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New Escapist Column! On “Batman Begins” as the Perfect Superhero Origin Story…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. It’s the fifteenth anniversary of the release of Batman Begins, so it felt appropriate to look back on the film as the perfect superhero origin story.

Christopher Nolan dedicates Batman Begins to getting inside the head of Bruce Wayne, to the point that the villainous Ra’s Al Ghul and Scarecrow are defined almost entirely as counterpoints to the Caped Crusader. Nolan builds the character from the ground up, explaining everything about the character’s perspective and psychology – why he says what he says, why he acts like he does, why he thinks what he thinks. Most impressively, Nolan provides a meaningful answer to a question the character’s mythology long glossed over. “Why bats, Master Wayne?”

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

“… is Ra’s Al Ghul immortal?” Denny O’Neil, and Reflecting on a Bronze Age Batman Villain…

Denny O’Neil passed away last week, at the age of 81.

Many more informed and articulate individuals have written at length about the writer and editor’s contribution to comic books as a medium. In practical terms, Denny O’Neil was a crucial figure in the evolution of Batman, one of the medium’s most enduring characters. During the seventies, he served as a stepping stone between the bright and chirpy “New Look” of the sixties and Frank Miller’s gritty reinvention of the eighties. He also served as editor of the line during the nineties, overseeing beloved events like Knightfall and No Man’s Land.

This is to say nothing of O’Neil’s larger contributions to comic books. During the seventies, he served as the conscience of mainstream comics, reinjecting the sort of politics that had been largely missing since the earliest days of Action Comics and Superman. With runs on Justice League and Green Lantern/Green Arrow, O’Neil sought to engage the iconic DC superheroes with contemporary America. It was often clumsy, but it was always powerful. This is without getting into O’Neil’s hugely influential runs on books like Iron Man or The Question.

However, this week was also the fifteenth anniversary of the release of Batman Begins. This was a hugely influential superhero film, kicking off what might be considered the genre’s crowning accomplishment. Christopher Nolan’s film is heavily indebted to O’Neil, with O’Neil’s comic The Man Who Falls serving as a touchstone for the film’s approach to Bruce Wayne. However, the film was also notable for offering the first live action interpretation of one of O’Neil’s most sizable additions to the Batman mythos: Ra’s Al Ghul.

Batman has one of the most crowded and iconic rogues’ galleries in comics, packed to the brim with recognisable faces: the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, the Mad Hatter, the Scarecrow, Mister Freeze, Clayface. It’s a crowded field. Writers and artists are constantly trying to add to that, to add their own new characters to the mix. Very few actually catch on, with arguably only Bane and Harley Quinn managing to reach the top tier within the last thirty years. This makes Ra’s Al Ghul all the more impressive.

In the past few years, Ra’s Al Ghul has been cemented as an essential part of the Batman mythos. Both Arrow and Gotham featured the character as a major antagonist, anchoring season-long arcs, played by Mathew Nable and Alexander Siddig. (Liam Neeson reportedly even considered reprising the role for Arrow, even if he couldn’t make the schedule work.) The character has also been a staple of animated adaptations, going back to Batman: The Animated Series and continuing through Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Young Justice and Beware the Batman.

Ra’s Al Ghul has become such a fundamental part of the larger Batman universe that it is hard to imagine it ever existed without him. Nevertheless, he stands as one of the enduring creative legacies of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, who first introduced him to the Caped Crusader in the early seventies. In hindsight, as with Bane, it’s easy to see why Ra’s Al Ghul has endured in the way that he has. He fills an important gap in the larger Batman mythos. However, it was the genius of O’Neil and Adams to recognise that gap in the first place.

That’s what makes the character so fantastic. Despite being a relatively late addition to the Dark Knight’s collection of foes, he seems like he always belonged there.

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Iron Fist – Under Leaf Pluck Lotus (Review)

With Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, Iron Fist truly embraces its inner Batman Begins.

To be fair, there were shades of this in the earlier episodes. Snow Gives Way introduced Danny Rand as a long-lost (legally dead) billionaire who returned home from a trip to the orient. Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch embroiled Danny in battle to take control of his company and reclaim his father’s legacy. Indeed, it seemed fair to reflect that if Daredevil had gorged itself on many of the more interesting and compelling facets of Christopher Nolan’s superhero origin story, then Iron Fist had been left to gently pick over the remains of that particular corpse.

Ain’t gonna Gao…

Under Leaf Pluck Lotus finds Iron Fist borrowing even more from Batman Begins, lifting plot points and story beats that were already stolen by Daredevil. The bulk of Under Leaf Pluck Lotus focuses on Danny’s discovery that a cult of secret ninjas have been using his company to smuggle dangerous materials into the city, having made a dangerous alliance with “the chemist.” This leads to a dangerous confrontation on the docks, recalling one of the most memorable sequences in Batman Begins and Matt Murdock’s own dockland adventures in Into the Ring or Stick.

When Under Leaf Pluck Lotus isn’t borrowing heavily from Batman Begins, it is awkwardly emulating Daredevil. Once again, the Hand are using the docks to smuggle something dangerous into New York City. Once again, that dangerous object turns out to be a person rather than an object. All of this feels very familiar, almost suffocatingly so. There are any number of interesting stories to be told about the character of Danny Rand and using the Immortal Iron Fist. Why settle for a dull retread of a story that has already been told within this run of television series?

On the defensive.

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Watch! ABC Family Batman Begins Trailer! Batman Fight For Family… But Live for Love!

I kinda love misleading trailers. Okay, there’s nothing worse than being duped into seeing a movie that you wouldn’t have wanted to watch, but it’s often quite impressive to watch how skilfully advertisers can twist something to make it look like what they want it to look like. For example, they make Batman Begins look like a feel-good romantic family drama. But credit where credit’s due, I didn’t even realise that Christian Bale smiled that much in the entire trilogy. And you gotta love that “whip” sound effect they add as Bruce hits the brakes on the Tumbler.

Watch out for the trailer to The Dark Knight pitching it as a hilarious laugh-off between Batman and the Joker while Rachel struggles to pick her one true love, or The Dark Knight Rises as the touching story of how hope can help a man triumph over adversity and recover from a damaging spinal injury to help those orphans facing an uncertain future in a city far away.

My 12 for ’12: The Dark Knight Rises & Blockbusters with Brains…

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

This is #1

There’s a popular idea that just because a movie makes a lot of money, or just because it attracts a large audience, or just because it features fantastical elements, that it is somehow unworthy of discussion and debate. The Dark Knight Rises has been a divisive film, sparking a lot of debate about its relative merits and those of Christopher Nolan, the director and co-writer. Following on from the massive success of The Dark Knight, Nolan opted for an unconventional approach for his sequel. Structurally and tonally, The Dark Knight Rises represented a significant departure from The Dark Knight. While the The Dark Knight had been an urban crime thriller exploring the wake of 9/11, The Dark Knight Rises was an epic social drama pondering how divided American society had become.

It isn’t quite as fantastic as The Dark Knight, but it was strong, bold, vibrant and challenging film making – proof that budget does not belie brains.

darkknightrises57

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12 Movie Moments of 2012: The Dark Knight Returns (The Dark Knight Rises)

As well as counting down the top twelve films, I’m also going to count down my top twelve movie related “moments” of 2012. The term “moment” is elastic, so expect some crazy nonsense here. And, as usual, I accept that my taste is completely absurd, so I fully expect you to disagree. With that in mind, this is #6

Ireland got an IMAX screen this year. Well, it had an IMAX screen before, but it shut down before The Dark Knight kick-started the whole “watching cool movies in IMAX” thing. Evidently, watching Liam Neeson talk about Everest wasn’t nearly as exciting as watching Batman flip over an articulated lorry. Christopher Nolan shot a large percentage of The Dark Knight on IMAX, but he shot even more of The Dark Knight Rises using the special cameras.

As such, I was delighted that Cineworld and The Irish Times organised a special screening of The Dark Knight Rises in early December, even though the cinema had only reopened after Nolan’s epic was available on blu ray. It’s an oft-cited criticism that the third part of Nolan’s Batman trilogy featured surprisingly little Batman. I’d disagree, and instead suggest that the film made excellent use of its large cast – and when Batman appeared on screen he carried the weight that he deserved.

The sequence in which Bruce leads the Gotham Police Department on a merry chase while pursuing Bane and his terrorists is the perfect example, a fantastically constructed action sequence that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about the cast at that moment in time.darkknightrises15a

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Non-Review Review: Red Riding – The Year of Our Lord 1983

To the North, where we do what we want!

– Bill Molloy

It must be very tough to round off a trilogy of films, but Red Riding seems to possess more than its fair share of challenges. On top of the expansive cast and somewhat convoluted plot, this trilogy of adaptations for Channel 4 actually omits an entire story from the source material. David Peace wrote Red Riding as a four-book series, and yet there was only enough in the budget for a three-film adaptation. On top of that, the inevitable realities of pragmatic adaptation means that various characters have to be omitted and reworked and reconfigured so that the series of films makes sense on its own terms.

Red Riding: 1983 isn’t quite a flawless resolution to the trilogy, but it does enough things with enough skill that feels satisfying. A few contrivances feel a little awkward or cheesy, and some of the plot points feel a little too obvious and easy, but the cast and the characters are strong enough to carry this ambitious series past the finish line.

Good Jobson…

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Batman: The Animated Series – Dreams in Darkness (Review)

This September marks the twentieth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, and the birth of the shared DC animated universe that would eventually expand to present one of the most comprehensive and thorough explorations of a comic book mythology in any medium. To celebrate, we’re going back into the past and looking at some classic episodes.

One of the fascinating things about Batman: The Animated Series, apart from the shrewd writing, the careful character development and the skilled animation, was just how well it worked within the grand tapestry of the Batman mythos. The writers would frequently take ideas and concepts scattered across the breadth of the character’s rich publication history, tweak and update them for the small screen, and then go on to rework the concepts for the next generation of writers and creators working on the character.

Dreams in Darkness feels like the perfect example of this chain approach to reworking concepts and characters. It’s very clearly inspired by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Shadow of the Bat story The Last Arkham, but it went on to be a major and obvious influence on Batman Begins. It’s an interesting perpetual character cycle, where the character is constantly renewed and reinvigorated by successive adaptations.

We all go a little mad some times…

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Whatever Will Happen to the Caped Crusader? Thoughts on Batman After Nolan…

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

So, what now?

Christopher Nolan has rounded out his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, tying up and resolving the arc he set up for Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins almost a decade ago. It has been a long and rewarding journey. I certainly think that Nolan’s accomplishments here deserve to be compared to other truly exceptional pop culture trilogies like The Lord of the Rings or even Star Wars. He told a complete story for the character, from the beginning through to the end. So, a week after he released the final part of his trilogy, people are wondering: what now? How do you follow a series of Batman movies like that? What next for the Dark Knight and Warner Brothers?

Speaking for myself, I can only hope that it’s something completely different.

Out of Nolan’s land…

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Batman: Earth One (Review)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

I think it’s fair to say that I approached Batman: Earth One with a reasonable amount of skepticism. After all, Batman already has two almost perfect origins. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is really the perfect introduction to the character and his world, but Frank Miller’s Year One is also still a hugely iconic piece of work on the character. Miller’s Batman origin has, for example, withstood multiple re-examinations of Superman’s origin. (John Byrne’s Man of Steel, Mark Waid’s Birthright, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Superman: Secret Origin and Grant Morrison’s Action Comics among others.) So Batman: Earth One, a modernised “reimagining”of Batman’s origin story, does feel a tad unnecessary. However, despite the sense that it’s not really needed, it’s actually a fairly interesting take on the mythology judged on its own merits.

Yes, father… he shall become a bat…

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