Sunday, June 26, 2005

Batman Begins

When I was a child, for some inexplicable reason I couldn't pick up Batman on television, but my neighbors, Steve & Greg Sparks, just one street over, could. Relations with the Sparks kids were always a bit tricky, as the younger was a bit of a baby at times and the older had a mean streak, but I managed, as often as I could, to trek through the ravine behind our houses and a couple backyards to be in front of their television in the afternoon in time for the adventures of the Caped Crusaders. The uncertainty of this situation meant that my viewing was sporadic, and I saw plenty of Part One's without a Part Two and vice-versa. I faired better with The New Adventures of Batman, the animated series with the voices of Adam West and Burt Ward (and Lou Scheimer as Bat-Mite). I grew up hanging upside down on the swing set in a cape my mother sewed for me, passing the Bat Anti-Shark Spray down to my Robin (a Radar O'Reilly look-alike named Alan Eskew). And when I was the first in line at the World of Wheels, and Adam West called me a fellow crime-fighter, well, I was just too proud for words.

I still remember my first comic. It was a Batman Family, and it contained a story by Denny O'Neil that explained the Batman's abstinence from guns as a phobia resulting from a childhood encounter with the Shadow. (Sidenote: Since the Shadow was only temporarily licensed to DC, the brilliant Batman: the Animated Series replaces Wayne's childhood inspiration with the Grey Ghost, voiced, appropriately enough, by Adam West.) I misplaced the comic book at a young age, and it became my "long lost comic book" until I unearthed another copy at a flea market as a pre-teen.

But even as a small child, I was aware of the evolution of the Batman character. My parents had given me a nice hardcover volume called Batman: From the 30s to the 70s (Crown Publishers, 1971). It reprinted choice selections from the Darknight Detective's career, from his very first appearance (Detective Comics #27, "The Case of Bat-Man & the Chemical Syndicate"), to the first appearances of the Joker and Robin, and continuing through important moments such as Dick Grayson's departure for Hudson University and beyond. Pouring through this volume, my childhood self was exposed to the entire progression of the superhero genre in microcosm. I was able to track as both art and story grew in depth and sophistication, and though I lacked the vocabulary to describe it, I could sense how Bob Kane's genius lay in creating a character who was so visually memorable as to lend himself to a myriad interpretations across decades of writers and artists' work.

Introduced in 1939, the Batman was a noir vigilante, very much in the vein of the Shadow. In fact, he executed criminals without compunction with twin-six guns in a manner that would have made Lamont Cranston proud. But within a year, the Boy Wonder was introduced, WWII was looming large in the American consciousness, and dark-toned stories fell out of favor in lieu of more lighthearted fair. Batman and Robin soon revealed they had a code against killing, the guns were gone (in part to play down the inevitable Shadow comparisons), and their mythos rewritten such that the Batman had never killed. The Joker, first introduced as a somber serial killer who's death-pale visage inspired utter terror, quickly became a cavorting buffoon. In fact, he wasn't even officially crazy. (There was actually a comic whose resolution involved Batman and Robin convincing the Joker that he was going mad.)

Truth be told, through much of the 40s and 50s, Batman's comic book exploits were pretty much inline in tone and temperament with those of his camp 60s television show counterpart. In fact, Batman comic book scribe Bill Finger penned several episodes. To this day, you'll never find a better Penguin than Burgess Meredith or a truer rendition of the Riddler than that offered by Frank Gorshin. (Oddly, the only major Bat-villain to be absent from the television show was Two-Face, perhaps because his scarred countenance was too horrific. However, of all the stories from that era, it's interesting to note that the Two-Face encounters are the least camp, most poignant - drenched as they are in the character's guilt and steadfast refusal to believe in the possibility of redemption. As such, they hold up the best in light of today's more sophisticated readers' standards.

Appropriately, it was as the camp television show was in its final days that a writer named Denny O'Neil (born the same month and year as the Batman himself, May 1939) took over the reigns of the comic book and changed everything. Partnering with the soon-to-be-legendary artist, Neal Adams, who brought a hitherto unseen level of realism to the depiction of superheroes, O'Neil revamped the Batman legend, either reinventing the character or returning it to its 1939 roots, depending on your perspective. Robin (who was previously presumed to be thirteen) was swiftly aged and sent off to college. Gone mostly were the costumed villains, replaced by international terrorists, corrupt politicians, mafia bosses. O'Neil's Batman was a Darknight Detective, akin to Sherlock Holmes, who employed his wits and credible criminology methods in the apprehension of evil doers. Bruce Wayne moved out of Wayne Manor into a penthouse apartment atop the Wayne Foundation in the heart of Gotham, and the Batmobile itself was often depicted as little more than an unmarked dark blue sports car, not dissimilar from a Corvette of the era. Occasionally, it would have the suggestion of the Batman's cowl in the lines of its hood, but gone were the fins, bubble domes, rocket engines, and Bat-insignias of previous models. It was during this period that the Joker was reverted to the murderous maniac of his original appearance. When he was captured, it was not Gotham Penitentiary to which he was returned, but Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane (the name a nod to the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft). The mysterious Ras al Ghul was introduced at this time as well, his daughter & Batman-love interest Talia and his Himalayan headquarters both directly inspired by the James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. O'Neil's era established the Batman (not Batman, but "the Batman" as he has originally been called) as a serious comic book icon, and remained for many years the quintessential depiction of the character.

But a three-decades long back-story weighs heavy, and in the wake of O'Neil's departure from DC Comics, the costumed villains, one by one, came marching back in. The late 70s and early 80s were a schizophrenic time for the character, with writers and fans maintaining the "seriousness" of Batman while parading out an assortment of costumed crazies, with everything from dueling versions of the Mad Hatter to the Calendar Man making an appearance. Slowly, the legend of the Batman began to ebb, if not back towards camp, towards a muddle from which little work of lasting significance emerged. (An exception to this is a brief but significant run in Detective Comics by Steve Englehart & Marshall Rogers, Detective Comics #471-476, August 1977 to March-April 1978, which revived the 1939 villain Professor Hugo Strange and mirrored the Joker's original killing spree from his first appearance.)

Then, in 1986, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns burst on the scene. The tale of an aging Bruce Wayne emerging from retirement for one last showdown against crime and corruption, Miller chose to play up the "dark" in Dark Knight. His Batman was obsessed, seething with a barely contained rage that forced out any chance at companionship or peace and overwhelmed Wayne. To recount The Dark Knight Returns' influence and importance on the entire comics industry would take another essay entirely. The prestige format was created for its release, and it almost single handed launched the "graphic novel" format as well - to say nothing of the emphasis it caused to be placed on adult storytelling, nor the respect for comic books it engendered in the mainstream. But suffice to say that The Dark Knight Returns, along with Miller's later Batman: Year One soon became the definitive rendition of the character, and remain so to this day.

Ironically, it was the initial success of The Dark Knight Returns that prompted Warner Bros. to put forth a darker, "serious" cinematic version of the character - a comedy staring Bill Murray had previously been in development - that resulted in the 1989 Tim Burton film, Batman. Praised at the time for being the most serious depiction the Batman had yet received in film or television, and impressive in its striking visual surrealism, it nonetheless wasn't right in the eyes of many fans, prompting Frank Miller himself to say that there were many versions of the Batman character, and obviously he and Tim Burton were depicting different ones.

Truthfully, there are many different versions of the Batman, and the camp version portrayed by Adam West is no less valid than that of the frustrated Billionaire lashing out through his arsenal of "wonderful toys" as depicted by Michael Keaton. Right is and will always be subjective, and I wouldn't begrudge the six year old that I was, sneaking through the woods to the Sparks' house to watch the Dynamic Duo, one iota of his enjoyment. But we can speak in terms of levels of sophistication of various Batman interpretations, as well as pinpoint key works as having had the most profound and lasting influences on the canon, as determined by readers and writers. To do so means that something resembling a "more correct" version of the Masked Manhunter can emerge as a dialogue within the canon between the most significant and enduring works. To date these include O'Neil and Adams' original run, the aforementioned Englehart & Rogers collaboration, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, the Batman: the Animated Series and related animated movies and spin-offs (Mask of the Phantasm, Batman Beyond, Justice League, etc...), and Jeff Loeb & Tim Sale's The Long Halloween and Dark Victory.

So it was with profound excitement that I learned that Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer took as their inspiration these seminal works, relying heavily on O'Neil's original stories of Ras al Ghul, Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, and Loeb & Sale's The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. Star Christian Bale even kept copies of the latter works on set with him for reference when he needed help maintaining his focus on the character. By crafting what is the most faithful-to-the-comics adaptation of Batman to date on film, Nolan and Goyer have created in Batman Begins what very well may emerge as the new definitive rendition of the Batman, as well as raised the bar for comic book adaptations henceforth. (And here is a good time to give fair "spoiler warning".)

With allowances to the character's variegated history, and apologies to Adam West, a definitive portrayal of the Dark Knight must include:

1. A depiction of the extreme force of will of the character. Michael Keaton's Batman was a frustrated and confused little guy who suited up in stiff armor and used an arsenal of impossible gadgets to vent his frustration, then came home and had trouble sleeping. He was dark alright, but his anger was unfocused, his motivation unclear, his methods unrefined. The Batman of the comics, as he is portrayed today, is a "normal" human being who can enter a room full of super-powered beings and command their attention and send a chill down every spine there - despite having no powers of his own - by his mere presence and force of personality. As Ducard says to Bruce Wayne, "Your training is nothing. The will to act is everything." Neitchzean overtones intentional. This is a man who believes, as he says in The Dark Knight Returns, that "the world only makes sense when you force it to."

2. The Batman has something to prove. Legendary artist Dick Giordano once said of the Batman, "The Batman does what he does for himself, for his needs. That society gains from his actions is incidental, an added value...but not the primary reason for his activities." Young Bruce Wayne was the "prince of Gotham City," a billionaire's son living a life only the top one percent of the world could enjoy. Then, in an instant, his happiness and security was yanked away from him. That realization, the realization of the inevitability of death as the great equalizer, that no matter who you are, you can step outside and be hit by a bus, struck by lightening, choke on an olive pit, be shot by a petty thief, and it can all end - struck the young Wayne at an age way earlier than most of us ever encounter it. (I still remember being 17 and seeing how close I could drive my car to a retaining wall on a curving mountain road. And the exact moment, a year later, when I realized with stunning certainty that I was not immortal.) This knowledge (and fear) of death at such an impressionable age terrified him. Like Captain Ahab, who lost his leg (and more if you read between the lines) to the White Whale, Wayne set out to prove to the universe that death could not catch him unawares again. He chose as his territory Gotham City, and as his target the criminal underworld (as Ahab chose the whale), but his real target (and intended audience) was the cosmos itself. In a Batman story from the early 70s, a trained martial artist studies Batman in combat and then attempts to take him down. Later, looking out the window of Commissioner Gordon's office, Batman muses that somewhere out there, some other punk is readying himself to take his shot. "And that makes you depressed?" Gordon asks. "No," the Batman replies, "I can hardly wait!" In "Ghost of the Killer Skies," (Detective Comics #404, 1970), he even challenges a cornered opponent to a duel in the air in biplanes, a rather pointlessly bit of theatrics when a simple punch would suffice, until we remember his motivation - proving to himself and the universe that no matter what form death takes, it will find him ready. This theme plays out in full in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, in which every possible death is evaluated by the Batman until he settles on one grand enough to lay his spirit to rest - that of beating the Man of Steel, here very deliberately a stand-in for God, in a fist fight. (Note to criminals: If Batman is ever about to beat the tar out of you, challenge him to a game of Yatze. If he's never played before, you've just saved yourself a whoopin'.)

3. A refusal to kill and an aversion to guns in particular. Not to pick on him excessively, but in the second Burton film, Batman Returns, Michael Keaton's Batman sat inside the protection of his armored Batmobile and burned alive an unprotected man with a flame from his rocket engine, after the other ineffectually menaced him by breathing fire in a cheap circus stunt. This dick-wagging scene, which drew a chuckle from the audience I saw it with, not only flew in the face of 70 years of continuity, but was the most cowardly act the Batman has ever been seen to enact on film. By contrast, the Batman of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns shuts off his weaponry and emerges from his Batmobile to take on a younger, stronger, seemingly superior foe bare-handed because, "I honestly don't know if I could beat him." (See point #2 above.) The Batman absolutely cannot kill, even in self defense. In fact, especially not in self defense. Since he is acting out of selfish motivation, as Giordano notes above, and placing himself into situations in which he must prove his superiority over death on a nightly basis, he would be a monster if he condoned killing in self-defense. His entire perception of his own sanity, and his ability to circumnavigate Gotham's laws in favor of a higher, personal justice, rests on this razor thin line. (Note: The one character in the Batman mythos who understands this as well as Batman himself is the Joker, who knowingly pours as much pressure on this line as he can in both The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke.)

4. The understanding that, unlike the vast majority of costumed crime fighters, Batman's secret identity is not the core persona. Bruce Wayne, the millionaire playboy, is the disguise, whereas "the Batman" is his true nature. In Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum, when asked by a henchman if they can unmask the captive Batman to see his true face, the Joker snaps, "That is his true face." In the animated spin-off series Batman Beyond, when criminals use a chip implanted in his skull to try to drive the elder Bruce Wayne insane by making him hear voices in his head, he confesses that he maintained his grip thusly: "The voices kept calling me Bruce. In my mind, that's not the name I call myself." Wayne is a prop, a place for Batman to hide during the day. Unlike other heroes, who fear exposure of their private lives, if Bruce Wayne were ever revealed to be the Batman, Wayne would merely disappear, and six months later another alter-ego would emerge to serve a similar function, but the Batman would continue unaffected. Rachel Dawes had it right when she said the face the criminals see was the real one.

So did they get it right with Batman Begins? In framing their film's theme in terms of fear vs. will, in maintaining Batman's compunction against killing, in recognizing the danger of becoming "lost inside the monster," in the acknowledgement that Batman was the true persona and Wayne the mask, in drawing on the seminal texts from O'Neil's late 60s work to Frank Miller's late 80s revision to the recent additions of Loeb & Sales, and , in stripping the franchise of its overblown sets and surrealistic excesses, and giving us a real Batman in a real city with a real motivation that matched and even in places exceeded the groundwork laid by the best of the comic books, Nolan and Goyer have given us the film that I for one have waited for half my life. Finally, the Batman has been presented on screen in a manner in accord with the best of his comic book representations. Did they get it right? Hell, yes they did! Forget Adam West, forget the Tim Burton films. Batman indeed begins here. Many happy returns!

40 comments:

Ronn said...

That was an interesting bunch of Batman information and analysis. And having seen the movie this weekend, I'd have to agree that they did indeed get it right. Let's hope that they can keep it up, as it sounds like their planning on making it a trilogy.

Lou Anders said...

It certainly sounds that way. Nolan hadn't signed last I'd heard, though Bale had, and word was he wasn't going to return unless Nolan did. And Goyer and Nolan have talked a lot about their plans for two and three. I'm very excited from the sound of it.

Meanwhile, I came across this obsessively beautiful site yesterday: http://www.batmobilehistory.com/index.html

It's a(n almost) complete history of the Batmobile, in comics and other media, detailing each car, when it appeared, what real world model cars it was based on (when known/applicable), what it's known functions are, etc... It's really amazing to page through all the Batmobiles from 1939 to 2005!

Ann VanderMeer said...

Lou,

Having seen the movie this weekend, I was happy to see your historical perspective on The Batman. I, too, grew up with the Adam West TV series. Now I am intrigued by all of this and am seeking out the books you reference (indeed, Jeff already has some of them).

Thanks for your insightful post!

Ann V.

P.S. Here in Tallahassee we have an Antique Car Museum with one of the original movie Batmobiles!

Lou Anders said...

Hi Ann,
I take it you liked the movie then?
There is another book I did not reference, but well worth reading - Mike W. Barr's Batman: Son of the Demon, one of the best Ras al Ghul stories ever written.

There is also a great academic work on Batman called The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media, edited by Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, which I highly recommend if you can find it.

RobB said...

Hi Lou:

Great post and you really captured alot of what makes Batman so cool. And yes, I saw the film too and aside from being a bit too long, absolutely loved it.

Also, glad to see BEA went so well for PYR.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Robb,
Glad you appreciated the post, and thanks for the link off your own site. I appreciate that.

I'm puzzled I must admit by complaints that films are too long. I usually feel the reverse - that things are rushed or unnecessarily truncated. Sometimes you can feel the absence of some vital linking scene, lying on the cutting room floor because the higher-ups got concerned and ordered it snipped with no thought to story structure.

In fact, recall the scene in Batman Begins where Alfred tests the mask and it shatters, a "problem with the graphite"? Obviously, there was to be a follow-up scene where his mask broke. It must have been cut, but it's set-up was left intact.

RobB said...

By too long, I guess I meant the pacing, at least early on in some scenes when Ducard was training Bruce, were a bit slow. I think all the scenes were necessary, but could have moved a bit quicker, just a bit.

I know the scene you indicated, I didn't take it as a set-up scene that way, I just saw it as Alfred and Bruce evaluating the Bat-gear and a little injection of humor.

When I left the theater, though, I was suprised by how much time went by.

On the other hand, as much as I loved Return of the King, I felt at the end, the film was going to end on more than one occasion and the whole ending was too drawn out. So for my enjoyment, the film was too long.

Regardless, with Batman Begins, I admit to just being rather nitpicky on an otherwise great film experience.

Lou Anders said...

And I'm not picking on you or your assessment of this film. I take your point about pacing - though it's interesting - as I thought they almost rushed the opening scenes, covering vast amounts of training time in montage! Each to his own!

Re: snips - I've never watched the deleted scenes on the Gladiator DVD because I'm told they will make you wish for the "film that could have been" and I liked the theatrical version fine and don't want it spoiled. And if you ever see the animated Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker there is an incredible storyboarded sequence where Terry McGinnis follows Bruce Wayne through an abandoned Arkham Asylum that I'd give anything to see finished and inserted for what it adds to the story!

As to Return of the King, I still haven't watched the extended edition, though I love that there is one!

RobB said...

Didn't think you were picking, it gave me an opportunity to re-examine my thoughts, which is always a good exerciese!

I watched the LOTR deleted scenes, and I can't recall if I did with Gladiator, though one film that has a really different message with the unedited scenes is The Abyss. The DVD of The Abyss had a great commentary via text in the letterboxes, something more DVDs should employ.

I just added Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker to my amazon wishlist, thanks for the rec!

Anonymous said...

I am not sure how significant it is within the Batman canon - probably not so much, at least at this point - but I think Kia Asamiya's graphic novel "Batman: Child of Dreams" is also a very worthy addition to the list of recommended Batman titles. It's a really interesting look at the American pop-icon through the eyes of a non-American, as well a thoughtful commentary on the differences between Japan and America. And it's well-written and superbly drawn.
Thanks for the overview of Batman's character, and I certainly agree - "Batman Begins" is the best big-screen incarnation of the character. Ever. Oh, and "Son of the Demon" is definitely my favorite Batman graphic novel.

-Raz Greenberg

Lou Anders said...

Robb,
Odd, you're the second person to mention the Abyss to me this week. Loved that film, btw, though the extended version is far superior, yes. As to Return of the Joker, if you've not seen it, you should watch the pilot film for Batman Begins first. It will make more sense that way.

Raz,
I have been tempted by Child of Dreams but not yet sampled, as it's my opinion that DC have lost their way. Your recommendation helps though. And yes, Son of the Demon is one of the best.

A.R.Yngve said...

Since childhood, I have seen and read all the versions of the Bat-Man (including the original 1930s comic in reprints)...

I did like Frank Miller's version the best - but it, too, was a product of its time, just like Adam West's camp Batman was made for the 1960s.

So I'm sure there will be other interpretations of Batman in the future. Everybody wants a piece of an icon...

Ronn said...

Lou,
That history of the batmobile link is great. Thanks for pointing it out.

Lou Anders said...

Isn't it amazing! You know, I always thought the 60s television show Batmobile was in line with what was being done in the comics at the time. I never realized it was a radical departure that actually went back and influenced the comics. As much as I've disparaged that show in the past, they did give us the older, more mature Robin and the character of Batgirl, as well as one of the definitive cars.

Make sure you go to the "fan-made" produced section as well, and see the lifesize "Canole" Batmobile. Man, I want one!

Liesa said...

Lou,
A friend sent me a link to this post from you, and I'm so glad he did. I've been trying to express so much of what you say here since I saw the movie on the 15th and felt completely and utterly fulfilled. I kept telling everyone I was in "Batfterglow," which was pronounced by one friend as the hardest made up word to pronounce ever.

I never had the Adam West Batman in my life, just the dark one from what I view as the truly great comics. For me, this movie is Batman in all the ways that matter, the ways that tie in to why the character means so much to me. Anyway, I really appreciate your rich and well articulated explanation of what made this movie so deeply satisfying.

Lou Anders said...

Liesa,
Thank you so much. As you can tell from my post, I've been a "Batmaniac" all my life, and this film is the first time, going all the way back to the black and white serials of the 40s, that Batman has been done "right" by live action. I couldn't be happier.

I am probably going to post a follow up essay on Ras al Ghul & some of Nolan & Goyer's continuity changes in the coming weeks, too. It seems I have more to say about Batman.

A third essay on the Joker seems like a possibility too.

Mark Siegal said...

Nice essay. I enjoyed the movie for the most part, but I'm surprised you would say that it maintains Batman's compunction against killing. For him to say "I don't have to save you" as he lets Ra's al Ghul crash to his death, that shows a willingness to kill, no matter what he calls it. He also let the person he thought was Ra's presumably die in that fire.

Lou Anders said...

Again, it's a razor thin line. Batman has been present in quite a few situations where death was the result of the altercation. In the aforementioned Son of the Demon by Mike W. Barr, a terrorist fires a machine gun at Batman, who sidesteps. The bullets strike a toxic waste cannister, and the spurting chemicals splash back into the terrorist's face. "God Damn You," the man cries as his face melts. Then, as he falls over dead, the Batman responds, "Looks like he got you first."

In Miller's Dark Knight, when the punk has a gun to the infant hostage, and says, "I'll kill the kid, believe me," the Batman breaks through the wall, using another, unconscious punk as a shield, and carrying a gun. He shoots the punk three times, then takes the baby from his (dead?) arms and says, "I believe you." Yet, pages later, talks about the "line I drew for myself" that he has never crossed. I read Miller's take on this line as being even finer than mine, which is that Batman cannot kill in self-defense or in premeditation (i.e., the Joker will always escape and kill again, so why not take him out? Nope.) But that when an innocent life is immediately threatened (a situation which takes him back to his own origins, btw) then he's allowed to forgo this line in favor of the most expedient method of saving the life. Case in point, when the Joker has a gun to another child's head in the hall of mirrors, the Batman throws a throwing-knife into his eye. I don't believe you can balance such a throw to make sure it stops before it hits brain. That was a killing blow. And yet, pages later, with no victim's around, the Batman breaks the Joker's neck without going "all the way," because, as the Joker mocks him, "You didn't have the nerve."

Lou Anders said...

Incidentally, just picked up The Art of Batman Begins. I've only just started thumbing through it, but of all the Batman Begins tie-in books, most of which seem pretty thin and hasty bundlings of the publicity photos - this strikes me as the one to get.

Jacob said...

I'm not quite sure what to make of the "I believe you" shooting in DKR. For a good long while after it happens, we still have Lana Lang on TV insisting "Batman hasn't killed anybody," and a clear sense that that fact matters-- to the reader's evaluation of Batman, to the Gotham PD's reaction to him and that of the part of the public (like Lana) who supports him, and to his sense of himself. It's like the shooting never happened, like Miller forgot about it promptly. Sure, it was a justified and necessary shooting. But it seems to have no moral or narrative weight at all.

Lou Anders said...

Jacob,
Your analysis is correct. And is that spattered blood on the wall behind the punk or not? It's grey, but it certainly looks like a splatter pattern. And Batman does fire off at least one shell (though the gun is a semi-automatic). I suppose it's possible to read that punk's expression as "surprise," but it sure reads as "dead" to me.

Sadly, Miller forgot about the entire work before he sat down to write the lamentable The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It took me multiple attempts just to make it to the end of that monstrosity, and I've never been able to bring myself to look at it since.

Mark Siegal said...

Your examples are a good reminder of how thin that line is between acceptable and unacceptable deaths for Batman. But I would say that the deaths in Batman Begins were either for self-defense (the fire in Ra's house) or even spite (the subway crash). In neither case were other innocent lives immediately threatened. So I'd still say this movie gives us a Batman too willing to kill, even though I enjoyed it on most other levels.

Lou Anders said...

Mark,
I'll give you that Ghul's destruction is a fairly pre-planned leaving for dead. Batman does have to purposely blow out the front windows, then explode the back of the train, so that the air drag can pull him free. That's a lot of planned non-interference!

Of course, Denny O'Neil's Batman once swore he would kill Cobra, and I'm not sure but what he didn't swear he'd kill Ghul after the story "Vengeance for a Dead Man."

axe said...

I think the batman of Dark Knight should not be considered while discussing the "thin-line-of-killing". The batman in that was teetering on the brink of psychosis - he talked to robin : "rubber bullets huh" as he sprayed bullets from his bat tank . Selina was brutalized , robin dead --- batman had no idea if he was killing or not !! i mean - there is a piece in the 2nd part in which he feels guilty about crossing the line -> though it not even shown in the strip : suggesting a hallucination.

I think a safer "batman - line - of killing " can be deduced from "year - one " :: and from that i think the part about leaving Ra's to die was the second worst scene ( the first being bats telling Rachel "judge me by ...blah blah" ).

Excellent review by the way .....

Lou Anders said...

Thanks Axe.
But I maintain you can use Dark Knight, for two very valid reasons.
One, it's overwhelming influence on the field and all the immitations it spun. The Joker of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke for instance, was very directly drawn from Frank Miller's prior portrayal.

Also, if you read Year One alongside Dark Knight in light of Gordon's marriages and affair, it's clear Miller intended a direct line of descent from the one to the other.

But if you eliminate the aging Batman from the discussion, you're going to have a hard time finding a definitive rendering of Batman's code against killing, with plenty of counter examples (like the afformentioned Ghul story) available to grey the lines, making the resolution of Begins more, not less, consistent with the comics version.

axe said...

What i meant was that the Batman in DK was an alternate reality - the real day Bruce could end up like him or not , but yes there is the seed of psyocism (is that even a word ?) in him . There has to be some code of conduct to him or else he is just another Logan .... (i do love logan btw but one is enough)

It's nice to find fellow Batman fan-boys out there ... :) . Some trivia that might be have gone unnoticed ->
- There is a character called Zsasz in the comics- a knife wielding psyco - who is shown briefly in the movie.
- There was a french detective called Henri Ducard who taught Batman detective skills in the original Bat-mythos . He also appeared in the first Robin spinoff methinks .

more links on Batman Begins ,scroll down-
http://ascannerdark.blogspot.com/2005/06/batman-begins-and-other-stuff.html

Lou Anders said...

Hi Axe,
Henri Ducard first appeared in the 1989 Batman scriptwriter Samm Hamm's 4-part for Detective Comics. He reappeared in a story (penned by Chuck Dixon I think) in which the Tim Drake Robin is sent to be trained by him. I was very impressed with Nolan & Goyer even knowing who he was and totally approve of how they chose to play him.

But you have me on Zsasz. Where does he appear (in both comic and film?).

axe said...

Zsasz in the movie was the guy, who Crane in his first scene is sending to the asylum instead of the jail . He is later the one who menaces Rachel and the kid with the knife .

http://conk.com/search/encyclopedia.cgi?q=Zsasz
- Details .

Trivia :: the name Zsasz comes from the psychologist Thomas Szasz, on of the "leading lights" of the anti-psychiatry/Scientology camp , which has culminated in Mr Cruise's " You do not know the history of psychiatry .... I do" :)

Do write the follow up soon .

Lou Anders said...

Axe,
Thanks for this. Do you know I have Shadow of the Bat # 1, in which Zsasz makes his first appearance, but have never read it. I stopped collecting the Batman monthlies around that time because I thought DC had lost their way. (I still pick up relevant graphic novels that make it above the radar.)

Meanwhile, I will probably write several follow ups. I'd like to deconstruct all the comic-book sources they draw from, or write a history of Ras al Ghul in comics.

You'd Know Me If You Saw Me said...

When I was a wee lad in the early 70's, I had a relative who worked in Hollywood. "Does that mean you know Adam West?" I asked, incredulous at my luck.

"Of course," he replied.

So I made it my mission at that time to become an actor and meet Adam West. While I don't have Oscars for doorstops, I have accomplished both... But didn't have the guts when I met Adam to ask if he remembered my relative. What if he said "No" and I'd been foolishly pursuing him because of an offhanded comment some old drunk said to shut up a four-year-old?

So, as much as I feel that I am a Batman "purist", I don't let anybody mess with Adam West.

======

I stopped buying/collecting around the time of The Killing Joke (or Death in the Family, whichever came first. I think part of why I gave up, besides becoming an adult, was that I paid my good hard-earned 976- money to kill Robin, only to find out later I was only killing that Robin, and there would be others!), so I have no idea who Zsasz was in the comics. Didn't really dig Ra's all that much, always seemed too mystical and spiritual - but I really like the way Nolan presented him. Maybe that's the way comics have been for the last 20 years, and I just didn't pay attention!

I like the possibility that he will be a Blofeld in the next few movies - like Bats will always be fighting and defeating the Number Two guy, with Ra's disappearing toward near-certain death, only to reappear next time around.

All of my comics are boxed up in a garage 3,000 miles from the middle of nowhere, so I can't readily access them - but two things.

First, if I remember the scene you're talking about with the machine gun in Miller, he TRACES the punk with bullets, in an attempt (a successful one) to scare the crap out of him. He doesn't actually kill him. Given the major "I will not kill" theme that runs throughout all four volumes of Returns, I can't see the editors allowing a "continuity" mistake.

But the most important access to archive question, and the whole reason I am even online, is this:

I too had Batman from the 30's to the 70's as a child. I distinctly remember a Joker origin story. He was "The Man in the Red Hood" or some such nonsense. Fell into a vat of acid at a playing card company.

Now, I am involved in a discussion with some geeks who are trying to convince me there IS no "origin" story for the Joker, that - and here's the logic - because it hasn't been told over and over, it's only a theory.

But I definitely remember there being a crook who BECOMES the Joker.

Do you have your 30s to 70s book still? Can you find that story? Can you provide details? Was there ever an alter-ego named? Would you agree that this is an Origin? Or am I off my rocker?

Thanks in advance for humoring me!

Lou Anders said...

Well,
you're both on and off the rocker. That's no bullet tracing in Dark Knight. Go back and look at the panel. Batman only fires a single shot, as evidenced by both the sound effect "Blam" and the single shell being ejected from the gun. Furthermore, there is a definate splatter on the wall behind him.

However, you are dead on about the Joker. You're talking about Detective Comics #168, 1951, "The Man Behind the Red Hood!" The story was greatly expanded for Alan Moore's graphic novel, The Killing Joke. Your friends confusion may come from the line in same in which the Joker says, "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another. If I have to have a past, I prefer for it to be multiple choice." Hope that helps!

Jon Parley said...

Lou,
I have to completely agree with your take and thank you for putting it into words!
While I was never a collector of the comics, I read them constantly and got completely drawn in by Miller's DKR and Year 1 and by the Killing Joke.
Like many fans I looked forward the batman movie when it came out but was appalled by some of the liberties taken! Most significantly I was never sold on the character portrayed having the will necessary. To me the most glaring example of this was the body armor concept. Batman’s super-power is simply that he’s one of the most physically well trained individuals out there (ala Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias of Watchman). That combined with the psychological motivation to face/risk death (which you eloquently describe above) means that Batman could never wear armor! Miller recognized this and only adds a steal plate at one point as Batman’s concession to what is essentially a graphic-design flaw in his costume. In my mind, the body armor of Michael Keaton and others was a perfect example of how the character lacked the will necessary to be the batman. That, and the killing, were reasons I could never really get on board with the films.
Having said that, Batman Begins was able to convince me, through its portrayal of the process of becoming Batman, that armor makes sense for this version of the character.
First of all we see Bruce committed to punishing himself and his body in combat well before he dons the armor. Second, we see him training with pieces of armor that become a part of his combat style. Not incorporating certain pieces of armor would mean completely changing his approach to combat. Third, the body kit he sees in Fox’s lab is just an updated version of the black armor he wore during his final test, which is what I imagine he would have built his costume around had Fox’s suit not been available. Besides the comfort of having trained in it, he surly recognized the intimidation value it held. Finally, I was able to accept it because it was not presented as a stop-all. Even though we are told it will stop knives and most bullets, I got the impression he only expected the suit to be a back up when his skills failed - where Keaton’s Batman seemed to rely on the suit is a primary defense.
Any thoughts on that?

Lou Anders said...

Hi Jon,
I think you are spot on with your analysis of the difference in Keaton and Bale's respective Batmen and their approach to body armor. There was a quote from Batman creator Bob Kane in reference to Michael Keaton's ability to play the role prior to the 1989 movie that went, "He struts. He swaggers. He's almost six feet with the ears."

Now, that "almost six feet with the ears" strikes me as some Freudian compensation going on, which is how I read all those "wonderful toys."

Personally, I would have preferred no armor, but since it's even making its way into Jeff Loeb's comic book Batman stories, I guess we're stuck with it. Probably in 2005, it makes a lot more sense than it would have in 1939, but I agree with you that Batman's "superpower" is his training. I'm happy enough with the film not to grouse about this though.

Jeff Harris said...

The single biggest/best element to come out of the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton "Batman" movie was the body armour. Whatever issues are churning around in Batman's skull, stupidity is not one of them. If he intends to put himself in frequent, unpredictable, potentially lethal situations, protection is just common sense. The majority of thugs he would encounter would be dimwitted soldiers standing between him and the brain-bugs, to be dispatched quickly and efficiently -- and while he may have all of the tactical advantages in a back-alley brawl, no one wins every fight, every time, without a scratch. Lady Luck will play Her part in these confrontations, and She will definitely be an opponent sooner or later. Prudence dictates proactive measures.

That the idea was used (poorly) in the subsequent movies reveals the power and "rightness" behind it.

Now, as to which batsuit actually looks the best? Well, that kinda depends...

* Keaton's batsuit: If your emphasis is psychological, then this suit gets the nod. Its origins are never explained (sadly), but even shiny and sleek it looks impressive. Its organic appearance, with its exaggerated musculature and seamless facade, add to the "nightmarish" aspect. This one is my favorite.
* Kilmer's and Clooney's: Yech. 'Nuff said.
* Bale's batsuit: If your emphasis is on practicality, then this suit gets the nod. The explanation for its origin is believable and logical. It's mechanical aspects are hidden somewhat by the black paint, but there are still enough ridges visible to hint at its manufactured origins. It looks good.

The Cowl: Both Keaton's and Bale's cowls are nice, although I lean more towards Keaton's for presentation, and Bale's for foundation. There are two changes I would apply to *both* sets of headgear:

* Put lenses in the eyeslots. Either super-reflective mirrored Plexiglas, or pitch-black glossy plugs. The black-makeup-around-the-eyes is bogus. Looking at someone's eyes can actually give TOO MUCH away (particularly in a fight). The cold, inhuman glare of a cat's eyes, or the bottomless pits of other nocturnal animals, gives more tactical and psychological weight to the argument.
* The neck's mobility issue has an easy mechanical fix, but it's not going to be very aesthetic: make the material wrinkled and corrugated. This would allow expansion/compression in a variety of directions simultaneously. Not as pretty as the sleek, smooth look seen so far, but much more maneuverable.

The Cape: It should NOT be anchored to the cowl. If you will recall the scene in "The Incredibles" where Edna is railing against capes in general, she has it right on the money. It should be a quick-disconnect item, whose weight is borne by the shoulders, not the neck. Gives me a migraine just thinking about it...although, the cape-as-glider Bale wore was innovative and quite cool (sure beats all that swinging from building-to-building seen in the animated versions).

The Yellow Oval: KEEP IT. The target-for-gunners notion is dumb. The emblem is there for psychological reasons -- it's the "Nike Swoosh" equivalent, recognizable to friend and foe alike, no matter what their age or IQ. It should be the first thing seen coming out of the shadows, and the last thing seen disappearing into the night. If it's not going to be visible, why put it on the batsuit at all?

I also have to wonder about batman's height. Somewhere along the way we got the notion that larger-than-life characters need to be LARGE (over six feet tall and heavily muscled). I question that...kudos to Tim Burton for taking someone of "normal" height and making him appear large and imposing. Easier to maintain a secret identity, if nothing else. As you posted, it isn't Batman's superpowers that make the various metahumans nervous (he hasn't got any), but his dominating willpower, intelligence, and charisma.

My $.02 worth.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Jeff,
The problem I have historically had with the Bat-armor is similar to the one that Sandy Collora (director of the Batman Dead End short) has - which is that there is no body armor currently available capable of deflecting bullets that still leaves one free enough to do karate. I've always felt that Batman relied on fast moves and close combat instead of armor, and, in fact, the filmmakers seem to understand this in Begins when Ducard tells Bruce - "You know how to fight six men. I can teach you how to figh six hundred." Fox's later statement that the armor can stop anything but a direct shot also suggests they are actually "playing down" the armor of previous films, where their choice to keep Batman to the shadows reflects their understanding of his M.O.

I have a second problem of his use of armor, which goes back to my analysis of his motivation - that of proving to himself that death cannot catch him unawares. The use of armor negates the threat.

My third objection to the armor is that it is the connection - as you rightly point out - to the previous franchise, whereas every other aspect of this film is a relaunch.

However, I am slowly, grudgingly accepting the necessity of armor in a world where street gangs can have access to military grade weaponry, and if armor we must have, appreciate the attempts in Batman Begins to justify it. Furthermore, while no such armor currently exists, every day our technological world makes it a more credible fiction than it was in 1989.

I am with you on the eyeslits. I was hoping they'd forgo the black eye make up in favor of something like the plastic eyebubbles used in the recent Daredevil film (the only aspect of Ben Affleck's costume I liked actually). Spiderman showed us that you don't have to have an actors face at all for him to emote or for the audience to connect.

As to the cape - absolutely it should detach from the cowl. One of my favorite visuals is still the Denny O'Neil penned, Neal Adams draw desert swordfight between Ras Al Ghul and Batman, where Batman removes his shirt and cape but retains his mask. Also, the cape should fasten in the front, under his neck, not at the shoulders, so that it can hang down straight in front and completely cover him.

As to the yellow oval, revisionist history holds that it was added when Batman begun his formal relationship with the police and meant to reflect the Bat signal, so it's absence is justified here. Personally, I prefer the black and grey outfit to the blue and grey one though.

As to his height - Batman's height in the comics has long been established as 6'2". Of all the actors to portray him on screen, only two are this height - Adam West and Christian Bale. But Bale's Batman isn't heavily muscled. He's much closer to Bob Kane's original idea of the "acrobat-man" or Neal Adams renderings than he is to Miller's Dark Knight.

You'd Know Me If You Saw Me said...

I'm OK with the body armor. It's not impenetrable, and a little Kevlar never hurt anybody (and I don't think it negates your "Death will not sneak up on me" motivation. Football players think they're invincible - they take the drugs to prove it - and yet they still wear protective gear. Shit, Sgt. Rock wore a helmet. And it wasn't so he didn't get his balls blown off.)

But I digress.

I pulled a copy of DKR. I presume we're talking about the panel in the second issue ("Triumphant"?) where Batman crashes in and rescues the kid ("Believe me, I'll kill him!" - "I believe you.")

I remembered it with a bunch of shots, but, yeah, it's just one shot. But it misses. It's over his shoulder. It blows a hole in the wall - plaster, not splatter. There's no wound on the guy.

Batman does not kill.

Lou Anders said...

I'm not convinced that's what the panel depicts. I'd love to see if Miller has ever addressed this.

Peregrinus said...

I LOVED your essay here. Though I've never been a big fan of comics in general, and therefore never actually read any Batman comics, I've always been a huge fan of the character... bordering on obsessed, at times. I grew up with the Bruce Timm Animated Series, and it is from this source that I draw mos of my inspiration.
In any case, I was really interested in your analyzation of the character and his motivations for not killing, as well as not wearing armor. However, I have to admit that I've never seen the character that way, myself.
I usually see him in a more noble light, rather than as the apparently egotististical character you've described. This I also feel is evinced in Begins by Wayne's line "I seek the means to fight injustice." What I see is that, although there is a selfish need to somehow put right his own trauma, he also has a truly philantrhopic desire to save others from his fate. He was too young to have done anything to save his parents, and has always felt their death was his fault, which is pushed further by Ducard's comments about training vs. will (actually, I always thought this line in the film in fact addressed Bruce's inablilty to defend his parents, not his father's), so in a sense, his mission is a quest for redemption. He feels that if he saves others it will make up for his inability to save his own parents, and on another level, save himself. Hence, I don't see his mission as a need to face death and prove something to himself as much as it is a desire to somehow save a world that he feels needs saving.
This brings me to the costume point. I've never liked the idea of Batman wearing a heavy armored chestplate, but not for his own egotistical reasons. The way I view the character, he does have a sense of self-preservation that would call for wearing some armor (though not like the inpenatrable suit from the Burton films) and also for occasionally killing in self-defence (though the points you made on that subject do actually make a lot of sense to me). I mean, he does view himself, somewhat egotistically, as sort of a savior for Gotham, and I think he would value his own life because he believes that Gotham and the world need him. Basically, I've opposed armoring the Dark Knight for the same reason the Dead End director cited. I like the idea of the Batman being acrobatic, and almost Daredevil-like, in that respect. Hence, I always thought the idea impractical. But then we come to the fact that Batman does, more often than not, fit into the sci-fi category, when it comes to his various gadgets, and I for one can bend my imagination to believe that he's come up with a decent concept for armor. I did a drawing of what I thought a "practical" version of Batman would look like ( http://www.deviantart.com/deviation/17858573/?qo=23&q=by%3Amanveruon+sort%3Atime+-in%3Ascraps ), and it still includes armor, though it's segmented and allows a greater range of motion than the film versions (this being inspired by the rubber muscle-suit Toby McGuire wore during the Spider-Man films). It's also hidden beneath a suit of kevlar-woven spandex, so it still retains the classic look.
An excellent example of a functional batsuit is this: http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v260/ProjectX2/646588cf.jpg which I've found floating around online, and I think it addresses the practical side of the costume well, though is perhaps not theatrical enough.
Anyway, I could go on for pages with my own opinions regarding the Batsuit and various other Batman related topics, but I think I'll end my rant here, for now.

Peregrinus said...

Yeesh, that was longer than I thought. And I'm afraid I don't know how to do links properly. Terribly sorry. Oh, and on another note, what was it, precisely, that you didn't like about the Daredevil costume from the movie?

Lou Anders said...

Very nice artwork. And I take your point re: Wayne's philanthropy. Also, while I grew up on the comics, they seemed to have lost their way in recent days and the Bruce Timm series is as good an introduction to the "real" Batman as any I could recommend. Batman does have an ego though, one that is almost insufferable to other adults, which may be the reason he employs children, who leave him after they outgrow their hero worship and begin to make their own decisions.