For decades the crime fighting Caped Crusader – Batman – has been dominating the cultural spotlight through comic books, radio airwaves, live action and animated TV shows, video games, and Hollywood summer blockbuster films, and now with the live arena show – BATMAN LIVE – the Dark Knight can add live stage theater to his impressive media resume. I was fortunate enough to be able to take my wife and 3-year old son to an afternoon showing of BATMAN LIVE in downtown St. Paul’s state of the art Xcel Energy Center arena over this past weekend.
Forget digital 3D or IMAX “experiences.” Trust me when I tell you that the most immersive experience for watching a story unfold before your eyes is not in a multiplex or on your LED flat screen, but on the theater stage. The production boasts a 60’ x 100’ thrust stage that juts out across the arena floor like a peninsula with the stadium seating wrapping around all three sides of the stage. A 105’ wide bat-shaped LED video wall serves as the backdrop for the immense stage that accents all of the play’s classic Gotham locales with digitally rendered depth and clarity.
My favorite setting was the opening scene that elegantly establishes the BATMAN LIVE version of Gotham City. Upon entering the seating area of the arena you can hear car horns blaring, police sirens wailing in the distance, and the bustle of traffic on the crowded streets. You look to the stage and see Art Deco skyscrapers, warehouses, and the old Monarch Theater clustering the landscape while GCPD zeppelins roam the skies at dusk patrolling the city just out of reach of the spires atop buildings. It’s as if you’re looking at lower Manhattan from an aerial vantage point just above the Atlantic Ocean.
This Gotham closely resembles the one typically seen in the comic book realm: a nightmarish and gothic urban center that functions as a character in its own right. In my opinion, these defining Gotham City characteristics were sorely missed in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Nolan’s Batman films might as well have actually taken place in the interchangeably bland settings of Chicago, Pittsburgh or New York instead of Gotham because the vintage “Gotham City” atmospheric motifs simply weren’t there.
Beyond the glorious depiction of Gotham City, BATMAN LIVE also tells the poignant story of how young acrobat Dick Grayson is orphaned in the same tragic manner as Bruce Wayne and how Bruce presents the grief stricken Dick with an outlet for dealing with his pain as Batman’s crime fighting partner – Robin, the Boy Wonder. Veteran TV and comic book writer Allan Heinberg (Grey’s Anatomy, The O.C., JLA, and Wonder Woman) wrote the script with an assist from Batman: The Animated Series scribes Alan Burnett and Stan Berkowitz. The story stays close to the classic mythology of the original Robin’s origin, but the writers’ deftly handled the slight deviations from the established lore when translating the story from the comic book medium and reinterpreting it for the theater stage. Batman novices and experts can sit and be moved by the story’s underlying message of how familial bonds can be formed by people through shared experiences.
The two act, 2 hour production employs all the famous Batman “Rogues Gallery” villains dating back to the Golden Age of comics: The Joker, the Penguin, Two-Face, Catwoman, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, and the Joker’s super-villain moll – Harley Quinn (made her introduction into the mythos in the 1990s on the landmark TV show Batman: The Animated Series). Brilliantly, BATMAN LIVE doesn’t set out to put a new spin on any of these well-established characters, their personas are a perfectly distilled combination of their classic comic book forms and their Batman: The Animated Series versions. Except for Two-Face, the writers’ borrowed the ridiculous “Harvey/Two-Face” warring halves iteration of the character that was portrayed by an over-the-top Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever.
The sleek and futuristic Formula One racecar redesign on the Batmobile was a welcome surprise after nearly a decade of watching the ugly “Tumbler” Batmobile in the aforementioned Dark Knight trilogy. Renowned racing car designer Professor Gordon Murray created the BATMAN LIVE Batmobile out of Batman’s need for speed and stealth. It truly is the anti-Tumbler.
My only real gripe with BATMAN LIVE is actually just a petty Batman aesthetic preference when it comes to the Dark Knight’s Bat-suit. I prefer Batman to appear along the lines of what acclaimed artist/painter Alex Ross does with the character, while BATMAN LIVE presents Batman as an over-bulky steroid abuser when suited up. What’s important is the characterization of Bruce Wayne and Batman was spot on, and the visual elements of the Batman suit are nothing more than a matter of taste.
As a lifelong Batman fan, and as a father to a budding one, I can’t stress how awesome it was to be able to take my son to see this show. Watching his eyes widen in awe at every appearance Batman made on the stage, and seeing his little face crinkling into a stern battle-ready grimace any time the Joker reared his head and he’d shout: “Stop it, Joker! No, don’t hurt Robin! Get him, Batman! I wanna fight the Joker!”
BATMAN LIVE is fun, entertaining, and dark ... without being too dark ... (unlike the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan movies that are meant for older audiences) which is perfect for parents who want to introduce their young children to the world of Batman. My wife and I had a blast taking our son, despite the fact that he refuses to take off his souvenir Bat-cape when we go anywhere now, but to be honest, that only bothers my wife.
"Batman & Son"
I strongly urge all Batman fans to go and see BATMAN LIVE. It’s a new way to experience everything that still makes Batman the greatest and coolest of all superheroes.