Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Here We Go Again

Walking out of Tim Burton’s first back in 1989, none of us felt so good. My friend Peter shrugged and said, “Well, that was Batman.” We had been anticipating it for months, and what the movie gave us was basically an exposition of its own title -- a movie’s worth of Batman stuff, imagery, the Batmobile, the Joker, Alfred, and so on. Peter said he had heard that the director had decided on an operatic approach, and this sounded to me like an excuse for a movie consisting merely of characters entering and exiting the stage.

Another friend said that his problem with the movie was that Batman didn’t yell -- he never acted like he wanted something. Some folks blame Michael Keaton, saying he was miscast.

I say, any of the Batman actors -- Keaton under Burton’s direction and all the ones since -- could have done a great job in a good script. The problem was, the way the movies have been written, Batman does not really do anything. He shows up like Santa Claus at a Christmas party. He’s there, in costume, but beyond that, mostly the other characters are who affect the outcome of the story, particularly the ending. In the first Burton movie, the Joker had knocked Batman over the edge of the tower and Batman was hanging on for life; then the Joker fell off himself by accident. That’s no way for a superhero to vanquish his opponent. In the second, Catwoman is able to knock Batman around in a fist fight -- she should be elusive and crafty but not able to beat up our trained martial artist hero wearing an armored suit -- and, as best I can recall, she and happenstance have more to do with defeating the Penguin and the Christopher Walken villain than anything Batman does.

I call it the Luke Skywalker complex when the central character is the least interesting. It’s not that I would tone down Nicholson’s Joker, DeVito’s Penguin, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, who were all great. It’s that I would raise Batman to their level of importance. The villians in his world are the most memorable and interesting in mainstream comics. But Batman has got to be the baddest ass in Gotham City. The villians are trying to subvert a society whose people and police are mystified by them; Batman needs to be shown as the guy who can subvert and mystify the criminals. I suggest that he is able to do this because, while both he and the criminals have troubled backgrounds and deal with psychological trauma, Batman has faced his own more deeply and, except in extreme situations, is less governed by them. He is much more in control. As he says to a crooked politician he has cornered in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, “I know pain. And sometimes I share it with people like you.”

There is one great thing Burton’s movies did, and that was to give him the perfect musical theme. Before, we had only the blues from the TV show, which was great for that. But we did need something sinister, heroic, and distinctive for the movies, and Danny Elfman delivered, starting in a minor key, moving to the six chord, but then letting the melody slink down chromatically to something very unusual, jazzy even, to my ear -- a major triad based on the second note of the original minor scale. I don’t know what you would call this. But here it is, after a short intro.

Superman received an excellent theme from John Williams. But what other superheros in movies have been awarded memorable themes? None of the X-Men. Those movies were rich in opportunity for a composer to create leitmotifs and assemble them in various combinations, as called for by each scene, in a manner similar to Wagner’s. But nooo. That would have been work. Spiderman? His music is in 3/4 time to imply swinging, which is cool. Actually, I kind of dig it, and there is some kind of melody, but it’s nowhere near Batman’s. His music was also written by Elfman, by the way. Ironman? Some electric guitar riff consisting of one note. His was a good movie though, with the best superhero romance because of the importance of Pepper Potts to his life. She is not only the woman in his life, she is also the Alfred, so her role is dual as pit crew and love interest. She and Tony Stark can talk their flirtatious smack a la Han and Leia while repairing his suit together.

When Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down came out, I said to myself while watching it, “This director needs to make a Batman movie.” Michael Douglas’ vigilante seemed sort of like Batman, a guy going beyond the norm to “clean up” his city, his character woven into the hot LA daytime as Batman’s is to the Gotham night. And Robert Duvall’s cop seemed like a commissioner Gordon, the guy inside the department who understands what the vigilante is up to.

Then I learned that Schumacher was slated to make a Batman movie, and I was ecstatic. I think that was the year my housemate spearheaded a Batman party at our house, complete with a bat-signal on the roof. Our activities included watching the campy movie from the Sixties and a guest lecture by an English professor from down the street who had done an extensive analysis of the Batman oevre.

I went to the midnight showing on opening day, and found Schumacher to have played up the camp while keeping Batman as ineffective as ever. One thing I can say for the TV series is that the mannerisms and sincerety of Adam Wests’s character, while part of the camp, were well developed and seemed to speak to a heroic soul that has been missing from every live-action Batman since.

I didn’t bother seeing Schumacher’s second Batman, the one with Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. But I do recall Idiom writing a review for a website that we both worked for back then saying something like this: that watching that movie was like being strapped into your chair and force-fed jelly beans while having brightly colored sandbags dropped into your lap.

Then Hollywood started Batman over with Batman Begins. The camp was gone, and the director Christopher Nolan seemed to really want to portray a dark and effectively functioning Batman. But this movie merely went down the list of things Batman needs to have. Martial arts training? Check. Batmobile? Got one just collecting dust in storage. Suit? Got one of those too, bulletproof in fact, right here in a drawer. The finale took place on a train, and we had had a train sequence in the previous summer’s Spiderman II. And at the end, Bruce Wayne blew up Wayne Manor, something that had already been done, actually, in Frank Miller’s Batman comic The Dark Knight Returns. But in Milller’s tale, Batman was changing his whole life. He had been in retirement, then had come out to fight crime again, and now was going underground with his new army of fanatic teenagers to fight crime in an entirely different way. Batman can’t be blowing up Wayne Manor when he’s just beginning. And the demolition didn’t contribute to the story anyway.

What’s with Batman’s stuff being destroyed for no good reason in these movies? In Burton’s first, Batman’s plane was shot down with one bullet from the Joker’s comical pistol. In Burton’s second, Batman intentionally broke his car apart to form the Bat-missile simply to allow Batman to escape down a narrow alley. One gets the idea that this can happen only one time and the car is destroyed. You can’t tell me Batman does this everytime he needs to go down a narrow alley. And later in that movie, Batman goes to visit the Penguin in some vehicle that seems designed for going through sewers, and Batman crashes it like a spoiled teenager in his new Ferrari upon arrival at the Penguin’s lair.

I know Batman is supposed to be rich, but this is going too far, like an over-extravagant wedding. At this rate he’s gonna burn his money off and have nothing left, hardly the responsible thing to do.

I say Batman needs to be sustainable. Keep it simple with a fancy car, the suit, the cave, the mansion, maybe a bat-like hang glider or something, but no freaking airplane, no flying suit. Batman has to rely on his skills. The intrigue of his character is that he needs to use his wits to create the impression of being supernatural without actually being so. It’s cheating to essentially give him supernatural powers under the guise of technological achievements.

I want to see him moving, leaping, hiding, lurking. Show him doing his own detective work and piecing clues together. Show him spying, hanging out on building ledges, planting microphones for eavesdropping. Show his psychological effect on crooks. The thing about Batman Begins was, everytime a crook went around a dark corner, Batman was there to sock him. A better movie would have Batman not always being there, but still keeping the criminals on edge. Batman should fool the audience too. Have him do unexpected things, strange things that make him seem a little crazy, but then show these actions to be a result of his being a step ahead of everyone else.

Batman Begins had unimaginative sound design, in my recollection. Every punch had the same exact bass “thud.” It got old quickly, but it was unrelenting. Also, Scarecrow was not the slightest bit scary. And the musical theme has been lost since Burton gave up the franchise. Go on youtube and listen to the music from Batman begins. Sing me the Batman theme. Sounds to me like it’s one note. But go see for yourself and correct me if I’m wrong.

Previewers are saying this new Batman is darker and more psychologically deep than any of the previous movies. We’ll see about that. Tim Burton’s movies were dark, and some people equate that with “psychologically deep,” but Burton didn’t understand or do anything with the character. And Christopher Nolan’s first was dark, but one-dimensional and extremely predictable.

And folks are raving about Ledger’s Joker. This raises red flags. I fear Batman is taking a supporting role in his own movie again. Friend Bartcow has even dared to suggest that folks are raving about Ledger because he has tragically committed suicide.

So we’ll see. If this movie is what it is cracked up to be, it will mean Nolan has undergone some serious changes in his storytelling practice. But hey, Tiger Woods, already famous, still made some deep adjustments that improved his golf swing, right?

I leave you with Elfman's wonderful Richard Straussian finale, the likes of which we surely won't hear in the new Nolan movie.


Anonymous said...

You wrote: "I want to see him...piecing clues together. Show him...planting microphones for eavesdropping. Show his psychological effect on crooks.... Have him do unexpected things, strange things that make him seem a little crazy, but then show these actions to be a result of his being a step ahead of everyone else."

Smiling, I have to say it sounds to me like someone is writing "Elrond Begins."

Enjoyed the analysis, although I still haven't seen these movies.

--Lisa S.

Glenn said...

El, I enjoyed your post, and I did enjoy Burton Batman and Elfman's music. A. O. Scott in the NYT has my sentiments on Superhero movies, though:
How Many Superheroes Does It Take to Tire a Genre?