Thursday, July 31, 2014

I'm (writing about) Batman


I'm not the biggest fan of Batman. He's cool enough, but a rich playboy vigilante isn't the most relatable character for me. I was more of a Superman kid; Christopher Reeve's Superman/Clark Kent remains my favorite cinematic superhero. He's sensitive, gentle and driven by empathy for the people, without delving into the jingoism that defined the character at its worst. Also, he works at a major metropolitan newspaper. Come on. (Yes, he's an alien, but aren't we all in a way?)

I've liked the recent glut of Marvel movies because they're closer to the Christopher Reeve-as-Superman mold than the Christopher Nolan-Batman mold. And yes, comic gatekeepers, I'm fully aware of the irony of this comparison.

But overall, superheroes aren't my thing. There's an inherent fascism in the idea that a person or entity is unstoppable to the masses. (And all too often, they appeal to a black-and-white dichotomy that is impractical and insufferable in real life.) The better books and films mitigate this as best as they can, but the principle always lurks. Batman, at least, is a regular human being, but he still requires a bizarro world (again, I know) in which he can function. But even that unreal universe needs to strike a balance to be effective.

This is why Tim Burton's entries remain my favorite Batman movies. 

(Full disclosure: I haven't seen every Batman movie. I've seen only the end of Batman Forever and was too busy with high school football and bad press to see Batman & Robin, and have watched only the hospital explosion from The Dark Knight. I saw Batman Begins, but remember exactly one scene from it. My knowledge gap is bridged by what I read about them, which obviously didn't motivate me to see them in full. I also saw the beginning of Adam West's 1966 film, but the DVD nearly shorted out my player a few minutes in.)

Burton's Batman was a more serious take on the character that hadn't been done before, but it's still the right amount of ridiculous. Because Batman, like all superheroes, is ridiculous. As a kid, I particularly enjoyed the Gothic set pieces, which were radically different than anything I saw in my everyday life. That helped to immerse me in the action and, more importantly for me, separate it from the real world. 

Many people prefer the Nolan films because they did the exact opposite. Gritty reboots are big these days, but most have skewed too dark for my tastes. They try to be true-to-life, and succeed. Too well.

For example, the football scene in The Dark Knight Rises takes place in a real stadium with real players and with real fans waving towels that they wave at real Steelers games. I find it hard to watch for exactly that reason. The scene is powerful and well-done, and makes you hate Bane as you should, but I start thinking of all the dead/injured innocents and get real-world depressed. I could never imagine myself in Burton's Gotham City, but I've been to many football stadiums. Also, I couldn't unread the many comparisons of Christian Bale's Batman to George W. Bush, who seemed to fancy himself a real-life superhero. That was hard for me to cheer for when so little disbelief was otherwise suspended.

Joel Schumacher took the opposite extreme, making his films way too campy and marketing-friendly, without the wink that made the West series so enjoyable. George Clooney supposedly refunds money to anyone who tells him they bought a ticket for his take. It requires a lot to make Batman bad, but for a couple of years in the mid-'90s, a nation saw it happen.

So given all that, the Burton/Michael Keaton Batman films struck the right balance for me. Batman is a uniquely quirky take benefited by its Edward Scissorhands-like anachronisms and its embracing of the limits of its reality. Batman Returns had an endearing quality as well, pitting the Bat against the Penguin and Catwoman. In an interview at the time, Burton called it "just one big animal movie."

That's the spirit.

1 comment:

KBliss said...

Ha ha. I think we're going to have to have a Batman discussion one of these days when you have time to chat it up. I feel the total opposite from you on this one in many, many ways.