Batman postsThursday August 22, 2013
Why Ben Affleck is All Wrong to Play Batman
Batman has to be fierce and intense. He has to be crazy enough to dress up like a freakin' bat and hang out in Gotham City and fight crime. Michael Keaton embodied this intensity, Christian Bale embodied it even more. But Affleck? He's usually the mellow guy dealing with a short, short-tempered friend. See “Good Will Hunting” and “The Town.” He's pretty good at this. But intense? Not.
The best acting I've seen from him was when he played George Reeves, the original Superman on TV, in “Hollywoodland.” It's the anti-superhero movie that made up for Affleck's turn as “Daredevil.” And now he's going back to the superhero role? Did he not talk to George Clooney first? Clooney was as wrong for Batman as Affleck is. Both men are too cool, too even-tempered. You can't play Batman as cool and even-tempered.
Bad move for Affleck, who's recovered his credibility. Bad move for Warner Bros. and DC, who are attempting to recover theirs.
To play Bruce Wayne/Batman, you need something of the intensity of Michael Keaton and Christian Bale.
I've never seen that level of intensity in any role Ben Affleck has played—with the possible exception of O'Bannion.
Holy Garage Sale, Batman!
Got a spare $1 million? Or $5 million? Or 10? The original Batmobile, a 1955 Ford Futura customized by George Barris for the 1966 TV show, is being sold by Barris at an auction in January. I was shocked it still existed. I think I saw it once at an auto show in the Twin Cities, or I heard about it being at an auto show in the Twin Cities, but by this point in my childhood I was a bit cynical. (I was first called cynical in fifth grade, by a friend's dad. I had to look it up. I looked in the S's.) By this point I assumed there were many Batmobiles, like there were many Lassies, and this was just one of them. I didn't realize the economics of it all. It's cheap to get lots of Lassies; customizing a lot of Ford Futuras on the other hand, costs a bit more. Although this one cost the producers of “Batman” only one buck.
There will be a tidy profit. Hell, if I were a rich man I might bid on it. This was the “just right” Batmobile. In the 1943 and '49 serials, Batman drove a Cadillac and a Mercury convertible, respectively. In '89, it's like a batwinged Formula 1 racer. By 2005, he was driving glorified tanks. No, thanks.
What famous car do I covet more? Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? The '64 Aston Martin? The '81 DeLorean from “Back to the Future”? The '68 Mustang from “Bullitt”?
OK, the Mustang is close.
The stuff of which dreams are made.
How 'The Dark Knight Rises' Should Have Ended
“How 'The Dark Knight Rises' Should Have Ended,” by HISHE, is more like “Why 'The Dark Knight Rises' Sucks”: the deep, growly Batman voice; the fact that everyone knows Batman's identity, no one shoots Bane when he's ripe for shooting, and Comm. Gordon sends all of Gotham's police force underground at the same time. Not to mention Talia's death, which has to be one of the lamest death scenes by an actress who's won an Academy Award. (Come on, Marion. It's time that we began to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.)
Here it is:
My own review of “Dark Knight Rises” raises similar, if less humorous points.
Batman: Year One, Day Two: Thoughts on the Murders in Aurora, Col.
I first heard about it yesterday morning from Amy K., who wrote on Facebook, “Waking up in America this morning did not feel good. Again.” For a second I wondered what she was talking about. Then I saw her previous status update: Colorado Shooting Suspect Identified. Oh, crap, I thought, not this again. Not Colorado again. Earlier this year, at my day job, we’d done an oral history of the legal ramifications of the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Col., 13 years ago This shooting took place in Aurora, Col. A half-hour away.
But it wasn’t until I went to the New York Times site and saw where in Aurora the shooting took place that I began to feel sick to my stomach.
I should've felt sick immediately, I know. But we have shootings all the time now, and deaths occur daily, hourly. How many occurred just as I was writing that sentence? I didn't know the people who died in Aurora, although I knew I would get to know them, through the usual media filter, in the coming days and weeks and months.
But I knew Batman.
He is a superhero and should be for children and often is. Throughout the day I kept thinking of that meme that made the rounds earlier this year: “Be yourself,” it says, in that great lesson of simplistic Hollywood storytelling; “unless you can be Batman,” it adds, which is the truer, fantasy lesson of Hollywood storytelling. We go to the movies, in the numbers we go to the movies, to watch someone better and cooler than us:
There's a great, laughable innocence to that picture, because the kid is so obviously not Batman. I have similar photos of me and my brother, more poorly outfitted, on the sidewalk out front of my parents' home in south Minneapolis in the late 1960s. I think we were still riding the Adam West/Batman TV series wave. I think Chris had a mask of some kind, I had a cape. He was on a tricycle, I was in a toy fire engine that I probably imagined to be the Batmobile. What kid doesn't want that? What kid doesn't want to climb up the walls of buildings? What kid doesn't want to be taller and stronger than all of those damned adults around him, who are currently taller and stronger than he is?
What kid doesn't want to be Batman?
Did James Holmes, besides killing 12 and wounding 70, kill this? Did he taint moviegoing? As my day developed, I found myself immersed in, and surrounded by, the fog of developments coming out of Aurora, and the sharp opinions coming off of the Internet, and at one point I wanted to just get away from it all, and thought, “OK, I'll just go see a ... Oh, right.” At one point I was at the drug store buying some medicine for Patricia, who's sick with a bad cold, and I saw this on the magazine rack:
We got the usual details on the shooter. A loner. A little off. Seemed nice. He was from San Diego, a grad student in neuroscience, but he was failing and probably dropping out. At the movie theater, he'd been wearing black body armor and a gas mask, like the supervillain Bane in the movie, but he'd dyed his hair red “like the Joker,” we were told, when any Batman fan would tell you that the Joker's hair is green. There were rumors he told the cops that he was the Joker. When he was led into the police station in handcuffs, did he imagine himself to be like Heath Ledger's character in “The Dark Knight,” who, halfway through, is led into the police station in handcuffs even though he really holds the upper hand? That this temporary incarceration is all part of his master plan? At what point did the other shoe drop for James Holmes? Do other shoes drop for him?
Roger Ebert, in his New York Times Op-Ed, wrote the following about the murders:
That James Holmes is insane, few may doubt. Our gun laws are also insane, but many refuse to make the connection.
In the morning, while driving to Trader Joe's in a thunderstorm to get juice and soup for Patricia, I'd heard Pres. Obama deliver his eulogy. I liked these lines in particular:
I’m sure that many of you who are parents here had the same reaction that I did when I heard this news. My daughters go to the movies. What if Malia and Sasha had been at the theater, as so many of our kids do every day? Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight, and I’m sure you will do the same with your children.
I thought he should've ended there. But he kept going. He said this:
So, again, I am so grateful that all of you are here. I am so moved by your support. But there are going to be other days for politics. This, I think, is a day for prayer and reflection.
But I knew that wasn't going to last. You can't have reflection without getting into the “Why?” And getting into the “Why?” gets you into politics.
Everyone lined up as they usually line up. Me included.
Folks on the left, to whom the First Amendment is sacrosanct, blamed our lax gun laws. They brought up the qualifier, the first words in the Second Amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State...” and wondered how we'd all become so insane. Holmes, it turns out, bought more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet. Six thousand. Over the Internet. How is that possible? We got the usual firearm-related deaths in western countries per annum: double digits for Australia, Canada, etc., with the U.S. near or over 10,000. Everything is on the table in the U.S., usually at the latest gun show; and if not here then on the Internet. The NRA, which for most of its history was a gun safety organization, now traffics in gun danger. It makes the U.S. safer for guns, not people. One of its own, not cognizant of the events in Aurora, even tweeted this yesterday morning:
It was quickly taken down. By the end of the day, “@NRA_Rifleman” ceased to exist. Happy Friday.
Folks on the right, to whom the Second Amendment is sacrosanct, and to whom those first words about well-regulated militia, etc., are just an unwanted appetizer before the meat entree of “...shall not be infringed,” seemed silent most of the morning but then began blaming their usual suspects: Hollywood, Pres. Obama, our lack of Judeo-Christian values, the First Amendment. Salman Rushdie, of all people, sparred with these people all day on Twitter. One wrote back: “Dear #Iran: Still want @SalmanRushdie? Let’s talk.” So the NRA and its supporters are now palling around with terrorists. The enemy of my enemy is my enemy.
But as the day went on smart voices kept emerging. It's amazing what a politician—in this case, Eliot Spitzer on Slate—can say when he's not worried about ever getting elected again:
So let's act, not just wring our hands. It is time to ban all military-style semi-automatic assault weapons, ban assault clips holding more than 10 rounds, and require that new guns have micro-stamping technology so bullets left at crime scenes can be traced. These are simple, moderate steps.
Meanwhile, Salon.com's movie critic, Andrew O'Hehir, under a headline that made me cringe (“Does Batman Have Blood on His Hands?”), writes:
Most efforts to associate killing sprees with some fictional source... are transparently ideological and lack solid evidence. Nonetheless, anytime defenders of free expression respond to such charges by arguing, in essence, that art and culture have no discernible psychological effects, my B.S. meter starts clanging. If that were true, we wouldn’t argue about them so much. We wouldn’t even be interested.
Everything affects everything. I've written about this before, more than six years ago, about my brother and Evel Knievel, and me and “Breaking Away,” and little kids and Dash from “The Incredibles.” What we create, matters. If Batman hadn't existed, James Holmes probably would've found a different path to destruction. But we don't know. We know he identified with villains rather than heroes. Not much Hollywood can do about that ... except, of course, create less absolutist, more nuanced stories of its heroes and villains. But of course it does. We just don't go see them in the numbers we go see “The Dark Knight Rises.” They give us Batman and Spider-Man and Iron Man because that's what we want. Because that's what makes money.
Part of our outrage at the Aurora shootings, as my colleague Mary Elizabeth Williams has suggested, stems from the fact that the shooter has poisoned the collective joy of the moviegoing experience, one of the last widespread group activities in our segmented society. And another part of our dismay comes from the realization that Holmes’ evil acts resemble a performance meant for mass consumption, a petty and despicable analogue to the movie itself, but nonetheless successful. It would be more decent, perhaps, to mourn the dead and ignore the killer, but we’re not made that way. James Holmes has become the latest villain in a long-running violent movie for which we are all responsible and from which we can’t turn away.
Is there irony in the fact that Batman, the fictional character, was borne of a senseless murder, his parents’, who were gunned down before his eyes when he was a child? And is there further irony in the fact that we asssume the murders in Aurora won't create any new heroes, a la Batman, but may create copycat villains, who also want their 15 minutes of infamy?
The superhero story is just that, a story, for children, but we've made it central to our culture. We feel the need to watch it over and over and over again, as if to reassure ourselves that that which isn't, is. Did James Holmes break that fever? Was he the nightmare who entered our long national daydream and woke us up? But to what? And for what?
I will go see “The Dark Knight Rises” today, as I'd intended. I won't go in the spirit I normally would. I'll go in the spirit of Daniel Isaacson at the end of E.L. Doctorow's novel, “The Book of Daniel.” I'll go to see what's going down.
Ranking Every Batman Movie from the 1940s Serials to 'The Dark Knight'
“The Dark Knight Rises” rises in a few days. You may have heard. A word or two on the Internet, possibly. One of the 100 reviews that are already up. Anyway I thought a look back might be in order.
I reviewed most of these Batman movies in 2008, in anticipation of “The Dark Knight,” and all of that watching and scribbling led to two articles: “Dark Knight My Ass: Why Batman descends into camp” and “The Smart Knight,” about how Christopher Nolan ensures that, at least in this iteration, the caped crusader won't descend into camp.
This is my list. Your results will surely vary. That's the fun.
9. Batman & Robin (1997): Starring George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris O'Donnell, Uma Thurman, and Alicia Silverstone. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman. Directed by Joel Schumacher. IMDb rating: 3.6
Yes, the costumes were awful in the 1949 serial, yes, the 1943 serial actually argues for what became our national shame, the interment of Japanese Americans. But ... plastic nipples? Alicia Silverstone? Oxbridge College? “Let's kick some ice”? Ick. Awful. This movie had a big budget, a future big star in Clooney, a future governor as the villain. But it was schlock and painful to watch. It had become a game by this point, for Hollywood and the actors rather than the characters, and the lack of seriousness seeps through every frame. The Adam West Batman movie was intentionally funny. Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin” pulls off a neat trick: it turns Batman into a joke without being funny at all. It killed the franchise.
While George Clooney makes a good Bruce Wayne, playing him a little like George Clooney, he may be the worst Batman ever. Batman should be obsessed and slightly insane — why else dress up in a batsuit? — but Clooney is all ironic detachment. He’s too aware of the absurdity of this universe to live in it. When Commissioner Gordon tells him the name of the latest supervillain, he repeats the name with a kind of verbal shake of the head: “Mr. Freeze.” When Barbara bouncily introduces herself as Batgirl, he responds, “That’s not awfully PC. What about Batperson or Batwoman?” His subtext is basically How dumb is it that we wear these costumes and use these names? Michael Keaton’s Bruce could hardly wait to be Batman, whereas Clooney’s Batman, you get the feeling, can hardly wait to take off that silly costume and be Bruce Wayne.
Here’s the plot if you want it. Mr. Freeze needs diamonds to keep his cryo-suit cold, and himself alive, so he can cure his wife of her disease, Macgregor’s Syndrome, and Poison Ivy, a plant come to life, wants to rid the earth of humans, and thinks she and Freeze can do this together (“Adam and Evil,” he says), and Robin thinks Batman doesn’t trust him, and Alfred suffers from a lesser version of Macgregor’s Syndrome. During the final battle, in which Batman learns to trust Robin, Batman convinces Freeze (or Prof. Fries) to cure Alfred, and all ends well, and vaguely misogynistically, since Freeze is also put into the same Arkham Asylum cell as a scatterbrained Poison Ivy. “Surprise!” he tells her. “I’ve come to make your life a living hell!”
At the very end we get the Schumacher silhouette of Batman, Robin, and Batgirl all running toward the camera, promising new adventures that, because of the sheer stupid weight of this one, never came.
8. Batman and Robin (1949): Starring Robert Lowery, Johnny Duncan, Jane Adams, and Lyle Talbot. Written by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and Royal K. Cole. Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet. IMDb rating: 6.3
I guess the lesson here is never name your Batman movie “Batman and Robin.” Or maybe the lesson is: never include Robin—unless he's Burt Ward coming at you with his holy holies and forever pounding his fist into his hand. “Batman and Robin” is the second movie serial, six years after the first, and poor Robert Lowery is given such a lousy costume that at times he has to tilt his head up just to see through the eye slots. He's basically a glorified cop here. On the plus side, a viewing of this at the Playboy Club led William Dozier to create the “Batman” TV series of the 1960s. And that brought us Julie Newmar in a black lurex Catwoman suit.
It's six years after the first Batman serial and what’s happened? Well, the comic-relief Alfred has been replaced by the no-nonsense Alfred, and the comic-relief Capt. Arnold has been replaced by the no-nonsense Commissioner Gordon, and the no-nonsense girlfriend, Linda Page, has been replaced by Vicki Vale, who’s better for, yes, comic relief. We were more serious in the postwar world but women were still good for a laugh.
Remember when Batman used to terrorize crooks into confessing in his “bat’s cave”? No more. The batcave (possessive dropped) is now bigger, with computerish doo-dads and chemistry equipment and microscopes. It’s a workstation. Americans work, damnit. The Batmobile still isn’t parked there, though. The Cadillac he drove in ’43 has been traded in for a Mercury convertible that Bruce Wayne, living in the suburbs, parks on the street, and that Batman and Robin occassionally “borrow.” Vicki Vale confronts Batman about it in chapter 7 (“The Fatal Blast”):
Vicki: Does Bruce Wayne know you’re driving his car?
Batman: Of course.
Vicki: You know, if I didn’t know Bruce Wayne so well I’d almost think that you and he were the same man.
Batman: That’s absurd. Since you won’t tell me where you’re going I’ll tell you. You saw us on the way here, knew we were on a mission and followed us to get some pictures for your magazine.
Vicki: Any objections?
Batman: Not up until now. But this is as far as you go.
The racial stereotypes are gone. Race is gone. Everyone’s white now. Everyone’s bland. What did the Japanese spy, Prince Daka, have in ‘43? Zombies and an “atom-smasher gun” that prefigured our own atom bomb. What does the Wizard have? A “remote-control machine” that has the power to bring any moving vehicle within 50 miles under its control, and a “neutralizer” that neutralizes same. He also has the power to make himself invisible. It leads to one of the funniest police dispatch calls ever. From a bored, nasal voice: “All the cars in the vicinity of 616 Main Street. Invisible man, the Wizard, there now, in phone booth in lobby. That is all.“
7. Batman Returns (1992): Starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken. Written by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm. Directed by Tim Burton. IMDb rating: 6.9
Batman returns? When? In the first 45 minutes of the film we get the long, drawn-out origins of both the Penguin and the Catwoman, plus the machinations of Max Shreck, and we see Bruce Wayne/Batman for, what, maybe five minutes? That’s a long time to ignore your superhero. That's why Tim Burton was the wrong guy to keep the franchise going. His entire oeuvre is about a love for the misfit — Pee Wee, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood — and by this point Batman is no longer a misfit (the boy who lost his parents/the vigilante called “The Bat”) but an institution (the guy the cops call when there’s trouble in town). The misfits here are the villains, particularly Oswald Cobblepot, alias the Penguin, played hammily by Danny Devito, and it’s to him that Burton showers attention and love.
In truth, this Penguin was never a good supervillain. None of them are. A good supervillain should have clear motivations, a great scheme, but you put three together and their schemes keep bumping into and sidetracking each other. So Max Shreck needs to install a puppet mayor for his faux power plant and chooses, for his candidate...the Penguin? If he could get this ugly, grunting, bloated creature elected, couldn’t he could get anyone elected? The Penguin, for his part, wants to murder every first-born son of Gotham, but allows his wishes to be sidetracked for a mayoral run that, of course, falls flat.
And what of the Catwoman? As Selina Kyle, mousy secretary, she’s both browbeaten and then killed by Max Shreck, so you’d think she’d want to get Shreck, and, yes, that eventually becomes her scheme, but getting him too quickly wouldn’t serve the two-hour film. So first she goes after men in general and then Batman in particular. Why Batman? Is it because, near the beginning of the film, after he saved her from a marauding member of the Circus Gang, he didn’t stop to talk to her? Here’s what’s worse: In that scene, he did pause, he did stand there, while chaos reigned, so she could utter her line: “Wow, the Batman. Or is it just ‘Batman’?” It’s a moment that only makes sense in our universe, where Keaton and Pfeifer are the stars of the film, rather than in their universe, where she’s just a mousy secretary and Batman still has villains to battle. But he pauses, then walks away, allowing Selina to feel sorry for herself: “Wow, that was very brief. Just like all the men in my life. What men?” Buck up, honey.
6. Batman Forever (1995): Starring Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O'Donnell. Written by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman. Directed by Joel Schumacher. IMDb rating: 5.4
At least we begin this thing in medias res. At least we get a bang-bang beginning: Batman and a guard locked in a bank vault that is slowly filling with acid and hoisted in the air by Two Face. Batman escapes that trap but finds himself being pulled around Gotham the way that Jackie Chan was pulled around Kuala Lumpur in Police Story III: Supercop.
Unfortunately, after all this, we get dialogue. Review excerpt:
Bruce Wayne is one effed-up dude. His parents were killed in front of him so he’s dedicated his life to dressing up in a bat suit and prowling the night in search of crime. But Batman Forever wants to clean him. It wants to psychoanalyze and cure him. And it does. By the end of the film his repressed memories are found, his split personality is tied together, and he changes from a Batman who must fight crime to one who chooses to fight crime. I’m OK, Batman’s OK.
Both supervillains go way over-the-top. They compete to see who can chew the most scene. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman reads half her lines like she’s in a 1-900 ad. At one point, the batsignal appears in the sky, but it’s not Commissioner Gordon waiting for Batman. Dr. Chase Meridian (Kidman), ever the professional, is wearing a low-cut dress over a long black coat:
Batman: The batsignal is not a beeper.
Chase: Well, I wish I could say my interest in you is...purely professional.
Batman: You trying to get under my cape, doctor?
Chase: A girl can’t live by psychoses alone.
Batman: The car, right? Chicks love the car.
Believe it or not, it gets worse:
Batman: We all wear masks.
Chase: My life’s an open book. You read?
Batman: I don’t blend in at a family picnic.
Chase: We could try. I’ll bring the wine... (removes coat, revealing bare shoulders)...you bring your scarred psyche.
5. Batman (1943): Starring Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson. Written by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry L. Fraser. Directed by Lambert Hillyer. IMDb rating: 6.8
This thing is archeology work. It's like finding a lost city. It's not only the first screen presentation of Batman but only the second live-action serial starring a Golden Age superhero (after Capt. Marvel). You watch in amazement as Batman and Robin tool around in a black Cadillac, with Robin driving, or Batman putting bat stickers on the foreheads of criminals, like some low-rent Zorro. There's also that vaguely British accent. We're a long way from Christian Bale's growl.
The chief problem with this 15-episode serial isn’t the low-budget effects (Columbia serials were notoriously cheap), nor its racism (the chief villain is a Japanese spy during WWII), but the form itself, the serial form, which requires cliffhangers. Since the lives of Batman and Robin hang by a thread at the end of every episode, and since the serial wasn’t budgeted for a lot of extras, “America’s greatest crimefighter,” as Batman is called in the narrative intro, ain’t that great a fighter. Among the cliffhangers:
- Two crooks throw Batman, arms and legs thrashing, off a roof.
- Three crooks toss Batman, arms and legs thrashing, down an elevator shaft.
- A crook tosses a stick at Batman’s head, knocking him unconscious on a railroad trestle.
- A gangplank is dropped on Batman.
- He drives a car off a bridge.
- He gets trapped in a fire he sets.
Worse, you see Batman getting outpunched by two guys. One time it was even one guy. I’m talking an ordinary guy in suit and fedora. You think: What’s the point of putting on cape and cowl if you can’t take one guy?
4. Batman (1989): Starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl. Written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren. Directed by Tim Burton. IMDb rating: 7.6
I still remember how thrilling it was seeing that first ”Batman“ trailer in February 1989. I'd gone to ”Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,“ starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine (the future Alfred, interestingly), and suddenly I was watching this ”WHAT ARE YOU?“ ”I'm Batman“ thing. Wow wow wow. The sets, the costumes, the dark lighting, the ominous music — everything looked perfect. And suddenly I didn’t want to see ”Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.“ Suddenly I had a need, a visceral need, to see Tim Burton’s ”Batman.“ I’m not sure why. I hadn’t collected comics for 10 years. I was getting ready to go to grad school, but still, opening day, I dragged my girlfriend to the first performance at the St. Anthony Main theaters in Minneapolis. I had to be there. I had to see it.
I was kind of disappointed. I still am. Review excerpt:
I love the way Michael Keaton plays Bruce Wayne. We usually see him as a socialite, a playboy, and I suppose you could say he is here, too (he beds Vicki Vale pretty quickly), but it’s a loose, complex take on Wayne. Keaton plays him as if he’s perpetually distracted, as if he’s always thinking about something else. When Vicki Vale joins him at Wayne Manor for dinner and asks whether he likes the room they’re in — which is cold and lifeless — he says, “Oh yeah,” then seems puzzled and looks around. “You know, to tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever been in this room before.” The ‘40s serials played Wayne a la Zorro — bored and fey — while Adam West, Val Kilmer and George Clooney played him as straight as they played Batman. Only Christian Bale, who spends most of Batman Begins as Bruce Wayne, and who then performs the role of drunk playboy for the people of Gotham, comes close to something as interesting as Keaton’s performance, but I’d still go with Keaton. It’s as if this Bruce Wayne is using all his intensity, all his concentration, for Batman, leaving none for himself. You could say he’s never really there as Bruce Wayne because he’s not Bruce Wayne. He’s Batman.
But the plot of the movie keeps fraying. In Vicki Vale's apartment, where Bruce almost tells Vicki his secret identity, he finally discovers that the Joker is Jack Napier who, as a young man, killed his parents. In other words, this is what his entire life has been building towards — revenge on this one man — but the film, rather than barreling forward, gets distracted. It gives us Vicki in the batcave. Alfred has brought her there without consultation. And rather than Vicki saying something like, “Oh my god, you’re Batman!” we get a spin on a conversation men and women have been having for-fucking-ever. Think about it. This is the first time we’ve ever seen a woman confronting Bruce Wayne in the batcave and these are the first words we hear her say: “Tell me if I’m crazy, but that wasn’t just another night for either of us, was it?”
Talk about a downer.
3. Batman Begins (2005): Starring Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman. Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. IMDb rating: 8.3
The last time we saw a cinematic Batman, he was saddled with Robin, Batgirl, plastic nipples, camp villains, and a lead actor who emanated the absurdity of playing a cape crusader. “Batman Begins” is, as the kids say, way better. It’s dark and moody and realistic. So why is it unsatisfying?
I blame the relentless direction of Nolan, who pushes the story along with the same speed and tone throughout. Every scene has the same weight, the same growling intensity: dining, talking, fighting, falling, fighting again. There are no peaks and valleys. It’s all arias. You want to take a breath.
There’s also a problem with the villains.
We don’t see Batman until an hour into the movie. The first hour is all about training to become Batman so Bruce can take on the Carmine Falcones of the world.
Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the leader of the Gotham underworld, is a nasty piece of work. He’s the one who has Joe Chill killed; and he’s the one who sends Bruce on his mission. He tells him:
You think because your mommy and your daddy got shot you know about the ugly side of life, but you don't. You've never tasted desperate. You're Bruce Wayne, the Prince of Gotham. You'd have to go a thousand miles to meet someone who didn't know your name. So don't come down here with your anger, trying to prove something to yourself. This is a world you'll never understand. And you always fear what you don't understand.
That’s good. And it’s why Bruce goes on his seven-year trek: to find those who don’t know him; to understand the underworld; to face his fears. He does all of this with the help of Ra's al Ghul. And he brings it all back to Gotham to face Carmine Falcone ... who is dispatched in like two minutes of screentime.
Turns out Falcone, for whom we’ve waited an hour, is just a pawn. The greater power lies with Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), AKA the Scarecrow, who, with his magic powder and scary mask, makes Falcone mad. But Crane, too, is just a pawn. The greater power lies with ... wait for it ... Ra’s al Ghul, the man who trained Bruce Wayne in the first place. The man who made him Batman.
So we wait an hour for an encounter with Carmine Falcone, and, poof, he’s gone. The problem? Falcone is more interesting than Ra’s al Ghul, too. That speech above is brilliant. It’s savvy. Ghul? He spews vaguely eastern nonsense.
- “The training is nothing!” he tells Bruce Wayne ... as he trains him.
- “What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power.”
Can I answer that one? I’m not sure about Bruce, but the last thing I fear is my own power. Probably the last thing you fear, too.
2. The Dark Knight (2008): Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine. Written by Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, Jonathan Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. IMDb rating: 8.9
For most fanboys this is the pinnacle of not only Batman movies, and not only superhero movies, but all movies. It's got an 8.9 rating on IMDb.com, which makes it the 8th greatest movie of all time: just behind ”Schindler's List“ and five up from ”Seven Samurai.“ It's just not for me. It's good but.... Nolan's direction is as relentless here as in ”Batman Begins,“ and it bugs me. The Joker is impossibly everywhere in the second half of the movie, and it bugs me. The fact that Batman knew, truly knew, that the ferryboat battle would bring out the best in Gotham's citizens rather than, once again, their worst, bugs me. How did he develop such faith in Gotham? Isn't that why he's Batman in the first place? Because he knows people are no damn good? Isn't that why he's dark and brooding and wants to instill fear?
This is a tough movie to be Batman. In “Batman Begins,” he’s proactive, stalking crooks in the night. Here, he’s back on his heels. He’s reacting more than acting. He’s taking punches.
Is he slower in this one? He was such a ninja in the first movie that both criminals and moviegoers could barely see him. People complained. That last fight with Ra’s al Ghul on the train was like a battle of shadows, but, ninja-wise, it made sense. Here, Batman’s not only not a ninja, he’s as stolid as Rocky Balboa in the 11th round.
And what's with his friends? After Batman’s first encounter with the Joker, when Bruce Wayne says, “They crossed a line,” Alfred immediately pipes up, “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation.” Thanks, bro. After Rachel Dawes dies and and Bruce sits despondent over his role in all of this—in inspiring not good but madness—Alfred bucks him up by telling him, “You spat in the faces of Gotham's worse criminals. Didn’t you think there might be some casualties?” Thanks for the shoulder, bro.
Poor dude can’t have a conversation with anyone without it turning into some part of the film’s philosophical treatise. I love me some Michael Caine but almost everything Alfred says is in this vein. Harvey Dent, too. “You either die a hero,” he says during a casual dinner, “or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” When I first heard it, before I knew that Harvey would die a hero and Batman would endure as a villain, it felt false to me. It rang loudly and off key. It announced itself.
1. Batman (1966): Starring Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin. Written by Lorenzo Semples, Jr. Directed by Leslie H. Martinson. IMDb rating: 6.3.
In robotics and 3-D animation, they call it ”the uncanny valley.“ The closer robots and drawings come to looking like us the more uncomfortable we become with them. Maybe I have a similar problem with Batman movies. The more realistic they make them, the more absurd they seem. Because once you make Batman as real as possible, you're still left with a dude with no superpowers who prowls the night in search of crime ... dressed like a bat. That's a tough hump to come over.
Which is why, in the end, Adam West's ”Batman“ tops my list. It satrizes, and satrizes well, not only what's absurd about Batman but what's absurd about post-WWII America. To all the other Batman movies, particularly Chris Nolan's, and to all the fanboys out there who will surely object to this list, I have just one question: Why...so...SERIOUS???
You really don’t know how funny ”Batman: The Movie“ is until you watch it after watching the 1940s Batman serials.
Batman, who started out as a vigilante, is here not only an establishment figure but the establishment figure. Cops put their hats over their hearts when the batcopter flies by. During a press conference Batman feeds the press misinformation as easily as any politician. The disappearing yacht? “Nonsense. How can a yacht simply disappear?” The exploding shark? “Doubtless an unfortunate animal who chanced to swallow a floating mine.” He and Robin are, according to Commissioner Gordon during that same press conference, “fully deputized agents of the law,” to which Robin responds, fist pounding palm, “Support your police! That’s our message!”
This Batman is almost terrifying. Enamored of a Miss Kitka (Catwoman in disguise), who is “threatened” by the Riddler, Robin asks what he’ll do if the Riddler makes a move, and he responds, lingering over each word, “I’ll bash him brutally.” He tells the movies’ four supervillains, “I swear if you’ve harmed that girl, I will kill you all. I will rend you limb from limb!” He’s so filled with his own self-importance he’s virtually a law unto himself.
The film satirizes everything: From the labels around the batcave (ACCESS TO BATCAVE VIA BATPOLE) to the facile way Batman and Robin solve the Riddler’s riddles. What has yellow skin and writes? “A ball-point banana!” Robin says. What people are always in a hurry? “Rushing? Russians!” Robin says, before figuring it out:
Robin: I’ve got it! Someone Russian is going to slip on a banana peel and break their neck!
Batman: Right, Robin! The only possible meaning.
But it’s our own cultural pomposity and self-importance that is skewered the most. At the end, after rehydrating the nine members of the U.N. Security Council, all of them are suddenly speaking a different language than their native language, and Batman says, “Who knows, Robin. This strange mixing of the minds may be” ... and here he lifts his eyes up toward the sky... “the greatest single service ever performed for humanity.”
Could you do a film like this today or do we take our superheroes, and ourselves, too seriously?
I'll post a review of “The Dark Knight Rises” this weekend. Same bat-time, same bat-blog.
Batman's Pal is ... King Joffrey?
I never liked that kid in “Batman Begins.” He's supposed to represent the innocent of Gotham who are being crushed by corruption, but who believe in Batman and will be saved by Batman, but it's a dull conceit, too obviously constructed, and requires, as the boy keeps showing up in the storyline, too many damned coincidences. Plus the kid is too wide-eyed and thin-lipped for me. He looked easily crushed. He's not a tough Gotham/NYC kid but, I don't know, something else. Something pampered and vaguely British.
Recently rewatching “Batman Begins,” I had an even greater aversion to the kid. It took a few beats before I placed him: He's the same actor, Jack Gleeson, who plays King Joffrey, the most insufferably pampered and British of boy-kings, in HBO's “Game of Thrones.”
At least they got him in the right role now.
Michael Gough (1916-2011)
Michael Gough, as Alfred Pennysworth, is one of only two actors (Pat Hingle is the other) who appeared in all four Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher “Batman” movies, and the only actor to acquit himself in the fourth and eternally wretched “Batman & Robin.” “His conversations with George Clooney’s Bruce Wayne,” I wrote a few years back, “are just this side of touching.”
Let's not forget he also appeared in “The Man in the White Suit,” “Brideshead Revisited,” “The Dresser,” and “Out of Africa.” Tim Burton kept using him, too. He appeared in “Sleepy Hollow” and his voice was heard in both “Corpse Bride” and “Alice in Wonderland.” He played Sir Anthony Eden, Bertrand Russell, and Leo Tolstoy. He won a lead-actor Tony in 1979 for “Bedroom Farce.” IMDb lists 241 credits. He was married four times. Not sure which is more impressive.
In the roles of conventional mill owners, Cecil Parker and Michael Gough give vastly amusing representations of stuffy confusion and bleak despair...
Even more impressive is Michael Gough as Dillwyn Knox, Turing's silver-haired, bespectacled, by-the-book wartime superior. Mr. Gough, like Michael Bryant and Michael Gambon, is one of those remarkable English character actors who should be much better known to American audiences. There is fine, supple Chekhovian detail to his every small gesture, from his slow-dawning owlish smiles to the buttoning of his ill-fitting tweed jacket to the revealing tentativeness with which he fingers through a personnel file.
I keep thinking about that birthdate. Born into a world at war, he was 23 when the world went to war again. I assume he went, too.
Movies began to talk when he was 10. The bomb fell when he was 29. In his 30s, television appeared and the British Empire disappeared. He was 53 when we landed on the moon. He was 73 when he played Alfred Pennysworth and I saw him for the first time.
Rest in peace.
Batman and Oscar: A History
I’m in the midst of writing an Oscar quiz for MSNBC.com — the fifth I’ve done in five years. It should be getting old but it’s not. Basically I look at the nominees, dig, find interesting facts, write the questions. I don’t know if this makes for good questions but it definitely makes for interesting answers.
The quiz will probably go up tomorrow or the next day but here’s a headstart on one aspect that I found fascinating.
Although “The Dark Knight” didn’t get any best picture respect, it did receive eight nominations overall — twice as many as any superhero film has ever garnered. The previous record-holder was “The Incredibles,” with four, but you can also make an argument for “Superman: The Movie,” which, in 1979, received three noms and one “Special Achievement” award for visual effects. I assumed this meant the Academy ignored visual effects until recently but they actually began nominating in that category in 1939 (“The Rains Came” over “The Wizard of Oz”), but for some reason stopped throughout most of the 1970s. Instead they just gave out these “Special Achievement” awards. If they’d actually done the nom’ing, “Superman: The Movie” would’ve had four noms as well.
Here’s a list of AA nominations for superhero movies, in chronological order, with wins in italics :
- “The Mark of Zorro” (1940): Original Score
- “Superman: The Movie” (1978): Editing; Original Score; Sound
- “Batman” (1989): Art Direction-Set Decoration
- “Batman Returns” (1992): Makeup; Visual Effects
- “Batman Forever” (1995): Cinematography; Sound; Sound Effects Editing
- “The Mask of Zorro” (1998): Sound; Sound Effects Editing
- “Spider-Man” (2002): Sound; Visual Effects
- “Spider-Man 2” (2004): Sound Mixing; Sound Editing; Visual Effects
- “The Incredibles” (2004): Animated Film; Sound Mixing; Original Screenplay; Sound Editing
- “Batman Begins” (2005): Cinematography
- “Superman Returns” (2005): Visual Effects
- “Iron Man” (2008): Sound Editing; Visual Effects
- “The Dark Knight” (2008): Art Direction; Cinematography; Editing; Makeup; Sound; Sound Editing; Visual Effects; Supporting Actor
Yes, mostly in Sound and Visual Effects, and mostly for Batman, Superman and Zorro — characters created before 1940. No “X-Men,” for example, despite two good movies with tons of visual effects, and, I assume (not that I know), Sound.
The main point is this: Despite a seeming defeat, “The Dark Knight,” and Heath Ledger in particular, expanded Oscar's palette.
Note to the Academy: Why So Serious?
The Oscar nominations were finally announced this morning, and, as soon as Forest Whitaker said “Frost/Nixon,” alphabetically passing up “The Dark Knight,” I knew that, unless the Academy subscribed to Comcast’s idiotic system of alphabeticization, they had turned their backs on the Batman. Bummer. I was beginning to root for him.
So after all of the guesses, here and here and here, these are our (or their) best picture nominees:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
What does this mean? As I wrote last January, since the Academy finally settled on five best picture nominees in 1944, there have only been six years when there wasn’t a top 10 box office hit among the nominees: 1947, 1984...and the last four years in a row: 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. This year, unless “Benjamin Button” can make another $50 million without getting swamped in the process (it’s currently at $103 million), it’ll probably be five years in a row. Stunning.
In the past I didn’t quite know who to blame for this divide between supposed popularity and supposed quality. The Academy? The studios? Moviegoers? But not this year. “The Dark Knight” was a critically acclaimed, monster box office hit with tons of buzz. In terms of domestic, unadjusted dollars, it was the no. 2 movie of all time. Yes, it was about superheroes, and no superhero film has been nominated before; but before “Lord of the Rings” no fantasy film had been nominated, either. The rule sticks until something breaks it. This year? Didn’t break. And it was the year to break it. We’re not talking about crap like “Spider-Man 3.” We’re talking about a pretty good movie. One of the five best of the year? Maybe. I’d take it over “Frost/Nixon” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” anyway. Don’t know about “The Reader” yet. Haven’t seen it. (Psst. It’s about the Holocaust.)
Besides, in the past, the Academy has nominated some popular but fairly suspect films for best picture. “Love Story”? “The Towering Inferno”? “Three Coins in a Fountain”? “Ghost”? It’s hardly a body to hold its nose.
Given the chance, who would I have nom'ed? I don't know. Because of the studios' idiotic system of rolling the best films out in piecemeal fashion at the end of the year, I haven't seen, oh, “Doubt” or “The Reader” or “Revolutionary Road” yet. I'd definitely nom “Milk” and “Slumdog.” I'd think about “In Bruges” and the forgotten but expertly crafted and genre-busting (or genre-solildifying) “Appaloosa.”
And I'd think about “The Dark Knight.” More than the Academy seemed to anyway.
ADDITION: Yeah, should've known. Harvey Weinstein was the man behind the push for “The Reader,” just as he was the man who pushed “Shakespeare in Love” to the crown in '98. Shame. Much talk about the next Batman villain. I suggest “Weinstein.”
One Good Cop
So one reader, Shen, writes the following about how Christopher Nolan helps break Batman’s usual vigilante-to-cop-to-camp cycle:
In Nolan's Gotham, the corruption of the police and political structure acts in a way so as to maintain Batman as simultaneous vigilante / institution. Nolan demonstrates this nicely even while keeping Gordan as a supporter, with the deep infiltration by the mob and other corrupt elements. Batman therefore simultaneously keeps his vigilante status (pursued by the “police” who are actually working for the mob, although this may be less effective with Gordan as commissioner now), and Batman as institution (he's the real crime-fighting institution, since the criminals know they can always plead insanity like in Batman Begins, or manipulate/bribe the police/DA to keep out of jail, like with the Dark Knight).
Smart stuff and all true. In an original draft of “Dark Knight My Ass,” in the section on the social changes reflected in the Batman films, I had a take on this but cut it for space reasons. If there are cops, why is Batman necessary? Different eras have different answers. In 1943, the cops were fairly incompetent. In 1949 they were merely understaffed and overwhelmed and so Batman rode in, like the Lone Ranger, to save the day. By 1989, post-Serpico, you have intimations of corruption, but only one cop, Lt. Eckhardt, is on the take. Sixteen years later, this situation is reversed: every cop is on the take, with only one good cop, Gordon, remaining. There’s an interesting book to be written about our attitudes towards cops as reflected in our films. Maybe it’s already been written.
My friend Adam also writes about what he considers some of Heath Ledger’s best work: his few scenes at the beginning of Monster’s Ball in 2001: “I remember at the time thinking, Jesus, who knew this kid was so good? I mean, to hold your own with BBT and do so with such deep and interesting character work — you could see it all back then.”
The Dark Knight, somewhat ironically given Batman’s origin, is no orphan as to who or what is responsible for its massive success. A lot of fathers out there. To me, yes, it’s the Batman brand, plus it’s the fact that the film is a sequel to a well-made movie, plus it’s the buzz that the new one was even better. Plus it opened in more theaters than any movie in history. That never hurts.
Now the question: How far will it go? In pure dollar terms — that is, unadjusted for inflation — it may have already passed Batman Begins (at $205 million domestic). It will surely pass Tim Burton’s original Batman ($250 million) this weekend, maybe even before, making it the most successful Batman movie ever. Then, in terms of superhero movies, it has these guys lying ahead of it:
|2.|| Spider-Man 2
|| $373 million
|3.|| Spider-Man 3
|| $336 million
|4.|| Iron Man
|| $314 million
|5.|| The Incredibles
The fact that The Dark Knight took in $24 million on a Monday is a good sign. $24 million is a good weekend for most movies. For the curious, Spider-Man’s $403 million is no. 7 on the unadjusted domestic gross list. The No. 1 movie is Titanic at $600 million. When TDK passes Spidey, we’ll talk.
In the meantime, one of the better descriptions of Heath Ledger’s performance comes to us from someone, David Denby at The New Yorker, who didn’t even like the film. Proof, if we needed it (and some of us obviously do), that it’s worth reading past your opinions:
Christian Bale has been effective in some films, but he’s a placid Bruce Wayne, a swank gent in Armani suits, with every hair in place. He’s more urgent as Batman, but he delivers all his lines in a hoarse voice, with an unvarying inflection. It’s a dogged but uninteresting performance, upstaged by the great Ledger, who shambles and slides into a room, bending his knees and twisting his neck and suddenly surging into someone’s face like a deep-sea creature coming up for air. Ledger has a fright wig of ragged hair; thick, running gobs of white makeup; scarlet lips; and dark-shadowed eyes. He’s part freaky clown, part Alice Cooper the morning after, and all actor. He’s mesmerizing in every scene. His voice is not sludgy and slow, as it was in “Brokeback Mountain.” It’s a little higher and faster, but with odd, devastating pauses and saturnine shades of mockery. At times, I was reminded of Marlon Brando at his most feline and insinuating. When Ledger wields a knife, he is thoroughly terrifying (do not, despite the PG-13 rating, bring the children), and, as you’re watching him, you can’t help wondering—in a response that admittedly lies outside film criticism—how badly he messed himself up in order to play the role this way. His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss.
Michael Giltz on the history of Batman's opening weekends
There’s a good HuffPost piece by Michael Giltz on the history of Batman’s opening weekends. I know it’s a good piece because I’ve been doing nothing but box office and Batman articles for the last two months and even I didn’t realize the following:
Here's the truth: ignoring the Adam West quickie from 1966, the Batman franchise has released six movies. FOUR of them have set the all-time opening weekend box office record. The only two that didn't were the deservedly maligned Batman & Robin in 1997 and the acclaimed reboot Batman Begins in 2005 which made this film's success possible.
Don’t quite agree with the Heath Ledger graph. Sure, Ledger wasn’t a big opening weekend star (partly because his better movies, such as Brokeback Mountain, only opened on a few screens), but in death… Let’s face it, we’re a bit necrophiliac around here. We feed, we feed.
But Giltz’s main point I absolutely agree with. Everyone’s searching for an answer as to why Batman did well opening weekend but Batman always does well opening weekend. So it’s that, but it’s also how good Batman Begins was and how good the buzz was. It’s not just quantity (those 4,000+ theaters), but quality. If you build it right, we will come.
The Dark Knight: The smartest superhero movie ever made
In case you haven’t heard, The Dark Knight had a better weekend than we did. It brought in $158 million (original estimate: $155 million), shattering the Spider-Man 3 mark of, what, $151 million, set last May.
What does this mean? It means that The Dark Knight will probably be the biggest box office hit of the year. Only twice this decade — and never since 2003 — has a film scored the year's biggest opening weekend without being the year's biggest box office hit. For once, that film is a critical hit, too, unlike last year’s Spider-Man 3 (mixed), 2006’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (mixed) and 2005’s Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (mixed). Last I checked, Dark Knight had a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 84 on metacritic.com, which, for them, means “Universal acclaim.”
My review? Not quite that. I call it the smartest superhero movie ever made in an article on MSN. Check it out. Unless you came here from there, in which case you can check out my Huffington Post piece on Batman Forever.
Manohla Dargis gets it on with Batman, gives Superman the cold shoulder
Yep, The Dark Knight opens today. I've got some things to say about it (I saw it last Monday with my friend Tim at the Pacific Science Center's IMAX Theater) but it'll have to wait until MSN posts my piece on why the film is the smartest superhero movie ever made. Hint: It has something to do with this. Piece won't be up until Tuesday.
In the meantime I sit on the sidelines and read other comments. Manohla Dargis manages to write quite a bit without saying much about where the film goes, just how it goes, but she gets off some nice lines. She calls Christian Bale , “a reluctant smiler whose sharply planed face looks as if it had been carved with a chisel,” and who “slid into Bruce Wayne’s insouciance as easily as he did Batman’s suit.” She's also right on Heath Ledger, whose “death might have cast a paralyzing pall over the film if the performance were not so alive. But his Joker is a creature of such ghastly life, and the performance is so visceral, creepy and insistently present that the characterization pulls you in almost at once.”
She also calls the film “a postheroic superhero movie,” which isn't bad, but which I don't quite buy. A friend commented that the film has echoes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, but for me a better comparision might be Angels with Dirty Faces. I.e., I show myself more heroic (to the movie audience) by being less heroic (to the movie characters). Does this mean postheroic? Could lead to a good discussion.
The Dargis lines that I truly disagree with are these: “Apparently, truth, justice and the American way don’t cut it anymore. That may not fully explain why the last Superman took a nose dive (Superman Returns, if not for long), but I think it helps get at why, like other recent ambiguous American heroes, both supermen and super-spies, the new Batman soared.”
Took a nose dive? At the box office? In 2006, Superman Returns made $200 million in the U.S., $391 million worldwide. A year earlier, Batman Begins, which she touts, made $205 million in the U.S., $371 worldwide. Not sure where the nose dive is. Sure, it didn't do as well as Warner Bros. hoped (i.e., it didn't do as well as Spider-Man), but it was hardly a disaster. Besides, for some people, including maybe me, the problem wasn't that this Superman wasn't dark enough but too dark. With Superman, I'd go for a PG rating to get the kids in. They went PG-13 and kept the 3-7 year-olds outside looking in. That's Supes' demographic.
The history of Batman: from les Vampires to George Clooney
As a way of introducing a new round of reviews in the Batman cycle, let me point, first, to M. Rhodes' European Film Report and his post from a week ago on the early silent-film influences on the creation of Batman, including Les Vampires from 1915, The Bat from 1926 and The Man Who Laughs (i.e., the Joker) from 1928. Some of the clips go on a bit long, and to seemingly silent purpose, but when, say, the vampire-girl swoops onto the stage with her bat cape, or when “The Bat” beams a “bat signal” onto the wall, it looks stunningly familiar. If the lead in Man Who Laughs looks familiar, it's because it's Conrad Veidt, the German actor who played everything from Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Major Strasser in Casablanca, and who was the first choice to play Dracula.
Rhodes' report is my kind of thing. How did we get where we are? How did such iconic characters as Superman and Batman come to be? Rhodes deals mostly with European cinema, which is why Douglas Fairbanks' Zorro isn't mentioned, but let me add, as a possible influence, from the newspapers, the murder of Fred Oesterrich in his home in 1922. His wife, Walburga, was charged with the murder but she was let go due to insufficient evidence. In 1930, a man named Otto Sanhuber claimed to have killed Oesterrich after living in Oesterrich's attic for more than 11 years. He was dubbed the “Batman” by the press. Who knows what influence this might have had when Bob Kane and Bill Finger were scratching their heads for superhero ideas in the wake of Superman in 1939. At the least, it's the first mention of a “Batman” in the New York Times in the 20th century.
Also, if you head over to the Movie Reviews section of this Web site, to the letter “B,” you'll find new reviews of the seven Batman serials and movies that prefigure the current Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale cycle: Batman (1943), Batman and Robin (1949), Batman: The Movie (1966), Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). For most, it's probably too much information, but it's still a kind of exploration into how we got where we are.
Movie Review: The Batman (1943)
The chief problem with this 15-episode serial, the second live-action version of a modern superhero, isn’t the low-budget effects (Columbia serials were notoriously cheap), nor its racism (the chief villain is a Japanese spy during WWII), but the form itself, the serial form, which requires cliffhanger endings for its heroes. Since the lives of Batman and Robin (Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft) hang by a thread at the end of every episode, and since the serial wasn’t budgeted for a lot of extras, “America’s greatest crimefighter,” as Batman is called in the narrative intro, isn’t that great a fighter. Among the cliffhangers:
- Two crooks throw Batman, arms and legs thrashing, off a roof.
- Three crooks toss Batman. arms and legs thrashing, down an elevator shaft.
- A crook throws a stick at Batman’s head, knocking him unconscious on a railroad trestle.
- A gangplank is dropped on Batman.
- He drives a car off a bridge.
- He gets trapped in a fire he sets.
You see Batman getting outpunched by two criminals or one criminal. I’m talking ordinary guys in suits and fedoras. You think: What’s the point of putting on cape and cowl if you can’t take one guy? Isn’t that a little embarrassing?
The serial begins well enough. The credits play over the famous bat logo (human head on bat body), while the ominous theme music (Wagner’s Rienzi Overture?) prefigures Danny Elfman’s from the 1989 version. Even the first shot of the Bat’s Cave, as it’s called here (it was, in fact, introduced here), is cool. Batman sits brooding behind a desk of finely engraved oak while shadows of bats play against the wall.
Then the cheapness. Once the background narration ends, and the story proper begins, we see a plain black Cadillac pull up to a police phone, and out pop...Batman and Robin! So no Batmobile. Batman phones Capt. Arnold (no Comm. Gordon either) and tells him, in a vaguely British tone, “I have a nice little package for you. You’ll find it at the corner of First and Maple.” He leaves the crooks handcuffed to a light pole with bat stickers on their foreheads — his version of Zorro’s “Z” — and then he and Robin drive off, Robin behind the wheel, and the two take off their masks and smile.
The plot? Dr. Tito Daka, a Japanese spy whose headquarters lie through a secret panel in the Japanese Cave of Horrors in deserted Little Tokyo, wants to secure enough radium for an “atom-smasher gun” that will bring America to its knees. In this regard he employs disgraced scientists and various hoodlums to carry out his orders. If they balk (“No amount of torture, conceived by your twisted Oriental brain, can change my mind!” says one scientist), he simply turns them into super-strong zombies. It’s part of the “everything but the kitchen sink” quality that, you imagine, everyone hoped would appeal to 10-year-old boys in 1943. Hey, kids! Not just Batman and Robin but spies and zombies and alligators and invisible messages from Washington, D.C.! And yet somehow it’s all so boring.
The writers, poor bastards, do manage to display some post-modern wit by commenting upon the very low quality of their product. Two American mechanics, encountering Daka in the Japanese Cave of Horrors, think he’s part of the program. “Pretty good, Saki,” one says. “Your accent’s a bit off but your makeup’s perfect.”
Better, they slip in a comment about the repetitive nature of the genre itself. Daka’s minions keep trying to steal the necessary radium for the atom-smasher gun and Batman and Robin keep foiling them. So the focus becomes less on acquiring radium and more on getting rid of Batman. Because of the cliffhangers, they assume they do, at the end of every episode, which leads to conversations like this at the beginning of every episode: “We didn’t do the job, boss, Batman stopped us.” “Batman? He’s still alive?” “Yeah, but we killed him this time for sure!”
Eventually Daka decides that Batman can’t keep escaping death this way; that there must be many Batmen, “all members of the same organization,” he says. It’s not a bad bit. I think DC Comics even picked up on it for an issue.
But these days Batman '43 is most compelling, not as entertainment, but as historical document — particularly on the subject of race. In one episode, Bruce Wayne says of a friend, “Why, I haven’t seen Ken in a coon’s age!” In another, we get an Indian full of “Him say...” “Me say...” dialogue.
Daka is played by a Caucasian actor, J. Carrol Naish, who would be nominated for an Academy Award that very year for playing the Italian, Giuseppe, in the Humphrey Bogart vehicle Sahara, and who would, during his career, play every conceivable ethnicity —from Sitting Bull in Sitting Bull (1954) to Charlie Chan in the 1950s TV series “The New Adventures of Charlie Chan” — but he’s hardly brilliant here. Those American mechanics were right about the accent. He sounds like Peter Lorre by way of Brooklyn.
Of course given Pearl Harbor, and Hollywood’s track record with stereotypes before Pearl Harbor, one expects the giggling sadism and the unapologetic “So sorry” comments from Daka. One isn’t particularly surprised when a crook, turning against Daka, tells him, “That’s the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin!” One even laughs when Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, Linda Page (Shirley Patterson), encounters Daka and yelps, “A Jap!”
The eye-opener is what bookends the serial. In the first episode, when we first visit Little Tokyo, the narrator informs us:
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’s become virtually a ghost street...
In the last episode, Batman, pinned in Daka’s lair by his zombies, mentions, out of the blue, “I know who you are. We’ve been searching for you ever since you killed those two agents assigned to your deportation!” Thus the entire serial is painted with the wisdom of deportation and internment camps. See what happens when you don’t round up the shifty-eyed Japs? Decades later, the internment of Japanese-Americans became a source of national shame but at its point of origin it was triumphant enough to include in serials for children.
The original VHS release excised these slurs but they’ve been restored for the DVD version. Good. It's important to know where we've been. Otherwise how can we see how far we've come?
Oh, and that atom-smasher gun? I think we built it and brought them to their knees.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard