Batman is frequently portrayed in one of two extremes: campy and goofy, as seen in the '60s Adam West TV show and Batman: The Brave and the Bold; or dark and bleak, like the Christopher Nolan films and much of the recent comics starring the character. Both approaches have their fans, and both have yielded impressive stories along with less-than-memorable outings.
Batman Live, a touring show currently playing in Los Angeles, is absolutely the former. In fact, it's essentially one of Joel Schumacher's Batman films unfolding on stage before a live audience, down to a story that has several elements in common with 1995's Batman Forever.
That may sound like an insult — few things in fandom are as maligned as Schumacher's two Bat-movies — but the same reasons those pictures didn't work as live-action movies make them entertaining as a live show. A grim-and-gritty Batman stage production wouldn't be much fun, but it's a venue where bright colors, broadly drawn characters and a crowd-pleasing Silver Age verve are completely appropriate.
The story of Batman Live, such as it is, details the origin of Robin from his parents' murder to his fairly rapid ascent as Batman's sidekick, along the way roping in Joker, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Two-Face, Penguin, Riddler, Scarecrow and Poison Ivy; with a few of them essentially just making cameos (Commissioner Gordon and Alfred show up as well). It's basically an excuse to move from one stunt/acrobatic sequence to another, and get as many characters in the mix as possible — appearing in their most iconic forms.
While the structurally similar Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark alienated fans with its many departures from the known Spidey mythos ("Swiss Miss" hasn't yet made her way into the Sinister Six), Batman Live plays so much like an old-school comic book come to life that it's actually disorienting, including Boss Zucco's seemingly unnecessary inclusion in Robin's backstory.
The real attraction of Batman Live is the production value and high-wire stunts — you get to see the Flying Graysons actually do a trapeze act (until, y'know, it gets cut short), tumbling Joker henchmen and a funky Batmobile drive on stage. Unlike Turn Off the Dark, it's not a musical, but it's a neat theatrical experience, and it's, and certainly appealing to the target demographic of children and their parents.
There were plenty of parents and excited kids in attendance at Thursday night's showing of Batman Live at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles (along with a few males in their late 20s like myself), which can only be a positive thing for comics in general. The show is primarily very kid-friendly, though there is an oddly creepy sequence where it appears that Batman stumbles upon a gaggle of strung-up corpses in Arkham Asylum (it looks like it might be a product of Scarecrow's fear gas, but that's never made clear).Batman Live, scheduled to hit 15 more US cities after its LA engagement wraps on Sunday, is not designed to be an acting tour de force, but a few of the performances are a definite treat, especially Poppy Tierney's Harley Quinn, who is so close to the Batman: The Animated Series original interpretation of the character that one wonders if she transported directly from the cartoon à la Cool World.
The oddest thing about Batman Live isn't Joker and Harley Quinn taking hits of helium or Alfred teaching Dick Grayson tai chi, it's how much it doesn't seem to fit in with what appears to be DC and Warner's overall Batman strategy. It's pretty much the diametric opposite of the recent and incredibly successful Batman movies, and a far piece from the tone of the (also quite popular) current New 52 comics — the show's been in production since 2010 and started a run in Europe, but the books were still nothing like this back then.
Yet it doesn't seem to be something that DC is necessarily hiding from — they've plugged the show on their official blog The Source, and co-publisher Jim Lee was scheduled to be in attendance on Thursday night, encouraging signs for those who enjoy multiple interpretations of the Dark Knight. At the very least, the opportunity now exists to sit in a basketball arena and watch the Joker fly around on a jet pack, and that can't be a bad thing.
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