Sunday, May 27, 2007

Burton Batman and superhero flicks, Part 2

As Andrew Wickliffe elucidates so well in his review at The Stop Button, the "realism" of Batman Begins is only realism the way a geek like David Goyer would imagine it. Wayne Enterprises is a bigger company than Sony and G.E. put together. The mystical ninja "League of Shadows" isn't literally immortal, they're just a centuries-old secret society with more influence than the Illuminati. Batman didn't build a bat-looking supercar just for the hell of it, he just happened to have an experimental prototype supertank that no one at his company would recognize being driven around town. We are asked to accept that the Batman lore can be down-to-Earth , with a few fantastical coincidences and circumstances. This denial of fantasy only makes the inescapable fantasy of the material painfully awkward.

Where to begin counting the missteps? Comparing the production design of Burton Batman to Nolan Batman (the "Nolanverse," as the geeks already gleefully refer to it) to demonstrate the disparity in visual splendor is a moot point. Burton's films were designed to be enthralling, living comic book art. Nolan, with "realism" as his mantra, set about to make everything look indistinguishable from any other crime film and did this by mainly filming in the real city of Chicago and using an almost monochromatic color palette of Brown and Black. To be fair, Burton Batman is mostly Black as well - but it has stylized design and intricate detail. Begins was intricately designed to be drab and nondescript.

Defenders of Nolan's quasi-naturalist art direction will no doubt claim that by making Gotham City less fantastic and more like a real city, he allows Batman, Scarecrow, and in time The Joker and Two-Face to stand out from their surroundings more. This might be the case but for the fact the characters have been scaled down as well. If anything, their appearances are now ridiculous in a way that entirely deflates their appeal. If we think of Gotham as a stage upon which these very theatrical characters play out their drama, it only stands to reason that the stage be designed for it's actors and not vice versa. When you make that stage into a real location, and modify those extreme characters into non-theatrical plot ciphers, you're destroying the very thing the audience came to see - because, one more time - even though Batman and his villains are mortal humans doesn't mean there's anything remotely "realistic" about them. And Gotham City was never meant to be like a real city any more than Neo-Tokyo.

Tim Burton on fan casting vs thoughtful casting, from the books Burton on Burton and Tim Burton: Interviews:

"I looked at actors who were more the fan image of Batman, but I felt it was such an uninteresting way to go...Taking someone like Michael and making him Batman supported the whole split personality idea...He has a lot going on inside him, there's an explosive side; he has a temper and a great amount of anger - that was exactly the Bruce Wayne character, and not some unknown, handsome, strong hunk."

"...The thing that kept going through my mind when I saw these action-adventure hero types come into the office was, 'I just can't see them putting on a bat-suit. I can't see it.' I was seeing these big macho guys, and then thinking of them with pointy eyes, and it was 'Why would this big, macho, Arnold Schwarzenegger-type person dress up as a bat for God's sake?'...I'd worked with Michael before and so I thought he would be perfect, because he's got that look in his eye...It's like that guy you could see putting on a bat-suit; he does it because he needs to, because he's not this gigantic, strapping macho man. It's all about transformation..."

Both guys look a little ridiculous, but be reasonable, the second man looks far more ridiculous with his practical batsuit than Keaton ever did in his theatrical one - who cares if Keaton couldn't crane his neck? (nerds care) The main thing is: there's a bigger margin of difference between Keaton in his suit and out of it than Bale, who looks exactly as silly as Burton predicted a "handsome, strong hunk" would be in a full body costume. The same logic applies to Robocop, where Paul Verhoeven was smart enough to put a slender actor like Peter Weller into that big bulky cyborg costume because it would look ridiculous slapping the stuff onto an already-Schwarzeneggerian he-man.

The conceit that a strong man, already physically imposing and crazy enough to fight crime on his own would want to wear a crazy costume on top of that only works in the comics. In live action, having a man of average build wear a costume for transformative effect is EXACTLY how you make the fantasy plausible - not by bending over backwards to rationalize the irrational and drain all the fun and drama out of things.

Again, Burton:

"You can't just do, 'Well, I'm avenging the death of my parents - Oh! A bat's flown in through the window. Yes, that's it. I'll become a Batman!' That's all stupid comic book stuff and we don't explore it at all. He dresses up as a bat because he wants to have an amazing visual impact. It all gets away from the fact he's just being a simple vigilante, something I always loathed about the character. He's creating an opera wherever he goes to provoke a strong, larger-than-life reaction. He switches identities to become something else entirely, so why wouldn't he overdo it?"

And a big factor in creating that mystique is that Keaton's Batman almost NEVER speaks. When he does, it's in that thin rasp and for only a few blunt words:

"I'm not gonna kill you. I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me."
"I'm Batman."
"You killed my parents."
"I made you, you made me first."
"Hold on."

Those are all from the first film, and I swear to god there's maybe 20 more words he speaks in the entire thing. That's possibly less than Arnold has in the first "Terminator." Why would a man wearing a costume intended to scare you, who wants to make a strong impression and remain a mystery yak his head off for too long, under any circumstances? The longer he talks, the less of an imposing figure he becomes and the more time someone has to think, hey - this is just a guy in a costume. Bale's Batman, by contrast, has dialogue in every single costumed scene, and his Eastwood-with-Laryngitis variation on the Keaton template literally made me laugh every time I heard it. Consider all those scenes where he's talking to his girlfriend, far more than Keaton ever spoke to Basinger while in costume. Bale is Bruce Wayne in a Batsuit. Keaton is Bruce Wayne, and Keaton is Batman when he's suited up for it. They're truly two different sides of a damaged psyche.

Look: real life criminals would not be frightened by a man in a Halloween costume, even if he were using a scary voice. That is a fictional conceit created for a comic book. Insisting on the rationality of the situation is a losing argument. The entire purpose of Begins is to be an APOLOGIA, delivered with pathetic religious reverence and stooping it's shoulders every single minute to justify the premise of Batman into reality through a long series of contrivances and really shitty expository dialogue.

Some of the worst aspects of the first Burton Batman were such expository passages - tedious scenes of the marginally amusing Robert Wuhl and living mannequin Kim Basinger slowly, slowly illustrating that Bruce Wayne is a rich loner with murdered parents. Begins is comprised of nothing BUT that awful exposition, and where Burton allowed the audience to fill in the gap between that childhood tragedy and current crime fighting with the knowledge that he has immense wealth to finance this obsession, Nolan comprised about half of his film with farfetched justification that not only is he rich but there's ninjas and secret military technology and blah blah blah. Who but the comic book obsessives need to know every minute detail? LET there be some mystery! That's part of his character! If "his parents were killed by criminals and he's rich" isn't enough of an explanation for how someone decides to become Batman, no amount of backstory will likely suffice for one's own lack of imagination in that area. At least not from a hack like David Goyer.

Batman's origin is so simple it only took Bob Kane and Bill Finger two comic book pages to illustrate, and we believe it. We believe because it's so simple, and strikes on a gut level - personal loss as inspiration for vigilantism. To pick it apart and put the process of Bruce Wayne becoming Batman under the microscope only calls attention to how unlikely it really is, outside of a comic book. Children's parents are murdered in front of them every day in real life, and they don't all become costumed vigilantes based upon which animal flies into their study window at just the right moment, or upon which animal scared them the most prior to their parent's death.

The key distinction between Nolan and Burton's approaches might be this: Burton acknowledges that Batman is fucking INSANE, and doesn't hold it against him or try to make excuses for it the way fanboys have reverted back to doing:

"Unlike Superman, Batman isn't simply a good-vs-evil thing. You get a lot of grey areas with Batman...I wanted the villains to be these weird but interesting characters who could fill in those grey areas in Batman's life."

Is this a more nuanced outlook than the comics fans can handle anymore? The best and most popular Batman comics of the 80s, from which Burton's film drew inspiration, were all about the ambiguities and insanity at the core of the character, and the thin line between him and his enemies: The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum. Bats is well meaning, but by definition the man clearly just has some issues. My best guess for the turnaround is that in the wake of so many persecuted, sympathetic protagonists like the mutants of X-Men and relatable, likable guys like Peter Parker in Spider-Man, the bat-fans began feeling a bit self conscious about their most fucked-up and self-isolated member of the Justice League.

People often explain Batman's continued appeal through various incarnations as due to the fact he's fully human, and not super-powered. Exactly right, but there's another essential ingredient: Zorro, The Lone Ranger and The Shadow may have worn masks to conceal their identities, but Bruce Wayne dresses up to become an ANIMAL MAN. There's something more primal happening there. Even the early 1940s comics, more preoccupied with action than psychology, expressed the innate darkness of this fantasy world with a canvas of night skies and shadows - the noir outlook - which of course found it's way into the films of the period. This is the world re-created by Burton Batman, and neutered by Nolan into generic "gritty" city streets we've seen in a zillion run of the mill cop movies. He neither allows the characters nor the world of Batman to be truly larger than life, and we the audience are left dispiritingly un-amazed.

To mistake the idealization of Batman as a self-made force of nature for admiration is immature. To marginalize the character's weirdness and ultimately equate him with Superman as another well-meaning do-gooder as Nolan did is just as glib and superficial an interpretation as Adam West on the 1960s tv show. The only difference is the 60s show was intentionally funny.

I've gotten this out of my system a bit, but if I come back to the topic it'll be to explain why this...

...Looks a lot better than THIS:

...Though I hope it's already fairly obvious: a man disfigured into looking exactly like a clown was too UNREALISTIC. They had to ugly him up some to make it "believable." God forbid we treat fantasy material like a fantasy.


Steven Finch, Attorney At Law said...

I've been trying to explain this same thing to people since Batman Begins first came out, but all I get is "you're just a film snob" or "you're just cranky and don't like ANYTHING."

Thank you for putting it out there so eloquently!

Steven Finch, Attorney At Law said...

I've been trying to explain this same thing to people since Batman Begins first came out, but all I get is "you're just a film snob" or "you're just cranky and don't like ANYTHING."

Thank you for putting it out there so eloquently!

Unknown said...

Glad you know what I'm trying to say, Steve! I was really inspired by The Stop Button's review because it was the first time I'd read anyone take the film to task as much as it needed to be.

Anonymous said...

I think the major reason comic book nerds debunk Burton's films is the fact that Batman kills people in them.

What's your opinion on Batman killing his foes, Matt? Yay or nay?

Shock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.