by D.W. Lundberg

Friday, September 21, 2012


A break from tradition here at FTTW (as if this was ever a traditional blog to begin with)...

About three years ago to the day, I'd written the introduction to a book I fully intended to finish, about Warner Bros' 1989-1997 Batman franchise and its gradual fallout with the moviegoing public. But like so many things in life, the idea sort of fell by the wayside - another unfortunate victim of my brain trying too hard to tackle too many projects at once. I'd forgotten about it until recently, as I was putting the finishing touches on our latest Franchise Face-Off, so to preface that upcoming post, I thought I'd share the introduction here, so you can fully appreciate the depths of my deepest, darkest obsessions. Think of this as a precursor to the FF-Os as you know and love them today:




I can't exactly tell you where my obsession with the Batman got its start, or how, but I'm pretty sure it started sometime inside the womb. I say this because I can't honestly recall a time when the character did not play an integral part in my life – when images of his comic book escapades didn't flood my brain on a daily basis, even to the point where I hear the faint flapping of bat wings as I drift off to sleep. (Yes, this happens.)

That cape. That cowl. Those "wonderful toys," as Jack Nicholson so memorably put it. There's something inherently cool about that image the first time you see it in the comic books – and yet some ambivalence too, because Batman's costume isn't as colorful and "bright" as, say, Spider- Man's or Superman's. Your brain takes a quick moment to register: Is this guy a villain or hero? Psychopath or savior? Which is the point, of course. (If you encountered this guy in a dark alley somewhere, your only thought would most likely be, "Well, I hope he's on my side.")

I think almost every boy (and girl?) gets swept up in the superhero ideal at some point or another. And this usually happens early on, when a kid's at his most eager and impressionable. To be super – oh, the things you could do! That someone actually has the ability to fly, or climb walls, or run really fast, or yes, even sculpt a persona from the vast fortune amassed to him to Strike Fear Into The Hearts Of Criminals Everywhere® – why, it's the stuff dreams are made of. You imagine yourself with that kind of power, and you think, What would I do? Would I use my powers for good, or for evil? Save the world, or enslave it? What would Miriam from down the street think of me then? (Okay, so that last one was personal.) No wonder kids get so worked up over comic books. It's escapism, pure and simple. Always has been, always will be.

My point is: We all have our obsessions, big or small. What matters most is how we control them. For me, Batman looms large, yes, but there are limits. My garage, I'm sorry to say, isn't stuffed from floor to ceiling with Caped Crusader comics and graphic novels. You won't find me donning the occasional t-shirt or pajamas or makeshift Halloween costume emblazoned with the familiar bat- logo. (Don't mistake this last bit for my being embarrassed at the thought, or that – gasp! – I'm trying to hide it. Quite the contrary. It's just that I don't wear t-shirts. Or pajamas.) I wouldn't even go so far as to call myself the ultimate Batman fan. I'm sure there are many fellow nerds out there who could trump me on Batman trivia, or pull from memory a specific panel from a specific issue of a specific comic book series and apply to it to any specific daily situation. Sorry, not my kind of thing.

What you will find, once you broach the subject, is someone who can regale you for hours on end with tales of the Dark Knight Detective and how these stories can be applied as Metaphor For Life. As any Batman fan will tell you, Bruce Wayne's quest (or curse, depending on how you look at it) embodies the kind of self-discipline and moral fortitude that every one of us should aspire to.

And honestly, that's what impresses me the most about the guy. Bob Kane's iconic creation (with a generous assist from writer Bill Finger) is not, by definition of the term, a "superhero." He has no "super powers" to speak of. He's simply an ordinary man who takes a personal tragedy and turns it into something positive. He trains his mind and body for the specific purpose of ridding the world of the very pain that shaped him as a child. He's smart. He can fight. And the fact that he's so dark, always walking that knife edge between vigilante and criminal, pushing the boundaries of what ethics (and the law) will allow... it's this aspect of the 
character that appeals to my (our?) darkest impulses. Do I use my powers for good, or for evil? And to what end? Great stuff.

Now imagine yourself in my shoes. It's the 15th of June 2005, and I'm sitting in a movie theater to see Batman Begins on opening day. My friends from work are with me, and so is my wife; they're all there (so they tell me) to witness my reaction to the film. They know all about my obsession, you see – have suffered for months through my endless ramblings about the movie's potential, ever since its inception at Warner Bros. No doubt they also find it intensely entertaining to see this 28-year- old man-child so ga-ga over a movie.

Ah, but you see, it's not as simple as that. I'd been disappointed with the franchise so far, from Adam West's big-screen outing as Batman in 1966, to Michael Keaton, to the now-notorious debacle of Batman & Robin. We'll get more in-depth with that in a bit, but suffice it to say all of them lacked something... elemental about the character. The mythos was sketchy, for one. Also too much emphasis on the villains. (That one, I'm sure, you've heard before). And while Batman did occasionally manage a heroic deed or two, swooping down from the rooftops of a lush Gotham City production design to battle evil, I'm afraid he was at the mercy of his gadgets. If the movies were to be believed, that's all he was: a costume. And that bothered me.

Could they possibly get it right this time? Did they learn from their mistakes? I hoped so – prayed for it, in fact. Even from the outset, it sure looked promising. Take the title of the thing. Batman Begins. A chance to take Batman back to his roots, start from the ground up – a "reboot," if you listened to the hype. Good move. They hired Christopher Nolan to direct, whose narrative-busting Memento I'd seen at Sundance, and went crazy for. They hired David S. Goyer to co-author the script – the same David Goyer who took a lesser-known character named Blade the Vampire Hunter and helped make him respectable among comic book cinephiles. They cast Christian Bale as Batman – an inspired choice, since his turn as Patrick Bateman (Batman?) in American Psycho made him an ideal candidate for the tortured psyche of billionaire Bruce Wayne. They also cast Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman in major roles – all well-regarded actors, and a move that, like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman in Superman (1978), gave Begins further credibility. And so on. Warners had definitely taken steps in the right direction. (They even got Hans Zimmer to help write the score for the movie – and I'm a big fan of that guy.) Still, this could have been a case of the Too Good To Be Trues. That much going for it, after such a long and complicated history? Maybe the studio was covering for some other problem. Maybe they still hadn't figured how to portray Batman on screen. Maybe... just maybe....

So there I am, sitting in that theater with my friends as all of this plays out in my head. And the last thing I told myself as the lights went down was this: "Please, let this be a 'real' Batman movie. Not something depressing. Or bathed in neon and bad puns. Please, tell me someone finally 'gets' Batman. I'm about ready to give up hope."

Well, they got it right - if by "right" you mean Nolan and Company exceeded my expectations of what a Batman movie could accomplish. My wife tells me that all through the movie, she could feel my heart pounding in the back of her seat. I believe her. Because Batman Begins does indeed "get" it, from the opening logo to the final credit. The mythos. The psychology. It's all there. While they do alter a minor detail here and there (Thomas and Martha Wayne taking young Bruce to an opera, as opposed to The Mark Of Zorro, for one), they stay true to the spirit of the thing, and that makes all the difference. And I loved every minute of it.

Flash-forward three years. It's August of 2008, and The Dark Knight, with Christopher Nolan (bless him) again at the helm, has just made its gazillionth dollar at the box office. The new movie has been out for less than a month, and already it's ingrained itself in the public consciousness. Blame this on whatever you want: the growing fan base for Begins, the excellent viral campaign that promoted Knight on the web, the IMAX sequences, Heath Ledger. Above all, I think both of Nolan's films work precisely because of the people involved, and the love they share for the character. (If you want proof of this, just sample any of the behind-the- scenes features on either DVD or Blu-Ray. They care.) Nolan respects the hell out of the Batman universe, and it shows. It's infectious.

So now here we are. It's been a long and tortuous journey getting Batman "right" on the big screen. Purists will always have their opinion of what that means. And they're welcome to it. Batman has such a rich and eclectic history, influenced by many gifted (and not-so-gifted) artists throughout the years, that maybe there is no "definitive" version of the character. Yet I wonder if anyone else has noticed a peculiar arc that the movies have taken.

To wit. In 1966, Adam West's Batman is released into theaters, while the television show is still in its prime. Perception of the character: Campy and corny. "Pow!" and "Biff!" and all that. It did its job so well in fact (I'm being sarcastic) that another Batman movie wouldn't see the light of day for 30 years. Finally, after several failed attempts to revive the franchise (particularly after Richard Donner's 1978 Superman became such a hit at the box office), Warner Bros unleashes Tim Burton's take on the character in summer 1989, starring Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton. Perception: Dark and gloomy, a hype machine in the vein of The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel by Frank Miller. Batman is officially "cool" again. Then in 1992, Batman Returns, which features the Penguin (Danny DeVito) as a perverted circus mutant, while Batman dabbles in a kinky S&M romance with Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Perception: Too dark and gloomy, with sexual overtones that unsettle the kiddies. Point taken, says Warners. So they re-jigger the formula and come up with Batman Forever three years later. Joel Schumacher directs this time, with Val Kilmer stepping in for Keaton. Perception: Brighter and bouncier, with (then up- and-coming) Jim Carrey added for maximum box office impact. Warner then fast-tracks Batman & Robin for a summer 1997 release, again directed by Schumacher (sigh), and the result isn't pretty. The perception of Batman is once again: Campy and corny. All flash and zero substance. Actors upstaged by their own costumes and groan-inducing dialogue. The Caped Crusader comes full circle. And then, of course, we find redemption with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in 2005 and 2008, respectively.

It's fascinating, to me at least, to look back on these films and understand the roles they played in shaping the Batman mythos. How we started at one end of the spectrum, hit a few snags, and then emerged, bruised and battered but with a silly grin on our faces, at the other side. (It's a lot like life, really. Stumble, regroup, do better.) In fact, it's something I've wanted to write about for quite some time, and after the success of The Dark Knight, I can't keep it bottled up any longer. A Batman movie has now become one of the biggest cultural events in history, making over one billion dollars worldwide (only the fourth movie to do so), and second only to Titanic at the U.S. box office. There's no escaping it now.

So in an attempt to put on paper what's been nagging away at me for years, here's what I propose: I'm going to take each film and discuss them in-depth – what I feel worked about them, and what didn't. (I've excluded the Batman cliffhanger serials of the 1940s, if only because none of them qualify as feature-length.) This will not be a strict scene-by-scene analysis of the films, per se. Rather I will highlight specific dialogue, plot points and character beats to illustrate my point. I will be citing specific examples from Batman's history as it applies to the films. I'll also try to interpret the filmmakers' intentions, and how these decisions affected said mythos.

In case I haven't gotten the point across already, this book is written from the perspective of one who considers both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to be the "definitive" cinematic Batman experience. The following discussion will be geared to that point. Tim Burton fans, take note.

One last thing. By no means do I consider myself an expert in regards to either Batman or movies in general - although if we ever met socially it sure might come across that way. (My wife will be glad to point out – rolling her eyes as she does – that I can more easily recall a line of dialogue or credit from any particular film than I can recall a specific moment from our lives together.) I am not a scholar or doctor of philosophy. I am a Batman fan, plain and simple. I know what I like. You might agree with me, or you might not, but at least we'll come to an understanding of each other. You're welcome to come along for the ride.

Until next time, may all of your obsessions find a voice.

D.W. Lundberg
September 2009

1 comment:

  1. I have watched all of the batman movies. Even the beginning corny T.V. series. As a kid I enjoyed the cartoon, the second round of it. Out of all of the "Movies", I most definately feel that they hit it right on the head with this latest trilogy. I loved every movie, in all its darkness and reality.