If you're going to dare going to a midnight screening of the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, watching director Christopher Nolan's first two films might not be enough preparation. You might have to do some reading as well. Not only to appease the caped and cowled fanboys who will surely be staking out the multiplex, but also so that you'll have a deep understanding of the film's characters, where they came from, and just why Anne Hathaway feels compelled to act like a cat. So here are some graphic novels (and a real actual book or two without pictures) to pick up at your local comic shop before you buy your ticket. Don't worry, this is homework you'll enjoy for a change.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns: Frank Miller's book is not only a classic Batman tale, but a classic of the comics genre in general. In it, Bruce Wayne lives in a world that is completely decimated, without heroes or hope. This seems to be more in line with The Dark Knight, Nolan's last movie, than the upcoming one (just as there are echos of Miller's other classic Batman: Year One in Batman Begins), but you need to know where the story has been to fully understand where it is going.
Batman: Knightfall!: It's not a spoiler to say that this is the collection where DNR baddie Bane breaks Batman's back, since it's on the cover of the book. This incident is also hinted at in the trailers, so it would seem that this is the tale that had the most influence on the plot of the new movie. We're going to have to wait and find out, but it's better to be prepared.
Batman: The Complete History: This is a real, actual book without pictures. Well, there are lots of pictures, but there is a lot of plain text too. If you want to know every detail about the caped crusader, from his first comic books to the movies in which the Batsuit had nipples, this well-researched tome is just the thing for you.
Batman: Killing Joke: Frank Miller may have revived the Batman myth, but another famous comic writer did something amazing with the villains. Alan Moore (of Watchmen fame) tells the Joker's origin story from his perspective while also telling a story about how he tries to drive Commissioner Gordon insane. Of course, Batman figures into it eventually, but like The Dark Knight movie, the real emphasis is on the baddie.
Batman: Vengeance of Bane: This compendium of stories about the mumbling baddie featured in the movie includes his first appearance in the comics, his origin story, and a tale about how he teamed up with the creatively spelled evil doer Ra's Al Ghul, the villain from Batman Begins.
Batman Vs. Dracula: Vampires are so hot right now.
Batman: Arkham Asylum: We caught a glimpse of this Victorian-style sanitarium where the Scarecrow worked in Batman Begins, but this is the book that made it famous and very, very creepy. The institution where all of Batman's bonkers villains are all housed together (who thought that was a good idea?) is taken over by the patients and Batman has to go in and take them out one at a time. The super-creepy artwork only adds to the mythology.
Batman: A Death in the Family: When I was in grade school, everyone was talking about this story, in which Robin actually dies. Yes, Robin dies! (Again, it can't be a spoiler if it's on the cover of the gosh darn book.) Of course, it's the Joker's fault and the young crime fighter's death sends Mr. Wayne into an awful tailspin. There's no Robin in Nolan's Bat-iverse, but there certainly is a lot of mourning.
When in Rome: Finally, a story that has nothing to do with Batman! This one is all about Catwoman, who travels with the Riddler to Italy to find her father, who she thinks is mobster Carmine Falcone (who was stashed away in Arkham in Batman Begins). That the artwork is inspired by French and Italian fashion magazines is just a stylistic bonus.
Back to the Bat Cave: When you think of Batman, who immediately comes to mind? No, not Christian Bale. No, not Michael Keaton either. God, will you just shut up about George Clooney?! No, the man that comes to mind is Adam West, the actor who played the caped crusader on TV in the '60s. Here is his memoir about his years in the tights.
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For the first time the tale is centered firmly on the Batman himself or in this case Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and not on one of his over-the-top enemies. Now the non-comics audiences can witness--and understand--the sequence of events that led an orphaned billionaire to dress up like a bat and scare the bejeezus out of bad guys. Expanding The Batman's world beyond the claustrophobic confines of Gotham the film opens on a tormented and rudderless Wayne abroad in Asia recruited by hypnotic Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) to join the world-redefining forces of the enigmatic Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) by way of some serious ninja schooling. All the while Bruce flashes back on his parents' violent murder and his growing sense of impotence against injustice despite the attentions of childhood sweetie and future D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). Unwilling to mete out Ra's extreme form of "justice " Wayne returns to Gotham City to launch his own unique campaign to clean up the city's corrupt and crime-plagued streets with three key allies: his faithful family valet Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine); Gotham's only clean cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman); and tech-savvy Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) who provides the Batman's wonderful toys from Wayne Enterprises' experimental arsenal. Now trying on two different masks--Batman's crime-hating fury for the back alleys and a foppish playboy façade for the public--Wayne soon finds himself pitted against an inventive doomsday plot instigated by psychologist Dr. Jonathan Crane better known as the sinister Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) who uses fear as a weapon almost as formidably as The Batman himself. We're finally given a noble post-modern Batman who with compelling motivation will not resort to lethal force.
Bale leads the all-star cast making the best movie Batman since Michael Keaton's excellently eccentric 1989 performance. Whereas Keaton's slight intensely brilliant Wayne seemed to don the Batsuit to gain an edge of intimidation Bale's Batman is simply a dark emblem expressing the rage and fury roiling underneath the billionaire's surface. His is a ferocious Dark Knight indeed. He's also effective portraying two other sides of the character's persona: the silly randy public face of Bruce Wayne and the tortured real man underneath both guises. Of the potent supporting cast Caine imbues Alfred with the appropriate fatherly warmth and wit while adding a fresh element of authority and capability as well; Neeson's multidimensional Ducard leaves one guessing if he's a hero antihero villain or all of the above; and Freeman is clearly having a ball as Batman's own "Q." Holmes is comely capable and utterly superfluous; Tom Wilkinson tastefully chews the scenery as crime boss Carmine Falcone; and Murphy (once a close contender for the role of Batman himself) is tantalizingly creepy and villainous--the film could have used more of his off-kilter charisma. The only minor speed bump is Oldman's Gordon. His acting is always on the mark but the character so well-developed in the seminal comic book tale Batman: Year One is never utilized to its fullest potential.
Along the way every element of the Batman's back story is fleshed out in almost excruciating detail. Here's how he found the Batcave. Here's where he got the Batmobile. Here's why he has little pockets on his utility belt. Yadda yadda yadda. But some clever plot twists from director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter/professional comic book scribe David S. Goyer fuel the story's forward momentum. Nolan and Goyer work hard to inventively crib together a mélange of origin elements and plot points from influential comic book storytellers including original Batman creator Bob Kane unsung early writer Bill Finger Sin City's Frank Miller David Mazzuccelli Dennis O'Neil Neal Adams and others (even bits and pieces from a comic story penned by Ducard's creator Sam Hamm also the screenwriter behind Burton and Keaton's 1989 film). All these patches are effectively sewn into a clever quilt creating a cohesive original tale told with entertaining gusto. However the film does lack a certain knockout visual flair that defines the best comics--great imposing "money shots" of the fearsome Batman are few and far between--and the action sequences are a tad too choppy close-up and over-edited. Plus for a film about a dude dressed as a winged mammal it takes itself so darn seriously. The movie would definitely have benefited from a jolt of loopy outlandishness akin to Burton's undeniably quirky vision. And--despite the reigning notion that the previous films overdid the villains--a crazier more charismatic bad guy would have done wonders to liven up the stately proceedings. There's a reason the audience burst into wild applause in the screening I saw at a third-act allusion to one of Batman's more famous adversaries. Let's hope for a little more inspired lunacy in the sequel.