The FFOW! series takes a look at that vast library created by the proud and the passionate: fan films. Whether the budget and talent is astronomical or amateur, FFOW! celebrates the filmmakers whose love of comics, books, movies, video games, and TV shows inspires them to join the great conversation with their own homemade masterpieces.
Fantastic fan films premiered this summer. By now, most everyone has hopefully seen Bryan Nest’s Batman: Puppet Master. I made it this week’s FFOW!, because I finally realized why this Batman fan film made such an impact on this Batman film fan.
“How do you bring the Dark Knight into the light?”
Released on August 6th, Puppet Master hit the blogosphere like a bat from the blue. It tells a new origin story of the villainous Prince of Puzzles, the Riddler. Since it takes place in the realistic Christopher Nolan Dark Knight universe, the filmmakers transform Edward Nygma (Wil Daniels) into a brilliant FBI criminal profiler who is tasked with capturing the Batman (Michael Connolly) after the murder of Harvey Dent. His obsession questions reason. His methods prove criminal. In the end, he joins the underworld of Gotham, alongside the timid Ventriloquist (Frank Birney) and crime kingpin Scarface (John Di Crosta) to wage a new mob war that will bring down the Batman.
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT
Puppet Master pulls all the right strings. The script, performances, costumes, cinematography, score, and action sequences are top notch.
Remember in 2009 when Internet rumors persisted that Edward Nygma would be the villain of the second as-yet-untitled Batman Begins sequel? Played by Johnny Depp? Remember that? Back then, I scoffed. To me, there was no point portraying a villain so closely comparable to the Joker and already featured in the previous Bat-franchise. Why waste a film on Nygma when there were so many underused villains waiting for their big break?
Wil Daniels proves me wrong. Dead wrong.
Daniels plays Nygma like a doped up nihilist who has seen way too many cases to ever assume all the evidence really leads to the truth, let alone to justice. It’s not justice he’s after. It’s solutions. “Batman is a mystery,” he grumbles, “and you can’t catch a mystery. You have to solve it.” This is far from Frank Gorshin and Jim Carrey territory. (Daniels actually reminds me of an evil Ryan Gosling.) This is new territory that nails the real-world Riddler so precisely, you almost forget about Birney’s Arnold Wesker.
Man, what a Wesker. This shaking, sniveling, groveling Wesker is spot on. Nest admits in an interview on Know the Artist that he assumed “Scarface was a little too fantastical to introduce into his [Nolan’s] universe,” he being a crime boss who’s really an alternate personality of the timid, old Wesker that’s embodied in a wooden puppet. So, Nest and screenwriter Chris Wiltz use the short film form to their advantage. The entire film is an evidence exchange between Nygma and Scarface over a locked up briefcase. Ultimately, it’s revealed that Scarface is in the briefcase. That delicious suspense turns the puppet’s reveal into a devilishly clever scene that destroys any implausibility. The characters can’t even believe it. “You got to be kidding,” mutters Peyton Riley (Gillian Shure). Then, the puppet shoots her in the head. Nope. No one is kidding. Not here.
Then, there’s the music. Upon first viewing, you think they just used Hans Zimmer’s score, right? Listen again. That’s a completely original piece from Jerel Northern that sounds so much like the familiar pounding drums and mounting strings that it effortlessly places you in the universe. There’s nothing wrong with a fan film using the original movie’s soundtrack, but there’s nothing better when a composer creates a new soundtrack so on-the-money like this.
All these elements add up to a fantastic film, but the reason that it made a significant impact on me is a simple one. It believably presents that there’s more to the Nolan Batman story than we will see on screen.
I was surprised when Nolan announced The Dark Knight Rises took place eight years after the second film. When I saw it, I was even more surprised when the characters said Batman’s last confirmed sighting was the night Harvey Dent died. Eight years ago and on screen. He hadn’t continued the war on crime between films. Harvey’s death didn’t mean he had to give up any hope of a normal life. Yes, Bruce Wayne was reclusive and horribly depressed, but Batman was no more. Rachel Dawes was wrong.
Since they wrote and produced Puppet Master before the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Nest and Wiltz are saying, “Screw that.” They proceed to tell us exactly what should have happened between films. The “freaks” should have replaced the mob as Gotham’s ruling criminal class. The Joker’s words should have been fulfilled: “You know, they [padded cells] will be doubling up at the rate this city’s inhabitants keep losing their minds.” We could have imagined Poison Ivy as a botanist who deals undetectable poisons, Penguin as a gun-running gangster with a respectable business front, and Harley Quinn as the Arkham nurse who falls for her “Mister J.” Batman could have operated under police radar while forsaking the identity of Bruce Wayne.
That’s what Nest and Wiltz gave us. They picked up Nolan’s mantle. They are Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They have risen up to carry on the legacy, and watching Puppet Master makes me feel like Michael Caine sitting in that cafe, my hopes and dreams coming to glorious life before my weeping eyes.
Oh. Sorry. Spoiler alert, I guess.
WHERE YOU CAN SEE IT
Watch Batman: Puppet Master at the official website that includes filmmaker interviews and behind-the-scenes animatics.
As Fanboy Comics Managing Editor Barbra Dillon found out in her interview with “Batman Maybe” creator Wesley Freitas, the Batsuit he used for that musical parody is the same exact one used in this film. That’s right. The sequel to Puppet Master is “Batman Maybe.” Best franchise ever?