Batman: Earth One

In a sense, DC’s Earth One series has the potential to prove far more divisive and frustrating than their New 52 reboot. The latter has taken every single DC series back to #1, which has proven highly successful for the likes of Batman, Superman and Batwoman, whereas Earth One is designed solely for writers to get a crack at re-telling the origins of the company’s biggest heroes. The Man of Steel didn’t fare so well in his entry into the series, so what can Geoff Johns and Gary Frank bring to The Dark Knight to spice things up?

Batman’s origins have been told so many times to the point that they’re almost tattooed onto the public subconscious, even with those unfamiliar with his comic outings knowledgeable enough thanks to Batman Begins. Earth One also stands to suffer to a certain extent as a one-shoot graphic novel simply because Frank Miller’s Year One exists, and it’s pretty hard to argue with the most popular Batman book of all time. Johns has an unenviable task with this book; keep things too familiar, and it’s boring. Change things too much, and there’ll be uproar. Perhaps wisely, he plonks Earth One squarely in the middle, maintaining just enough in the way of convention whilst tweaking a sufficient amount to let Earth One stand on its own. And, in some ways, at least, it succeeds.

This reimagining starts with Alfred Pennyworth, a grizzled war veteran arriving at Wayne Manor to begin work as security for his ol’ buddy Thomas. Alfred insists that with this candidacy for Mayor making him a target, he, his wife and his exuberant young son Bruce should hold off on a visit to the movies that evening. Thomas flatly refuses, and before you can say “Crime Alley”, Alfred is suddenly fostering a young, angry and parentless Bruce Wayne. This time, there is no global travelling; Alfred acts as mentor and butler, teaching his young charge all he needs to begin fighting back against Gotham’s worst. This, however, is Batman at his most primitive; devoid of a plethora of gadgets, uncoordinated and clumsy, he’s also the angriest he’s been in print for some time, consumed by avenging his parents death as opposed to helping his city.

The boys in blue also get a fresh coat of paint, with Harvey Bullock a dashing, famous young detective searching for a big case to solve and Jim Gordon paying criminals for protection. It’s a nice flip, with Bullock pretty arrogant but well-meaning enough so as not to be insufferable, but more could’ve been done with Gordon’s weathered turn as a cop on the take, however. Perhaps the most significant character alteration here comes in the form of Alfred. Missing a leg from an accident whilst serving in the army with Thomas Wayne, he’s still compassionate and offers Earth One’s most human moments when offering Bruce support. He’s much more brutal in exposing his master’s faults in contrast, which is another welcome twist.

Anyone brave enough to include Penguin as a central villain in their story deserves kudos considering just how wonderfully un-threatening Oswald Cobblepot actually is. His role as Gotham’s Mayor and potential suspect in the death of Bruce’s parents grants him a bigger part than he’s seen in years, but even with this in mind, it’s tough to feel genuine dislike towards him. Fair play, Frank actually goes to good lengths to make him at least appear evil, but there have been very few points in time where Penguin has been well-utilised, and Earth One doesn’t add to that list. His muscle, the one-dimensional Birthday Boy fares worse, with a needlessly brutal shtick coming across as lackadaisical as opposed to lethal.

Earth One is, as another tale of Batman’s origins, fairly solid. Its use of flashbacks and its tinkerings with Bruce’s past come are welcome, and Frank’s artwork is sufficiently gritty for what is a darker origins tale than the classics it follows. Unfortunately, it’s held back by a number of errors. Bruce and Alfred’s relationship feels underdeveloped with a huge leap from their first meeting and Batman’s emergence criminally unexplored, which is a shame as their relationship acts as one of Earth One’s highlights. Some of the decisions in Earth One simply don’t work. I’ve no fault with making Batman more vulnerable at this early stage of his career, but the threat he faces feel woefully unthreatening. Also, for every interesting reimaging (e.g. Bullock, Alfred), there’s one like Lucius Fox that barely deserves a mention.

Earth One’s task is unenviable, and Johns and Frank equipped themselves as best as they could, but they don’t quite pull this off. There’s enough quality in Earth One to make it worth a read, but perhaps not quite enough to make it a keeper.

6/10

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The Dark Knight Rises

In many ways, Christopher Nolan had set himself up for a fall with his Dark Knight trilogy; no director had ever had a third crack at Batman. Coupled with the phenomenal critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight, then following it up without the late Heath Ledger and the biggest stars of Batman’s rogues gallery already used up was a tall order. That Nolan has been able to round off his vision for this group of characters and give each one an appropriate send-off is a triumph enough; that it’s an engrossing, epic and thoroughly enjoyable experience at almost three hours in length is even better. And to top it all off, it’s an awesome representation of one of the biggest superheroes of all time. Tidy.

The Dark Knight Rises is a more important film than its predecessor, no doubt about it. The Dark Knight was all about seeing how far things could be pushed after the success of Batman Begins. Characters, setting, tone and Bat-related support had all been established, now it was time to see how far they could be stretched. TDKR has to react to that in the sense that there were expectations that had to be met in terms of scale, antagonists and threat. Couple that with Nolan confirming this was his Batman swansong, a fitting end had to be constructed. It all begins by keeping the focus away from the cowl, with Bruce Wayne’s self-imposed exile shaken by the monstrous terrorist, Bane, his attacks on Gotham and the apparent bankrupting of Wayne Enterprises. With Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman)in hospital after a Bane-related attack, and the city crumbling, Bruce’s apathy is smashed long enough for him to don his costume once more. But after eight long years spent mourning the death of Rachel Dawes at the hands of Joker, and with his body ravaged from years of fighting his endless battle against crime, it remains to be seen whether or not he has the strength to overcome Bane and his army of mercenaries.

What Nolan does spectacularly, albeit slowly, is up the ante. As mentioned, Bruce is trapped very firmly within Wayne Manor as the film opens and doesn’t seem willing to escape his mourning. Gotham is still mourning Harvey Dent, and the secret behind his death is slowly consuming Gordon. This allows Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman (never mentioned by name) and Tom Hardy’s Bane to initiate their own plans for taking over Gotham whilst Bruce gears himself up for yet further fisticuffs. With Gordon out of picture, it’s down to the emergence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s idealistic good-guy cop John Blake to help lead the Police charge, which swaps the authority role quite nicely for a good chunk of proceedings. Michael Caine gives a far meatier turn as Alfred with his total opposition to Bruce’s re-emergence as Batman offering up several highly charged scenes, whilst Morgan Freeman successfully if unspectacularly reprises his Lucius Fox role.

As with The Dark Knight, the antagonists do provide some big hooks to the experience. It’s no great shock that Catwoman toes the line between crafty burglar and Batman’s ally, but she appears capable of kicking butt in a much more hard-hitting fashion than previous incarnations. Nolan’s reimagining of Bane from the goliath Mexican wrestler of comic  lore to the intelligent, resourceful and ruthless revolutionary provides a seminal take on the character, offering Batman his biggest physical test on film to date. As such, their fight scenes are awesome to behold, both highly charged, emotional and brutal. Bane’s plans for Gotham are more elaborate, calculating and more focussed than Joker’s in The Dark Knight, making him much more malevolent even if not quite as engrossing as the clown prince of crime. Hardy does a wonderful job of projecting Bane’s authority even with a mask, thanks to some smart work with his facial expressions (what you can see of his face, anyway) and an oddly regal but commanding, articulate voice. And then you’ve got Christian Bale, offering up his strongest turn in the Batman role. He takes both Bruce Wayne and his alter ego through hell and back, offering up more power, command and humanity to contend with the character’s biggest challenge yet.

Without wanting to divulge too much of what is a quite intricate and detailed plot, Nolan has managed to do a lot right with TDKR’s long story; offering Batman a credible, physical adversary, plunging Gotham into its bleakest moments yet, casting a group of actors capable of carrying this tale to its conclusion and offering necessary endings for each of these big characters.

The easy criticisms for the film stem from its tone, which is admittedly quite bleak and laced with little shade. Criticising such a stylistic choice feels somewhat pointless when the stakes are considered; Batman and Gotham City are facing its biggest threat yet, and for that to be believable, the tone has to be dark, and perhaps somewhat suffocating. Contrary to some reviews, it isn’t humourless, it rightly doesn’t overdo it in the laugh department. Those looking for greater depth in that field can always bugger off and watch Batman & Robin instead.

Could the film be a bit shorter? For the story Nolan’s trying to end, probably not. He makes some bold moves, but makes the odd misstep within those decisions; a visual representation of Alfred’s described dream of seeing Bruce happily wed having never returned to Gotham was utterly unnecessary, and appeared to suggest his audience had no imagination.  TDKR connects with some big points from Batman Begins, so the level of flashbacks and references to the trilogy’s beginning is understandable but handled in such a way that it too becomes a distraction and a detriment. Also, for a series so rooted in Gotham’s salvation, there’s so little time spent with the citizens at the mercy of the film’s villain.

These aren’t major gripes, because Nolan has managed to do a huge amount right with this saga’s conclusion. There are plenty of nerdgasm-inducing moments for the die-hards to latch onto, the scale of Gotham’s terror is unreal and, most importantly, there’s a solid ending for the most important superhero film series of our time.
9/10.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

This game could’ve been terrible. Around the time The Dark Knight was making a killing over a year ago, there was a big likelihood that the next Batman game was going to be a hideous movie tie-in. So it was definitely a relief and certainly intruiging when Arkham Asylum was announced to be the next Batman game, and to have nothing to do with Christopher Nolan’s film. At first, expectations can’t have been too high considering how many forgettable comic book hero games there have been, let alone terrible Batman ones, but damn if this game didn’t start off looking great, and continue along that route until it reached Awesome Town. Having spent some quality time with Arkham Asylum over the last few weeks, I can happily report that it’s definitely the best Batman game there’s ever been, and easily one of the best of 2009, period.

The story plays out like your classic Batman v Joker tale; Joker was attempting a robbery, and got caught by Batman. The caped crusader is returning him to the maximum security of Arkham Asylum, but is suspicious as to why Joker would let himself get caught so easily. Sure enough, Joker breaks free just after his arrival and with the help of some friends, takes over the entire asylum. Trapped inside with a host of old foes, Joker’s henchman and the asylum’s inmates, Batman has to survive a hellish evening by himself with only an arsenal of gadgets, a superior intellect and expert combat training.

What? It’s freakin’ Batman! He’ll do ok.

Arkham Asylum plays out like a third-person action/adventure title with a fantastic hand-to-hand combat engine, stealth elements and some detective work thrown in for good measure. It sounds like a mashing of gameplay styles, and to an extent it is, but each element is combined so well you barely even notice. The fighting is ridiculously easy and very satisfying, so you’ll be racking massive combos up in no time even with ten enemies surrounding you. You’ll be fighting often, but during your quest to take back control of Arkham, you’ll also find yourself in large rooms with armed guards waiting to fill you with bullets blocking your way. You may be Batman, but you can’t just rush into a firefight. This is where the stealth element comes into play; you’ll use high vantage points, grates and walls to avoid being spotted and are then pretty much free to take out your enemies as you please. Batarangs, glide kicks, hanging them upside down from stone gargoyles or exploding walls, it’s an intensely gratifying system and one that rewards patience and ingenuity as opposed to speed and power. You’ll often hear the remaining guards getting more and more aggravated as their buddies are picked off, which is a great touch.

Outside of the main story, there’s an embarassing amount of side quests and things to do. 240 individual challenges hidden across each area of the island by The Riddler will provide you with hours of exploration, which will in turn be rewarded with biographies for almost every villain within the Batman universe, character trophies to view and interviews with Arkham’s more high profile villains. It’s clear that British based developers Rocksteady have taken full advantage of the DC Comics licence and created an extended love letter to Bat-fans, and it shows in every part of the game. The characters themselves are heavily comic book influenced, which was certainly the way to go considering the last two Batman films have gone for a hyper-reality that just wouldn’t transfer too well from cinema to console. Rocksteady have even gotten established voice actors of the series to take control of their characters, calling upon Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (Joker) to reprise the same roles they’ve been doing in animated series’ since the 90s. Hamill inparticular steals the show as the prince of crime; every time he’s on screen, Joker demands your attention and even when he’s speaking on the island’s PA, his quips are so delightfully demented that you don’t want to miss a single syllable.

It’s touches like employing Conroy and Hamill that make Arkham Asylum feel so authentic, so damn Batmanish. Rocksteady have really nailed what Batman is about and what controlling the dark knight should be like. There were no problems big enough during my 15 hour playthrough that proved a distraction from an absorbing, dark and intense game. Ok, the game’s ending didn’t quite feel like a decent pay-off after everything you’d just been through, and Rocksteady saw fit to leave us with a teaser that surely points to their involvement in a sequel of some sorts. But on this sort of form, you’d be insane to have anyone else taking over the Batman gaming licence, because just as Christopher Nolan rejuvinated a character who’d been stuck in the cinematic doldrums for years, Rocksteady have given us a definitive interpretation of what Batman should be in 2009.

Intense, dark and brilliant. Even if you aren’t a Batman fan, you’re looking at one of 2009’s highlights in Arkham Asylum.

9/10