REVIEW: “Batman: Prey”

Are you excited for The Dark Knight Rises yet?  Though it is not due for release until summer 2012, the sequel to The Dark Knight -colossal blockbuster and my favourite film – is already at the top of my most anticipated movies list.  A couple of months back, Tom Hardy – the brilliant actor best known for his roles in Bronson and Inception – was cast in an unknown role, presumably as the villain.  And this brings up an interesting dynamic for this third film: thanks to the end of Batman Begins, we knew right off the bat (no pun intended) that The Joker would be the villain of the next Batman movie.  But for this film, it’s anyone’s guess.  I know who I want the villain to be, though.

Professor Hugo Strange.

Now, some of you reading may be thinking, “Huh?  Who the hell is that?”  In fact, Hugo Strange was Batman’s first recurring foe, debuting back in 1940 some months before The Joker or Catwoman.  But though he soon fell from prominence after The Joker’s arrival and has only been used sparingly since, more often than not when he does appear, it’s in a quality story.

The one story in particular that makes me think Hugo Strange would be a great fit for the third film in the Nolan trilogy is Batman: Prey, the comic story I’m reviewing in this blog post.  In the story, Batman is a wanted vigilante, and The Mayor pressures Gordon into forming an elite police task force exclusively dedicated to bringing Batman to justice.  Considering the ending of The Dark Knight, this scenario makes sense for the third film.  Included as an advisor to this task force is renowned psychiatrist Hugo Strange, a self-styled “Batman expert”, who we quickly learn has become dangerously obsessed with Batman and with uncovering his true identity.

I have wanted to read Prey for a while, but it is notoriously difficult to get a hold of.  However, I finally managed to get the original single issues from eBay, and recently read and reviewed each one.  Here are all the reviews, collected:

Legends of the Dark Knight #11: Prey, Part 1

As a set-up issue, I quite enjoyed this. Even more than The Long Halloween, this story feels like a direct sequel to Batman: Year One, right down to the dual Gordon/Batman narration. And like with Year One, I actually found Gordon to be a more compelling protagonist than Batman. Having said that, though, I did like Batman’s portrayal here too, with him actually considering how some of Hugo Strange’s assertions about Batman could be accurate, as well as his respect of Gordon.

But it really was Hugo Strange that stole the show for me. Right from his first appearance on the talk show (imagine a recreation of this scene, only with Mayor Garcia: Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy and Nestor Carbonell all sharing the screen?) he oozes this sense of smug, squirming arrogance that makes him instantly hateable even before he’s overtly revealed as the villain of the piece. If this dynamic between Gordon, the Mayor and Hugo Strange were to be lifted for The Dark Knight Rises, I can imagine – and forgive the cheesy analogy – Hugo Strange being something like the Dolores Umbridge to Gordon’s Dumbledore.

But things got really great once we see what Hugo Strange is like behind closed doors, and what a fruit loop he really is. His obsession with Batman was brilliantly conceived, touching on the dangerous thrills one might get out of assuming the mantle (reminding me of something poster breyfogle-rules said about what Catwoman could embody in the film – I sense a new theme emerging!) and not shying away from the fetishistic elements of the persona – “Yes, I can understand the compulsion… the tight fit of the costume.” And the design of Hugo’s Batman cosplay is marvelously creepy.

Another character I found surprisingly interesting was Max Cort – an honest cop, but getting increasingly unhinged in his hatred of Batman’s law-breaking ways. Less interesting here was Catwoman. I hope future issues amend the problem, but here it seemed she was included just to include her, she didn’t really do anything.

Overall, a strong start to the arc, and a brilliant intro to Hugo Strange for anyone wanting to learn more about the character’s potential.

Legends of the Dark Knight #12: Prey, Part 2

The plot thickened here, with Max Cort’s obsession turning violent and arguably homicidal, and Gordon at risk after his alliance with Batman is uncovered. Again, Catwoman is flitting around the sidelines, her exact role in the narrative unclear, but her role manages to be a little more substantial than in the first issue.

Hugo Strange continues to get more fascinatingly twisted. Seeing him get into an argument with his mannequin girlfriend, then later hurriedly stuff her into a wardrobe and tell her “not to make too much noise” when the doorbell rings further emphasises how batpoop crazy the guy actually is. It was also a nice touch picking up on his in-costume rooftop boasting that ended last issue by seeing him slip and almost fall off the roof here, with him bemoaning the fact that, as much as he wants to be Batman, he just doesn’t have the physical capabilities to pull it off.

There’s also an awful lot of talk about sex and sexuality in this issue, which surprised me. Much of Strange’s musings tell on the sexual kick Batman (and he, while pretending to be Batman) gets from doing what he does. And you also get a sense that Hugo’s obsession with Batman borders on the sexual, what with him dressing up his mannequin girlfriend in his Batman mask and telling her how much more attractive to him that makes her. His half-hearted attempt at chatting up the mayor’s daughter, and later his compliments of Max Cort’s physique further hint that Strange could be a closeted homosexual with a “crush” of sorts on Batman.

Having a mannequin for a girlfriend can't be healthy.

Legends of the Dark Knight #13: Prey, Part 3

With this chapter, the story began falling apart a little for me. After initially thinking Max Cort was interesting, his arc took a big misstep with him becoming Night Scourge. It just didn’t feel believable for how that character had been developed (fair enough, he was being hypnotised by Strange, but still seemed awkward), and it didn’t help that Night Scourge himself felt like such a lame threat with a dull 90s design.

Batman himself didn’t fare too well either. I understand that there’s a fine balance between portraying a Batman who is uncertain and doubting himself, and a Batman who just comes across as whiney and needy. But this issue veered more towards the latter in its depiction of the Dark Knight than earlier issues did.

On the plus side, at least Catwoman’s role in the story seemed to make more sense within the context of this issue, though the part she plays still isn’t particularly substantial.

Again, the major highlight of the issue was the portrayal of Hugo Strange. I get the sense that Doug Moench would much rather cast aside the rest of the story he’s trying to keep afloat and instead just focus on Strange, who he seems to take great relish in writing. His madness is tip-toeing towards absurdist levels by this stage, but in a vastly entertaining fashion. Nice to see those homosexual undertones still bubbling along too, with him casting aside the mayor’s daughter as a “trifle” in order to focus instead on Batman, his “true obsession”. And for anyone looking for something more overt, getting Cort stripped down to his tighty whities and laid out on his sofa for his second hypnosis session.

It’s also interesting see how close Strange is getting to uncovering Batman’s true identity, and the way he is piecing together the mystery. This methodical approach to picking apart who Batman is and why he is could make for a fascinating arc on-film, I believe. The one missing ingredient is that he’s got the defining trauma wrong – he’s still convinced that it’s a murdered spouse that created Batman rather than murdered parents. As an interesting aside, with Gordon’s concern that Hugo Strange is “getting close to uncovering the truth”, are we getting continued hints that in the comicverse, Gordon has known who Batman really is ever since Year One.

Legends of the Dark Knight #14: Prey, Part 4

Now this was a big improvement! After the muddled third instalment, here things really began falling into place brilliantly.

A few years before Knightfall (and tellingly, a few months – I believe – before Daredevil: Born Again over at Marvel) we see Batman totally deconstructed and taken apart on every level of his life. The way Hugo Strange psychologically breaks Batman, then digs the knife in even deeper to drive him to hysteria upon learning the truth of his secret identity, is alarming, macabre stuff. We’re so used to seeing Batman as such a controlled individual, that seeing him here reduced to rambling incoherence – unable to even walk down a flight of stairs let alone competently fight crime – has quite an impact. After the cruel tests his code was put through in The Dark Knight, a psychological attack on this level could be a potent thematic escalation for The Dark Knight Rises, and would give Christian Bale some heavy material to work with.

I talked about how comical in his insanity Hugo Strange was becoming in the last issue. Here, the cracks are becoming even more visible as he makes rambling, babbling phone calls to the police department and takes delight in all manner of abuse of the Mayor’s daughter. But it’s somehow gone past absurdist and into genuinely unnerving territory, as we get a sense of how DANGEROUS it is for a man like this to know Batman’s greatest secret. But the great twist is that – as much as Batman now thinks Hugo Strange is the unbeatable foe, we (and Hugo Strange himself) know he’s no match for Batman in reality. A wonderful subtle touch by the artist during Strange’s confrontation with Batman was the little bead of sweat running down his brow.

Great issue, and one that sets the stage for a killer finale. We’ll see how the story delivers on that promise.

Legends of the Dark Knight #15: Prey, Part 5

What a shame. After me talking about how the previous instlament set the stage for a killer finale, what we ended up getting couldn’t help but feel a little disappointing.

The biggest problem with the issue is likely the decision to take out the strongest aspect of the story – Hugo Strange – in the early stages, and have the weakest aspect of the story – Night-Scourge – emerge as the climactic Big Bad for the bulk of this concluding issue. But until his premature departure, Hugo Strange again makes for a marvelously vile villain, both in his treatment of the Mayor’s daughter (he says she “has some bruising” – just a beating, or rape? The way he’s prowling on the bed on top of her before the cutaway alludes to the latter) and in his personal, knowing jibes towards Batman. Of course, as I said in my last review, everyone knew in truth he was no match for Batman aside from Batman himself, and Batman’s realisation of this meant that Hugo Strange no longer held any power over him, hence him being promptly cut down to size.

I liked the starting sequence too, with Batman on the road to renewed self discovery. It was hampered by the captions being hard-to-read in places (long have I hated that gimmicky “illegible handwriting caption” trend) but the general message was a strong one. Also note the contrast in how Batman assumes the mantle in a primal, almost animalistic fashion – the bats surrounding him, in a scene reminiscent of Batman Begins – whereas Hugo Strange is framed as just a guy in a silly suit. The difference is highlighted in Batman being framed in numerous “flattering” shots – low angle looking up, or with him bathed in shadows – while Hugo Strange is put in various distinctly UNflattering shots – kneeling on the bed to make his outfit look like kinky bedroom wear, running down the stairs handcuffed, or lying flat on his face having tripped over, cape draped over his head, his underpants-over-tights arse exposed to the wind. All emphasizing how much of a poseur Hugo Strange is, and replacing Batman is about more than putting on a costume and beating people up. An idea reinforced by Batman’s later dominance of Night-Scourge.

In the end, everything is wrapped up neatly in a bow, all the loose ends I never thought they’d be able to address in a single issue addressed in one form or another. Prey wasn’t an all-time classic, but it was a very enjoyable read, and Hugo Strange made for a great villain. I’m definitely keen to give the follow-up – Terror – a go.

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