Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: The Batman

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opens this week. 

We've already done Now I've Seen Everything—Superman. About time we did something with DC Comics' other big hero (we'd do one on Wonder Woman...if a movie had ever been made). Late update: one has...and it's great.


The success of Superman created a demand for costumed adventurers in the new "comic-magazines" of the late 1930's. National Publications, the publisher of Superman wanted more, and they bought an idea from young Robert Kahn, who worked under the name Bob Kane. Kane imagined a swash-buckling detective-adventurer who wore a full costume as disguise for his bourgeois alter-ego. He was Zorro on the East Coast. The Scarlet Pimpernel in Gotham. 

But, "The Batman" was just some rough costume sketches until Kane collaborated with writer Bill Finger (who, with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will finally get a co-creator credit for Batman). A lot of the mythos of Batman came from Finger, just as plots and villain designs came from Kane's stable of artists like Jerry Robinson and Dick Sprang. But, Kane had his name on the contract (due to the fact that, at the time of selling the Batman idea to  the comics, he was underage, and his father saw to him receiving creator credit (something Superman's creators, Siegel and Shuster, did not see happen until late in their lives) and forever, throughout the story of Batman, Kane has had sole credit.

Even though he entered comics a year later than Superman, Batman had the first live-action presentation in the movies. Maybe, because he was an ordinary man with extraordinary abilities—but no ability to fly—he was easier to present on-screen. 

And for some reason, Batman might just be a bit more popular than Superman. In the comics they're presented as polar opposites (if frequent collaborators)—the Boy Scout and the Mad Man. Superman is an alien, who reflects the best in us. But Batman IS us, and not at our best. He's the Revenger, his altruism tinged with darkness. Deeds, not words. He's not a rescuer in the nick of time. He's the leg-breaker after the fact.  He's not about law. He's about justice.

This panel (from "Kingdom Come") puts it as succinctly as possible

He's still a hero, though, and as the panel above says, he has one thing in common with Superman. He's an orphan. He learned early about the sanctity of life and (even though the movies glaringly fudge it), he will not take a life...even amongst the worst of his foes. Batman is dark (yes), cynical (sure), blunt (very!), but still burns the candle of redemption in his soul. Maybe that's why he's been a subject of lampooning over the years. The intellectuals, writers and morally compromised producers, don't buy that he might still hold that flicker of hope in all that darkness.That's what a hero is all about, super or otherwise. Even when the Knight is dark.
To the Bat-cave!

Batman (Lambert Hillyer, 1943) The first film version of Bob Kane (and Bill Finger)'s Caped Crusader is this 15 (exciting!) chapter serial (preceding the Kirk Alyn Superman serial by five years) featuring Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin the Boy Wonder (Douglas Croft, the 17 year old actor) against a dastardly Japanese spy Dr. Daka (J. Carroll Naish) who is trying to steal Gotham City's stockpile of radium, using his radio-controlled zombies to accomplish the task as part of the Japanese war-efforts against the U.S.

Yes, the first Batman movie was war-time propaganda, and insulting war propaganda at that. Batman is not a costumed vigilante, he is a government agent (did they vet him him at all when he showed up in a bat-costume?) saving us all from the machinations of Hirohito and his minions. How insulting? Check out this description of an abandoned Little Tokyo, where Daka has his headquarters—"This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street." Well, Gotham City must be on the West Coast of the U.S. as the "rounding up" stopped east of Salt Lake City (and "shifty-eyed" is an odd insult when the hero is wearing a mask that makes him look...well, "shifty-eyed."

There are two versions of this serial, one heavily censored of its racism (or as much as it could while still keeping J. Carroll Naish in "Charlie Chan" make-up) and the full "historically accurate" non-PC version. The serial is notable for introducing the "Batcave" below Wayne Manor (which had never appeared in the comics before).

You want some irony to end the story. "Batman" was produced by Columbia Pictures, which is now owned by Sony Pictures—a Japanese company.

Batman (Lewis Wilson) contemplates that final irony.

Batman and Robin (Spencer Bennett, 1949) A second Batman serial was produced in 1949—just after Superman's first multi-chapter movie, and with the war being over, Batman could go back to being a "glamorous" crime-fighter (the narrator's words) with the tacit approval of Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot). This time, Robert Lowery plays Batman and Johnny Duncan (age 25) played Robin (who gets his name in the title this time).

The villain is The Wizard (his identity kept secret until the end), who steals a top secret weapon—a "remote control." Sure, it sounds like a wonderful invention, but in the wrong hands it could be used for evil—like disrupting your future television watching, or confounding your wife about why it needs to be so damn complicated. But, in this case, it is to take command of any vehicle—car, plane, submarine—that he sets his gyros and dials to, and even, when the gizmo starts to spark, to blow things up. Dastardly. Unfortunately, he needs diamonds to fuel the thing (VERY practical invention!), and so he recruits a gang of thugs to steal diamonds any chance they get.

Who is the mysterious Wizard (and why does he wear his costume even when he's alone)? The answer may not surprise you very much. A compilation of this serial was released to theaters in the mid-60's, and a viewing by producer William Dozier inspired his production of what would be a mid-season replacement series for ABC television, that would become the image of Batman in the minds of many for years to come.

Batman (Leslie H. Martinson, 1966) Holy Susan Sontag, Batman! A viewing of the earlier Batman serial begat the "Batman" TV-show, the success of which spurred 20th Century Fox (still reeling from movie cost-overruns) to create a full-length motion picture teaming Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) against a phalanx of dastardly desperadoes—the Joker (Ceasar Romero), Catwoman (Lee Merriwether, subbing for the absent Julie Newmar), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), and The Riddler (Frank Gorshin). The plot is some nonsense about an alliance of Batman's villains de-hydrating U.N. officials down to dust and holding them for ransom. The ambassador-jerking-plot aside, there are three new Bat-vehicles (the -Copter-Boat and -Cycle) to gawk at (the movie stops dead to introduce them) and there is just enough wit in the script so you know that no one's taking any of it too seriously, if at all. And if things aren't as tight or as pointedly comic-satiric as they were on the show's first season, well, whatever. It's still extraordinarily colorful, and West still treads that dangerous razor's edge of serious/camp ("Some days, you just can't get rid of a bomb!") without going too far over the top.

The four villains (and Ward's Robin)—main-stays of the show—play their roles at top-volume without much range or hint of subtlety (although Burgess Meredith's FDR/Popeye blend for The Penguin is a stitch *Waugh!*), with the exception of the truly bi-polar performance of Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, practically quivering with psychosis. (Ritalin that, Batman!) The film provides a bigger canvas, with longer takes, but, except for the more elaborate practical props (we're not talking about the rubber shark here, but the vehicles), it has the same aesthetics of the television show, done cheaply, but colorfully.

It is silly. It is goofy. But, one has to acknowledge that if this version of Batman and his villains hadn't been so iconic and so fly-paperish, subsequent film-makers wouldn't have needed to brainstorm so long and hard to come up with an effective Bat-antidote when tackling the new movie versions. Holy inappropriate!

Holy Love-Boat, Batman! Merriweather, Gorshin, Meredith and Romero
as Catwoman, Riddler, Penguin, and Joker


Batman (Tim Burton, 1989) Despite its overwhelming financial success this was probably a career mis-step for director Burton, but his design sensibility is one of the highlights of making "Batman" a legitimate live-action hero (especially considering the last person in the role was TV's Adam West). Everything about this adaptation was controversial to the fan-boys who didn't want the character to be turned back into a joke. Well, maybe not a joke, but Burton certainly wanted to explore the twisted side of somebody with a lot of dough who likes to beat up people. And the biggest controversy was casting Michael Keaton (who was Burton's "Beetlejuice") as Bruce Wayne and Batman. 

Twerpy little Keaton...as Batman? Actually, it made perfect sense...to twerpy little Burton. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't have to dress up as a bat to scare people. But a couch-candidate like Keaton's Wayne? Who better?

The script keeps it lean and mean—no Robin, but plenty of toys and a certain kind of fairy-tale spin to the whole proceedings with the chief ogre falling to Jack Nicholson's movie-stealing turn as The JokerKim Basinger served the role as damsel-in-distress, but, really it could have been anybody, and the movie was top-heavy with odd casting—Pat Hingle as Commissioner GordonBilly Dee Williams as the future Two-FaceJack Palance as a mob boss, and Hammer Studios veteran Michael Gough as an elderly avuncular Alfred

Two things bother this Bat-purist: 1) first, here, it is Jack Napier, the future Joker, who kills Thomas and Martha Wayne in Crime Alley that fateful night (and that's a bit too movie-convenient and "on the nose") and 2) Batman kills. It's the same kind of life-taking one sees in the Bond films—anonymous henchmen get caught up in the fireballs of explosions—but here The Bat sends a remote-control Batmobile to drop a couple of factory-destroying explosives to do the dirty work knowing full well there are people inside. But moral quibbles and source inequities aside, it made bat-zillions.

Batman Returns (1992) With the successes of Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands behind him, Tim Burton probably felt he could do no wrong. If studio executives didn't quite understand what he had in mind, at least the movie-going public seemed to respond to it. And, indeed, he had much more creative control over Batman Returns than the previous one—the executive producers were off mis-managing Sony Pictures, he had his choice of screenwriters, and he got to pick his villains—going with a trio of animal avatars: the bat, the cat and the penguin. Casting? No problem. Danny DeVito was just the right size and demeanor for Oswald Cobblepot, "The Penguin," an orphan outcast manipulated by a toy magnate (Christopher Walken) into running for mayor of Gotham City and Michelle Pfeiffer camped it up (replacing a pregnant Annette Bening) as Walken's harried secretary Selina Kyle, who would discover she may have nine lives, and thus become The Catwoman ("Hear me roar"). 
The movie made a lot of money, but, due to Burton's penchant for the ghastly, upset a lot of children (or at least their parents), and a lot of studio execs who took angry phone-calls from the merchandisers who attached their products to a pretty grisly little exercise. But what'd they expect? Burton took The Penguin character and re-imagined him away from Burgess Meredith's pfaw-Roosevelt, and turned him into a...freakish penguin-man, with flippers for hands, jagged yellow teeth, and what appeared to be black bile spewing from his mouth. The Catwoman was a split-personality (not unlike Batman, the script points out) who was more feminist statement than character. Aesthetically, it seemed like the movie was just a string of one-liners and ironies as opposed to being a solid screenplay. The film did good box-office (though not as good as the first) and amidst all the outcry Burton was relieved of his Bat-duties (he exec-produced the next one in name only) and moved on, reputation a bit sullied.

Batman Forever (Joel Schumacher, 1995) Burton was out. So Warner Brothers brought in the likeliest candidate to match Burton's style—Joel Schumacher? The first sign of trouble was that Michael Keaton said "no" to a big, fat pay-check after reading the script (by Lee and Janet Scott Bachler and Akiva Goldsman) and after a meeting with the director. Val Kilmer was hired in his place, Nicole Kidman (just starting to surge into making a name for herself other than "Mrs. Tom Cruise") was cast as "the girlfriend"—she's a psychiatrist this time, although they don't do much with that of any impact, save for a brief flirtation with Bruce Wayne forgetting his Bat-past—and, after rumors of the role showing up in Burton's movies, Chris O'Donnell was hired to play Dick Grayson, aka Robin the Questionably Adult Wonder. As the villains, Tommy Lee Jones replaced Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face)—for no good reason other than marquee value—and young up-and-comer Jim Carrey was put in the role of Ace Ventura, pet detective (actually Edward Nigma, aka The Riddler). 

Of course, they wanted Carrey. Carrey was hot box-office. But, as was found putting Richard Pryor in a Superman movie, at some point, there's some confusion as to whether it's a Batman movie or a Jim Carrey movie. One gets the impression that Carrey basically made up bits of business along the way in every scene that he's in. Two-Face barely registers. 

While Batman Returns teetered precariously close to letting the villains dominate the film, Batman Forever goes right over the cliff-hanger. Where Burton's films are dark and noirish, Schumacher's is day-glo and neon-lit (or as Warners envisioned "more family-friendly"), leaning more towards the cartoonish than the moody. Perhaps that's why there's a lot of credibility-defying with Batman landing from stories-high jumps without breaking his legs and having the Batmobile drive up the side of a building. After all, as Batman (incongruously) says "Chicks dig the car."

There is a fan-theory (groping for justification of the tone-change) that if Burton's first movie represented the Batman of the early 40's and ...Returns the more jokey 1950's, then Batman Forever shows the Batman of the 1960's, camp and colorful, bright and fanciful. Well, that's the theory, anyway. The next movie belied the theory.

Carrey's Riddler and Jones' Two-Face (the first time that villain had made a media appearance).
Batman and Robin (Joel Schumacher, 1997) A fourth entry in the series came about and this time, Kilmer bowed out (there were conflicts with Schumacher, evidently), George Clooney stepped in, and there were three villains—Mr. Freeze (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was paid $25 million for the role), Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), and Bane (Robert Swenson). Back were Chris O'Donnell's Robin and Batgirl was introduced (played by Alicia Silverstone).

The plot—by Akiva Goldsman—revolves around Freeze wanting to bring a new ice age to Gotham City, in order for Ivy to repopulate the area with plants, once humans are out of the way. Makes, uh...sense. But, the dialogue is one pun after another, and, if the previous film went over a cliff, this one resembled an iceberg calving and capsizing.

And sinking. Warners stopped the franchise at this point, and George Clooney has made a joke out of his appearing in this every time he wants to be self-deprecating ("I killed the franchise," he says) and then made a point of picking his movie roles more carefully. Schumacher, for his part, blames everyone but himself.

It is difficult to sit through Batman and Robin; I have to confess I've never actually watched the entire thing in "real-time", scanning through the "busy" parts on fast-forward, finding the movie to be frenetically tiresome. To be sure, there are worse super-hero movies, but they are usually worse by accident or mis-calculation. Batman and Robin is bad by design, the film-makers knowing full well what they were doing, but shocked to find that it was not accepted.

"I won't be back?" Schwarzenegger, Thurman and Bane react to no sequel.

Batman Begins (2005) The failure of Batman and Robin left Warners' most popular franchise in limbo. Here was a property that had made a lot of money that was merely languishing. Attempts were made to start over. For awhile, it was rumored that director Darren Aronofsky was working with "The Dark Knight Returns" writer Frank Miller to make "Batman: Year One." But when all was said and done, director Christopher Nolan was handed the keys to Warner Brothers' staked-like-a-vampire "Batman" series to "revamp" the franchise back into fighting strength. He's aided immeasurably by a good cast, particularly Christian Bale using George Bush boorishness for his portrayal of Gothan City billionaire Bruce Waynewho dresses as a bat to carry on his murdered father's legacy of helping the down-trodden and oppressed. But the top-heavy cast also includes Michael CaineMorgan FreemanLiam NeesonCillian MurphyGary OldmanRutger HauerKen Watanabe, Tom Wilkinson (and Katie Holmes). Like the old joke goes: "Any 'names?'"

But that origin story. That one always gets in the way—starting with the Wayne kid's parents being murdered? Not even Tim Burton led with that. No, Nolan juggles the time-line a bit to start the movie with Bruce Wayne—and us—caught off-guard and a bit lost, fighting for his life in a foreign prison. He's recruited by cultist Ra's Al Ghul and the League of Assassins to maximize his potential and leave his past behind--a past that is slowly released by Nolan in dribs and drabs for viewing. Then, with his pilgrimage and training complete, it's back to Gotham City for acquiring "all those wonderful toys."

Nolan and scripter David Goyer have a lot of ground to cover with a lot of characters—two villains (maybe three), Gordon's story and Alfred's, the fate of the Wayne fortune, and Bruce's childhood girlfriend, Rachel Dawes, who acts as his conscience...and oh, yeah, the intertwining plots of the villains. Nolan/Goyer keep everything moving and even pull off a surprise or two, but the final attack on Gotham City is an over-extended and splintered mess that focuses on too many characters for its own good and too much property damage for the city's. You begin to wonder what's been saved. But there's enough promise to whet one's appetite for the inevitable follow-up.

"Batman" begins

The Dark Knight (2008) At the end of Batman Begins, Nolan teased a potential second film with a criminal who left a "Joker" card at his crime scenes. With that kind of promise, there had to be a pay-off for fans and Nolan and Goyer met the challenge with The Dark Knight. Nolan's second "Batman" film raises the stakes for the entire cast, adding Heath Ledger's trickster Joker and Aaron Eckhart as D.A. Harvey Dentwho has taken up with Wayne old flame Rachel Dawes (now played by Maggie Gyllenhall). Ledger's unique take on The Joker (after the usual fan-boy kvetching) grabbed all the attention—and the Best Supporting Oscar that year—but the extremely well-integrated story-line combining The JokerTwo-FaceBatman, and Rachel and the intertwining of their fates makes this one the most cohesive of Nolan's latter films; it's a puzzle that fits together intricately and inelegantly, creating a satisfying whole despite the chaos (and a couple large eyes of a plot-hole or six) that churns in its center.
And it is chaos. Some critics have made too much of Ledger's Joker saying he's an agent of it, while also concocting elaborate plots that require a lot of preparation, seemingly belying the words. Yet, he is chaotic, and not just in the results he produces. The very idea that he does one thing and says another shows him to be inconsistent, undependable, untrustworthy, mercurial, and as changeable as the stories he spins for his smile of scars. He's just the guy who will blow away any elaborately arranged house of cards, the opposite of Wayne's predictable planner and schemer, a man not unlike the director.
Heath Ledger, sure.  But The Dark Knight is Harvey Dent's story (played by Aaron Eckhardt)

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)  Nolan's third (and presumably final) "Batman" movie ends the story quite definitively, by providing "The Dark Knight," eight years in retirement, with one last challenge that in many ways reflects his origins. It's a good full-circle approach, and makes one suspect that Nolan may have had this as a grand design, rather than, say, just pulling out elements of Batman Begins to tie everything in a nice thematic bow.  

But those elements feel like after-thoughts a bit, hanging threads that mar the look of a nice design. The most interesting aspect of TDKR is Tom Hardy's Bane, a hired thug, with several masters, but who appears to be working on his own. Bane is another "Dark Knight" opposite: where Bruce Wayne is enmeshed in armor, Bane is pretty much organic, less of a construct. Stronger and faster than Batman, he can best him in a fair fight...and cruelly take advantage of the loser's injuries so he'll never get up again. Where Wayne's face is exposed in his disguise, Bane's is covered with a morphine breather, where Wayne tries to protect Gotham City, Bane wants to level it.  
That central conflict provides the momentum of the movie, but there are many side-trips for the rest of the cast, including a young beat-cop, inspired by Batman as a child (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and another creature of the night—a cat-burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)—who seems to have as many loyalties as lives. And the film ends with things still in a state of flux, as Gotham City needs to rebuild and with the fates of many of the characters in question.
The only thing definitive is Batman, who, after a career of working in the shadows, has been forced into the light and ends his work with a blinding flash.

The Dark Knight rises...like the sun.
Actually, living well is the best revenge.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice  (Zack Snyder, 2016) Well, living well is the best revenge in the Nolan Universe. In the Zack Snyder Universe, you go for overkill. A DC Universe movie with Batman in it and a direct sequel to the Nolan-produced Superman movie, Man of Steel, BvS shows a retired Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, who's very good), who is devastated by the carnage in Metropolis caused by the Superman-Zod fight in that movie and sees Superman as a threat to the Earth. He's being manipulated (somewhat) by Jesse Eisenberg's tech-mogul Alexander Luthor, but the fear is definitely there, and so Batman does what Batman does—starts planning for the battle with the aid of Alfred (now Jeremy Irons) to take on a being who can snap off his arms or fry him like a chicken on a spit.

The Batman side of things is more than a little inspired by Frank Miller's fundamental "The Dark Knight Returns" (right down to cribbing lines), which debuted in 1986. Fans had been clamoring to see this Batman for 30 years, and then when they get him—yeah, but you can't trust fan-boys to be consistent, just as they expect their Batmen to be consistent (which they never have been). Wayne Manor is a dilapidated ruin—Wayne lives in a post-modern lake house with a lot of available light and the Bat-cave is still full of wonderful toys, but contains an empty defaced Robin costume as a memorial. His Batman is bitter, still obsessive, has seen allies go down or been corrupted. Something made him quit. But now, the threat has revived nightmares and he's supposed to be the nightmare. So he comes back, and even though he's been out of action, he still knows how to make an entrance. 
Even without the Miller inspiration, this is probably the most pulp-like Batman of the bunch. The fights are certainly the best choreographed—that's always been a problem—no matter who was directing.
*Zowie* kids, that's how Batman in the comics fights. At least how the latter-day Batman fights. Now, the movie itself might be a little too "inside" and have a few too many "Easter eggs" for the casual viewer, but this is a really good version of Batman—a step up, even, from the Nolan representation, despite having to share the Universe with other heroes (but it's at least not dominated by villains, and one could even make a case for Batman being among them). It will be interesting to see what they do with this one.

Justice League (Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon, 2017) When Christopher Reeve got the Superman gig back in 1977, he called Sean Connery (famously James Bond) to ask how he could avoid being typecast. Connery's reply was reasonable: "First, be good enough to GET type-cast."

If there's a problem with Zack Snyder's DC movies, it's that his plan was to never make a good movie, but make a series of movies that fit together into a larger story. It's the height of hubris. Don't make a movie thinking about sequels. Make a movie that's good enough that audiences (and studios) WANT a sequel. So his Man of Steel begat BvS: Dawn of Justice which begat Justice League, designed to be a two part movie—until Snyder's corporate masters at Warner saw the result of the first one and brought in Joss Whedon to make it a suitable standalone film. 

So, how does "The Batman" fit into all this? Affleck's Bruce Wayne is remorseful after the events of BvS, which sees Superman dead as a result of the fight with Luthor's Zod-monster, so he recruits members of gifted individuals—personally, Arthur Curry and Barry Allen—to join him and Wonder Woman to fight whatever threat he has had visions about. Also, inspired by Luthor's resuscitation of Zod, he wants to raise Superman from the dead (and geez, THAT worked out well...), a mission that he will sacrifice his life to achieve ("Suicide? Good plan, Wayne" says Aquaman Arthur Curry). We get a new Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons) out of the deal, but with the critical drubbing Justice League took, Warners dropped Henry Cavill's Superman and Affleck's Batman, preferring to go another direction with a standalone film featuring Robert Pattinson.

The Batman (
Matt Reeves, 2022) Well, this is a little different: Reeves' stripped down punk version (despite having three villains—The Riddler (Paul Dano), The Penguin (Colin Farrell) and the Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz)—and a fourth if you count John Turturro's Carmine Falcone, and even more if you count every corrupt Gotham official exposed in city government and the police department) has Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) in his second year as a vigilante, no longer just a rumor, but respected (just enough) by one Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, who almost has as much screen-time as RP) that he's allowed in full costume on a crime scene. The police make sarcastic envious jokes. But no one laughs. He's a detective in this one. And he's enough of a bad-ass that he doesn't have to hide in the shadows, waiting for the moment when a bad guy turns around and he's right in his face, but, instead, deliberately walks...slowly...up to perp's before laying down the smack-down. As the narration says "I don't have to hide in the shadows. I am the shadows."
And...for the first time in a movie featuring any incarnation of Batman (except Adam West's), he doesn't kill anybody...which, considering the inspiration was the witnessing of his parents gunned down in the streets, was kind of the point!
Thanks to all this methodology, Reeves' "take" is a three hour procedural, like a "Law and Order" episode in leather, but it's almost worth it, given that it's a story of how the hero ultimately sees himself less as an avenging angel than a guardian one. That takes time. One comes away wishing it was shorter (it FEELS like three hours!), but one is hard-pressed to think of what could be cut without screwing up the story. The fact that the Warner Brothers released it in this length says something about how they might have learned a lesson in making movies (finally).

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