Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Rumination on the Bat-Movie Rises

This week has me thinking back to the ghost of Bat-Movies Past.  Specifically the 1989 Tim Burton Batman movie.  I remember it well.  I was a young lad of . . . an earlier age, and I had hit the teen years that make you wise beyond your knowledge of how wise you aren't.  I had loved the Batman television show as a child, but now I wanted a grim and gritty violent Batman to show all of the non-comic book types that Batman wasn't funny.

What is amusing, in retrospect, is that reviewers tripped over themselves to reference Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns as the inspiration for a "darker, more violent Batman."  Mainly because they hadn't been reading comics for decades.

Batman had been, if not darker, more serious in tone and more in keeping with his earlier appearances since Denny O'Neil got his hands on the character in the 1970s.  The mainstream press didn't notice until Frank Miller put swastikas on a woman's rear end and had everyone cussing.  Suddenly this must be a "new" Batman.

Although, to be fair, O'Neil's Batman is way more sane than Miller's.

But wait mister blogger that I'm not really paying attention to, says the fictitious reader, what does this have to do with Batman movies past?

Well, there is a secret about the 1989 Batman movie that a lot of people that read all of those articles about this "new" Batman wouldn't know.  Burton, and screenwriter Sam Hamm, really weren't doing a book inspired by Frank Miller.  From the old school origins of Joker, the gangsters, the look of Gotham City, the machine guns, and the casual tossing of bad guys down shafts in abandoned churches without regard to their survival, this Batman was a bit older than Miller's Dark Knight.

Seriously.  Read some of the earliest Batman strips.  The movie is much more influenced by the 1930s and 1940s Batman comics than it is by Frank Miller's dystopian vision of Bruce Wayne's retirement years.  There might have been some high tech gloss on the character, but this was pretty much old school Batman to the extreme.

To this day, I enjoy the 1989 Batman movie, but years later, looking back on it, it's not as great as I thought it was in the theater lo those many years ago.  Tying Batman's origin to Joker bugs me.  Killing off Joker bugs me  (much as it's kind of in character for the earliest Batman strips).  James Gordon is a walking exposition factory that doesn't do much  (and is actually probably the element most similar to the TV series, what with him just kind of being there and not really helping out all that much).  And my Batman didn't kill people.  That's a big one.

I was spoiled for the Batman crafted by Denny O'Neil  (and lovingly maintained by people like Doug Moench, Alan Grant, and especially Chuck Dixon).  Grim and serious but every inch the hero, and with people like Gordon and Alfred  (and Harvey Bullock and others) as a strong supporting cast.

It became very apparent with Batman Returns that Tim Burton didn't make Batman like Batman because it was his natural inclination.  Anyone that thinks Burton was influenced by Frank Miller's vision of the Dark Knight need look no further than Batman Returns to see what Burton wanted out of the franchise.

I'll contend that if Frank Miller had never written a single Batman story and Tim Burton only knew of Batman through the 60s TV series, Batman Returns would have been the exact same movie that we saw.  How do I know this?  Look at any other property he has adapted.  Anything that he's worked on that isn't his own original story.  Everything that he adapts, he turns into a dark twisted comedy.

Because there is no way this could lead to Bat-Nipples

Make no mistake, Batman Returns was a comedy.  It was exactly like all of Tim Burton's comedic endeavors.  If you don't want to believe me, just look at Christopher Walken's hair, or the procession of penguins that guide the corpse of Oswald Cobblepot to his final resting place in the sewers.  Really, before you point out the splinter in Joel Schumacher's eye, make sure to pay attention to the great big telephone pole in Burton's.

While Christopher Nolan's movies have been predicated on being "realistic," you can definitely see the inspiration from the comics.  Ra's al Ghul was virtually unknown outside of the comics page, and was one of Denny O'Neil's greatest contributions to Batman's history.  But more than that, Henri Ducard, one of Bruce's teachers, shows up.  Henri is a pretty obscure character.

More proof?  The whole concept of the Batmobile being a military project that Bruce's company "lost" is straight from Detective Comics #0.  Joker's multiple origins  (and the possibility that even he doesn't know what's true) comes from multiple sources, including the Killing Joke and Mad Love.

Nolan may be making his own version of Batman's universe, but it's clear that he's building that universe out of the same elements that Batman has been synthesized from for the last several decades.  Using Bane, as well as elements from the "No Man's Land" storyline are just more proof of that.

I don't know if I'll be wowed by the Dark Knight Rises.  Nolan pulls off some spectacular successes, but at the same time, he gambles a lot, and one of those times, it may not pay off.  Still, for the chance to see Bane on the big screen, the way Bane really should be portrayed, I'm willing to bet on Nolan one more time.

But for the record, Julie Newmar is still my favorite Catwoman.

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