Gotham Nights | Top Three Batman Adaptations

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox's Batman prequel series Gotham

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox’s Batman prequel series Gotham

The Fox network’s Batman prequel series Gotham looks to be a solid but unremarkable bit of hokum, if this week’s pilot is anything to go by. An otherwise competent-enough police procedural, it relies far too heavily on Caped Crusader brand recognition, hoping that none-too-subtle “a-ha!” moments revealing an early version of Batman’s rouges gallery will be enough to make us sit up and pay attention for longer than a couple of episodes.

Still, its inaugural episode made me look back at some of my favourite Batman stories in non-comic book media. I’ve narrowed it down to a top three – a top three of features I don’t mind re-visiting on occasion.*

3) The Dark Knight (2008)

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

There are only a handful of films I’ve watched in my life time that were bona-fide ‘events’ at the cinema. Not even a handful… off the top of my head I can think of two, maybe three films, tops, that weren’t just successful genre blockbusters but long-awaited, almost social events by dint of their pre-screening buzz and subsequent pop culture impact.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) was the first. Despite the fact that it disappointed me even though I was an easy-to-please kid at the time, George Lucas’ return to the sci-fi/fantasy world that made him a Hollywood pioneer felt like some kind of watershed moment: never mind its intrinsic worth as a film – it was a monumental gesture on Lucas’ part that bridged two generations of fandom, right at the cusp of the internet revolution, which lent fuel to the fire of its many detractors.

Following closely on its trail was a far less controversial film – though its sequels proved to be a fast-tracked mirror image to the disappointment caused by the Star Wars prequels ­– which I won’t hesitate to call a modern masterpiece: The Matrix; a cyberpunk collage which wore its homages proudly on its sleeve but which was also animated by a pioneering energy.

The Dark Knight was the third and final one that comes to mind – the only example I can think of from past adolescence.

There are several reasons why Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins (2006) struck a chord with me (along with many, many others worldwide). Its escalating tempo perfectly mirrors the chaotic, all-pervasive nature of a terrorist attack (relentlessly topical for all of us post-9/11), with Nolan perfectly balancing blockbuster friendly action with what is now referred to a ‘grimdark’ approach to superheroics. But instead of coming across as too sombre for its own good, Nolan’s seriousness is both gripping and infectious. He commits to the material in a way that doesn’t feel preposterous or disproportionate, in a way that’s been justifiably compared to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).

But it’s unsurprisingly Heath Ledger’s performance as the film’s key antagonist, The Joker, that keeps me returning to the film. Over and above the tragic romance of Heath Ledger being reported dead soon after the shoot wrapped, there’s something magnetic about his performance that makes it a joyous thing to experience.

Yes, it’s disturbing and dark – like his director, Ledger grabs the role by the collar and doesn’t let go, diving head-first into the nihilistic psychosis of his character. But despite being the orchestrator of the film’s panic and chaos, he’s above all fun to watch, a spirited grotesque in the spirit of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow who is enjoyable to experience even in isolation, as his introduction to the parliament of Gotham mobsters amply displays (and rewards in repeat viewings).

2) Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

The Paul Dini/Bruce Timm Batman Animated Series – as transmitted (and dubbed) on Italian TV – was one of the defining cartoons of my childhood. Apart from bolstering my love of Batman lore, it also imbued in me a love of film noir and Art Deco.

It gives us a Batman origin story beyond the my-parents-were-murdered sequence, as well as an uncharacteristic and finely fleshed out romance. There’s no bimbotic Vicki Vales here; in Andrea Beaumont Bruce Wayne gets a mirror image of his traumatic obsession. Also packing in a great Joker story, the feature-length ‘Phantasm’ exquisitely built on the foundations set by the animated series.

Playing into Batman’s noir appeal while remaining kid-friendly, it also maintains a certain decorum absent from subsequent – and concurrent – movie adaptations. It certainly has none of the camp excesses of the much-maligned Joel Schumacher films, and neither is it particularly close in tone to the comparatively toned down Tim Burton opening salvos.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a flair for the theatrical ­– just wrap your ears around Shirley Walker’s theme tune for a rousing introduction to this inspiring labour of love.

1) Batman Returns (1992)

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Nolan gets all the accolades and Schumacher gets all the hate, but it’s Tim Burton’s second (and final) sequel to his soujourn in Gotham that stays with me to this day – to the point that I re-watch it every Christmas (the period in which the film is set, all the better to amplify its Gothic excess).

It is the only Batman film in the franchise that takes on the core absurdity of the DC Comics character and runs with it.

But it doesn’t run with it in the same way that Burton’s successor Joel Schumacher ran with it; turning it into a camp carnival of steel bat-nipples and shiny gadgets and architecture. In pitting Bruce Wayne/Batman against the double-menace of feral jewel thief Selina Kyle/Catwoman (the never-sexier Michelle Pfeiffer) and the orphaned freak-cum-underground mobster Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (the never-uglier Danny De Vito), Burton showed that he understood the inner workings of Batman and his rogues’ gallery.

It’s about watching mad people in costumes tearing each other apart (which is as far as you can get from the moralistic, dead-serious drama-thrillers of the latter-day Christopher Nolan trilogy).

The snowy pall of Christmas time over Gotham city only reinforces the stylistically-heightened panorama: a truly Gothic sight if there ever was one, and a more than apt rehearsal for that other Burton-sponsored classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

*This, incidentally, remains the ultimate litmus test for me when it comes to deciding what is a ‘favourite’ – particularly in this day and age when daisy-chain social media gimmicks keep requesting us to make a favourite list of this or that. If you truly love something, you’ll keep coming back.

Why I love NBC’s Hannibal – Part II

Not a spoiler: In a typically bold move, the first episode of the second season of NBC's Hannibal opens with a far-reaching and action-packed flash-forward

Not a spoiler: In a typically bold move, the first episode of the second season of NBC’s Hannibal opens with a far-reaching and action-packed flash-forward

Read Part I

It’s been a while since the second season of NBC’s Hannibal has wrapped up, I know – well, ‘a while’ in today’s always-constantly-updated online world anyway – but I had neither the time nor the inclination to pen this follow-up to my initial post straight away.

First off, it’s fun to just luxuriate in an intense, contentious season finale before commenting on it; to let the swathe of online commentary wash over you and even, perhaps, share in some of it.

Of course, those who have seen it will know what I’m talking about, and I doubt there’s a lukewarm opinion on how the blood-soaked and – though the final outcome remains teasingly to be seen – tragic final reel of what was a superb season of television plays out.

You either love the tortuous downward spiral (oh, but doesn’t it look so exquisite!) Bryan Fuller has put you through or you don’t, and this season in particular, I think, urges you to take a final decision on how you feel about the overall raison d’etre of this unapologetically baroque show.

Because while the first season had as its commercially-friendly ballast a ‘monster of the week’ structure – with the Will-and-Hannibal storyline unspooling in increments in the background – Fuller and co. have clearly been given carte blanche this time around.

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Style over substance? Hannibal is unapologetically baroque

Style over substance? Hannibal is unapologetically baroque

This is not a smoothly calculated show. It’s a show that grows and develops, contorting to fit its shape – sometimes its development is fractious and misjudged but it’s certainly moving towards something. The fact that it’s a prequel to an established book-and-film property already gives it a final end-point, but Fuller is also mining deeper into Thomas Harris’ Hannibal mythos in a way that feels both daring and appropriate.

I’ve mentioned the danger of overstretching a storyline beyond its limits in the previous post. But in taking the risk to ‘gild the lily’ of what was previously established by Harris and his cinematic forebears, Fuller actually ends up giving us something more; and yes, in this sense more is more because it builds convincingly on the beguiling psychological bind that the Hannibal stories are bound by.

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With the right tools and the right brains at the wheel, the idea of a cannibalistic serial killer not only aiding a ‘consulting detective’ – let’s acknowledge the intertexual link between Will Graham and Sherlock Holmes, please – with the crimes he’s charged with, but also seeking a bona-fide relationship with him, is rich dramatic pickings whichever way you slice it (hur, hur).

A friend of mine pointed out how Fuller’s Hannibal is more of a Freudian creation, as opposed to the ‘Jungian’ archetype we see in the Harris novels and their accompanying film adaptations.

I tend to agree, not only because NBC-Hannibal is still a slippery figure in every sense of the word, as he’s not had a chance to solidify into the kind of antagonist-consultant role he occupies in the canon narratives. (Going by a sort-of Proppian definition of his archetypal role in the source material, could we perhaps say that he’s both central antagonist AND wise old man figure? Both Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi?)

NBC-Hannibal is harder to define in those terms, but he is of course also the show’s organising principle and thematic core at the same time (note that he is not, however, the protagonist – that journey belongs to Will – even though the show is named after him).

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In captivity, in therapy: Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

In captivity, in therapy: Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

Here’s the crux of it all: this is a show about therapy; or, at least, it’s a show that takes the raison d’etre of therapy and applies it to a dimension none of us would have dared to venture, given the choice.

This isn’t just because Hannibal Lecter himself happens to be a therapist (and a good one at that). Having therapy as a conceit – and it’s a consistent one for the show – means that the show is about the unravelling of the self, about a constant attempt to cut through the confusion and dross of everyday consciousness to arrive at some deeply embedded truth about yourself.

This is of course evident in Will’s zig-zagging psychological journey across the show’s two seasons, but in a coup of form vs content that elevates the show to what feels like a bona fide – though almost accidental – work of art, it’s also matched in both the narrative structure and cinematographic landscape of its second season.

Whereas Hannibal’s diabolical mentoring of Will came in fragmented drops in Season One – due to the rat-a-tat rhythm of the one killer per episode structure – come the second season it gets a broad sweep, largely owing to Will’s uncomfortable – and highly vulnerable – predicament.

To be concluded

‘Do you really want to be normal?’ | Penny Dreadful

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is asked a tough question in the final moments of the first season of Showtime's Penny Dreadful

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is asked a tough question in the final moments of the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful

Spoilers for the first season of Penny Dreadful ahead

“Do you really want to be normal?”

That question, delivered by a seemingly benign Welsh priest (though given the particular show’s propensity for sneaky evil presences, one shouldn’t be too sure) concludes the final episode of the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, fading to black before the show’s erstwhile protagonist, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) can respond.

It’s an apt question to ask – even an apt question to end a season on – considering we’re dealing with a show about characters who are either grotesque, extraordinary or a mix of both. But it’s also pertinent to the show’s structure itself. Like the critically lauded but structurally uneven True Detective before it (also a moody slow-burner entrenched in the history of horror fiction, albeit the two shows picking two separate – Transatlantic, even – branches of the tradition), Penny Dreadful had eight episodes in its first season.

Apart from being somewhat atypical in the current trend of ongoing ‘prestige’ television dramas, whose seasons generally take in at least 10 and up to 13 or 14 episodes, Penny Dreadful – perhaps contrary to its title and the associated cultural pedigree that that implies – opted to unspool its story in slow drops, instead of at a frenetic pace, with a twist and/or “shocking” character revelation at every corner.

In addition to this, the show also kept its cards to its chest – and still has quite a few, it must be said, even after the season one finale – so that while it was hoped that the viewers would remain intrigued by the mystery, it was never quite certain which parts of the story had the most urgent implications for our characters. And to make things even harder for itself, the show dedicated two whole episodes – precious time, for such a considerably brief season – to flashbacks.

This begs the question: is Penny Dreadful just slow, or have we been ‘spoiled’ by a certain degree of acceleration in the way TV series tend to be delivered?

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Indeed, Penny Dreadful has nothing like the immediate (and sustained) hook of Breaking Bad, which works because it’s striking, simple and also workable over the long term: Walter White’s cancer is a looming portent of doom, while his gradual transformation into a drug baron can be enjoyed episode-to-episode (or perhaps more accurately, it can be charted from season to season) because it’s precisely that: a transformation, a journey, an element of the story that yields new developments by its very nature; and in this case, it’s a particularly seductive element as it promises to transform our protagonist from hero to villain. Penny Dreadful Neither can Penny Dreadful boast of the huge cast of characters and intersecting story-lines one finds in Game of Thrones which, unlike Penny Dreadful, can satisfy a large and varied swathe of viewers with each episode, as George RR Martin’s vast, medieval-fantasy world can flicker from one sub-plot to another in the blink of an eye, with each sub-plot practically catering to its own mini-genre (political thriller, domestic drama, picaresque journey, fantasy actioner… even horror of the ‘torture porn’ variety).

Penny Dreadful – perhaps by dint of its title alone – can’t even claim to be ‘above’ genre television, necessarily. It can’t afford to luxuriate in the longueurs of a Mad Men without consequence, because its premise, and the cultural milieu it pastiches, demands a certain amount of genre-familiar action: an expectation corroborated by the memory of the literary characters it has adopted (who are, at the very least, a century old, which increases the expectation we have of them substantially).

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Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney)

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney)

Am I suggesting that Penny Dreadful is faultless, or that any faults it may have should be forgiven because we appear to have been ‘spoilt’ by accelerated storytelling (even in long-haul drama) in this day and age? No.

Come the conclusion of season one, a couple of things about the show still rankle me slightly, namely:

1) The season’s primary plot engine: Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa’s quest to retrieve Mina Murray (Olivia Llewellyn). It just feels a little thin. Though there’s enough simmering interpersonal drama between Malcolm and Vanessa to spare (as we learn about half-way through the season), and though of course the supporting characters also do their part in filling up the episodes leading to the climax, the sweep of it just doesn’t feel epic enough to justify an entire season. (I wonder if a plot reshuffle would have worked better… if, say, Mina is actually retrieved earlier on – even as early as the third or fourth episode – but it turned out that she is still gripped by whatever evil she appears to be possessed by. The rest of the season would then progress much in the same way, but it would also be free of what is essentially a threadbare ‘final destination’. As it stands, it feels as though the story will only get going come season; and

2) The fact that Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney) appears to have been thrown into the fray to elicit sexual tension and titillation and little else. His character arc will doubtlessly pick up come season two (we weren’t offered a glimpse of his infamous portrait after all), but it was sloppy of the writers not to leave any breadcrumbs for us at all. Come the final episode, he’s a cipher – and not a tantalizing one, at that.

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But you’ll be hard-pressed to deny that Penny Dreadful is a sumptuous, atmospheric and impeccably photographed show, despite all its faults. This isn’t just cosmetic praise: its production value works towards creating its atmosphere of gloomy dread and, ultimately, menace. And I think this is far more worthwhile a dramatic pursuit than endeavoring to create a ‘monster-of-the-week’ type show, which this easily could have become, and which even I suspected it may have been (and I probably wouldn’t have minded one bit if that were the case, I must admit).

Like Hannibal – a show I love and admire even more than Penny Dreadful – it shoots everything in a gloomy chiaroscuro, reinforcing the sense that, if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for these characters, they’re going to have to work through plenty of gloom to get to it. But more than just being a trick of cinematography and production design, this prolonged sense of foreboding helps the story.

Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton)

Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton)

Because it’s a story about how evil is incredibly hard to beat. Though we were promised Dracula, and though some kind of vampire mythos is most certainly at play here, the suggestion is that the old Count (or some version of him), is being helped, or is subservient to, an ancient Egyptian deity who appears to be channeling powers we’d normally associate with Satan (at least in pop culture lore).

Eva Green’s Vanessa is of course the fulcrum of all this: because this demonic presence appears to have taken a liking to her, she’s also made to serve as bait for Mina – or, at least, as a tracking device. In a show as restrained as this – restrained, at least, within its genre – Vanessa’s moments of demonic possession were the key set pieces… and it’s commendable that the ‘wow’ factor of the show depended not on shocking key character deaths (Red Viper, anyone?) but rather, on an actress’ talents, necessarily OTT as those particular moments were. Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) The adage ‘force of nature’ is one of those hateful phrases that are tossed around too easily, but Green certainly gives the show her all: she can switch from beautiful to horrific, from formidable to crushed, in the blink of an eye.

Her effective martyrdom, powerfully rendered by Green, points to one thing above all: there is no talisman or magic charm, no arcane incantation that will drive this malevolent presence out for good (though our boy Ethan (Josh Hartnett) surprised everyone with his spot of impromptu exorcism, which saved Vanessa’s life in the season’s penultimate episode).

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The chosen tone of John Logan’s show – which has thankfully been confirmed for a second season – makes perfect sense for the kind of property (the word is crucial here) that it is.

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)

Save for Vanessa, we know a lot of these characters from their source material (that includes Malcolm Murray, who is H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain in all but name), and the show can’t play too closely to that. Instead of exploiting its Gothic and supernatural pedigree for effects-laden gimmicks and sensationalist shocks, it’s playing the long game, and keeping us guessing.

Or would you rather it were a “normal” show, after all?

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Questions:

1) Do you think that the eight-episode arc is proving to be a real challenge for TV writers?

2) Genre historians! Would you say that Penny Dreadful follows an old-school model of storytelling? Did the original penny dreadfuls have a similar structure? Haven’t had a chance to research this myself, so I’m really curious about this.

Monstering

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his Creature (Rory Kinnear) in Showtime's Penny Dreadful (2014)

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his Creature (Rory Kinnear) in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2014)

“By revealing that difference is arbitrary and potentially free-floating, mutable rather than essential, the monster threatens to destroy not just individual members of a society, but the very cultural apparatus through which individuality is constituted and allowed. Because it is a body across which difference has been repeatedly written, the monster (like Frankenstein’s creature, that combination of odd somatic pieces stitched together from a community of cadavers) seeks out its author to demand its raison d’être – and to bear witness to the fact that it could have been constructed Otherwise” – Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

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