At the risk of tearing up Carol’s
yard (a risk I’ll take, since she’s parked on my lawn currently, leaving me
nowhere to pull up). I’m going to talk about comics for bit here. Don’t worry,
I’ll get to the screen part soon enough.
Mainstream journalists have an annoying
of putting sound effects – Adam-West-Batman style sound effects
– in the titles of their articles when they write about comic books, and
especially when they write about comic book movies.
As a guy who likes both movies and comic books (and good
journalism), it drives me crazy. There’s a lot more to comics than campy biffs,
pows and zap (although a case could be made that the onomatopoeia are really
the purest, and most succinct, example of comics’ complex interplay between
images and words, a metonym for the form and function of the entire medium.)
So why does this image of comics persist? Is it just
journalistic and intellectual laziness? Yes, in part, but I think there’s
something more to it than that. And the thing that made me think there was more
to it was Man-bats. Ninja Man-bats.
Batman #656 (Oct, 2006) finds Bruce Wayne attending a glitzy
reception at a pop-art exhibition. Before long, the festivities are interrupted
by a squad of ninja Man-bats – members of the League of Assassins mainlining
the same serum that transformed Dr. Kirk Langstrom into Batman’s
sometimes-enemy/sometimes ally Man-bat. Not only does this lead Batman to
internal-monologue the brilliant line “Man-bats. Ninja Man-bats. Alarming
twist.” – it sets up a fantastic action sequence where normal sound effects,
thought bubbles and narrative captions are replaced by those in the paintings
on display. (Credit where credit is due, Steve
Ditko did it first, and maybe even more metatextually.)
And in the midst of it all, Batman takes time to opine, “If
there’s one thing I hate… it’s art with no content.” This scene is a
show-stopping bit of cleverness by writer Grant Morrison, but it’s also about
connecting his Batman to previous interpretations, drawing power and resonance
from their cultural relevance. It’s about bringing content to the art. And
notably, it skips right over the ’80s and ’90s.
Why did the ’80s and ’90s Batman films fail so completely to
supplant the ’60s camp Batman in the popular imagination? Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns (the only one of the four I find even remotely
watchable) aren’t really interested in anything outside Burton’s own aesthetic.
Joel Schumacher’s follow-ups – the glow-stick-and-rave Batman Forever and gay-pride Batman and Robin - also miss the mark. They embrace tiny slices of
the aesthetics of their time, but don’t go any deeper. The reason we still have
biff-pow-zap headlines is that there’s no connective tissue between those films
and the zeitgeist. The journalists writing those headlines are latching on to
the last mainstream interpretation of Batman that really made an impact on the
world outside comic fandom and general geekdom.
That ability to connect – to have content – is key to
Batman’s longevity. Batman has a nice, simple premise that fits whatever time
period he’s in. In the comics, he syndicate-busted at the tail end of the
depression-era ’30s. He shilled war bonds in the ’40s. He went big – even interplanetary – during
the post-war boom of the ’50s. He became enduring pop-art in the ’60s. A
bare-chested sword-fighter in the counter-culture ’70s. A brutal old man
determined to break power and take power in the Reaganomics ’80s. A fractured
array of personalities and interpretations in the postmodern 90s. And now,
outside the four-colour world, in what I’m hoping are the post-cynical 2000s,
he’s Christian Bale.
And I’m glad, because not only is Batman Begins a good superhero movie – it’s a good movie, period.
A big part of what makes it so good is that it’s art with
content. Art with context. Batman Begins
is smart enough to be interested in fear in a fearful time. (Seriously, Batman
Begins is really, really interested in fear. If you made a drinking game out of
it, doing a shot every time a character said the word “fear”, you’d have to be
Dean Martin to stay on your feet.) Where Grant Morrison gives us Man-bat
ninjas, Batman Begins gives us a
ninja Batman, tied inextricably to fear.
Batman Begins also
makes a point of not being about a vigilante. It’s not about revenge. It’s not
about the privilege of violence, whether assumed through personal tragedy or
obscene wealth. If anything, it’s about the cost of privilege. In it, Batman’s
story is framed, again and again, in the context of larger social
responsibility (not coincidentally, this is the first Batman film that spends
time outside of Gotham City, and the first one in which Gotham seems to have an
actual geography, appearing as more than a collection of landmarks). It lives in a real world, and has real world concerns.
It’s a film – and a film Batman – connected to its time. And it’s
Ian Driscoll is a cowardly and superstitious lot.