The months between purchasing my tickets for Batman Live and attending the event this Saturday night allowed my expectations to grow to fairly grand proportions. When I read that its writers were Allan Heinberg, Stan Berkowitz and Alan Burnett, two of whom having worked on the DCU animated shows, arguably the definitive version of Batman, my excitement solidified. How could a £7.5 million Batman stage production scripted by great writers with proper regard for the character fail?
It couldn’t, at least in most aspects. On first impressions, the layout looked incredible, with a large stage occupying the majority of the central area of the arena, home to a town of small, Final Fantasy World Map-esque buildings. Behind was the rest of a living Gotham City, complete with helicopters and its familiar police blimps, emanating from the bat-shaped 100ft screen. Instead of the usual random pre-show song choices of the sound engineer or silence, police sirens reverberated around the arena.
Once the show started, Thomas, Martha and a young Bruce Wayne walked out onto the stage following their trip to see “The Mark of Zorro” for their scheduled murder at the hands of a mugger, and the fear at the back of my mind the show would cater too heavily for children was dispelled. In what I assume was an effort to slightly differentiate this origin from other versions, Thomas Wayne is seen chasing the mugger who threatened his family and took his wallet in an attempt to stop him from discovering where they live. Not the smartest move Thomas, especially when you’re the richest and probably most famous man in the city! The rest of the origin scene was well executed however and the emphasis on Bruce’s childhood desire to follow in Zorro’s footsteps provided a nice shorthand version of his motivations to become the Batman.
Shortly after this was my highlight of the show; the circus scene in which Robin-to-be Dick Grayson’s parents, The Flying Graysons were killed during a trapeze act. Watching this scene genuinely felt like being at the circus, with performers back flipping around the stage, twirling batons, balancing on a giant ball and dangling from the ceiling. The centrepiece section where the Graysons took to the trapeze was awesome. On the surface this was two talented circus performers undertaking an athletic trapeze routine, but the knowledge that the characters were due to fall to their deaths at any moment made it almost unbearably tense, helped by the subtle yet sinister background music. The circus backdrop was used beyond this and was the setting for the Joker’s first altercation with Batman. It was put to great use as the Joker tested out his magic trick-style circus death traps out on his henchwench, Harley Quinn before Batman’s arrival. The magic tricks were bold and impressive, including Harley escaping from an exploding box being lifted to the ceiling. The moments which allowed the makers to take familiar elements of the Batman mythos and reinterpret them via highly produced theatricality, from intensely poignant moments like the death of the Graysons to the Joker’s jet-pack escape were the highlights of the show.
Thematically, Batman Live sat somewhere between the 1990s animated series and the pre-Nolan movies, but occasionally veering into even darker territory. The show’s villains could mostly be placed distinctly in either camp, with its movie influenced squawking, grotesque Penguin and buffoonish Two Face, struggling to communicate without breaking into an argument with himself. A huge chunk of Batman’s rogues gallery was on display but due to time constraints there was little opportunity for character development for many of them. Poison Ivy alongside The Scarecrow had the least stage time but those unfamiliar with her were provided with the hilarious six word summary of her being “Half human, half plant, ALL poison”.
The Joker and to an even greater extent, Harley Quinn had clearly studied the animated series and offered pitch perfect versions of the characters, both sharply written, funny and deranged as required. The pair served as the main villains of the show and the focus on them made up for the lack of depth of Batman’s other antagonists. It’s quite impressive that Batman Live managed to deliver a version of Harley Quinn which showed a solid understanding of her character when her comics counterpart seems to show none of this awareness.
A newly designed, Formula 1 influenced Batmobile was debuted in the show and after featuring prominently in the promotional material, was featured in a few minutes long animated section in which Batman made his journey to Arkham Asylum for the show’s climax. The video showed Gotham City to be without question the most dangerous place on Earth, with Batman having to avoid roughly one obstacle per second for the duration of his trip, narrowly avoiding Joker themed trucks headed towards the Batmobile and malevolent lampposts. While impressive on the giant screen, the inane sequence did earn a few giggles from me.
Upon arrival, Batman and the audience were greeted by one of the darkest and creepiest versions of Arkham Asylum to be found outside of a Grant Morrison book. Chained corpses of what I assume were the facility staff dangled from the ceiling on stage and extended far back down the corridor shown on the large screen. The stilts-assisted Scarecrow added to this atmosphere, spraying The Dark Knight with his fear gas and prowling around the stage like a monster from the Silent Hill series.
Arkham Asylum was the stage for the large scale Battle Royale in which Batman, Robin and Catwoman battled all of the super villians they had previously encountered, along with a horde of their henchmen. With the exception of the Batman’s first fight with Catwoman which seemed to amount to a lot of sluggish gliding around the stage, the fights in the production were action packed and exciting, growing in intensity until the final battle with the stage filled with combatants. While Bruce Wayne wasn’t as interesting as some of the other characters in the show, Batman was an imposing character, managing to maintain agility, along with Robin, under his bulky armour and convincingly engage in hand to hand combat with his foes as the Caped Crusader should.
Batman Live overall really played to its strengths and offered a spectacular version of Batman that combined majestic set pieces, only really possible on a massive stage, with the character’s typical darkness and a real sense of fun. The creators plainly made the choice to focus on the striking visual aspects and action sequences rather than create an unnecessarily complex plot. This was definitely the right decision as the main story beats provided enough material to hang the set pieces on, and with one or two exceptions (the revelation of Alfred being the man who trained Bruce to fight crime?!) they were true to the characters and emotionally resonant. Well worth watching and a unique experience which would appeal to Bat-fans of all ages.