Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Once and Future Batman (and Beyond)

A few days ago, on June 17, 2005, DC Comics and Warner Bros. attempted to resurrect one of their greatest heroes, as well as correct one of their biggest missteps, The Batman. In this newest outing, Director Christopher Nolan (Insomnia, Memento) takes a whack at presenting Christian Bale as a comprehensible version of one of the greatest, and most well known comicbook characters ever created. From the trailers and the hype surrounding this new incarnation of Bruce Wayne’s altered self, this reviewer (and comicbook fans around the globe) hopes they can successfully pull it off, especially in spite of the dismal, disrespectful outings Gotham’s protector has been accorded in the past.

Please note, this article isn’t so much a review of the current film (as it was actually written prior to viewing Batman Begins), as it is a look back at the previous film incarnations of Batman (I’m going to totally pass on the two B&W Serials that came out in the ‘40s (The Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949), but only because I never saw them. I’m likewise going to ignore the Batman movie that was produced in 1966 with the cast of the Batman TV show, for obvious reasons. Also, if you are looking for my thoughts on the current Batman film, you can look at my regular movie review column (Suspension of Belief), already in progress at www.PopThought.com.

In the past, what has hobbled Batman’s filmic versions has not been the actors (Fans initially railed against, then supported Michael Keaton as Batman, while George Clooney has — unjustifiably in this reviewer’s humble opinion — long been blamed for the failure of the franchise). No, the fault for the franchise’s ultimate failure must rest squarely upon the shoulders of the films twin directors. Tim Burton’s visually arresting, but completely soulless twin films Batman and Batman Returns, and Joel Schumacher’s horrendously worse Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. While Burton is less to blame (he at least had better — no, make that actual vision) I personally blame Schumacher, for he so obviously had no respect for the source material. Schumacher's visualization of Batman was not so much the character that was originally envisioned by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, but a pale reflection of how the director must have remembered The Dark Knight Detective from his own long ago youth.

Unfortunately, there was still too much of the ‘60s style Pow! Bam! Zap! Batman wrapped up in Schumacher’s films that they were doomed to failure. Not to fault Adam West and Burt Ward, but it was their incarnation of the caped crusaders that set comicbook characters (both in print and in film) back 100 years, dooming them (and those of us who read comics) to the kiddie ghetto of disposable pop culture crap, to be ignored and shunned by adults everywhere and nearly took the entire industry with it. In fact it wasn’t until the graphic novels of (among others) Alan Moore’s, and Dave GibbonsWatchmen and (ironically enough) Frank Miller’s own version of Batman courtesy of The Dark Knight Returns, that comicbooks in general and superheroes in particular, began to gain any semblance of adult sensibilities and respect.

However, while Schumacher's version very nearly did to the hero what Batman villain Ras Al Gul* never could (that is, put a stake through The Batman’s heart), it was Tim Burtons twin films Batman and Batman Returns, that ultimately let Gotham’s protector up for the big fall. For while Burton’s version had more heart than Schumacher's, it was clear from the start that Burton was far more interested in style over substance. (In fact, on one talk show at the time, Burton admitted that while there were a great many wonderful Batman stories to tell, his films just weren’t any of them.)

For all of his terrific visuals, Burton only really had three brief moments across the both films that were true to the legend of Batman (or at least the Batman that I remember reading). The first one occurred in the first film, where Bruce Wayne was sitting at night in the dark of a cavernous room in Wayne mansion with enormous, ornate windows behind him. He is sitting stock still, in the dark, and the room is empty except for the large chair in which Wayne is sitting. Suddenly, behind him, we see the Bat Signal illuminates the Gotham skyline, and Wayne snaps to life.

This was perfect, for as all comicbook fans know, Batman works differently than all other comicbook heroes. We know that, Clark Kent is Superman, and Peter Parker is Spider-Man, but in the case of The Batman, it works the other way. Playboy philanthropist Bruce Wayne is the secret identity, and Batman is the real character. Much to their credit, the writers of the animated Batman Beyond TV series also got this right, which is why that series also worked so well.

On the animated TV show, in one particular episode, Terry McGinnis, the high school teen who has become the new Batman, is fighting a villain who utilizes sound as a weapon. The villain has managed to gaslight the elderly Bruce Wayne into questioning his own sanity, and had Wayne committed to a mental institution by affixing a sonic device to Wayne’s skull that broadcast static, bumfuzzling the old man, filling Wayne’s head with “voices” that stymied him. Upon being rescued by McGinnis, Wayne ascertained that while he was indeed incapacitated by the device, he knew he wasn’t crazy because the voice in his head kept calling him “Bruce” and that's not what he called himself. Puzzled, McGinnis asked, “What do you call yourself?” All it took was a look from Wayne, to get the teen to respond, “Oh, yeah, right.”

Burton once again displayed his understanding of the character in Batman Returns when Wayne (again Michael Keaton) meets Selena Kyle (Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer) for the first time (as Wayne — he had met her as Batman the night before), and says, “Oh yeah, we've met.” Kyle corrects him, saying that they haven’t met. To which Wayne replies, “Sorry, I thought I was someone else.” Again Kyle attempts to correct him by saying, “You mean you thought I was someone else.” At which point Wayne realizes that he has once again confused his identities, and simply abandons the conversation. Later on in the film, at a costume ball, where everyone else is in a costume, comes the third incident. Both Bruce and Selena show up, to the party as Bruce and Selena, and apparently recognize each other as Batman and Catwoman. Bruce says, “Let’s go upstairs and get out of these costumes,” again clearly demonstrating that it is Batman and Catwoman who are the characters, and Bruce and Selena who are the costumes.

Other than these three instances, Burton’s films are a disjointed, near incomprehensible mess, presenting Batman, not as the Olympic-Class athlete and Sherlock Holmes-level detective that he is in the comic, but as Iron Man in a Bat suit, without the boot jets and repulsor rays. Still, this was far better than in Schumacher’s outings, which completely disrespected the source material (in the comics, the writers are essentially required to treat the subject matter with gravity in order to be taken seriously, but in the films it is patently obvious that Schumacher never treats the story seriously, simply because it was based on a comicbook).

While I’ll admit, that Keaton made the best Wayne, and Val Kilmer (Batman Forever) was probably the best Batman (he was the most athletic), it was Clooney (Batman & Robin) who actually looked the best in the suit. Still, simply looking good wasn't enough, and the writing and direction of Schumacher’s films all but sank not only the franchise, but very nearly the future of comicbook superhero films. Thank Stan (Lee) that the current crop of comicbook directors (Bryan Singer; X-Men, X-Men 2), and Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2) were comicbook fans first, and directors second. It has been their unwavering dedication to the source material that has so successfully transformed these “All in color for a dime” heroes from the printed page to the Silver Screen.

So, for us who are fans of both the characters, as well as the genre of comics-into-films can only hope that with Batman Begins, Nolan (who was able to give us unique and intriguing visions, in both Insomnia and Memento) will be able to bring The Batman back to his roots, and resuscitate both this faltering franchise, as well as increase the fan base support by growing the franchise of transliterations of superheroes from page to screen, proving that the X-Men and Spider-Man films weren’t so much exceptions, but the dawning of a new age of a new rule: one that allows for the perfect marriage of these two most American media.

Those of us, who grew up both reading comicbooks and watching films, can only hope this will occur, and we will be treated to smooth translations for years to come.

*Keep in mind that this article was written prior to this writer having knowledge of who the villain was in Batman Begins.

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