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Batman Live at the O2 (Review)

I had the chance to check out the new Batman Live stage show at the O2 (the Point) this evening, fresh off the british leg of its world tour. It was very much Batmanas camp pantomime, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it is, after all, a show to bring the whole family to. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if the show was looking to the wrong sources for inspiration. After all, batman has been many things to many people over his seventy years of existence, so there’s a lot of stuff to draw on no matter what angle you choose to take. So I found it quite a bit strange that the stage show opted to draw on Tim Burton’s darkly gothic Gotham when offering light family entertainment, especially when one suspects the Adam West iteration of the character might have suited the tone of the material better.

Joker's wild...

In fairness, the production on Batman Live is more than impressive. Even little touches like comic book scene transitions or artwork illustrated by Jim Lee show that a lot of care went into putting the show together, and it works very well from a technical point of view. Okay, the aerial combat between Batman and Catwoman looks more ridiculous than it really should – it seems like the idea of somebody who has watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon once too often, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Even the Batmobile looks kinda impressive, and I like the fact that it hovers, in a sly reference to Grant Morrison’s Batman.

The writing team is composed of Batman stalwarts, who cut their teeth on Batman: The Animated Series, perhaps the single greatest incarnation of the Caped Crusader, encapsulating all facets of the character. So the core plot is relatively solid. The show won an Emmy for giving us the best version of Robin’s origin story in Robin’s Reckoning, and – with the show aimed at kids – it seems like the perfect material for a show. So we get Dick Grayson’s first adventure as Robin. Of course, this being a family-themed stage-show based around gimmicks, there’s hardly a lot of room for character work, and those who don’t think the Boy Wonder belongs as part of the Batman mythos will hardly be convinced by this stage-show.

Rogue warrior...

And yet, I think that’s part of the appeal. Batman has the most wonderful archetypes in comic book – even Superman can’t really compete. It seems everyone knows the origin in epic detail – right down to Martha Wayne’s falling pearls. My better half can rhyme off over a dozen Batman villains without stopping to catch a breath. Everybody knows who Commissioner Gordon is, and the Bat Signal is iconic. So Batman is perfectly suited to being reduced down to a two-hour pantomime stage-show, without necessarily losing anything in the process. And that’s grand, because not ever depiction of the Caped Crusader needs to be as sophisticated as Batman Begins, after all.

Still, I can’t help but feel that the performance suffers a bit from trying to mish-mash so many of the particulars together. So the story of the thing feels like a slightly campy Adam West adventure, with a supervillain team-up, a Catwoman who can’t decide if she’s good or bad (and who gets shipped to Arkham despite not actually being insane), a Joker who lowers himself on to the stage using helium and “Joker bombs.”However, the tone seems to be set for the neo-gothic style that Tim Burton brought to his films – it’s most obvious in the design of the Penguin, but also in the music that draws heavily from Danny Elfman, and the set design and costuming, which belongs in that sort of strange art deco fantasy world that Burton defined.

Whip it...

This leads to a very strange first half. The story is over plotted, with the script insisting on making sure that Tony Zucco still kills Dick Grayson’s parents – in homage to the comic books – only to kill him off quickly and anti-climactically so that the real villain can be revealed. It feels strange to draw Zucco, a gangster, into a play based around Batman’s most iconic villains, only to shove him aside so quickly. If the writers wanted one of Batman’s more recognisable foes to prove ultimately responsible for the death of Robin’s family, it would have made a lot more sense to just write it that way. Again, the show opens with the deaths of two sets of parents, before becoming something of a camp run-around adventure, creating a very weird dissonance.

You can judge the conflict at the heart of the play by the way it serves Batman’s villains. The darker villains feel a little short-changed, while the lighter and camper ones get great play. The Penguin, looking very much like Danny DeVito’s version of the character, seems quite obviously out of place – he looks grotesque, but he insists on chuckling like Burgess Meridith and playing host and criminal fixer. On the other hand, the Riddler seems well-suited by the story, being the villain who suggests the super villain team-up to kill Batman in the first place, acknowledging the fact that the guy with the question mark cane isn’t exactly the most serious or realistic of Batman’s rogues. He prances around the stage waving his cane and having a great time, while Two-Face looks a little of place – as if he’s just on-stage because he appeared in The Dark Knight not too long ago. It’s worth noting that Two-Face never appeared in Adam West’s Batman!, which isn’t a bad thing. He would have been as out of place there as he was here. Even the Joker is more playful prankster than homocidal maniac.

It's the car... Chicks dig the car...

The show uses the Robin origin story as an excuse to stage any number of random spectacles, including people in horse suits prancing around, jugglers and acrobats. This is initially quite cute, but it drags when it seems every scene includes some form of circus-related entertainment. I know this is a stage-show, but the first half just seems to be an excuse to feature acrobats prancing around, and relatively little of Batman or his foes. That said, it might seem a bit better if the script seemed to be in on the act, but it’s treated remarkably seriously, which feels a little odd. This is the era where we’ve learned to accept the Adam West Batman for what it was (and can celebrate the very camp The Brave and the Bold television show), so it’s hardly like we’d balk at a slightly self-aware and camp Batman.

In fairness, the second half does a much a better job. Moving the setting to inside Arkham Asylum, with dummies tied by chains, the show gets a bit more macabre. It feels a less campy and cheesy, with a reason beyond “let’s team up!” to get all Batman’s villains together (what with them being locked insidethe Asylum). The Scarecrow, in particular, is very well realised and the whole thing really works quite smoothly. It’s never too dark or scary for the kids, but it does feel like perhaps we should be a little worried about Batman and Robin, rather than waiting for some Adam West style words of wisdom and a Bat-dance that never arrives.

Batman's foes take centre stage...

My inner comic book fan appreciated the nerdy references to past adventures, particularly the larger ones like a giant Joker face seemingly borrowed from Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum or the Joker hijacking a circus like he did in The Killing Joke (plus Gordon’s repeated insistence that he doesn’t like clowns). Hell, even the dinosaur in the Bat-cave makes an appearance, which confused the better half immensely.

Batman Live is a decent piece of entertainment. It reduces the Caped Crusader down to his core elements, but it does suffer a bit from the fact that it wants to be both dark and edgy, yet campy and silly at the same time. It’s funny, because the Batman productions to do that also featured Robin, with an origin story not too dissimilar from this one. I’m referring to the nightmare of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, which were evoked by the stage show at certain points (foot soldiers in neon outfits fighting with glow-sticks). It’s never quite that bad, but it does make me wonder why the show couldn’t have simply opted for one approach or the other – rather than trying to combine both.

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2 Responses

  1. Looks to have some great costumes and all of the colors give an aesthetic “pop.” Seems as thought they might have had trouble navigating the many faces of the Bat, however. Those last two images had me thinking Schumacher before I’d even gotten around to reading your confirmation.

    Good to hear some of the old “Animated Series” cohorts are working together again.

    • Yep, they were a great team, and I think that’s why I’m so fond (relatively speaking) of the DCAU movies that have been going direct-to-video, keeping the same people working on characters they are really good at. I think Paul Dini, for example, is one of the great Batman writers.

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