to answer the film’s questions, just as in life. If you’ve seen Hidden though, I’m sure you will be bursting with theories of your own and will happily engage others in a discussion/argument about it. And that, really, is the beauty of good entertainment, of a fine cultural artefact – enjoyable in the moment, just as enjoyable when shared with others.

2. Sin City

sin cityThe silencer makes a whisper of the gunshot. I hold her close until she’s gone. I’ll never know what she was running from. I’ll cash her cheque in the morning.

Stylish, brutally violent and full of smart dialogue, Frank Miller’s graphic novel series is definitely worth a read. And as the film is arguably the most faithful interpretation of comic/graphic novel source material you’re likely to find, it isn’t surprising to find it here on this list. Robert Rodriguez had spent a few years directing kids films by this point (interspersed with Once Upon a Time in Mexico) so this represented a powerful return to type.

Still notable nearly ten years on for the striking visuals thanks to being shot almost entirely on green screen, Sin City explores the dark side of urban humanity. RR managed to pull together an all-star cast (who interestingly weren’t all signed up when some scenes were shot, so RR digitally swapped them in for doubles later on) and in particular a great turn from Mickey Rourke after years in the wilderness, an absolute must given the disparate nature of the multiple narratives woven together. Plus it has lots of sexy ladies in it who, much like in Planet Terror a couple of years later, kick a lot of ass and aren’t just there purely as eye candy.

Sin City is like the most archetypal film noir ever made and yet completely unlike pretty much every film noir at the same time. Mostly though, it’s just terrifically entertaining.

1. Batman Begins

batman beginsJim Gordon: I never said thank you.
Batman: And you’ll never have to.

There was only ever going to be one winner here and we all know it. Just a few weeks ago I found that a significant number of my work colleagues consider BB the best of the Nolan Batman films and I know they aren’t alone in feeling that way. Personally I think The Dark Knight is superior but Begins will always have a special place in my heart as a Batman geek.

It may be difficult to remember now but Begins came out when superhero films were reaching a difficult stage. We’d seen the DC heroes (Batman and Superman) decline by the late 90s with the genre seemingly dead until Raimi’s Spiderman and the original X-Men films smashed a big-budget hole in the cinematic landscape. Suddenly cinemas were awash with shiny, polished interpretations of a whole range of comic book heroes. New special effects technologies transported us to incredible, fantastical versions of the world time and again, with huge ticket and DVD sales for even the mediocre efforts (for instance, the distinctly average Hulk took $245m). Warner Bros took a look at their big ticket hero. And they had a problem.

What on earth were they to do with Batman? Since Schumacher took on the mantle, the Batman of recent memory was all style, no substance – and the style was questionable. Tim Burton’s Batman films in the late 80s/early 90s had been a huge success but the landscape seemed to have moved on. The WB execs found a way to get back to that darker vision of Bats and gambled on audiences being fed up of the more superficial treatment prevalent at the time. Enter Chris Nolan, still relatively unknown by mainstream audiences despite the relative success of Memento & Insomnia, with a bold vision: to make a film about Bruce Wayne, not about Batman.

The rest is history. I could write a very long article about this film, about the series it spawned, about the brilliance of Nolan’s interpretation (I kind of already have). I may still do. For now, let’s just bask in the glory of Batman Begins, a film that changed cinema for the better and kicked off one of the finest trilogies in recent film history.

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Failed Critics Podcast: Using 10% of our brain’s capacity

run for your wifeThe King is dead retired, long live the King, King and Queen!

With the James-era officially ending with our previous podcast, we begin anew with two new release reviews. We did consider making you wait nine years for us to get back together, inspired by Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, but we just couldn’t wait that long to tell you about it. We also found time to review Luc Besson’s latest sci-fi thriller Lucy – and we didn’t need to reach 100% brain capacity in order to do it either.

The team also find time to talk about a selection of films shown at last weekend’s FrightFest (including The Den, All Cheerleaders Die and Doc of the Dead), Icelandic penis museum documentary The Final Member, utterly terrible Disney movie Condorman and the, er, dire Danny Dyer movie Run For Your Wife.

Join us next week for more reviews and less Danny Dyer chat (probably?)

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

“Nancy: Looks like trouble..

Marv: Looks like Christmas.”

By Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

sin city 2 2Back in 2005, the world finally got an adaptation of the Frank Miller story that it didn’t even realise it was craving. Alas, it wasn’t a live action version of The Dark Knight Returns or Batman: Year One, but was instead the pulp noir crime thriller, Sin City. After his RoboCop sequel scripts were butchered back in the 1980’s, it seemed Miller was destined to remain known as a successful comic book writer (albeit one of the most important and influential of our time) and not a successful script writer.

Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Sin City came at a time when only five short years before, comic book movies received a successful revival; thanks in no small part to Bryan Singer’s PG-13 X-Men. Two years later, Sam Raimi got in on the act as he turned Marvel’s biggest property, one friendly neighbourhood web-swinging wall crawler Spider-Man, into a PG-13 movie. As ground-breaking, box-office record smashing and popular as they were, fans knew that the market for more mature offerings was lagging behind somewhat. Why did they have to all be PG-13? The promise of Batman-to-come (allegedly based on Frank Miller’s seminal Year One) never truly broke that cycle. Batman Begins, also released in 2005, may have been darker and seedier than your average superhero flick, dealing with crime families, murder and that long wispy moustache of Liam Neeson’s, but it too found itself restricted to a PG-13 audience. In the 5 years between X-Men and Batman Begins, the only two major R-rated comic-book movies to come out of America were Blade II and The Punisher. That’s pretty much it.

To say Sin City was a gamble would be an understatement. Hiring a director to make an R-rated, somewhat arthouse thriller, who at the time had seemingly moved on from his over-the-top action movies (the brilliant Mexico Trilogy) and bloody sci-fi horrors (From Dusk Til Dawn, The Faculty etc) to create the family-oriented Spy Kids trilogy, it was a risk. Yet it paid off in more ways than one. It may not have topped the box-office charts in 2005 ahead of the likes of Star Wars Episode III, King Kong and another bloody Harry Potter sequel, but it still earned praise from critics and fans alike whilst being relatively commercially successful. It may not have been the catalyst in turning studios on to a wave of adult comic book movies, but it was seen as a triumph on its own merits.

Quite why it took Rodriguez and Miller nearly 10 years to allow us to return to the filthy stinkhole that is Basin City seems almost unfair. With its saloon bars every ten feet full of drunk criminal louts, sleazy prostitutes on every corner and corrupt officials turning a blind eye to every crook looming in a shadowy doorway ready to take every dime you own and leave you for dead, perhaps it was a place of mind that Rodriguez and Miller weren’t keen to frequent too often! Nevertheless, I, for one, am glad to have had the privilege of another peak into the loathsome lives of Sin City’s inhabitants.

The four stories that comprise the run time are equally as entertaining as each other. Beginning with a tale from Marv (Mickey Rourke) as he comes to after a brutal accident, hunting down some despicable youths, the tone of highly-stylised ultra-violence is set very quickly. This is continued as Johnny (played by the always impressive Joseph Gordon-Levitt) introduces himself as the cocky young gambler taking on a game of poker that will only end one way, with his story intertwining with that of Jessica Alba exacting revenge for her lover’s (Bruce Willis) death. The atmosphere is continued in the next sequence, upon which Sin City 2 titles itself. Dwight (previously played by Clive Owen, now re-cast with Josh Brolin) sets out on a mission to save his nearly always naked femme fatale ex-wife (Eva Green) who is oppressed by her cruel husband. Feeling sorry for her, he agrees to help but as with everything in Sin City, it appears someone is manipulating the situation beyond his control.

Short snappy sentences that Billy Wilder would’ve been proud of litter the script, just as a classic crime-noir should. It’s immensely enjoyable, trashy and disturbingly fun. Shot entirely in black and white with colour only occasionally piercing the dreary shades of grey like a strike of lightning, it is a film with an abundance of style. Is it perhaps a case of too much style and too little substance? Debatable. There’s a chance that the co-directors may have papered over a few cracks in the plot with some pretty pictures – although, they are very pretty pictures. The cast and their performances are a step up from 2005’s effort, with returning faces Rourke, Jessica Alba, Bruce Willis, Rosario Dawson and particularly Powers Boothe all revelling in their roles, as do the new additions. Eva Green especially steals the show as a siren-like Ava.

Whilst A Dame to Kill For has not followed suit with its predecessor, stuttering at the box office and picking up mixed reviews along the way, it still has plenty to enjoy for returning fans and new ones alike. You do not need to know everything that happens in the previous movie – in fact, some people seem confused by the chronology of both. Approaching it as a stand alone movie about some stuff that happens in this crime-ridden city may be the best method.

If Frank Miller’s stories have any message to tell, it’s probably a not very pleasant one. Everyone is corruptible, it’s just that some people are better at taking advantage of it than others. Yes the film’s morals and ethics are as questionable as the characters who entertain us; is vigilantism justified in a city like this? Is murder ever acceptable? Can you honestly have your strongest independent female character’s motivations bent around her love for a man? These are questions the film raises and leaves unanswered. But I’ll tell you what, it doesn’t half look cool as it poses them.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is in cinemas nationwide right now in both 3D (not worth it) and 2D (totally worth it).

300: Rise of an Empire

300-rise-of-an-empire-bannerDespite its competent production, 300: Rise of an Empire is a disgusting and repulsive piece of dreck.

by Callum Petch

I honestly don’t think that anybody involved with the creative side of 300: Rise of an Empire is a bad person.  OK, maybe Frank Miller, but other than this being a very loose telling of his unpublished Xerxes series he has nothing to do with the film in question.  This sign of good faith, admittedly, is because I prefer to try and see the good in most people (I may physically be 19, but my mental age and naivety is a lot lower) and also because I don’t know anybody involved with the creation of 300: Rise of an Empire personally, so I’d feel kinda bad calling them bad people sight unseen.  What I don’t think anybody involved does have, however, is any kind of self-awareness.  Like, none.  At all.  See, if they did have some self-awareness, then they might have realised that the movie they were responsible for making is actually horrifically misogynistic, racist and supportive of doomed offensives.

I’m going to stop for a second here before I get down to business.  This review is not going to talk much about the film in the way that you may typically see films reviewed.  You know: I give a plot summary, point out some good stuff and some bad stuff, praise or trash the acting and wrap up from there.  Purely technical terms, “[x action scene] was pretty exciting, [y actor] was as convincing as a cardboard standee of [y actor]”.  No, that’s not happening here and if that’s what you’re looking for, I am sorry to disappoint you.  Fact of the matter is, how this film is as a constructed product (and that constructed product is “boring meeeeeeeeehhhhh”) is but a distraction from the more problematic undertones that this film seems to unintentionally peddle.  I will eventually talk about the film as you would expect me to, but that’s only if there’s still time.  Take this info how you may and either keep reading or don’t.

OK, into the breach.

The major problem with 300: Rise of an Empire, the problem that left me leaving the cinema feeling dirty for having experienced it, is that it doesn’t think.  It’s so determined to be cool, to be action-y and manly and exciting and violent and “LOOK, THAT GUY’S RIDING A HORSE IN A NAVAL BATTLE THROUGH FIRE!!” that it never seems to just stop and think about what it’s actually doing.  It has noble Greeks facing off against eeeeevilll Persians… where the Greeks are all white or tanned and the Persians are of a foreign persuasion.  It has a badass female character who actually has the most developed backstory of anyone else in the film… and then makes her a villain with The Tragic Backstory (the one tragic backstory that all male writers, without fail, will saddle their Dark Action Women with to justify their behaviour) and a quirk that I can’t talk about because it constitues a spoiler but OH MY GOD.  It has a hero who fights for democracy and knows that Leonidas and the 300 Spartans are doomed for their hubris… except that he’s counting on it failing because it will unite everyone behind their senseless sacrifice and milks that for all its worth.

This is the issue.  On paper, divorced from further context, these sound fine.  Good vs Evil is the basis for most every story, well-developed and badass female characters need to be more of a frequent presence in action movies and having characters recognise that the Spartan march isn’t as romantic a notion as it sounds are all great ways to go.  There’s a lot you can do here.  But, for some utterly bewildering reason, the film keeps making the worst decisions with these ideas simply because it sounds cool.  And at no point did anybody stop anyone else involved and explain to them the wider implications of what their decisions entail.

Take, for example, Themistocles (Strike Back’s Sullivan Stapleton rarely showing the charm and charisma he showed in Strike Back) and his attitudes towards the Spartan march on Hot Gates.  He knows it’s doomed and he knows it’s foolish, as you can tell because every so often he voices his concerns that they’re going to get slaughtered, yet his entire plan revolves around lionising the 300 as martyrs to the cause of Greek democracy, thereby uniting Greece against the Persians.  I take issue with this because this, to me at least, gives off the impression that those involved are supportive of doomed offensives against enemies because of the propaganda material they provide.  Having the lead character very occasionally state his belief that the Spartans’ offensive will fail is not enough of an offset for the scene in which he gets said news and reacts with (thanks to the very limited range of emotions characters display in this film) what one can charitably describe as glee.  I’d like to see Themistocles’ take on The Battle Of The Somme, he’d likely grumble a bit about its doomed-to-failure-ness but then base his entire plan around claiming it to be the greatest piece of tactical mastery the British Forces ever came up with.  Because that’s how you unite the peoples.

Quite honestly, though, that’s nothing compared to the film’s two female characters.  Yes, two.  Admittedly, I’m pretty sure that’s one whole person of the female orientation more than the original 300 provided us with, but it’s still a man-run show, despite Eva Green as Artemesia trying her damndest otherwise.  Despite her ever omniscient narration, Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey who I really wish would star in an action flick that knows how to use her for once) is otherwise in the film only three other times and two of those involve her sulking and refusing to help the Greeks.  I’m not saying that she needed to spend the majority of the film fighting alongside the Greeks and slaughtering people left and right; what I am saying is that she needs a character.  Because she doesn’t have one.  She has the Obstructive Bureaucrat archetype and that’s it.

As if to make up for this, Artemesia is easily the most developed character populating Rise of an Empire.  But, yes, said development involves a childhood where [x] happens and then she spends the next several years [y] before being left for dead, found by That One Persian Guy From The Last 300 Who Was Also In (The Much, Much, Much Better) Spartacus: Blood And Sand.  Assuming that those of you reading this are relatively seasoned movie watchers, you should already be able to figure out what x and y are.  But although it left a bad taste in my mouth (because I am so sick of lazy filmmakers always going for [y] when they want to justify their Dark Action Women), it wasn’t derailing the show and especially not Eva Green’s performance, which I can basically equate to a ham and cheese interpretation of Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Of everyone else in this film, she’s the only one who’s having any fun and not just relying on their physical presence to carry them through.

Except then the film frames her insane lust for violence down to not having a good strong man fighting alongside her.  It’s hinted at early on, when she notes that she’s “surrounded by thousands yet I feel so alone” (or words to that effect) about her underlings’ lack of success in bringing down the Greeks.  Then it becomes all but full-blown text when she invites Themistocles to neutral ground, turns into a temptress and…  No, I’m not going to spoil it.  Needless to say, it frames all of their actions afterward, including the final battle, in a much uglier light and culminates in an action that, the very second the inadvertent subtext that the film had amassed up to that point joined up with the action in question in my head, caused me to unintentionally shout out “JESUS H. CHRIST” in the crowded cinema.  I was that disgusted by what I saw.  And my leading to this realisation and outburst wasn’t on purpose, I wasn’t trying to see the action as something awful, my brain had simply applied what the film had inadvertently told me about Artemesia beforehand to that action and the reaction unfolded.  I felt dirty for having witnessed it and, if you too pay attention to the subtext, you will know it when you see it.

Quite honestly, on any other day, the fact that the Greeks black up for the finale would have been the headline, here.  OK, their faces are supposed to be painted like that of a white skeleton on a black back-nope that looks even worse written down.  Not to mention the fact that, again, we have a predominately white cast representing absolute good fighting a predominately non-white cast representing absolute evil.  That was a problem in the first 300, it was a problem in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender and time has not made it any better.  See, the problem with doing cool things without thought is that stuff like this happens.  You get across a tonne of unfortunate implications and enough of them can make the whole film a slowly more repulsive experience that gets harder to tolerate the longer it goes on.

Stepping away from the subtext, now, although, quite frankly, discussing the film removed from it feels pointless.  See, Rise of an Empire, which takes place before and during and after 300 and depicts Themistocles’ attempts to unite Greece against the invading Persian army and navy, is a competently made and forgettable action flick.  If its various bits of inadvertently horrendous subtext weren’t there, this review would not currently be halfway through its third page.  That’s how dispensable this film is.  Excepting Eva Green, nobody turns in a particularly noteworthy performance.  After the first particularly exciting and interesting naval battle, the rest blend into one anonymous amorphous blob.  The hand-to-hand fight scenes are “meeeeh” and the copious CG is clearly going for stylish but too often seems to use that as an excuse for just plain sloppy switches between live-action actors and CG models handling the more exciting moments (pretty much the entire opening battle is done in CG, to an extent that makes me wonder why the actors even bothered coming in that week).  And the signature Zack Snyder “slo-mo-speed-up-super-slo-mo-speed-up-slo-mo-again” visual style that’s perfectly aped by director Noam Murro is still really stupid and nowhere near as cool as it thinks it is.

In other words, it’s an inoffensive product.  A bland, average and dull movie that doesn’t have anything bad happening on the surface or within its individual components.  All of the film’s big, giant, offensive, enjoyment-killing problems come from the inadvertent subtext that it presents with that big, dumb, loud, violent and inoffensive surface.  More forgiving critics or fans of the film will insist you need to “turn off your brain to appreciate it”.  I’m sorry but fuck that.  Firstly because it presents the incorrect notion that fun movies don’t need to be smart (and I wouldn’t even call this one fun, in all honesty, unless “mind-crushing dullness” sounds like your idea of a party) but also because it gives off the idea that it doesn’t matter what kind of horrible ideology and iconography a film can slip by as long as the surface is cool enough, and that is a concept I refuse to abide by.

Words and actions carry unintended meanings and consequences and for every 10 people (most likely men, in all honesty; this is a film made for straight, hormonal and possibly teenaged men) who watch the war room sequence that I started describing earlier with glee, there will be at least 1 other person horrified by what they are seeing because they aren’t distracted by the pretty lights.  They paid attention to the undertones of the film’s cool sequences and they started getting uneasy.  The film shouts “Look at these beefy white men slaughtering all of these evil baddies!  Isn’t this fun?  Pay no attention to their skin colour, if you do you’re thinking way more than we did when we made it!”  “Isn’t this line we gave Eva Green badass?  She’s so strong and powerful and sexy!  Just divorce it from everything else that surrounds it as, in context with what surrounds it, it may be kinda disturbing but who cares BADASS FIGHT SEQUENCE!  COOL COOL COOL!”  but that person is having none of it.  They’re disturbed, offended, worried that the slightly sickening undertones are being played off for fun.  Just another gory, dumb action romp.  You can’t read too much into these things(!)

No.  Fuck that.  The idea that I should let 300: Rise of an Empire off for its accidental racism, misogyny (dear Maker, I will never get that action out of my head, and if you’re dying to know what it is tweet me and I’ll tell you) and whatever-the-word-is-for-attitudes-towards-senseless-sacrifice-that-I-don’t-agree-with because it’s supposed to be a big dumb action film and I shouldn’t read so much into these things is deplorable and I refuse to accept it.  We shouldn’t let films off for being “good enough given the circumstances” or to state that “turning your brain off” will somehow increase your enjoyment for a film.  No, we should just demand better goddamn movies and take films with as disgusting an inadvertent subtext as 300: Rise of an Empire to the same task as we do genuinely racist films like Birth of a Nation.  Being a big, dumb action film should no longer be an acceptable pass-grade excuse for a problematic film such as this one.

When I left 300: Rise of an Empire, I felt like I had set cinema back several years.  Do not.  Spend money. On this.

Callum Petch is outta control but he’s playing a role and he thinks he can go to the eighteenth hole.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

BATMAN WEEK – Batman Begins Here

In honour of this week’s release of  The Dark Knight Rises, Failed Critics is going quite literally Batshit mental as we devote the site for one week only to the Caped Crusader. Today our very own Gerry McAuley gives us a brief summary of the main influences on Christopher Nolan’s trilogy from the comic book world. So you can seem knowledgeable to your friends on the way in to the cinema, obviously!

I’m sure we’re all familiar with Batman – after all, D.C. Comics’ flagship superhero has infiltrated popular culture quite successfully in his 70+ years of life. Film adaptations since 1989 have revived the franchise and put a new spin on a hero who for most people was previously associated with the annoyingly camp and light-hearted original series (and 1966 film) starring Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Bats.

What fewer are aware of though is that the darker interpretation which began with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 and was continued 16 years later by Christopher Nolan (I prefer to forget the Schumacher films in between) reflects a shift in tone in the comic world too. In 1986, Frank Miller – who would of course go on to write Sin City and 300, both of which became hugely successful films – wrote The Dark Knight Returns, the gritty tale of a jaded 55 year old Batman who was forced to come out of retirement and save Gotham again.

The gap between The Dark Knight and the sequel would seem to be based on Miller’s story, as Batman has been chased out of Gotham for eight years after taking responsibility for Harvey Dent’s crimes. Of course, Tom Hardy’s Bane first gained prominence in the Knightfall story arc in the early 90s, so Nolan’s universe is hugely reliant on recent Batman interpretations. As will be seen later, another Miller title, Batman: Year One, is a major influence on Batman Begins.

Another huge name in comics had also helped revive Batman in the late 80s. Alan Moore is probably known to most film fans through adaptations of his work: Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell are all based on his publications, although Moore dislikes all film interpretations of his comics/graphic novels. Just a year prior to Burton’s film being released, D.C. published Moore’s one-off graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, a dark examination of the Joker’s madness that interspersed his origin story with his twisted attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon insane. The disturbing tone of the story, which involved the Joker shooting Gordon’s daughter in the spine and paralysing a character who was also Batgirl, explored the morality behind the Batman/Joker battle and was undoubtedly a huge factor in the performances of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in their respective film roles. For instance, the Joker has varying memories of how he came to be:

“Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”

Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight famously provides differing accounts of how he got his scars, which his comic book counterpart does not have – just one example of the different ways the Batman mythology can be interpreted.

The strongest influence on Nolan however seems to have been Batman: The Long Halloween, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s 1996-1997 epic. So strong was that influence that Nolan and David Goyer, the co-writer of the trilogy, provided an introduction to the latest edition of the graphic novel. Although taken from an interview in 2006, just before principal photography began on TDK, both men cite the influence Long Halloween had on both movies and surely the third instalment too.

“When you’re putting together a Batman film, people always ask, ‘Are you looking at this comic book or that comic book?’ And the truth is you look at all of them. As a filmmaker, though, The Long Halloween was one Batman story that really drew me in in terms of cinematic potential… to integrate the more fantastical elements of Batman, most notably the villains, within the context of the real world, strike a balance that felt credible [The Long Halloween] was a great inspiration to us in terms of tonality.”

And with that, allow me to make some suggestions for those of you who are curious about exploring the Batman legend further. Nolan’s trilogy is so epic in scope that one cannot help be drawn in to that world; given that, it seems appropriate to focus on the more recent interpretations which have that gritty, realistic feel.

The place to start is Frank Miller’s Year One, which tells the origin story better than anything else and was recently voted the greatest Batman story ever by IGN. Goyer cites it as one of the three main influences on him in Batman lore and this is clear in Begins. There are various versions of the book around and crucially for those of you who don’t find comics appealing, an animated film of the story was released in 2011 which very faithfully follows Miller’s original.

The next stop should be The Long Halloween, which takes place early in Batman’s career and takes in a staggering number of the rogues gallery of villains our hero faces. If Year One is the basis of Begins, this is obviously the foundation of TDK. Harvey Dent’s story will be very familiar and the Nolan interpretation is largely faithful to Loeb’s story. Furthermore, the subtle differences between the two will give a new appreciation of Nolan’s skill – for instance, he plays with the viewer by having a gun pulled on Dent in the courtroom, a threat which Dent confidently disarms; in Long Halloween, this is a much more pivotal moment which I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, familiar Batman fans had a different moment of suspense and surprise with that particular scene.

Moving on, The Killing Joke is utterly brilliant and really gets to the heart of how small the differences are between good and evil, exploring how our reactions to difficulties can shape both our lives and the world. Yes, there is much more to Batman than you might think. As an aside, there’s a book called Batman and Philosophy which highlights just how many issues are present in the Dark Knight’s struggles against evil.

Once you’ve seen how the Joker began, it seems logical to look at his first battle with Batman – step forward The Man Who Laughs, which takes place in the same early years as Long Halloween, seemingly straight after Year One. Then we can move away from these early Bat adventures and look at something totally different in style. Arkham Asylum: A serious house on serious earth is another journey into madness and the fine line that separates good from evil, as Batman enters the asylum to save the staff from the villains who are holding them hostage. Those who have played the game of the same name will find this familiar territory but the presentation is astonishingly different. This is as close to art as Batman gets in my view and is essential reading. More on the games in a forthcoming article by the way…

With a view to The Dark Knight Rises, the main villains could do with a look too. Bane, as mentioned, appears in Gotham in the Knightfall trilogy and Hardy’s version is apparently much more true to the original than the horrible portrayal Schumacher had Robert Swenson give in Batman & Robin. For Catwoman, choices abound and both Long Halloween and Year One feature a certain Selina Kyle. Hush is the most recent title to have an interesting portrait of Bruce and Selina’s complex relationship and is visually stunning.

To finish off, of course The Dark Knight Returns is a must. I’ve already spoken about the content and the impact of the story but it bears repeating that this is far, far more than ‘just a comic’ as many tend to dismiss Batman stories – as if comics cannot be a serious medium. Hopefully, reading some of the above will correct that impression and give you the added bonus of really knowing what you’re talking about when watching the films with your mates, rather than just blagging it based on the info I’ve given you.

Gerry will be discussing this article as well as a myriad of other Bat-things on this week’s Failed Critics Podcast Batman Special.