Monday, March 28, 2016

Batman Fallen

Has The World's Most Popular Superhero Become Obsolete?

Let's get this first out of the way: "Batman v. Superman" isn't as bad as you've heard.

I mean, everything you've heard about it is true. But you might find yourself enjoying it, moderately, in parts, like I did, after you've thrown out the convoluted plot like a gnarled wad of Christmas lights.

Director Zack Snyder's nihilistic tone has earned him legions of enemies eager to feast at his corpse--but at least that's something for the moviegoer to hold onto, a distinction from Hollywood blandness. It leaves a sour aftertaste, though. No more so than with what appears to be the titular character, Batman.

While the reaction to the movie as a whole has been almost uniformly negative, people are mixed about Ben Affleck's Batman. I've heard many fans say it's their favorite part--or the only good part. I don't totally disagree. At the very least, it's a Batman that seems worthy of your consideration, even if it's to dismiss him. (Unlike, say, the George Clooney Batman, where there's not much to talk about except for the Batnipples.)

But this ain't your father's Batman. When he's not brooding on rooftops or hatching plans in the Batcave, this iteration of the Caped Crusader is often mowing down his foes with rocket launchers or machine guns turreted to his military-grade Batmobile. This might not be as sacrilegious as it sounds--the beloved Michael Keaton caused similar mayhem. But, come on. I'm on record supporting the dark version of Batman and a flexible interpretation of his "rules," but this was a bit much even for me.

The Affleck Batman in profile, while returning somewhat to the classic look of the comics, is a hulking beast of a man. A thick Kevlar-like Batsuit outlines bulging faux muscles--framed, somewhat ridiculously, with Affleck's boyish face. This is inspired by Frank Miller's famously fearsome take on the character, but it feels like that Batman overdosed on steroids and had a side effect of heightened bloodlust.

Much of this is due to the sensibilities of Snyder, who yearns to be Michael Bay put through a stylized tint filter. But it also feels demanded by the scale of this encounter. Who else but a Schwarzenegger-like cannonball of death could possibly take on Superman, or the greater threat which emerges after their inevitable truce, or the implied threat of the next movie, or whatever comes after that, and then after that, and then...

The chain armor-like suit, of course, isn't even enough for the fight--for that big showdown, Batman dons a robotic exoskeleton, essentially turning himself into his appealing Marvel counterpart, Iron Man. It was significantly jarring for me to see Batman as just another little blob in a CGI-fest--realizing that after a certain point he might as well have been a Transformer or a Terminator or whatever.

Again, this isn't necessarily Snyder's fault. Batman does do some classic Batstuff at first. He jumps from ceilings onto hoodlums--(the first scene with this is a doozy)--and analyzes crime scene evidence with the help of a sensibly dressed Alfred. But we can tell they're just going through the motions. When we've been promised an epic showdown for civilization, who really cares about all of the rest of it?

Is this just an unfortunate example of filmmaking?

Or, unthinkably, have the movies just gotten to big for one of the world's most iconic cultural figures? Is it even possible to place the human, spandexed superhero in the middle of action which would otherwise be populated with invincible CGI creatures? On a glossy page, sure, you can show Batman tussling with nearly anything. But the silver screen requires bodies which exist in this universe, a benchmark which can destroy not only our suspension of disbelief but any sense of proportion or scale.

I know many of may fellow Batfans believe it's possible, with the correct director with the correct strategy and the correct devotion to the source material. But I'm not so sure. Not after this. I'm just having a really hard time picturing how Warner Bros. could go back to a tone where a fight between Batman and an alien would make any sense.

A movie like "Batman Begins," which re-introduced a grounded Batman into this modern age of cinema, seems like it would premiere at the Sundance Film Festival today. And Tim Burton's expressionistic Batman epics seem like some sort of film school project.

In a fascinating 2013 interview with Vulture, Hollywood uber-scribe Damon Lindelof described the frustrations with both the scale and tone demanded by the modern blockbuster. Even a movie defined on very human terms--Kirk and Khan's match of wills in Lindelof's own "Star Trek Into Darkness," for instance--has to have some sort of apocalyptic consequence in order to register today.

"Did 'Star Trek Into Darkness' need to have a gigantic starship crashing into San Francisco? I’ll never know," Lindelof said. "But it sure felt like it did."

As Lindelof states, studios are infatuated with the grounded, realistic tone of Christopher Nolan ("Begins," "The Dark Knight") but aren't so keen on the legwork he needed to achieve it, or the aversion to CGI spectacle which helped sustain it. (And Nolan too, it appears, found himself overwhelmed by the grand scale required for the last entry into his Dark Knight trilogy.)

One of the curious aspects of Batman v. Superman is that, despite laboriously recreating the basic elements of the myth (the shooting, the Batcave, etc.), there's really no explanation at all for why Bruce Wayne would have decided to start dressing up as a bat--or even acknowledgement that this is kind of an odd thing to do. It's just assumed that this world, roughly similar to ours, would have a Batman.

After all, superheroes have become so ubiquitous in our culture, they might as well exist. Right?

The exact relationship between Batman and Gotham's police and citizens is explained through a few lines of dialogue--which, in the hands of a defter movie, could be enough. Not this one. We know what the movie wants us to know, but not much more to let our imaginations fill out the rest.

For that matter, Gotham itself is ill-defined as merely an industrial and forgotten suburb of Metropolis. An imaginative art director could have a field day contrasting a hopeful art deco Metropolis with a noir-infused gothic Gotham, but again that's not this movie. All of Snyder's reality seems to be a rather glum place, and a few lines of dialogue dictating that Gotham's even crummier is pretty much all we have to go on.

Which is too bad, because whatever your conception of Batman--a meditation on tragedy, a tome to determination, a quandary of man's lack of control of the world, or just a modern expression of pulpy noir--a distinct conception of Gotham is pretty important to it.

See, kids, there used to be a time--like a decade ago--when superhero movies were only every fifth movie, and not every other one. They were still kind of new and challenging, and studios were worried that they'd misfire and end up filming a bunch of costumed idiots hopping around. No one likes to lose money, but to do so while looking ridiculous really sucks. So, at least for the important ones, they tried to hire people who could pitch thoughtful visions on the relationship between the hero and the world he (or almost never she) inhabited, to be sure that viewers really thought this was happening somewhere other than on a screen in a multiplex. You kind of had to earn that superhero, he didn't just exist.

Sometimes this meant molding the superhero into our world (Nolan) or molding a world to fit the superhero (Tim Burton.) Regardless, within that relationship lay not only the promise of entertainment, but the possibility of some type of allegory which would put into the mouths of all of these masked fools something of consequence to say.

In today's overwrought blockbusters, can Batman possibly exist in a world he could plausibly save? In this day and age when a single superhero isn't nearly enough, and when a movie can't just be an epic itself (or even part of a trilogy) but rather must be an episode in an ever-expanding "universe," where does Batman possibly fit? A movie where Batman does the things he's supposed to do--brood over crime scenes, beat back criminals in alleys, employ his fist and feet against his enemies--will inevitably feel small-bore compared to Marvel's epics. But Warner Brothers isn't about to concede that its most popular character deserves a smaller stage to its rivals. That's the contradiction which the studio does not appear close to solving.

Maybe the world has passed Batman by. And he might not mind that much. There's something about Batman that's indifferent to the passing of time, unconcerned with whether the world truly needs him. (This was even kind of the joke when Adam West played him.) It's easy to imagine him smugly grinning as Hollywood finds him obsolete. He's been there before. He's not doing it for them, anyways.

The remaining question, I guess, is just what we expect out the rest of all these clowns. Just what do we want out of these homogenized, ever-escalating superhero epics? I don't have anything more to say here, I just want to talk about Batman. But it's worth asking--do they have anything more to say to us?

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