Extravagant live shows based on characters popular with children are nothing new, of course, but in my day they were done mainly on ice. Lion King…on Ice! Looney Tunes…on Ice! Postman Pat…on Ice! And so on.
But multi-million pound spec-bat-ular Batman Live is rather controversially set on a regular, room temperature stage, for several reasons. Firstly, because …on Ice! shows are now the domain of reality show spin-offs, exclusively populated by people dangling on the precipice of the definition of celebrity. Second, because a skating Batmobile would exactly like an Olympic bobsled, and possibly less intimidating. Third, because the Penguin would have an unassailable advantage. And don’t get me started on Mr Freeze.
Instead, Batman Live follows in the footsteps of the recent Doctor Who live shows, providing a tight, technically accomplished show that contains enough spectacle and action to delight the under-twelves, while working in enough fan service and mythology-nods to please aging, dedicated Bat fans.
Part of the fun of attending the show at the O2 arena was watching the disparate yet clearly-defined groups of people in attendance, all mingling together – as you’d expect, the majority of the audience was made up of families with young children, with faces painted and all dressed up with expensively foyer-purchased capes and Bat-masks.
Then there were the large, roaming packs of serious-as-a-heart-attack Batman nerds, also wearing capes and masks (though to ever so slightly less adorable effect) over formidable Alan Moore beards and faded Killing Joke and Hush t-shirts.
Then there was the impressively large number of immaculately well-dressed, attractive twenty-something women all loyally accompanying sheepish-looking boyfriends, fidgety and destined to spend the evening desperately trying not to look as if they were enjoying themselves too much.
The reason why I don’t expect the Batman Live template to be followed by many others is because, aside from the aforementioned Doctor Who, there are very few properties that have the same mix of appeal to kids, hardcore fans, and the mainstream as Batman. Nearly everybody likes Batman.
But where Batman Live might have stumbled is in managing to appeal to all of these groups at once. Too adult and cerebral, and it might have alienated the kids, or angered the parents. Too kiddie, and the Alan Moore acolytes would have burned the place down.
So how does it fair? I feel like I’m pretty well equipped to judge this question, as I can empathise with pretty much every group that was in attendance. I was the world’s biggest Batman fan at the age of nine, after seeing Batman Forever at the cinema. I practically levitated out of the theatre with excitement, stopping only to turn to my dad and note that I couldn’t help but agree with Jonathan Ross’s statement that it was “The greatest film ever made.” (A hundred per cent true – look it up.)
Let it be recorded here for posterity that, if you ever meet me and I attempt to bore you with my knowledge of the French New Wave and the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, you can remind me that the only reason I’m talking about films at all is because of Batman Forever. I still think it’s good, as well.
I’ve also remained a big Batman fan well into adulthood, reading the comics, playing the (awesome) Arkham Asylum game through to completion, and anticipating each new Nolan Batman film with the fervour of a tweaking meth addict, so I can stand happily alongside the Killing Joke fans without feeling too out of place. I’ve also spoiled a number of relationships with unnecessarily frequent citations of Batman trivia, so I can get on board with the fidgety guys and the patient, saintly girlfriends as well.
I love Batman, then, and on the whole, I really liked Batman Live. The first thing you should know is that it’s aimed primarily at the under twelves – that’s its target market, so if you go in expecting a prequel to The Dark Knight Rises, you’re likely to be disappointed.
And it’s not without its flaws – there is an excruciatingly painful early fight sequence with some unfortunate and risible choreography, and the story makes the same mistake as many Batman stories have (even The Dark Knight, one of the best), by making the Bruce Wayne/Batman character way, way less interesting than the Joker.
The Joker of Batman Live is a pretty good one, however, with just the right combination of mirth and malice wrapped up in a voice curiously similar to that of Keith Richards (no bad thing). This Joker was probably closest in spirit to Mark Hamill’s popular take on the character from Batman: The Animated Series, and that show in particular is probably the biggest influence of all on Batman Live besides the original comics, with Bruce Timm’s brilliant creation, Harley Quinn, also playing a pivotal role.
The storyline is cleverly framed around Robin’s origin story. Cleverly, because it not only allows audiences to enjoy a character who has been neglected in recent Batman stories (including Nolan’s), but it also means there is plenty of scope to include lots of very traditional circus entertainment, including trapeze artists, acrobatic displays, and woman-in-a-box magic tricks.
The thing that really makes Batman Live a must see is its incredibly accomplished stagecraft – technically speaking, it’s a masterpiece. Amazingly imaginative sets (the Arkham Asylum décor is impressively scary for a show aimed primarily at kids), some very clever and amusing uses of forced perspective.
Perfect costumes were augmented by an enormous, bat-shaped LED screen that dominates both the stage and the whole arena. Big moments, like the death of Dick Grayson’s parents and the introduction of the Joker, were staged in ingeniously creative ways that provoked genuine gasps of delight from the whole audience; similarly, the new Batmobile looked great, and was used very effectively.
For all its technical brilliance, it still needed a good story to hold the interest, and all told Batman Live is a very decent Batman tale, well-structured and clearly written by people with a deep reverence for the original material. The script is littered with shameless geek-out moments (“…I’m Batman.”) that were always met with a loud chorus of approval that was nonetheless a bit disquieting, split evenly as it was between delighted squealing children and whooping, inebriated thirty-something men.
There were a few slow moments in the first half, but the show built well to a rousing climax in Arkham Asylum that had me grinning like an idiot. For the first hour of the show, I was thinking “Would the ten-year-old me be enjoying this?”, whereas by the end, all I was thinking was, “I am really enjoying this.”
During the intermission, I heard a group behind me who, despite clearly enjoying the first half, were grumbling about the implications Batman Live might have on the theatre industry. “I suppose this is modern theatre now, isn’t it? It’s got to be all a big spectacle with flashing lights.” Leaving aside the fact that this is clearly the statement of someone who hasn’t been to the theatre for a moment, I’ll just say that Batman works a lot better if you see it as less of a piece of theatre, and more of a circus with a storyline.
I can’t help but admire the way the show sneaks an enjoyable and surprisingly traditional circus/variety show in front of huge audiences through the sleek Trojan horse of the always-appealing Batman mythology, and managed to hold a huge group of young kids and big kids alike rapt with attention for nearly two hours.
Have you been to a circus recently? Me neither. And that’s exactly why Batman Live is to be celebrated – for reminding in an age of constant video and televisual stimulation that still one of the biggest thrills we can experience is to see amazing physical feats performed by talented people, live and on the stage.