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NANANANANANANANANANANANANA ... BAT-RANT!

OR: How to fix what, by most accounts, ain't even close to broke.
BY BRIAN VILLALOBOS


    Three hundred million dollars. In the first 10 days.

    Shoot, that ought to be enough to greenlight at least like, six more of these suckers, yeah? Mr. Nolan, if he so pleases, could probably kick back and do nothing but Batman for the next decade or so, and, at the rate things are going, I'm not sure anyone would raise an eyebrow.

    (And yet, my favorite Nolan flick is still The Prestige.)

    Aw, but I suppose I'm just being contrary now. Having read my friend/venerable colleague/ fellow ardent Bat-fan Chuck Kerr's take on the rabidly anticipated second installment of what most folk seem to be crowning the gold standard of caped-do-gooder epics, I must say that I agree with almost all of it. I mean, seriously: This movie's pretty freakin' awesome. Really not really a whole lot more anyone could ask for — and I say that as one of the four-or-so guys on the planet who weren't taken with 2005's Begins. Sure, I've got my issues with Knight, but nothing that isn't (1) a direct holdover from the previous film and (2) so finicky and unreasonably particular that I would wholly understand — and danged near empathize with — the instinct to pop me right in my whiny, fanboy-lite face. But hey, this is a blog, right? And what's a blog for, if not navel-gazing and pigheaded logorrhea?   

    See, my thing is, I like just about everything about the new Batman movie — except its take on Batman.

     Now, look. Bale's a first-rate Bruce Wayne. He's engaging, eminently believable, convincingly troubled. I was intrigued and pleasantly surprised by the choice to make him sort of a (purposefully?) smarmy brat, socially (I honestly can't remember if that was the case in Begins; if so, way to keep it up, guys). Also, I realized for the first time during the early goings of Knight (not sure why this hadn't occurred to me earlier) that Batman's "growly voice" is meant not only to intimidate, but also as another layer of disguise. So, it makes more sense to me, because I finally caught up — but I still can't help but find it distracting and odd, and something I have to more-or-less ignore. Yeah, I know: Dude dresses up in a rubber bat-suit to fight crime, and I take issue with his voice sounding less-than-normal? Well, yes. And while we're at it, the outfit bugs me, too. (See? Picky.) I've had conversations about this with my brother-in-law — who happens to be another of the aforementioned "four-or-so"; small world, huh? — and it just seems like, as series progress, the Bat-getup always tends to end up looking more like like a robot or action figure or something. You know? All that kevlar armor ... it's cool-looking, sure, but it makes the actor — any actor — bulky and/or machinelike.  I love me some RoboCop, but I shouln't be reminded of him when I look at Batman. Plus, I don't like how the cowl juts out on the sides like mandibles.  
So, yeah. My main problem is an aesthetic one.

    And here's where I go off the deep end. Because, the thing is, I can't very well justifiably blame anyone for not serendipitously plucking the precise Batman I happen to want to see out of the ether and putting him up on the big screen. At the same time, though, it's difficult to not want what I want, you know? And, because precisely no one asked (or because I don't have a word count, take your pick), I'm going to elaborate on that subject.

    In essence, two widely acknowledged "serious" live-action-Batman-film universes (Burton's and Nolan's) exist — and, in a sense, one's strength is the other's weakness. Go back, watch the Michael Keaton-era tales, and you'll find films that, if a bit cartoonish, are wrapped lovingly in dark, fanciful imagery. The scene in which the Batwing (likely the coolest-looking agent of hero transport ever) flies straight up through the clouds and silhouettes itself against the moon doesn't make a whole ton of sense, but danged if it isn't the most indelible visual moment in a near-decade's-worth of Batflicks. The Dark Knight, in some ways, is just the opposite. Gritty, bleak, and downright scary in all the right parts, it's soaked in a street-weary pessimism that might make Travis Bickle crack a grin — and certainly did as much for millions of diehards who feel, at long last, that their hero is in the hands of a director who really  gets him. And with all due deference to Jack — whose Joker was an unforgettable XXX of charisma and twisted fun — Ledger (God rest him) took the clown and made him, very approprately, effing terrifying. The practical, reality-grounded approach to so many elements of Knight, from stunts and effects (a special thanks for that, guys) to much of the story itself (indeed, it feels sort of  like a crime film in which Bale's Batman just sort of happens to be the protagonist) is appreciated, and adds a very effective weight and maturity and seriousness to the proceedings. But where's the iconography? I understand the pragmatism as it extends to camera movements and storyboarding, and I get that it's committedly unromantic, that it's "Batman as it could (almost) really happen." But Batman carries with him some romanticism, in my mind. Again, I'm picking on aesthetics here (which is an implicit tribute to how much is right with Knight), but I like my Batman a little more stylized. It's been said, and I agree, that the '90s-era Batman: The Animated Series is the closest we've come to a perfect moving (i.e. non-comic-book) representation of the character. He looks right, he moves right, he acts right. He's constantly enveloped by shadow and darkness. And, to be sure, it's exponentially tougher to accomplish certain elements of the character — movement, especially — in a live-action film.   
   
    So, what's my big, brilliant idea? My vision for yet another reinvention? Well, I've sort of got two. (Or, really, one-and-a-half.) And I can't believe I'm going to say this, but both involve CGI.
The first is sort of a copout, in terms of the live-action thing, but I think an entirely CG-animated Batman could be very effective if done right. With some of the visuals Pixar has been turning out over the past few years, and appears to be poised to continue turning out, I'm not sure they couldn't just go down to their basement or some neglected corner of their offices and find that one quiet, mildly tortured, less-chirpy animator — the goth-lite kid, the Black Cauldron kid, the one who got into doodling more because of the "Night on Bald Mountain" bit of Fantasia than because of Steamboat Willie — who could knock something like this out of the park. Fincher's producing some comic-based CG 'toon called The Goon — could we get him interested? The thought of David Fincher even getting near any manner of Batman property gets me slobbering inappropriately.

    The other, probably less-popular (if that's possible) concept I've been batting around is — and here's where the backlash would come, if anyone was still reading this — what I'll hesitantly call the Sin City approach. Now, look. I know. Sin City and 300 were neat-looking, but nothing to flip out about in terms of being deeply, psychologically resonant, "serious" films. What if they had been, though? Think subtler, think more focused. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow didn't get most people debating themes and character motivations either, but the all-CG environment wasn't overly showy or distracting. I've read complaints about the trailer for Frank Miller's upcoming (and at least interesting-looking, from where I sit) take on Will Eisner's The Spirit, but those shots in which a shadowy figure traverses shadowy rooftops ... I couldn't help but think of our guy. And while Batman needs to be grounded in reality (he's the one premier superhero with no superpowers, after all — just a regular guy who happens to be a dyed-in-the-wool badass), his world is heightened, too. We need those silhouettes, we need striking, iconic tableaus, we need white eyes moving in the darkness, with nary a sound but a rustle. And we want to see the suit, sure, but other times — I might even say most of the time — Batman should be nothing but an enormous, swirling cape. Because these things, the darkness, the mystery, they're an integral part of the character. And they always start out being so, but then we eventually get too caught up in how cool the suit looks. (And the suit, by the way, should be very simple. Grey and black, or black and black, and none of this fiberglass, underwear-model musculature business. Why would he design a suit like that? Are you telling me this brooding, no-nonsense vigilante/loner  i s vain? Sure, it looks cool for us, but if the character isn't concerned with it, it shouldn't exist.)  

    Either way, though, I'd like to see the Batman stories treated more like — speaking of mysteries — detective stories. Because that's one of the most unique aspects of the character: He's a ninja, sure; he's a scientist and an inventor, which handily explains how he's able to acquire a Bat-anything at a moments notice; but he's these things on top of being a brilliant unraveler. He's Sherlock Holmes with a mask and grappling hook. It's an angle that I think is somewhat untapped, in both story and presentation: I don't know about you, but I'd probably (fill in this blank with your own untoward suggestion/verb phrase) if it meant I'd get to see a well-executed film-noir Batman movie. I'll go further: I'd love to see a black-and-white film-noir Batman flick. With CGI and grey spandex. I'd watch it in a second.

    I'm nuts, right?

    Nah. Just a fan.

    And yet, after all this cavilling and kvetching, there's not a Bat-aficionado on Earth to whom I wouldn't immediately, whole-heartedly, enthusiatically recommend The Dark Knight. It's one of the few films that I've consciously wished would just keep going as I was watching it ... not end yet, not yet, I wanted to see more — and it obliged. (Another is my very favorite film of last year, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I know this plug is jarringly out-of-place, but I just had to mention it. That film is a masterpiece, and people need to see it. Please.) And despite everything I've said here, which I believe and stand by, it has certainly crossed my mind more than once that The Dark Knight may just be the best Bat-film yet.

    Yet.


THE DARK KNIGHT
Dir. Christopher Nolan; writ. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan; feat. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman (PG-13)
RATING: ****1/2

Posted by Elaine Wolff on 8/3/2008 3:33:28 PM
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