Do you like the DC Comics version of Batman? Do you like the circus? If you're a fan of these two frankly disparate concepts, then the American Airlines Center has something for you over the next few days. But is this something any good?
Judging by last night's opening performance, it's certainly a spectacle. The stage, which extends out a good way into the audience itself, is dwarfed by a giant, Cowboys-stadium sized screen, which is easily the technical marvel of this $15 million production. The screen sets every stage (there is often no stage dressing apart from the screen itself, or any set changes save the changing display), and can slide around, creating openings in the middle at both the top and bottom for characters to come out of. It's pretty incredible.
There's also an impressive looking Batmobile, the Joker has a hot-air balloon in the shape of his head, and there's even some magic tricks that Gob from Arrested Development would have been proud to perform.
I'm just not sure the action itself lives up to the technical wizardry around it. Legendary Batman villains are tossed out and given a couple of lines before being largely forgotten about, the set-pieces are an impressive spectacle but shoe-horned into the show at the expense of the story (one lengthy piece in the Penguin's Iceberg Club is of absolutely no consequence whatsoever), and the actual action sequences are choreographed so as to remind you that really, you're watching a circus with Batman costumes.
It's more like someone had themselves a bunch of pretty serviceable circus performers, wondered how they could sell this to people without having to compete with the Barnums and Cirque Du Soleils of the world, and settled on Batman afterwards. Make no mistake: the circus performance skills on display are excellent, with acrobatics, trapeze artists, stilt-walking, jugglers, clowns and so forth, but the actual Batman element seems to have been an afterthought to the circus performance itself.
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This leads me to the conclusion that this show is more aimed at the kids than it is at the Batman geeks, both of whom would be a serviceable target audience. From the show's billing as a "family experience," this is only to be expected. So what did my 12-year old think of the show?
He was largely enthralled, enjoying the heavy-handed comedy and the circus set-pieces, but felt very let down by the fighting sequences. To be fair, pretty much every punch by Batman missed by a good five feet. There was a lot of daylight between a swinging Batman and the injured villains. It made the WWE look like Jackie Chan. I assume all this is toned down for the kids, but as an almost-teenager, he'd probably only have been pleased by bloodshed. When asked to rate the performance, he gave it a 6.5 out of 10, a very precise score.
I think really it's aimed at the kind of 5-10 age range, with little comic or adult relief for the parents taking them. One scene really stuck out in my mind as the best, though: As Batman enters into the depths of Arkham Asylum for a showdown with the Joker, surrounded by corpses suspended from the ceiling, the screen splits to allow a 15-foot tall stilt-walking Scarecrow (who, up until that point hasn't even been featured) to come out and gas an easily-overcome Batman. The thing is the combination of corpses and a terrifying giant thing with a mask was too much for the kids. I think one five-year old behind me pretty much shit himself.
It's a difficult balance to strike, and I have no doubt that if you have young kids (and a spare $120 per kid) that this would be an excellent experience for them, but if you're a Batman geek going along for your Batman fix, despite the enjoyable references to the comic, you're going to be fairly disappointed.