Monday, August 6, 2012

Why so serious about Batman?

Indulge me, while I ponder my obsession with a character that dresses up like a bat.
It seems a little childish, but I actively embrace my inner child - keep it locked up so it doesn't escape. And I love Batman.

Have done for 20 years, inheriting my eldest brother's fanatacism around the time of the Tim Burton movie - which finally returned the character to his natural habitat of darkness - and the return to TV of the campy, colourful Adam West series, which was more age-appropriate for me at the time. But everyone was jumping on the Bat-wagon in the early '90s until Burton and Joel Schumacher produced increasingly silly films. But my fascination with the character himself endured.

It seems ridiculous to be drawn to a a comic character. I'm not even a comic geek. I don't like many non-Batman superhero films.

But Batman's not really a 'super' hero, is he? I always liked him best of the lot because he's an ordinary guy. He didn't come from another planet with super-powers, wasn't a nerdy kid bitten by a radioactive spider, or a nerdy scientist who somehow survived a radioactive blast or some other ordinary/arbitary person-turned-instant-superhero/villain by some kind of freak event. In Batman's world radiation is bad for you.

Then Christopher Nolan came along. Batman Begins smashed my previous imaginings of what the character could be.

He did something with the characters, and their world, no one had ever dared with a comic adaption on-screen. He took them seriously and grounded it in reality. I think 'gritty' is the word commonly used.

Finally I could legitimately appreciate the character as a relatively mature adult. Relative, of course, to my maturity as a child.

Unlike many other comic heroes and villains, Batman is an organic persona, born of tortured but determined mind, trying to reconcile his demons and fix things in a corrupt, crumbling world (well, city). He's a deeply flawed hero and not always one to be admired. Indeed, he has many shades of grey. He is more.

Nolan explored the psychology of Bruce Wayne. I'm surprised no one had really done it before. There's plenty to work with - the guy has issues. He's not a clean hero (or 'white knight'), he's conflicted and complicated. But that makes him one that's easier to relate to (aside from the whole vigilante thing), right?

Nolan even took the time to necessarily explain the some of the generally sillier elements - like the cape, the ears, where he gets his wonderful toys and why someone might dress up like a bat and become a vigilante in the first place.

Threats and adversaries in Nolan's trilogy don't coincidentally pop up in the same town and the same time - due to exposure with radiation or falling into a vat of chemicals - they are closely tied to Batman's own story, feeding off each other with a complex and fascinating mutual causality.

All of this allowed the movies to explore real-world questions of justice (vs revenge), morality, violence, corruption, and the ripple effect of Batman's very presence. Nolan delved into broader themes like fear, duality, chaos, socioeconomics, social order and politics. He posed questions like what it takes for people to abandon civility, how easily that might fall apart in an age where fear is everywhere, and whether the not being afraid of death is a strength or a weakness, just to name a few.

The discussion of escalation at the end of Batman Begins was beautifully pertinent to the politics of our world, as well as an example of how Nolan wanted to explore the grey areas of the character. He's the hero, no doubt, but not without complication.

The world's just not that simple, even if the a lot of people want it to be, but maybe that's why we get so many dumb films from Hollywood and an intelligent blockbuster is so rare. 'Ambiguity' is a dirty word in Hollywood these days.

Lots of the criticism, particularly of The Dark Knight Rises is of the various characters 'speechifying', but the dialogue in the film - while not always perfectly written - was critical to the exploration of those themes and character development.

The proof of how strong Nolan's story is, how rich the films are with layers and thought-provoking questions, is in how much has been written about them.

Even serious conservative commentators got on board, although I think they completely missed the point. Andrew Bolt claimed the interrogation scene (one of the trilogy's best) from The Dark Knight, and the film as a whole was a supportive nod to George. W. Bush's 'War on Terror'. I read the scene in the opposite way - torture is futile, Batman has "nothing to do with all your strength", and he loses this one depsite his aggression. It's actually my favourite scene of all three movies and has so much going on and is so well written, that it's sad seeing it cherry-picked, and so badly.

Again recently, upon viewing TDKR, Bolt was one of many conservatives - and even some concerned progressives - to taint Batman with the dirty brush of hasty misunderstanding, claiming TDKR was an anti-'Occupy', among other things (some on the left called it pro-facist!). Aside from the fact the script was written long before the Occupy movement, you only need to listen to realise that the leader of Gotham's 'revolution', Bane, actually has no interest in revolution. He's using it as a ruse to rally people and cause chaos before destroying the city. It's the social inequities and political injustices that allow him to do so, by plying the gaps in society. What does that say about conservative values, Mr Bolt?

I don't know Nolan's politics, but, if anything, I read the movies as being critical of Republican-style conservatism in many ways.

After all, the hero of the film has a blatant 'no guns' policy (other than on his vehicles) and his main virtue is his explicit refusal to kill. He may be part of the '1%', but he seems pretty ambivalent towards his wealth, other that using it to help others. Brooding as he is, Batman is an idealist with an unshakable belief in the people; he's a lone rebel trying to take down the corrupt elements of the city. That's something to identify with, right? A brooding, rebellious idealist - what more do you want?!

I could go on about for ages about the themes and interpretations, so I won't - there are plenty of articles arguing all sorts of angles online already and I don't need to say more about that. But, in the end, I don't think Nolan was making any specific statements (especially political). Rather, like most good art, the films merely pose some deep and pertinent questions.

And any film that affects you so much they leaves you reading, talking and contemplating their world, characters and meanings for a few days - like all three did me, and I'm writing this almost two weeks after seeing TDKR, so... - is likely to endure regardless of box office takings.

That is, basically, why I love these films so so much. That and I think Batman is pretty cool, and I'll always appreciate a dark, brooding hero fighting for the everyman/woman. I also kinda like Catwoman.

So, just as Joel Schumacher killed off the initial Batman movie franchise with the horrendous Batman & Robin, Nolan has pretty much ruined the two I did still like - Burton's Batman and Schumacher's Batman Forever. They are still good films for what they are (simple fun) - Batman in particular - but, to the disgust of a few Bat-friends, I am going to struggle to appreciate this character now without the depth and story Nolan gave us. Batman is more, and I just can't watch them without wanting that now.

Nolan also - to my knowledge - has provided the first comic book adaption with an actual ending, which must have irked the studio, but it's just another thing about the man to admire. It's all about the story.

It still feels a bit silly talking about Batman like this, but I don't care. These three films are visually stunning, thought-provoking, thrilling, and explore intriguing characters and themes through a fantastic story from start to finish. And I'm going to come back to them many times over the years.

Yes, I am a Bat-geek.

But maybe I'm taking this all too seriously...

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