Saturday, October 1, 2011
The Dark Knight Lives: A Review of Batman LIVE
It's only a couple of hours since I left the 02 Stadium where 'Batman LIVE' was showing its penultimate performance. And boy, was it something.
It doesn't take a genius to guess that DC Comics probably came up with the show in response to the troubled Marvel broadway show 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark'. But while that trippy, artsy, excessively expensive mess has done nothing but polarise fans of both comics and theater alike, 'Batman LIVE' is a sensibly well-rounded, fun-for-the-whole-family affair that will certainly please lifelong die-hards (like myself) and a brand new generation of young fans (of which the 02 stadium was teeming).
The plot is essentially a broader, more epic version of Dick Grayson's origin as Robin, with Batman's own history briefly explored as well. In the course of the 120-minute (ish) runtime, we see almost every notable Bat-villain brought to life wonderfully, including the Penguin, Catwoman (who looked as though she'd walked off the pages of Darwyn Cooke's 'Selina's Big Score'), Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Two-Face, the Riddler and of course the Joker himself. Impressively, there were times when practically all of the villains were onstage at once, with dozens of henchmen surrounding them.
The primary strength of the show was the high production values. The set ingeniously incorporated a massive screen for comic book backdrops, while the actual stage would change to suit the scene. The highlight of the whole show was the Batcave itself, which was absolutely breath-taking. Other notable 'locations' included the Iceberg Lounge and Haley's Circus.
The general tone of the show is geared towards a fairly all-ages audience and while it's no 'Disney on Ice', it's certainly not as dark or sinister as the Burton or Nolan Batman movies. The acting is fairly exaggerated and sometimes a little bit corny. In saying that though, I was surprised by how earnest and straight-faced it was. There was no breaking the fourth wall or winking at the audience. Even the characterisation of Batman was fairly spot-on as he was a serious no-nonsense character for most of the show and on the few occasions where he did crack jokes, they were genuinely cool and appropriate to the atmosphere. Being that it is an all-ages deal though, do expect a few moments that border on cringe, though, particularly involving the "Gosh n' Golly!" version of Dick Grayson they chose to use. The actor was good, though as were most of the actors. Batman himself was quite good, but predictably, the villains were the standout performers. The aforementioned Catwoman was pretty much perfect in every way, to the point where I wonder if Anne Hathawaye will do as good a job in The Dark Knight Rises (Spoiler Warning: She probably won't). The guy who played the Penguin was basically doing an impression of Burgess Meredith, but admittedly he was really good and his makeup was particularly impressive. The Riddler was only given a short amount of stage time, but in that short time he was pretty much everything Edward Nygma needs to be (and once again, he looked the part). The Joker had the most stage-time and the guy playing him was pretty much awesome, even if he did look weirdly like a bizarre hybrid of John Lithgow and Jay Leno. His voice was sort of a deep, raspy, demonic version of Mark Hamill's, with similar mannerisms to the famous animated series version. He occasionally dropped in a few of Heath Ledger's iconic tics as well. Of the villains, the only one who was done in a really dumb and disappointing way was Two-Face who did not have the benefit of a decent design, nor the assistance of a memorable acting performance. Other characters included Alfred (who was great) and Jim Gordon (who was not).Of all the actors on stage though, I really have to give top marks to the guy who played the Joker, who really just gave it socks.
The show wasn't perfect and it must be said that the first half, before the intermission, was quite slow to start. Batman didn't even show up for about twenty minutes in (although it was awesome when he did). Another weakness the show had was that the actors were so completely protected by safety harnesses and wires that when the extremely talented trapeze artists and acrobats were sailing across the very top of the stage - part of the intensity was lost because you knew that they would be completely fine if anything went wrong.
On the topic of the wire-work, at times the show occasionally really failed in that regard in terms of placing the audience in another world, rather than forcing them to use their imagination to piece together what's going on. One scene in particular, in the aforementioned first half; saw Catwoman and Batman battling against one another atop the skyscrapers of Gotham. Their fight sees them plummeting from multiple buildings - translated into the actors onstage being hauled around in a set pattern, while the screen-backdrop shows the buildings swooping by. It was an interesting idea, but the execution just didn't really allow for it to be anything other than confusing and fake-looking.
Some other reviewers have pointed out that the fights were a bit disappointing. I'd say that perhaps 30% of the fight scenes weren't really up to much, but the rest really were. Oddly enough, the Dick Grayson fight scenes were the strongest, perhaps because they had such a David-v-Goliath feel to them, as well as the fact that the actor playing Grayson was such a talented stage combatist. The best fight scenes saw multiple fights going onstage at once, just like in the old 60s TV show.
In conclusion, I'd have to say that I enjoyed Batman LIVE immensely. I went into it knowing that it wasn't going to be an extremely dark version of Batman and that I should enjoy it for what it was. That was a wise choice, although I was surprised by the level of writing and acting seen throughout the show and the story certainly took some surprisingly dark routes at times. The real value for money came in the extraordinary production values, the amazing sets and costumes, seeing a brand new Batmobile onstage and just the general awesomeness of seeing Batman kicking ass in real life. Really, I can't express how much Batman fans should just leave their snobbery at the door and just go along to this enormously fun, lovingly created experience. It's a version of Batman I won't soon forget.