The Lego Batman Movie (2017, Chris McKay)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Joker is causing carnage in Gotham, while Batman is going through issues of loneliness…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne/Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is the hero of Gotham City (“I love you more than my kids!” says a member of the general public). However, new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) wants to put an end to his vigilantism. Meanwhile, Bruce is also feeling lonely in his millionaire’s mansion with just loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) for company. Later, the household gets an addition when Bruce accidentally agrees to adopt a young, enthusiastic orphan named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who joins Batman on his missions and eventually gets the name Robin. Superman (Channing Tatum) also has a couple of appearances.

Bad guys: The Joker (Zack Galifianakis) wants to blow up the city but he’s upset when he realises Batman doesn’t consider him to be his number-one enemy. There’s also a large gang of bad guys who initially support the Joker. They include the Riddler (Conan O’Brien), the Scarecrow (Jason Mantzoukas), Bane (Doug Benson), Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams), Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz), Clayface (Kate Micucci), Poison Ivy (Riki Lindhome), Mr Freeze (David Burrows), Penguin (John Venzon) and Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate). After the Joker surrenders to the cops he’s sent to the Phantom Zone (the mystical prison from the Superman movies), where he recruits lots of other bad guys from non-DC fictions. These include Sauron (Jermaine Clement), Lord Voldemort (Eddie Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong (Seth Green), Daleks (referred to as “British robots… Ask your nerd friends”), the shark from Jaws, Gremlins, the Wicked Witch of the West (Riki Lindhome) and the flying monkeys, Dracula, Medusa, Agent Smith from The Matrix and a velociraptor from Jurassic Park. The Joker brings them to Gotham to take his revenge on Batman. 

Best bits:
* The film starts with a black screen and Batman giving a meta voiceover about how all great films begin with a black screen. He then comments on the production-company logos.
* The opening scene features an aircraft from MacGuffin Airlines. The flight is also Flight 1138, which is a reference to two George Lucas movies.
* The first appearance of the Joker. He tries to intimidate an airline pilot, but the pilot just points out that all the Joker’s plans fail (“Like that time with the parade and the Prince music?”).
* In a gag that only becomes apparent during the end credits, Two-Face is voiced by Billy Dee Williams, who played the pre-villain character in the 1989 Batman film.
* When characters shoot guns, they vocalise the ‘Pwew-pwew-pe-pwew’ sound effects.
* The incidental music is great.
* Batman sings a song while he deals with the Joker: “In the darkest night/I make the bad guys fall/There’s a million heroes/But I’m the best of them all.”
* The Batmobile’s horn is the theme music from the 1960s TV series.
* The password to Batman’s secret lair is ‘Iron Man sucks’.
* Batman bored at home: microwaving lobster thermidor, struggling to find the right AV channel on his telly, and watching Jerry Maguire.
* The interior of Wayne Manor is reminiscent of Xanadu, Charles Foster Kane’s home in Citizen Kane.
* Alfred says that Bruce also had maudlin periods in “2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1995 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966.” As he mentions each year we get a flash of the relevant Batman movie (Lego reconstructions for the first eight, then a live-action clip for 1966).
* “My name’s Richard Grayson but all the kids at the orphanage call me Dick.” “Well, children can be cruel.”
* Barbara Gordon is announced as Gotham’s new police commissioner via an X Factor-style VT. It tells us she cleaned up a nearby crime-ridden city by using “statistics!!! And compassion!!!”
* When Barbara says they can manage without Batman, Bruce Wayne calmly asks a waiter for a drink, then gulps some of it so he can spit it out.
* The shark repellent: a neat call-back to the 1960s film.
* Batman asks if Dick is “110-per-cent expendable”. Dick: “I don’t know what that means, but okay!”
* Dick tries out some potential superhero costumes. Batman says the El Mariachi one is culturally insensitive.
* Batman has been keeping count of how many good ideas he’s had (5,678,482) and how many good ideas everyone else has had (none).
* Superman’s front-door bell at the Fortress of Solitude is the musical motif from Superman: The Movie.
* Batman’s nervous flirting with Barbara.
* When he reaches Gotham, Lord Voldemort turns police officers into fish, frogs and fish-frogs. “Sergeant Jackson,” says the police chief, “stop floppin’ around!”
* Barbara Gordon tells Batman she will let him out of prison if he agrees to team up with other people to fight crime. “Who am I working with? SEAL team six? Fox Force Five? Suicide Squad?”
* A cat gets engulfed by lava. “I’m okay!” you hear it say.
* Robin needs the loo. “Can you hold it in like a big boy?” asks Batman.
* Having joined the fight, Alfred says: “Bob’s your uncle, you ruddy duff cobblers!” He’s British, of course.
* Phyllis, the brick-shaped administrator of the Phantom Zone, calls Batman ‘Mr Batman’ and emphasises the first syllable, as if his name was Harman or something.
* Batman tells Robin they’re going to punch the bad guys so hard that “words describing the impact are gonna spontaneously materialise out of thin air.”
* The music over the end credits is “happy, poppy music, the kind that makes parents and studio executives happy.”

Review: This spin-off might not be quite as awesome as the original Lego Movie but it’s still enormous fun. It balances gags for kids with postmodern references, and lots of action with plenty of heart. As with The Lego Movie, the most impressive thing is the design work. The look of the film is astonishing. Although done with CG, the characters and their surroundings feel real and solid and three-dimensional. There’s smoke and water and lens flares. Scenes are shot inventively, with crash-zooms, whip-pans and circular tracks. Action is Michael Bay-huge and dramatic. And the movie’s colour scheme is vibrant and dynamic. The movie is also remorselessly funny, but if anything the assault of jokes and fun details is too relentless. You just can’t keep up and have to accept that on one viewing you’re going to miss a large proportion. (Not that repeat viewings would be a chore.) Nevertheless, a charming, smart and very enjoyable 100 minutes.

Eight snake clowns out of 10

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Suicide Squad (2016, David Ayer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Due to the existence of powerful ‘meta-humans’, a team of reprobates is assembled to combat them if something goes wrong…

Good guys: Well, there aren’t any, really. The ‘heroes’ of the story are Task Force X, a ragbag team of prisoners who have committed a variety of crimes but are offered shorter sentences if they help the government. (We know they’re bad guys because they keep telling us they are.) Two of the group shine noticeably brighter than anyone else in the film: Deadshot and Harley Quinn. The former’s real name is Floyd Lawton and he’s played by Will Smith. An assassin with preternatural marksmanship, he also has an 11-year-old daughter (which manipulatively tells us that he can’t be entirely evil). Smith, as always, knows what he’s doing and the character has a fair amount of sarcasm and swagger. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn – real name Harleen Quinzel – is played by Margot Robbie. She’s a former psychiatrist who was turned loopy after sessions with master criminal The Joker. They fell in love and went on a crime spree, including murdering Batman’s friend Robin. Interestingly, rather than debuting in a comic book, Harley Quinn was created in the early 90s for the TV show Batman: The Animated Series. She’s a punky, crazy, flirtatious, immature, gleeful cheerleader type with peroxide hair, a crop top and a baseball bat. Robbie is ace, bringing bags of energy and danger. It’s no surprise that a solo movie for the character has been rumoured recently. (A more responsible blogger might also discuss the troubling subtext of an ostentatiously sexy character who talks and dresses like a little girl. But let’s ignore that and return to being sniffy about Suicide Squad…) Elsewhere, Task Force X’s other members are all desperately dull. Army Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the leader, though he himself has no super powers or anything. George ‘Digger’ Harkness aka Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is a tough, uncouth Australian who – wait for it – uses a boomerang to kill people. Chato Santana aka El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is a former gang member who can generate and withstand fire; he has lots of tats and, admittedly, a bit of a backstory. Waylon Jones aka Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a man who’s been mutated into a humanoid crocodile. He has no personality. Neither does Tatsu Yamashiro aka Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a martial-arts expert who has a big sword, nor Christopher Weiss aka Slipknot (Adam Beach), a guy who can climb anything. Both join the team later than everyone else with precious little fanfare or consequence. Slightly more interestingly, Ben Affleck reprises his Batman from the previous film in this series. He appears briefly in flashbacks but chooses not to take part in the potentially world-destroying main story. Does his jurisdiction only extend to the Gotham-and-Metropolis area? The Flash (Ezra Miller) also cameos from the previous film.

Bad guys: The antagonist of the story is the Enchantress, a 6,373-year-old, mystical, evil, extra-dimensional entity who has inhabited the body of archaeologist June Moon. Both characters are played by Cara Delevinge. It’s tempting to assume that her contributions were trimmed down in editing – the characters don’t appear much in the finished film and when they do it feels like we’re cutting around a weak actress (or at least a miscast one). The Enchantress wants revenge for something or other and plans to kill everyone or whatever. (If you think that last sentence was sloppy, it still tops how much thought the filmmakers put into the character.) A more heavily featured villain is Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the government official who assembles Task Force X yet has shadowy motives. Additionally, Jared Leto plays The Joker Who Inevitably Disappoints Because He’s The One Who Comes After Heath Ledger. The character has been repurposed as a gold-toothed, tattooed, hip-hop gangster, but he’s not especially interesting or important.

Best bits:
* The first 21 minutes of the movie form a whip-crack-fast opening act that introduces us to all the main characters, uses fun flashbacks, features cameos from Batman and the Flash, sets up the concept of the squad, and contains both humour and decent visual effects. The sequence rocks with energy, and it’s great fun. It’s like watching a hyper version of Hustle or Ocean’s Eleven. We get quickly cut montages, on-screen captions, treated footage, famous songs used as score, dislocating editing and trippy sound effects – there’s a flamboyance and a freedom. The rest of the film simply can’t compete.
* Deadshot pulls a gun on a prison guard. “If this man shoots me,” the guard tells a colleague, “I want you to kill him. And I want you to go clear my browser history.”
* Harley Quinn beating people up to the sound of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
* The montage of the squad tooling up for a mission is cut dead when Harley realises that every man close by is perving at her.
* A nice twist: the squad has been fighting to get to a room… then discover it contains their boss, Waller, who soon kills her co-workers so they don’t learn her nefarious plan. “I like her,” deadpans Killer Croc in his one moment of individuality in the whole film.
* The ending: the Joker breaking Harley out of prison. Hashtag sequel set-up
* A mid-credits scene that teases the forthcoming Justice League movie: Bruce Wayne getting some information from Waller.

Review: This film is a spin-off from the dreadful Man of Steel (2013) and the even more dreadfuller Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016); the series of movies is known as the DC Extended Universe. But as we start, there’s a nice surprise. It seems that Suicide Squad has turned its back on the dreary house style. Instead, the tone is fun and refreshingly dangerous. The opening 20 minutes are full of attitude, spikiness, threat and dark comedy. Even the studio logos that start the film are tinted in neon purples and greens. This pop-art sensibility reminds you of Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) or Gotham (2014 onwards), two theatrically styled TV shows also inspired by the same comics as Suicide Squad. Sadly, all that is quickly forgotten and the movie morphs into a drab, lifeless, voice-less franchise film. The longer it goes on, in fact, the worse it gets. Writer/director David Ayer reportedly wrote the script in six weeks and it has the tell-tale signs of being rushed. (Clearly a lot of work has gone into the set-up. The middle act and climax, though, reek of that’ll-do desperation.) The story descends into utter garbage and the second half of the film is really, really appalling. When you can follow what’s happening it’s impossible to care about any of it. Suicide Squad is also another case of the DC Extended Universe mechanically copying something the Marvel series of superhero films did first… yet failing to understand why it worked. This is DC’s equivalent of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – both films have an irreverent tone and feature a team of misfits. Guardians, however, also had wit, style and characterisation. This is just a mess. The story is confused, the characters ridiculous, the humour often terrible, the action boring. However, based on the strength of the opening 20 minutes and its general punky attitude, let’s give the film a generous score…

Five workplace romances out of 10

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, Zack Snyder)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Eighteen months after Superman was revealed to the world, two local businessmen – secret vigilante Bruce Wayne and power-hungry Lex Luthor – independently decide to do something about him…

Good guys: This is a direct sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, so returning from that film are Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and, in a dream sequence, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). None of the actors is terrible, but the characters are so hollow they don’t get much to play. The headline newcomer is, of course, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck). He’s been fighting crime in Gotham City for 20 years, we’re told, though no one seems to have heard of his alter ego. The soulful and sombre Affleck is the one true success of the movie and the actor skillfully implies a complex life beyond the scripted scenes. At one point, Bruce bumps into and flirts with Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who’s over a hundred years old despite looking about 30. She’s a shadowy (ie, underwritten) presence in the story. The character is essentially just an in-film trailer for 2017’s Wonder Woman movie. We barely see her for the first 110 minutes then she takes part in the action climax. Gadot’s performance is certainly bland, but the material’s not there anyway. It’s a classic example of a movie thinking the way to make a female character strong is to have her be perfect, unflappable and never in any peril.

Bad guys: Jesse Eisenberg over-acts his wig off as an irritating and childish Lex Luthor. It feels like an actor who knows the script is garbage so is trying to lever it off the page. Lex has a very thin female PA who gets neither a personality nor much dialogue. We see the corpse of Man of Steel’s General Zod a few times. (Thankfully it’s been well preserved in the year and a half since he died.)

Other guys: Bruce’s friend/assistant is the droll Alfred (Jeremy Irons). Holly Hunter plays a Democratic Senator from Kentucky, June Finch, who’s heading up the investigation into Superman’s activities. Harry Lennix reprises his Man of Steel role as a whistle-blowing politician. The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan plays Bruce’s mum in flashbacks.

Best bits:
* The big action sequence near the start of the film. Cleverly, we begin in the timeframe of Man of Steel and see Superman and Zod’s city-bashing battle from a new point of view. Bruce Wayne leaps from a helicopter, jumps into a 4×4 and careers through Metropolis as skyscrapers fall around him. Once he’s out of the car, there’s a terrific shot of him running into a cloud of debris dust…
* Lois Lane and Perry White’s minor bickering over what sort of airline ticket she can buy for a story. (A very rare moment of naturalism, this.)
* Clark Kent meets Bruce Wayne. It’s a frosty chat at a cocktail party (“Daily Planet?” asks Bruce. “Do I own that one?”). Diana saunters past, dressed in red so she’ll pop out against the other partygoers, and there’s a nice touch when Clark can hear Bruce’s hidden earbud.
* During a post-apocalyptic dream sequence (FUCK KNOWS WHAT’S GOING ON HERE), there’s an impressive 53-second long take as a goggles-and-long-coat-wearing Batman fights dozens of bad guys.
* During a scene at the docks, we see a sign for Nicholson Terminal & Dock Company – surely a reference to Jack Nicholson and a much better Batman film.
* The build-up of tension before the explosion at the Senate hearing.
* Bruce finds a secret file on Diana. It contains a photograph of her taken in 1918 – ie, during events that will be seen in next year’s Wonder Woman movie. Star Trek actor Chris Pine is stood next to her.
* Lex pushes Lois off a skyscraper. (Add this to the list of people who fall from a great height in superhero films: Lois in Superman: The Movie and Superman IV, Gus in Superman III, the Joker in Batman, Selina in Batman Returns, Nygma’s boss in Batman Forever, Rachel in The Dark Knight, airplane passengers in Iron Man 3, Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3…)
* Batman sees the Kryptonian mutant ogre-type monster: “Oh, shit…”
* Wonder Woman shows up in her costume. Superman: “Is she with you?” Batman: “I thought she was with you.”

Review: After an opening flashback telling us – for the fourth time in eight Batman films – how Bruce Wayne was orphaned, we’re into a terrific action sequence. As the climactic fight from Man of Steel plays out above him, Bruce looks on in horror and it feels like this sequel is critiquing the earlier film’s disaster porn. In a sequence full of 9/11 imagery, Superman and Zod are bringing down skyscrapers, levelling city blocks and killing thousands of people… while new character Bruce Wayne is on the ground saving innocent lives. It seems like a comment on the shallowness of Man of Steel. It also smartly and economically sets up the Batman/Superman antagonism. However… All that work is soon wasted. A theme of vigilantism bubbles away, but never goes anywhere, while the action-heavy second half is just as guilty as Man of Steel for revelling in meaningless violence. Not only that but this film’s attempts at answering the critics of Man of Steel are laughable. As carnage begins in the city, there’s a woeful line of dialogue heard in a TV news report – “Thankfully the workday is over and the downtown core is nearly empty…” It’s petty sarcasm on the part of the filmmakers, like a child putting the least amount of effort possible into a chore. Just as risible is the ‘Martha moment’. The script spends *two hours* setting up an argument between Superman and Batman. Then every inch of that storytelling is made instantly irrelevant because the characters realise they have mothers with the same name. Seriously?! That’s your character arc?! So Bruce doesn’t care about all those deaths any more? He’s best friends with Superman now? And that’s just the most ridiculous of many flaws with the plotting… Mercenaries use branded bullets that will identify who they are… Someone in a collapsing building needs to be told to evacuate… It’s not clear if the public know who Batman is… A hotshot reporter has never heard of prominent industrialist Bruce Wayne… The US government holds an inquiry into an incident that happened in Kenya… Lex knows how to use an alien space ship to create a Middle Earth ogre… It’s a hopelessly muddled plot: all effect, no cause. And sadly there are plenty of other problems. For example, both Superman and Batman routinely *kill people*. This betrayal of the characters’ established myths is all the more saddening because Batman v Superman is part of a multi-film franchise akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, the film fails to grasp why that series has been so successful. Marvel built its shared universe carefully and gradually, and gave each hero moments to shine before merging the storylines in interesting ways. This movie, though, feels like it has YouTube ads popping up at regular intervals: a dream sequence features a nonsensical cameo from the Flash; we see CCTV footage of obscure characters who are getting solo movies soon; and the final scenes are more about sequels than closure. But the worst thing about this travesty of a blockbuster is Zack Snyder. Almost every aspect of the film – scripting, acting, staging, design – is poorly directed. There’s a tiresome reliance on slow-motion for emphasis, a gloomy, grimy look to every action scene, a cigarette-stained colour palette, meaningless camera moves, an astonishing absence of wit, an adolescent view of the world, an ADHD attitude to character, and a bloated running time. We’re living through an era of superhero blockbusters. Some are good. Some are bad. This is ugly.

Two buckets of piss out of 10

The Lego Movie (2014, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Relentlessly positive construction worker Emmett Brickowski learns that he has a destiny: to save the universe from the evil President Business. He soon joins a gang of rebels, and among his new allies are Batman and Superman…

Batman and Superman’s best bits:

* Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) saves Emmett and his new friends, Wyldstyle and Vitruvius, when they fall off a railway bridge. He’s Wyldstyle’s boyfriend and has a gravelly voice.

* His Batwing aircraft rebuilds in midair and turns into the Batmobile. Once on the road, he shows off his new sound system to Wyldstyle by playing her a song he’s written about himself (“Darkness! No parents!”).

* He joins up with the team, but hates the pink, fluffy Cloud Cuckoo Land where all the rebel master-builders meet for a powwow.

* Superman (Channing Tatum) is there too, being pestered by the Green Lantern, who has a man-crush on him (“Do you want to sit together at the meeting?” “Um, I have to go back to Krypton.” “Didn’t Krypton blow up?”). Also at the meeting are Robin Hood, Gandalf, ‘1980s-something space guy’, Wonder Woman, Michelangelo (the painter), Michelangelo (the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) and many other icons.

* When the bad guys attack, the Batmobile is destroyed, while Superman is trapped in a big glob of chewing gum and gets captured.

* Batman wants to fight ‘every man for himself’-style, but Wyldstyle guilt-trips him into helping her.

* When Emmett suggests building a submarine, Batman pretends it was his idea – he wants it to be built in black “or very, very dark grey”.

* Batman seemingly abandons the gang when he gets a chance to swan off with Han Solo, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian and C-3PO in the Millennium Falcon. (Lando and 3PO are voiced by the proper actors.) Wyldstyle is left gutted, so Emmett tries to console her: “You’re such an amazing person, and if Batman can’t see that, he’s just… well, he’s just as blind as a guy whose eyes have stopped working. And I’m gonna tell you something: Batman is the worst person I’ve ever met.” Batman then reappears. His betrayal was just a rouse so he could steal the Falcon’s hyperdrive. “Those guys were so lame,” he reports. “All they did was play space checkers. Plus, it turns out that hairy one’s a dude. And the metal one. All dudes.”

* During the raid on the baddies’ lair, Batman makes several attempts to hit a button with his bat-shaped throwing stars – he says, “Pow! Wham! Ka-zing!” as he throws. But when it’s suggested he should ‘masquerade’ as Bruce Wayne, he claims to have never heard of the guy.

* At the conclusion, Batman realises that Wyldstyle fancies Emmett, so lets her go: “He’s the hero you deserve.”

Review: What a smashing way to end this watch-through of every cinema film featuring Superman and/or Batman. The Lego Movie is witty, pacey and full of cute details. It’s subversive, satirical and ‘meta’. It’s often very funny and constantly inventive. Idea upon idea, joke upon joke, hit you at an amazing lick – it’s like Airplane for the sheer volume of joyful moments. It also reminded me of the best of Aardman or the Toy Story series. It’s *that* good.

Ten double-decker couches out of 10.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Batman has been missing for eight years, having taken the blame for a killing spree. But a mercenary called Bane is threatening Gotham City…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) – bearded, injured and using a walking stick – has been hiding in his rebuilt mansion for years. False rumours have spread that he has eight-inch fingernails and pisses in jars. When he catches a thief nicking his dead mum’s pearls, he returns to the Batcave to investigate her; then when Jim Gordon is critically injured by a new baddie, this motivates Bruce to rejoin the world properly. However, he loses control of company – and therefore his fortune. He also meets and sleeps with a sexy woman called Miranda Tate, so swings and roundabouts… Batman gets the burglar, Selina, to take him to see the mercenary threatening the city, but is soundly beaten by Bane. Broken and injured, Bruce is dumped in a medieval prison in a non-occidental part of the world – the same pit where Bane grew up, in fact. He’s forced to watch TV news of Bane terrorising Gotham City. A friendly prisoner helps Bruce get back on his feet, and after a few months he’s able to escape (only the second ever person to do so). He returns to Gotham – how he sneaks in, given that the city has been cut off by Bane, is not explained – and with help from Selina, Jim Gordon and policeman John Blake, takes on and defeats Bane. Batman then flies a ticking nuclear bomb out to sea. We assume he’s been killed, but then Alfred later spots him happily having a coffee with Selina in an Italian cafe… John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, good) is a decent cop who grew up in a kids’ home. He becomes a trusted ally of Commissioner Jim Gordon. After Gordon’s injured, Blake insists on seeing Bruce and reveals that he’s (rather implausibly) worked out that he’s Batman. At the film’s conclusion, we find out that Blake’s real first name is Robin and he’s given the coordinates of the Batcave: the mantle has been passed… Gordon is again played by Gary Oldman. He also learns Batman’s real identity during the course of the film. Alfred (Michael Caine) is unhappy with Bruce hiding away in Wayne Manor, but is then equally grumpy about him becoming Batman again – there’s no pleasing some people. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) has been trying to run Wayne Enterprises in Bruce’s absence, but it’s not been going well.

Bad guys: Bane is played by Tom Hardy. We have to take that on good faith, though. His face is hidden by a permanent gasmask, while all his dialogue – pretty obviously dubbed on afterwards – is muffled and in a strange sing-song accent that leaps about all over the shop. At the start of the film, he gets caught on purpose (like the Joker in the last film… And Silva in Skyfall… And John Harrison in Star Trek Into Darkness… And Loki in Avengers Assemble…). It’s so he can get his hands on a scientist being held by the CIA. Bane’s lair is built in Gotham’s sewers, underneath Wayne Enterprises, and he has loads of dumb henchmen. We’re told he was behind a coup in Africa and grew up in a prison – described as “hell on earth” – but killed all the other inmates. He became a student of Batman Begins baddie Ra’s al Ghul, but was then excommunicated for being too much of a fruit-loop. He holds Gotham to ransom with a nuclear bomb, cutting the island city off from the rest of the country for months. It descends into chaos with kangaroo courts and rich people being attacked by mobs… Although initially presented as a friend to Bruce Wayne, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard, attractive but unconvincing) is actually Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra’s and an old ally of Bane’s. She used to be in that prison too; Bane was her protector until she escaped and returned with her dad to free him. Posing as Miranda, she weasels her way onto the Wayne Enterprises board so she and her pal can get hold of its clean-energy machine, which they then adapt into a nuclear bomb. The clues are liberally sprinkled before she reveals her true identity… We also see Ra’s al Ghul: Liam Neeson returns for a ghostly cameo, while Josh Pence plays him as a young man in flashbacks.

Other guys: Never referred to as such – although newspapers have dubbed her ‘the cat’, as in cat burglar – Catwoman is played by Anne Hathaway. Selina Kyle is a thief who poses as a waitress to break into Wayne Manor and half-inch Bruce’s fingerprints (an assignment given to her by Bane). She’s been promised a ‘clean slate’ in return: a computer virus that wipes all records of a person from every database in the world. Blake arrests her, but she’s freed when the prisons are emptied – she’s tempted to flee, but ends up helping Batman defeat Bane. Hathaway is sassy, slinky, sarcastic and sexy. Nestor Carbonell returns from The Dark Knight to play the mayor (ironically, he looks slightly older here), while Cillian Murphy completes his trilogy of Batman movies by appearing briefly as Dr Jonathan Crane.

Best bits:

* Oh, look: it’s Aidan Gillen off of Queer as Folk as a CIA agent.

* The prologue on the plane – the perspective is all over the place as the plane is tipped up, and there’s a dramatic shot from above as it falls to the ground.

* Oh, look: Wollaton Hall is the new location for Wayne Manor. It’s a country house near Nottingham. In June 2002, I went to a one-day music festival in its grounds and saw Green Day, Iggy Pop, The Levellers, Rival Schools and many other acts.

* Oh, look: it’s Brett Cullen from Lost as a politician. He’s mates with Meat Loaf, don’t you know.

* Bruce rumbles Selina as she steals from his safe. At first, she’s coy and innocent, then the facade drops: “Oops,” she deadpans.

* Oh, look: it’s the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, standing in as a Florence cafe. I live near the ORNC and visit it very often: I was there in the morning of the day I rewatched this film, actually. The scene is a dramatisation of a fantasy of Alfred’s, which pretty much tips you off as to what the ending of the movie will be.

* Oh, look: it’s Burn Gorman from Torchwood as Philip Stryver, the intermediary who hires Selina.

* Oh, look: it’s Juno Temple as Selina’s mate Jen.

* Selina beating people up, then pretending to be helpless when the cops burst in.

* Bane and his goons have raided the stock exchange and are fleeing through the streets. The lights in the lower-level streets all go out in sequence – then Batman appears. (It’s a good chase, though it does appear to go from day to night in about 30 seconds.)

* The cops think they have Batman corned in an alley, but he comes out of it in his massive hovering Batwing aircraft. “Sure it was him?” asks Blake sarcastically after he’s flown off.

* Lucius Fox taking Miranda down to the secret underground bunker where the clean-energy generator is stored. They get there via a Bond-villain-esque sinking floor.

* Selina: “Mr Wayne, I’m sorry they took all your money.” Bruce, after a beat: “No, you’re not.”

* Oh, look: it’s Tom Conti as an inmate of Bane’s prison.

* Oh, look: It’s Ben Roethlisberger and his Pittsburgh Steeler teammates as the squad of Gotham’s American football club.

* “Let the games begin…” Bane sets off a series of explosions all over the city, including most dramatically underneath a football stadium – the grass falls away into the ground as the kick-off returner obliviously runs downfield. All the bridges are destroyed, and all the police – yes, all of them – are trapped in the sewers.

* Oh, look: it’s William Devane off of 24 as the president.

* Bruce’s attempts to escape the pit. The imagery smartly echoes the scene from Batman Begins when Thomas Wayne pulled his son out of a well.

* The improvised courtroom, with Dr Crane sat high in a judge’s chair.

* Philip Stryver is given a choice of sentence by the court: exile or death. He chooses exile, which means being forced to walk across the frozen river… Of course, the ice breaks and he falls in.

* Lucius refers to Selina as Batman’s girlfriend. “He should be so lucky,” she purrs.

* Miranda to Batman: “[Bane’s] not the child of Ra’s al Ghul. [Movie-villain dramatic pause] I am.”

* Oh, look: it’s Desmond Harrington from Dexter as a policeman.

* Selina, on the Batpod motorbike, kills Bane by firing a cannon at him. She says to Batman: “About the whole no-guns things. I’m not sure I feel as strongly about it as you do.”

Review: Being the final part of a trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises draws together themes and plotlines from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – and it feels tonally more connected to both of them than they do to each other. It’s also director Christopher Nolan merging his Batman cast with the cast of Inception, the film he made immediately before this. Michael Caine and Cillian Murphy had already been in both, but now he’s brought over Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to play this film’s three main guest roles. There’s a complex (convoluted maybe) story, which throws information at you in clumps at a frantic pace. It’s too long. Eagle-eyed viewers will easily spot the twists coming. And there are also a few *very silly* plot developments. The entire police force go down into some sewers when they get a tip-off – does that seem either plausible or smart? And yet… And yet… I really enjoyed seeing this again. Christopher Nolan at 80 per cent is still a fantastic experience.

Eight vertebrae protruding from your back out of 10.

Next time: Superman rebooted! For real this time.

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

The Dark Knight

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Gotham City is terrorised by a maniac calling himself the Joker…

Good guys: Wayne Manor has been destroyed, so Bruce Wayne is now living in a penthouse and using a secret base underneath the docks for all his secret Batman stuff. Early on, he goes to Hong Kong to find a fleeing money launderer and delivers him to Gotham’s District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Bruce sees Dent as the new crime-fighting hope for the city, so also helps him by throwing a big fundraiser. But when the Joker begins his reign of terror, Batman faces a dilemma – reveal his real identity or risk more people being killed… So he destroys all evidence of his activities and prepares to ‘come out’, yet Harvey beats him to it and announces that *he’s* the Batman. It’s a trap to lure the Joker out, but he soon escapes and kills Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes. After capturing the Joker and saving Jim Gordon’s family from Dent (who’s gone loopy, murdered some people and is then killed himself), Batman falls a long way and is injured. In order to maintain Dent’s reputation as Gotham’s rallying-call hero, Batman chooses to take the blame for Dent’s actions and goes on the run… As in Batman Begins, Bruce has a trio of older men who help him out – Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius (Morgan Freeman) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Alfred offers sound advice, Lucius gets to go on the Hong Kong mission, while Gordon plays a big role in the plot: he’s stages his death to trick the Joker, then gets promoted to police commissioner.

Bad guys: The Joker (Heath Ledger) is a psycho-punk terrorist – he’s tellingly referred to by that word – with blurred clown make-up, facial scars and a charity-shop suit. He is “an agent of chaos” who revels in destruction. In a brilliant move that makes him more mythic, we never find out who he is or where he’s from, and he tells contradictory but always chilling stories about how he got his scars. As the story begins, the Joker is knocking off mob banks. He then goes to the gangsters and offers to kill Batman for half of their fortune. When he’s arrested, he arranges for Dent and Rachel to be kidnapped – Rachel is killed and Dent is severely injured. The Joker escapes by taunting a policeman into fighting him, then blowing up the station with a bomb smuggled in inside a prisoner’s stomach. He gets all the mob’s money back and burns his half because it’s mayhem and disorder he wants, not cash. He then puts explosives on two ferries – one carrying civilians, one carrying convicts – and gives each the detonator for the other boat’s bomb. It’s a morbid social experiment designed to test Gotham’s morality. The last we see of him, he’s hanging upside down from a rope – high above Gotham and laughing uncontrollably. Ledger *commands* the film whenever he’s on screen. It’s a thrilling performance – as mercurial as it is manic. He’s full of threat and danger and menace.

Other guys: Aaron Eckhart (very good) plays Harvey Dent, the charismatic new DA who’s dating Rachel Dawes. He shows his mettle early on by disarming a witness who pulls a gun on him in court, then complains when the guy is taken away: “But, your honour, I’m not done…” He impresses everyone with his dedication to bringing down the mob – but when Jim Gordon is ‘killed’ and Rachel identified as the Joker’s next target, Dent’s anger boils over and he kidnaps a henchman. He tosses a coin to see whether the guy should live or not… He then pretends to be Batman in order to draw the Joker out of hiding, but the Joker retaliates by tying him up next to some barrels of flammable liquid. When a bomb goes off while Batman’s saving him, half of Dent’s face is burnt away; elsewhere, Rachel is killed. Now fully off the deep end, Dent goes on a revenge spree – killing gangsters based on a coin-toss decisions and even kidnapping Jim Gordon’s family… The role of Rachel, meanwhile, has been recast since Batman Begins. Katie Holmes declined to return (no great loss), so we now have Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’s *much* better. She’s a stronger presence in the story, feels like a grown-up and is a lot more interesting. Also on show are: Anthony Michael Hall as a TV reporter; Nestor Carbonell (Richard from Lost) as the mayor; Eric Roberts as mob boss Sal Maroni; Chin Han as the money launderer Lau; and Cillian Murphy, who reprises the Scarecrow from Batman Begins in a fun cameo.

Best bits:

* The incidental music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It’s one of cinema’s great scores – often scratchy, unsettling, nightmarish, unbearably taut and foreboding, sometimes sweeping and bombastic.

* The opening image – a slow helicopter shot tracking in towards a skyscraper’s window, which then smashes open.

* The prologue. Clown-masked bad guys burst into a bank, each killing a colleague as his usefulness passes. The casting of William Fichtner as the bank manager is a deliberate nod to the 1995 film Heat, in which he featured and which was a massive influence on this movie. The sequence is capped by the Joker pulling off his mask to reveal his terrifying face: “Whatever doesn’t kill you,” he snarls, “makes you *stranger*.”

* Gotham City Police Department’s noticeboard of Batman suspects: Elvis, Abraham Lincoln and Bigfoot.

* The fake Batmans (Batmen?) in hockey pads.

* Bruce crashes Rachel’s date with Harvey Dent so he can see the new DA up close. When Harvey says the restaurant might not let them push two tables together, Bruce says, “Oh, they should. I own the place.”

* The Joker walks in on the gangster’s powwow.

* The Joker’s magic trick: making a pencil disappear.

* Oh, look: it’s Chucky Venn from EastEnders as a mob henchman.

* “Why so serious?!”

* While reeling off the multitudinous charges facing the mob – “Seven hundred and 12 counts of extortion, 849 counts of racketeering, 246 counts of fraud, 87 counts of conspiracy murder, 527 counts of obstruction of justice…” – the judge finds a joker player card amongst her papers. She ain’t long for this world, then.

* Harvey asks Alfred about Rachel: “Any psychotic ex-boyfriends I should know about?” “Oh, you have no idea…”

* The Joker terrorises the fundraiser.

* The Joker dangles Rachel out of a window. “Let her go!” order Batman. The Joker says, “Very poor choice of words…”

* The executive who figures out that Bruce Wayne is Batman and goes to Lucius Fox to extort him. Lucius says: “Let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands – and your plan is to blackmail this person?! Good luck.”

* Gordon is shot while protecting the mayor.

* Oh, look: it’s Sarah Jayne Dunn from Hollyoaks as Maroni’s bored girlfriend.

* The action scene with the armoured vans. It begins on urban city streets, then goes down to the claustrophobic lower levels. Batman starts in the familiar Tumbler Batmobile, but then detaches the front axle and it becomes his new Batpod motorbike. The Joker and his crew have an 18-wheel articulated lorry with a graffiti S added before its ‘Laughter is the best medicine’ logo. The chase is tense and visceral, and there’s a seamless blend of genuine stunt work, scale models and judicious CGI. The best moment is the lorry flipping over lengthways: an audacious stunt clearly done for real.

* The lights suddenly go on in the interrogation room and we see Batman stood behind the Joker.

* The mobile phone inside a guy’s stomach.

* The Joker hanging his head out of a car window like a dog.

* Harvey’s burnt face – a superb special effect.

* The Joker’s massive pile of money, which he then burns.

* The Joker dressed as a nurse – wig and all – but still with the same macabre make-up.

* The Joker blowing up a hospital. There’s a glorious shot of him walking towards camera as explosions go off in the background; they come to a stop, so he shakes his remote-control gizmo and pushes a button; this kicks off the collapse of the entire building – all done in one single take.

* The camera turning upside down so the Joker, hanging high above Gotham by his feet, appears the right way up.

* The final montage – Gordon trashing Batman’s reputation and praising Harvey Dent, all for the greater good.

Review: This film has such a pulse. A heartbeat. An unstoppable momentum. Director Christopher Nolan used IMAX cameras for key action sequences, which makes the whole thing feel absolutely enormous. It’s an epic story on a massive canvass, and has more wide, open spaces than any other Batman. You feel the city stretching out beyond the borders of every frame. A big influence is the Michael Mann crime thriller Heat (if you don’t know it, check it out: it’s wonderful). There are many similarities between the two: a sense of tension always bubbling away under the surface; a personality-driven conflict between the good guy and the bad guy; a tense bank raid that shows off the villain’s ruthless determination; and the use of a city as a character in its own right… Also, as in Heat, The Dark Knight’s two principle players – Batman and the Joker – are not a million miles apart. They’re both ‘freaks’ using force to impose their will. The Dark Knight starts off as a gangster plot. How can Batman and the cops bring down the mob? And it’s based on standard tropes of good guys and bad guys, mobsters and the police, law and order and courts and judges. Everyone knows where there are. But the injection of the Joker – a shot of spiked adrenalin – adds unpredictability and uncertainty to everything. The film soon becomes a post-9/11 story about terrorism, democracy vs fascism, and whether ends can justify means. How do you deal with or defeat someone who doesn’t play by your rules? How important are civil liberties and personal privacy when you’re trying to protect society? There are no easy answers. The Joker is entropy-in-action: a force of nature constantly chipping away at Gotham City’s structured society and revelling in the decay. He can’t be reasoned with and he can’t be intimidated – and that’s terrifying. Big, bold, complex, provocative and dangerous, this is the superhero genre’s equivalent of The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back. It’s monumental. Daunting. Impressive. Threatening. Challenging. Fascinating. *Ambitious*. It’s the best film so far this century. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with this review.

Ten school buses out of 10.

Next time: Mumble mumble Gotham’s reckoning! mumble mumble…

Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)

Batman-begins

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Bruce Wayne is haunted so much by the murder of his parents that he decides to invent a vigilante persona to battle crime in Gotham City…

Good guys: As a young boy, Bruce Wayne falls into a well, where he’s scared by some bats. His millionaire father rescues him but is later murdered – along with Bruce’s mum – by a mugger. Aged about 20, and now played by Christian Bale, Bruce goes to the mugger’s parole hearing with the intent to kill him. However, a gangland assassin beats him to it – so instead Bruce travels the world and loses his “assumptions about the nature of right and wrong”. He ends up in a prison in Bhutan, where he accepts an offer from a strange man called Ducard to train as a ninja. But when he refuses to murder someone on the orders of Ducard’s boss, Ra’s al Ghul, Bruce returns to Gotham with a new crime-fighting agenda. Realising he needs a symbol – “something elemental, something terrifying…” – he focuses on his own fear of bats. A cave underneath his mansion provides a hideaway; the applied-sciences division of his father’s company gives him access to as much hardware as he needs. Bruce makes contact with Sergeant Jim Gordon, the only noble policeman he can find, then sets to work: his first target is local mobster Carmine Falcone and his drug trafficking. As the Batman – dressed in an all-black combat outfit and cowl, and with a growly voice – he soon becomes famous in the city. To ensure his cover, meanwhile, Bruce ostentatiously acts like an immature playboy in public. He soon has a run-in with the Scarecrow, a master criminal plotting to poison Gotham’s water supply, then discovers that Ra’s al Ghul is actually engineering the chaos… The inherent problem with the traditional Batman story – why should we feel sympathy for a good-looking, intelligent, ridiculously rich yet altruistic playboy like Bruce Wayne? – sadly isn’t helped by casting the po-faced and unlikeable Christian Bale, but there’s more interest elsewhere. Bruce has a trio of allies, all of whom are surrogate father figures. Michael Caine (fun) plays concerned butler Alfred; Morgan Freeman (droll) appears as Lucius Fox, Bruce’s pal at Wayne Enterprises; while Gary Oldman (excellent) plays Gordon. The latter’s look (glasses, moustache) echoes how the character appeared in Batman: Year One, a seminal comic book from 1987.

Bad guys: Liam Neeson, who used to be an actor before his recent conversion into Steven Seagal, plays Ducard of the mysterious League of Shadows. We also meet the League’s honcho, Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). As the story progresses, we get hints that someone is operating the principle bad guys – so it’s not a thundering surprise when Ducard reappears two-thirds of the way through and reveals that actually *he’s* Ra’s al Ghul. He wants to purge the corrupt Gotham City, so releases lots of dangerous prisoners to cause chaos and then pumps toxic gas into the air. Before his surprise return to the action, we think the Big Bad is Cillian Murphy’s chilling Dr Jonathan Crane. He’s a psychiatric doctor who uses a hessian scarecrow mask and a hallucinogenic spray to drive people insane with fear – one of his victims is Falcone (Tom Wilkinson with a hammy American accent).

Other guys: Bruce’s childhood friend/romantic interest, Rachel Dawes, is an idealistic Gotham DA. Katie Holmes is miscast in the role: she’s just not strong enough and the character makes little impression. Linus Roache plays Bruce’s dad, Thomas. Rutger Hauer is Earle, an executive at Wayne Enterprises who wants to take control of the company. Mark Boone Junior plays corrupt cop Flass.

Best bits:

* After brawling with a group of Bhutanese peasants, Bruce is pulled away by some soldiers for ‘protection’. “I don’t need protection,” he says. A soldier says, “For their protection!”

* Bruce’s training montage. (Shame there’s no 1980s pop hit, though.)

* Oh, look: it’s Gerrard Murphy from Doctor Who: Silver Nemesis as a judge.

* The trippy, shaky image when we see Bruce’s POV while he’s affected by drugs. (It reminds me of Mirrorlon, a TV technique used in early Doctor Who serials to create an unstable image.)

* Bruce says he’ll need a crime-fighting identity. Alfred suggests it’s to protect Bruce’s loved ones. “You’re thinking about Rachel?” asks Bruce. “Actually, sir, I was thinking of myself.”

* Oh, look: it’s Charles Edwards from Downton Abbey as a Wayne Enterprises executive.

* Oh, look: it’s Christine Adams (who’s in the Allison Janney episode of Studio 60, my single favourite piece of television) as a secretary.

* Alfred suggests they order 10,000 cowls in order to avoid suspicion. “At least we’ll have spares,” says Bruce.

* Bruce tests the Tumbler, a massive military bridging vehicle. “Does it comes in black?” he says, almost drooling.

* Bruce’s first outing as Batman – a creepy, slasher-movie scene at the docks.

* “What the hell are you?” “I’m Batman!”

* Batman tying Falcone to a searchlight, so the resulting image in the sky looks like the outline of a bat.

* Batman standing on a skyscraper, surveying his city. (Never really worked when Torchwood copied this idea, did it?)

* Alfred wakes Bruce up at 3pm. “Bats are nocturnal!” he moans.

* “Would you like to see my mask?” asks Dr Crane. Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.

* Batman is dosed by the Scarecrow. “You look like a man who takes himself too seriously,” says the Scarecrow, pre-empting some of this film’s reviews. “You need to lighten up,” he adds as he sets Batman on fire.

* Bruce asks Alfred to keep some party guests busy. “Tell them that joke you know.”

* Batman squirts Crane’s gas in the Scarecrow’s face – so the Scarecrow then sees him as a demon.

* The Tumbler in action. Gordon looks on and says, “I gotta get me one of those.”

* Oh, look: it’s Shame Rimmer as a guy working in a water-company control room. (I’ve decided to assume it’s the same man he played in Superman II.)

* The climax on the monorail.

* The sequel-baiting gag at the end: Gordon mentions a new bad guy who leaves joker playing cards at the scenes of his crimes.

Review: Most versions of Batman mix up eras, styles and fashions, but this chooses to flatten those differences out. Whether Bruce Wayne is eight, 22 or 30, Gotham looks the same. It’s a recognisable, modern-day American city, with a vertiginous monorail system being the only outlandish embellishment. And that’s telling. Verisimilitude is the order of the day. Jokey self-referentialism and heightened production design have both gone. Other than a few dry quips from Alfred and Lucius Fox, there’s also precious little humour on show. This film actually heralded a vogue for take-it-seriously reboots of established film series – I’ve already reviewed 2006’s Casino Royale and 2009’s Star Trek, two films I adore. But as well as a play-it-straight agenda, it also has the feel of a graphic novel come to life. Scenes tend to be short, for example, and there are lots of pithy exchanges rather than conversations. Also, the threat is a sinister and secretive crime syndicate with grandiose plans. It’s an interesting combination. Perhaps it takes too long to build up steam, and I’m no fan of the dour Christian Bale. But there are lots of plusses. The second half is very enjoyable. Cinematographer Wally Pfister gives a real sheen to every image. There are plenty of interesting locations, which have been surprisingly rare in Batman movies so far. CGI is largely sidelined in favour of some stunning old-school modelwork. And Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s music is ace. Good stuff.

Eight rare blue flowers that grow on the eastern slopes out of 10.

Next time: Superman rebooted! Kind of. In a way. Well, not really. Look, it’s complicated…

Catwoman (2004, Pitof)

Catwoman

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After accidentally learning a dirty corporate secret, Patience Phillips is murdered – but then magically resurrected with a new feline persona. She is now a Catwoman…

Good guys: Patience is played by Halle Berry (who’s better than the material and is very watchable). She’s a designer in the marketing department of a cosmetics company; she’s ditzy and meek, but gets on well with her colleagues. One night, when delivering a new poster design before the midnight deadline, she overhears executives discussing the fact their products have long-term side effects – so they kill her to keep her quiet. After drowning, her body washes up on shore… where a CGI cat finds her, summons more moggies, and mystically brings her back to life. Patience now has cat-like reflexes and senses, but can’t remember being killed. Renewed, she strikes up a romance with a policeman called Tom Lone, aggressively deals with her noisy neighbours, and tells her boss he’s an untalented, unethical egomaniac (so he sacks her). She soon cuts her hair short, starts wearing black leather and intervenes when she spots a jewellery robbery in progress. After learning that she is the latest in a long line of ‘Catwomen’ – women imbued with powers of a cat by a goddess – she gets herself an even kinkier outfit and seeks revenge on the men who killer her… Tom is played, boringly, by Benjamin Bratt. He’s a cipher rather than a character: a romance for Patience, an inconvenience when he investigates the Catwoman’s ‘crimes’. In the grand tradition of these films, he doesn’t realise at first that Patience and the Catwoman are the same person – but, to give him his due, he works it out.

Bad guys: Sharon Stone phones it in as Laurel Hedare, who runs the cosmetics company and knows full well her products cause more harm than good. She used to be the face of the company, but her husband (George, played by Lambert Wilson) replaces her with a younger model.

Other guys: Patience’s friendly colleague Sally (Alex Borstein, the voice of Lois in Family Guy) fulfils the ‘bubbly best mate’ role. She collapses in the street due to the damaging effects of a new beauty product she’s been using. Ophelia Powers – a former professor who knows all about Catwomen mythology and info-dumps the important bits halfway through the film – is played by Frances Conroy. Michael Massey appears briefly as henchman Armando.

Best bits:

* The title sequence, which uses a montage of cats and masked women from history to set up the themes of the film, is well edited and has some excellent music.

* Sharon Stone watching mournfully as huge display boards with her face on them are taken out of the office building.

* A fun time-lapse shot dramatising the office emptying while Patience works late into the evening.

* A dead Patience’s eyeball switching from round iris to almond-shaped – she lives again.

* Now a Catwoman, Patience sleeps on a shelf, naps in the middle of the day, and hisses at a passing dog.

* Patience driving through the city on a stolen motorbike – a rare instance of the movie’s flashy camerawork suiting the scene.

* Patience Googling the history of cats – we then get, essentially, a repeat of the title sequence. It’s a shame we’ve already seen all the images, as they fit better here.

* Patience holding up two very different dresses and asking Sally which one she should wear on her date. “Are you going to a church or the Playboy Mansion?”

* Having seen a cat do the same, Patience gracefully slides between the bars of her prison cell.

Review: There’s no real connection between this and any previous film – aside from a brief moment when Patience sees pictures of previous Catwomen and one of them is Selina Kyle from Batman Returns. It also has little to do with any particular comic book, other than the basic idea of course. It’s a bland, by-the-numbers story, which feels underwritten in every way. Characters are dull, events are predictable, and there’s no intrigue or subtlety to anything. There’s also little subtext or satire, which in a film about female empowerment and society’s obsession with beauty and youth is rather strange. But Catwoman’s biggest problem is just how irritatingly directed it is. The camera sweeps, pans, glides, swoops, cranes, tracks, twists and turns – but with little sympathy with what’s actually happening in the story. It’s a director showing off rather than storytelling. That man is former visual-effects coordinator Pitof. It’s ironic, then, that the CGI just isn’t good enough and is used too often. The film’s got a terrible reputation. And it *is* mostly rubbish. But, I’ve got to admit: I’ve seen worse. Switch your brain off and it passes 100 minutes well enough.

Four cans of tuna out of 10.

Next time: Batman rebooted!

Batman & Robin (1997, Joel Schumacher)

batmanandrobin

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Another pair of super-villains – ice-cold Mr Freeze and eco-terrorist Poison Ivy – team up and cause all kinds of trouble for Batman, Robin and their new friend, Batgirl…

Good guys: It’s amazing this film didn’t stop George Clooney dead in his tracks. He was still in ER while filming Batman & Robin – having taken over the lead role from Val Kilmer, who was busy on The Saint – and was only a couple of years into a promising movie-star career. He’s clearly one of the world’s most charismatic actors, yet just seems embarrassed to be here. Bruce Wayne has a long-term girlfriend, but is reluctant to commit to her; he’s also worried about Alfred, who’s dying from a degenerative disease. Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell for a second time) is now Batman’s full-time partner-in-crime-fighting. Robin has a motorbike and everything. But he gets annoyed by Bruce’s patronising, protectionist attitude and strops off, saying he’s going to go solo (a tiff exacerbated by the film’s villain). The pair also have a new member of the team. Barbara Wilson turns up unannounced at Wayne Manor in a school uniform (“Please be looking for me,” says Dick when he answers the door). She’s Alfred’s niece and is on a break from her studies at Oxbridge Academy in London – yet has an American accent. She seems timid at first, but then sneaks out at night to take part in illegal street racing. After she open a box the dying Alfred specifically asked her to leave alone, she learns Bruce’s secret. Wanting to help, she defines herself as Batgirl and joins in during the climax, dressed in a body-fitting costume pre-emptively built by an AI programme in the Batcave. Alicia Silverstone is staggeringly awful in the role. It’s like they’ve filmed her first reading of the script.

Bad guys: Arnold Schwarzenegger gets top billing for his pitiful performance as Victor Fries, aka Mr Freeze, a scientist who has been affected by an accident that means he has to remain at a frozen temperature. He has an ill wife in a cryogenic tank, ice-skating henchmen, and a relentless need to make laborious puns at every opportunity. Schwarzenegger was a boyhood favourite of mine. I endlessly rewatched The Terminator, Predator, Commando, The Running Man, Twins, Total Recall and others, while I sneaked into a cinema to see Terminator 2 when I was only 12. It’s all the more depressing, then, to see him miscast and floundering in this garbage. Mr Freeze’s ally in the story is Poison Ivy (played by a flamboyantly rubbish Uma Thurman). She starts out as Dr Pamela Isley, a botanical researcher whose work is being exploited by deranged Dr Jason Woodrue. When she confronts him, he tries to kill her – but she’s instead swallowed by the earth and emerges as confident, flame-haired Poison Ivy. She has a grudge against Bruce Wayne because of his company’s poor record on the environment, and teams up with Mr Freeze (and a super-soldier called Bane, who Woodrue was working on before Poison Ivy killed him).

Other guys: Michael Gough actually gets an emotional subplot in his fourth and final appearance as Alfred. Elle Macpherson plays Bruce’s girlfriend, Julie Madison – it’s a role that feels like it’s been cut down in post-production (presumably because she can’t act). Pat Hingle reprises Commissioner Gordon one last time. John Glover (Scrooged, Gremlins 2, Robocop 2, and the voice of the Riddler in Batman: The Animated Series) plays Woodrue. Jesse Ventura has a cameo as a prison guard.

Best bits:

* There aren’t any.

Review: A two-hour toy advert. Perfunctory plotting, plywood performances, plastic production design, crass comedy, diarrhoeic dialogue, senseless stunts and a general air of ‘Will that do?’… Is this film some kind of elaborate practical joke? A Starship Troopers-like satire of mediocre movies? If so, I’m missing the joke in a phenomenally powerful way. It’s by no means the only disappointing ‘fourth film’ in a series – Thunderball, Superman IV, Police Academy 4, The Omen IV, The Next Karate Kid, Alien: Resurrection, The Phantom Menace, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Terminator Salvation, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Bourne Legacy, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – but it’s easily the worst. Apocalyptically atrocious.

One fetishistic close-up of Batman’s vacuum-packed arse out of 10.

Next time: Catwoman gets her own movie!

Batman Forever (1995, Joel Schumacher)

batmanforever

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

It’s double trouble for Batman when he has to combat both former District Attorney Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent and ex-employee Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler…

Good guys: Michael Keaton jumped ship after two films, so Batman has been recast. It’s now Val Kilmer in the role and he’s absolutely rotten. There’s no charm, no sparkle, no life to the performance – at times, no expression. We see newly shot flashbacks to Bruce’s parents’ murder, then scenes of a young Bruce in mourning and being terrified by a giant bat. The present-day version sees something of himself in new friend Dick Grayson – they’ve both been orphaned – but he’s initially reluctant to have the lad as a sidekick. We first meet Dick (Chris O’Donnell) when he and his family are in an acrobatic circus troupe called the Flying Graysons. After the others are killed, Dick is taken in by Bruce. Intrigued by a locked door in Wayne Manor, Dick stumbles across the Batcave, steals the Batmobile, and pretends to be Batman to impress women. He then decides he’s going to be Batman’s partner – using his dad’s old nickname for him, Robin, and a costume that echoes the red and green of his acrobatic outfit. Meanwhile, Bruce is having a romantic subplot with psychologist Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman, bland). There’s no chemistry at all between her and Bruce. Rene Russo was originally cast in the part and would have been *much* better, but there was a worry that she was too old (41) to play opposite Val Kilmer (36). Sigh.

Bad guys: Again, there are two villains. Harvey Dent had been in the first film in this series, but Billy Dee Williams has been replaced by a more bankable star: Tommy Lee Jones. Dent was Gotham’s DA. After being attacked in court (a scene we see briefly), he’s disfigured and insane. His face and costume are split 50/50 down the middle, reflecting his new name: Two-Face. He tosses a coin to help make decisions and has homoerotic henchmen. Out for revenge, he wants Batman dead – so teams up with the film’s other big guy. Jim Carrey does his usual tiresome shtick as the Riddler. The character begins as geeky lab rat Edward Nygma, who works for – and has a man-crush on – Bruce Wayne. He’s been researching brainwaves; after he goes a bit crazy, he starts to send Wayne cryptic messages. In order to get the money to launch his new 3D TV system, which reads people’s minds, he joins forces with Two-Face. Bruce ends up using his machine, so the Riddler learns that he’s Batman. He and Two-Face then break into Wayne Manor and destroy the Batcave; they kidnap both Robin and Chase, but are defeated. The Riddler ends up in an asylum.

Other guys: Alfred and Gordon are back from the last couple of films, again played by Michael Gough and Pat Hingle. Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar appear as Two-Face’s diametrically opposed molls: Sugar and Spice.

Best bits:

* Gotham City has had a makeover. Architecturally speaking, it’s still a masterpiece of heightened Gothic design – there are also bits of Art Deco and baroque in there too. But it’s had a pop-art infusion of colour: virtually every space has floods of red, purple, green or yellow light. It’s like a nightmarish neon-lit Tokyo.

* Batman’s escape chute, allowing him quick access from his desk to the Batcave.

* Batman, to Chase: “It’s the car, right? Chicks love the car.” Later in the same flirty banter, Chase refers obliquely to Catwoman.

* When his boss fires him, Nygma pushes him out of a window. Defenestration or people falling off a building are a recurring theme in these movies – Lois in Superman and Superman IV, Gus in Superman III, Grissom in Batman, Selina in Batman Returns

* The fake suicide note: “To: Whom It May Concern. From: Fred Stickley. Re: My Suicide. Goodbye Cruel World!”

* Nygma’s ridiculously narrow apartment.

* Bruce looking at a Rorschach test and assuming it’s a picture of a bat.

* Two-Face threatens to blow up a circus tent full of people if Batman doesn’t reveal himself. Bruce shouts out: “I’m Batman!” but no one hears him in the panic.

* A quick reference to Metropolis.

* The Batmobile driving up the side of a building.

* Nygma using Photoshop to try out looks for his new persona. He has a list of potential names too: “The Puzzler? The Gamester? Captain Kill? Question-mark Man?”

* Two-Face’s divided-down-the-middle lair: in each half, there’s a girlfriend and a different design aesthetic. (It reminded me of that Steptoe & Son episode where they cut their house in half but can’t decide who gets the telly.)

* The Riddler and Two-Face’s version of Crocodile Dundee’s “That’s not a knife!” joke – this time with diamonds.

* We see 32 TV viewers captivated by the Riddler’s 3D TV device. One of them is a dog.

* Batman crashing through a skylight, landing in a fountain and back-flipping into some bad guys. The Riddler, to Two-Face: “Your entrance was good; his was better.”

* “I need a name,” says Dick. “Batboy? Nightwing? What do you think? What’s a good sidekick name?”

* The Riddler and Two-Face playing Battleships for real as Batman and Robin approach in boats.

* “Holy rusted metal, Batman!” exclaims Robin as he notices the ground is made of metal. “It’s full of holes. You know, holey.”

* Batman getting Two-Face to toss his coin – then throwing a handful more at him.

* Oh, look: it’s Rene Auberjonois (Police Academy 5, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Warehouse 13) as a doctor at Arkham Asylum.

Review: “Was that over the top?” asks the Riddler at one point. “I can never tell!” Well, yes. Yes, it was. Batman Forever often matches the 1960s Batman series in terms of how ridiculous, outrageous and risible it is. However, that earlier incarnation had a clear underlying irony. New director Joel Schumacher doesn’t seem aware of the concept. He’s gone for a very different tone from Tim Burton’s take: more flippant, less witty; more cartoony, less plausible; more childish, less interesting. There are off-kilter camera angles, whether they suit the scene or not; there are numerous self-referential gags; and half the cast think they’re in a panto while the other half think it’s a daytime soap opera. It was a chore watching this one.

Three Bat-nipples out of 10.

Next time: Clooney. Schwarzenegger. Thurman. That’ll be good.