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Monday
Jul142014

Best Shot: Batman Returns & The Dark Knight

...Or, as I call them: Catwoman (1992) --what? the names not taken since there is no other movie none nuh-uh called this -- and The Joker (2008).

Yes, it's true I intended to watch all 8 Bat Movies before the big event tomorrow night (pick a Bat-Film, any Bat-Film) and select a best shot from each. The idea that I was going to be able to watch eight films, most of them over 2 hours long and write about each of them individually in the space of a week is so ridiculously delusional that maybe I need to be locked up in Arkham Asylum? 

But I knew which shots I would choose from both Batman Returns and The Dark Knight without a rewatch (and that's not common for me). Even while watching the movies the very first time in 1992 and 2008 respectively my amygdalae be all "We likey. This moves us. Never forget!" 

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer shot by Stefan Czapsky)The Joker (Heath Ledger shot by Wally Pfister)

The reasons to love these two shots and pair them are legion. They're twins in every way I can think of and "Holy Split-Zygote!" does the Batman franchise ever love twins.

We're the same, split right down the center.

Two silent images in madhouse conversation.

Both images are solo shots, weird little character-beat reveries within much fussier action punctuated sequences. In fact, in lesser director's and editor's hands it's easy to imagine them left on the cutting room floor altogether as they're more visual grace notes than story beats. Both images are animalistic, the cat doubled playfully and the dog hanging out the car window to feel the breeze, the only thing missing being his tongue. Both images have no dialogue, they're just hypnotic snapshots of two actors at the peak of their gifts lost in their own inspired headspace fully inhabiting fantastical people. Perhaps most impresively, both images happen to reflect their movies and auteurs, too. Tim Burton's Batman films are a mix of pitch-black night, elaborate production design, playful flourishes and cartoonish verve... all accounted for in this image. They don't take place in the real world - notice everything swallowed by darkness behind Catwoman. There is no real world; Gotham is a soundstage. Chris Nolan's Batman films, in contrast, are a mix of late night restlessness, gritty realism, and told with a straight face and dark majesty... all acounted for in this image. The Joker may be otherworldly but he's intruding in ours; Gotham is Chicago, filmed on location.

Finally, and this is no small matter, what Michelle Pfeiffer and Heath Ledger were doing in both of these movies in roles that haven't always inspired actors or even been taken seriously by them is art, pure and simple. These star turns are film-elevating stylized tragicomedy, so highly peculiar that they could have only come from inspired character actors, so mesmerizing that they could have only come from movie stars. This Catwoman and this Joker are filled with such vivid specificity that though these roles which will surely be played by dozens more actors in the next 100 years, they will always belong to Heath and Michelle. 

 

And now... the main event see all the images chosen in the Best Shot party.

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Reader Comments (14)

Well, Ledger's Joker is unexplained, but (sigh) the makeup smudges. So, that automatically rules out any interpretation of the Red Hood "vat of chemicals" origin as any reasonable explanation and makes Ledger just the best person to have currently been given the live-action lease. A Ledger level take with smudgeless make-up WILL own the character. As far as Pfeiffer's Catwoman? Eh, that level of erotic charge to a Hathaway styled character will unmistakably own the role. Pfeiffer is, also, just the best person to have currently been given the live-action lease. She's great in what she's given, but it's so radically rebuilt and "I don't bleeping care to read the crap" that owner-ship claims are dubious. The Nolan/Hathaway take is so de-eroticized but also wussily half-hearted about it (still wearing heels as opposed to serious Brubaker/Cooke era boots?) that owner-ship claims are also dubious.

July 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

That Best Shot of La Pfeiffer as Catwoman is not only emblematic of Burton's film, it's emblematic of The Film Experience.

July 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

That's certainly in my top 3 shots, though I'm undecided as to which would take my top spot for Batman Returns. My other selections are also Catwoman-centric: the not-subtle-at-all and great for it window shot with "HELL HERE" lit in lurid pink behind her; and the one where she screams as she's lying on a bed of flowers, her costume in ruins, after falling from Penguin's umbrella.

I haven't rewatched The Dark Knight that often so nothing sticks out in my memory as a single beautiful shot -- I remember moments in it more so than beautiful shots: Joker's magic trick, the truck flipping over, Joker poking and prodding a traumatized Harvey Dent, and Harvey Dent making two decisions with a coin. I've rewatched the other Batman movies even less, if at all, so I won't even bother.

July 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterF

F -- I love the "Hell Here" shot too. I toyed with just posting text ("every picture of michelle pfeiffer in batman returns") but i finally went with the single best but -- no kidding -- the two you mention (plus the lick) were the other three I was most fond of.

July 14, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

@Nathaniel - great minds and all that, plus a shared obsession with her turn as Catwoman. A kind soul in my family actually edited a Catwoman only version of that movie for a young me on VHS (!!!) because I wore out the original due to fast forwarding to all her scenes, so I have very specific and Pfeiffer-centric memories of the movie.

July 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterF

That shot of the Joker is my favourite scene in the movie. The one frame doesn't do it full justice though as the scene was, if I remember correctly, silent with the faint sound of police sirens in the background; the juxtaposition was terrific as it added a haunting mood to the image on display. Nice writeup Nathaniel!

July 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

"This Catwoman and this Joker are filled with such vivid specificity... hey will always belong to Heath and Michelle."

SO true. best superhero film performances ever. delicious writeup too :)

July 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan S.

Pfeiffer's performance is one of the all time greatest, I can't imagine anyone ever topping her portrayal... Annette Bening, the original choice, would've been interesting, too. When you look at Annette Bening's early work you can see the playfulness (Valmont) , the character work (Grifters) and the sexiness (Bugsy)--- She would've been great, and those beautiful cheekbones of hers would've looked good in the mask... But I can't imagine, for one second, that it would've turned out as iconic as Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman.
But we'll never know, will we?

Anne Hathaway was good, really good, the best thing about that monstrosity, The Dark Knight Rises. Unfortunately Nolan let her down, as he does with all of his female characters... I would kill to see a Catwoman spin off movie, with Anne Hathaway in the title role... as an apology, as an erasing of Hale Berry's Catwoman.

July 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

I've always wondered if the HELL HERE scene in Batman Returns was inspired by a similar moment in the life of my preferred heroic figure. The following is from the novel Moonraker:

"He was not even disturbed by a curious portent he encountered while he was driving along King's Road into Sloane Square with half his mind on the traffic and the other half exploring the evening ahead.
It was a few minutes to six and there was thunder about. The sky threatened rain and it had become suddenly dark. Across the square from him, high up in the air, a bold electric sign started to flash on and off. The fading light-waves had caused the cathode tube to start the mechanism which would keep the sign flashing through the dark hours until, around six in the morning, the early light of day would again sensitize the tube and cause the circuit to close.
Startled at the great crimson words, Bond pulled in to the curb, got out of the car and crossed to the other side of the street to get a better view of the big skysign.
Ah! That was it. Some of the letters had been hidden by a neighbouring building. It was only one of those Shell advertisements. 'SUMMER SHELL is HERE' was what it said.
Bond smiled to himself and walked back to his car and drove on.
When he had first seen the sign, half-hidden by the building, great crimson letters across the evening sky had flashed a different message.
They had said: 'HELL is HERE ... HELL is HERE ... HELL is HERE.'"

Hm, it's probably just a coincidence.

July 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

What a lovely writeup Nathaniel. I do think Ledger was fantastic in The Dark Knight but it was much easier to leave a mark with that role than it was with Catwoman. It's loud, it's scary and it's behind a lot of makeup.

I doubt I will ever see a superhero performance as inspired as Pfeiffer's Catwoman. The character arc is in itself fascinating but she never seems overwhelmed at all by the emotional overreactions of Selena particularly after she "transforms". I think she's physical and threatening perfection when in Catwoman mode but it's the Selena moments that have stayed with me the most and really elevate that performance to what it is.

That ballroom scene where she's dancing with Bruce is unforgettable.

July 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterZV

I wonder how many of us are going to pick that second image.

July 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrianZ

This is such a lovingly rendered tribute to the two best and most inspired things about the Batman franchise this side of The Animated Series. Kudos.

When people refer to the inspirational nature and shock and awe wonder and childhood giddy of comic book and superhero movies, these two striking, funny, dark, layered, thoroughly detailed performances are the exact place my mind shoot to.

Silly to wish we could have more of these performances since it's the very fact that they're so rare that makes them stand out but I just wish actors would be this damn committed in any respective role when it calls for it.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

Well said, Nat! Such inspired performances and visuals.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

Well, I do love both of the movies more than the other ones. Heath Ledger really puts soul into his character, and Catwoman had this strange feeling in her that was really making me laugh at her misery all the time. But if you try to compare it to the latest comic blockbuster movies, I think you can find the story a bit too narrow. I really enjoyed xmen much more than any of the recent Batman films, because it could display much wider portrait of wolverine than the Batman movie did with the main character.

July 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B.

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