Sunday, September 16, 2012

Batman In a State of Flux: The Dark Knight Is Born (Part 2 of 3)


“This should be agony. I should be a mass of aching muscle — broken, spent, unable to move. And, were I an older man, I surely would... But I'm a man of 30 — of 20 again. The rain on my chest is a baptism. I'm born again.”

-       Batman, The Dark Knight Returns

      The Dark Knight Returns, written by Frank Millar was released in a series of issues in 1986, and became one of the best-selling comics of all time. Known for his innovative perspectives of stories and tendency to go beyond the proverbial “norm” of society, Millar had used all of his creative talents and then some to create what is said to be the greatest Batman story ever. The Dark Knight Returns focuses on a 55 year-old Bruce Wayne, forced to come out of retirement to protect Gotham once again, this time from a group of visually altered humans called mutants. Equipped with a new, tank-like Batmobile, a new female Robin and a brand new arsenal of weapons, Batman returns to prove that Gotham will survive as long as he lives.
       Millar’s writing for the piece gave us a view of both Bruce and Batman as old, depressed individuals living with incredible amounts of guilt, unable to move on. While the writing helped fans realize the dark story and serious dialogue, the original penciling, again done by Millar, introduced us to a new looking city and a Batman unlike we’ve ever seen before. The great inking by Klaus Janson and coloring by Lynn Varley helped convey the overall tone. With heavy black ink featured in every page and faded colors it indicated this was no fun place to be.
      As well as battling an army of mutant followers, Batman evaded the police force as well as Superman, both hunting down The Dark Knight for his arrest. Batman also confronted his oldest nemesis the Joker, which added a nice, needed flare to the story that only the Clown Prince of Crime could provide. Comic fans around the world owe Frank Millar a debt of gratitude for providing us with superhero content that ultimately changed the way fans viewed the character of Batman. He wasn’t seen as Batman, the Caped Crusader anymore, he was now known as Batman, The Dark Knight.

       After the success of Frank Millar’s initial take on Batman, people requested more from the writer, so he gave it to them. In the following year Millar wrote Batman: Year One, which dived into the characters origins, adding some subplots and updating the story, as well as providing young fans with a detailed look at his origins who may not have read the original story in Detective Comics. The book was very successful, being written by the biggest writer in comics at that point, it was hard for fans to resist the temptation to read more of Frank Millar’s Batman. The book is most famous for centering on James Gordon, rather then the conventional superhero origin story. Batman’s tale was still used quite well, but most of the situations in the book came from the point of view of Gordon, something that was quite unique in superhero stories.
       Millar’s success with his two books sparked other writers to create a “dark” Batman story of their own. The first, and probably most shocking of the long list of innovations following Millar was The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore, another successful new writer in that year. Released in 1988, The Killing Joke saw the Joker commit a series of unspeakable, evil deeds, all directed at Commissioner Gordon and his family. The story ultimately ended with the torturing of Gordon and the crippling of Barbara after a gunshot to the stomach. This story inadvertently created a new character for the future DC universe, Oracle: Barbara Gordon, retired from her role of Batgirl and aiding the Dark Knight via com-link.
       By the end of 1988, it was Jim Starlin’s turn to write the next, shocking Batman story. By this point, the role of Robin was assumed by Jason Todd, an older, and more lethal and rebellious teenager who didn’t sit well with some fans. Dennis O’Neil, now an editor at DC realized this about the character and gave the fate of Jason’s future to the fans. They were given the chance to vote as to whether Jason would live or die, and as we all know, A Death In The Family was created and Robin was dead. While it was a triumphant release, some fans were a little heartbroken over the loss of Robin, which would be short lived. Just a year after Jason’s death, Tim Drake was introduced into the Bat-Universe, solved the identity of Batman single-handedly, putting all previous villains to shame, and quickly became the new Robin. On the plus side, Tim was much more well liked then Jason, but just because the guy was a little short-tempered, didn’t mean we had to kill him off, right?

      Inspired by the dark representation of Batman in Millar’s books, Tim Burton (a fan of dark, eerie stories himself) would direct the first ever Batman blockbuster that didn’t involve Bat-Shark repellant spray. Casting Jack Nicholson as the maniacal Joker and Michael Keaton as Batman himself, the film earned a total of $411,348,924 at the box office and stunned audiences around the world. People who weren’t familiar with the characters dark turn in the comics got a great glimpse at the new Batman in the film. With a supporting cast of Kim Basinger, Michael Gough and Lando Calrission himself, Billy Dee Williams, the film was well received by male and female audiences of almost all ages. By almost I mean the movie was not geared towards younger audiences, unlike most comic book films prior to it. The language, action scenes and deaths of certain characters may have been too “intense” for young minds, that’s what adults say anyway. Personally, I feel sorry for any young Bat-fan who missed out on the opportunity of first viewing because he wasn’t of age, damn you law!

      If young fans weren’t technically able to see the first film in theatres, they sure as hell would not make it into its sequel. Batman Returns saw the origins of two new villains to the movie franchise: Catwoman and Penguin. Some factors, excluding that it was just too depressing and a little… creepy, the movie did not attract as many fans due to the smaller sets, the mediocre finale and the overall atmosphere. While Michelle Pfeiffer did play a very obscene Catwoman, many fans just couldn’t get past the poor representation and disgusting appearance of the Penguin. Any scene with Catwoman would essentially be consumed with the horrific scenes with the Penguin… sigh.
     This year also spawned what is considered the greatest comic cartoon ever, and was voted the second best cartoon series of all time by IGN; Batman The Animated Series brought the detective-oriented stories to animation and gave kids look at the new Batman, a look that is still essentially sustained in comics and cartoons today. This show is famous for its recreation of certain animation techniques and styles used in the Fleisher cartoons of the early 1940’s, which focused on short Superman adventures, and it’s innovation and redesigned take on classic characters like Tim Drake, Harley Quinn and Mr. Freeze. This animated series will always be renowned and must be praised in any discussion involving Batman because it’s just that good.

      While the Batman films were on a slight decline the comics were stronger then ever and one story in particular would have major changes in the Bat-Universe. Knightfall, released in late 1993, saw the emergence of one of Batman’s newest and most deadly foes, Bane. Knightfall was divided into three parts, each with one major plot, followed by multiple subplots involving supporting characters. The first part centered on breaking Batman physically and mentally. The second saw the birth of a new Batman; mostly from Tim Drake’s perspective and the third featured Batman training back into shape to reclaim his title as Gotham’s protector. The books had great story and spiced things up a little bit by allowing us to see what it would be like for someone else to become the bat, the result was not good. This story was also a breakout point in Bane’s career and instantly made him a household name, to comic fans anyway.

      In 1995, Director Joel Schumacher took over for the final two Batman films. Batman Forever did not do well review-wise at all. The addition of bat-nipples alone crippled the movie, but the real harm done involved the story, where Bruce Wayne apparently forgot the reason he dawned the cape and cowl every night and considered giving it up for a woman?! This isn’t too shocking, considering it’s a young Nicole Kidman and a logical thing to do, but we’ve seen Batman, countless times before, give up his relationships and any chance of a normal life for the good of Gotham, why should it be any different in this movie?
       The franchise’s fourth movie released in 1997 didn’t do any better; in fact it did far worse. The film earned a rating of 12% on Rotten Tomatoes, which pretty much speaks for itself. Bad acting, childish costumes and set designs and a poor choice of dialogue that seems to make every word out of anyone’s mouth appear as a joke to Batman’s world. “Should we kill her now?” Asks the over aged Robin. “No, lets kill her later.” Replies Batman as they decide to work with the untrained Batgirl… needless to say, I need not go any further.
     Aside from the horrific turnouts by the final two installments of the Batman movie franchise, the comics strived through the 90’s, releasing famous titles such as The Long Halloween, Cataclysm, No Man’s Land and Dark Victory. Each of which was well executed and seemed to add to Batman’s character dynamics even more. By the end of the 90’s, Batman would be seen as the coolest superhero around, but it wouldn’t be until the early 21st century where Batman hit a stride, much like he did with the release of The Dark Knight Returns. 2003, to be exact, would see the release of arguably the greatest Batman story ever: Hush…

Check out the final installment of Batman In a State of Flux in couple days. Thanks.

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