Batman Begins again

The latest version of the comic-book character offers a much-needed heroic lead.

To each generation, its own Batman. The new Batman movie, Batman Begins, offers a vision of heroism that is out-of-step with today’s limited horizons.

For those not in the know, Batman is the alter ego of billionaire philanthropist and playboy Bruce Wayne. His parents slain by a street robber, Wayne vows revenge on the criminal underworld. He adopts the identity of Bat-Man and works by night as a masked vigilante to clean up the streets of Gotham City, originally a fictional New York. The character started in Detective Comics 27 (May 1939) and was further popularised by newspaper syndication and the 1943 Columbia serial The Batman.

Gradually, Batman’s set of costumed adversaries emerged and his hyphen disappeared. In the 1940s, he was pressed into assisting the war effort against Japan, undergoing his first major reinvention in the late 1950s, the so-called Silver Age of comics, and acquiring a variety of sidekicks and gadgets (1). For the first couple of decades, publishers DC - formerly known as National Comics and now part of the Time Warner group - would have been content to protect copyright and shift product, but it faced a threat from Marvel Comics.

In the 1960s, Marvel orientated itself towards the college freshmen market, by giving its protagonists personal lives and teenage angst (a strategy recently repeated with the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies). When a boy becomes a man he puts away childish things, but Marvel sought to counteract the commercial fall-out of readers growing up. Part of this, was a preoccupation with continuity, in which all the characters were part of the same ‘universe’ existing on an historical continuum. This also led to ‘retconning’ (retroactive continuity), where past events could be explained away or reinvented to suit current story needs, reviving deceased characters and unravelling the unforeseen consequences of repeated fictional time travel expeditions. The excuse that ‘it was all a dream’ just wouldn’t do anymore.

DC, and Batman, were influenced by the creative activity at Marvel. A particular problem was that the characters created in the 1930s did not appear to age. This was explained with the concept of ‘the Multiverse’ (2), where the same or similar characters existed in parallel universes. Thus a 1960s Batman fought crime on ‘Earth One’, while his 1930s counterpart was from ‘Earth Two’. Over time the explanation was tightened up - the different parts of the DC Multiverse existed in the same space but vibrated at different frequencies, thereby rarely meeting except in time travel and ‘crossover’ storylines. Don’t worry if you missed that; by 1985, presumably to keep the editors sane, the Multiverse was killed off in the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline (3).

By 1985 a lot had changed for the comics industry. It was almost 20 years since the major shake-up at DC, when veteran writers and artists were sacked for demanding royalties and pensions. The new generation of staff had grown up on Marvel Comics, and this was reflected in some of DC’s celebrated titles of the late 1960s, including Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’s acclaimed but unprofitable run on Green Lantern, which tackled racial prejudice and other issues of the day. Despite ‘relevant’ innovation at DC, including a gritty spell on a Robin-free Batman, Marvel titles were cleaning up, led by the revitalised Uncanny X-Men.  Increasingly, comics were moving away from their status as transient, youthful entertainment, and acquiring a fan base and collector status. By the late 1980s, the notion of comics for mature readers - ‘graphic novels’ - acquired a wider resonance, underpinned by a direct sales market of specialist comic shops.

The reinvention of Batman at the end of the 1980s allowed DC to turn a corner - and also spurred on Hollywood’s rediscovery of comics as a source material. Although the ‘fanboys’ are preoccupied with tiny matters of continuity - my excuse is a Saturday job in a comic shop during the graphic novel boom - this had little purchase with the wider public. Limitations in special effects, the fallout from the 1960s Batman TV series and the downward spiral of the Superman movies, all made the superhero genre a dead end for Hollywood production.

This changed with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, the gritty saga of a pill popping, 50-something Batman and his war on crime, gangs and ultimately on Superman himself.  While the exact connection is unclear, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) would have been unthinkable without Miller’s reinvention of the character. This interesting start to the ‘franchise’ was squandered by the atrocious Batman and Robin (1997), leaving a proposed adaptation of Miller’s Batman: Year One comic to languish in development hell. Meanwhile Marvel, commercially and creatively bankrupt in the same period after mass marketing countless poor quality ‘collectors’ editions’, pulled its behind out of the fire through an aggressive strategy of licensing characters for film adaptations. By now, the rise of CGI post-production techniques allowed wilder comic-book visions to be developed as moving images.

Batman Begins has surprised Warner Bros executives by taking a $48.7million weekend gross and a higher than expected five-day total of $72.9million in its first week. Does this suggest a revival of the franchise, or highlight the continuing strength of the superhero genre? It’s hard to tell exactly, but several indicators point to a healthy future of the franchise. Of course, innovations in special effects help to make superheroes plausible, but this is only part of the story. The minutiae beloved by fanboys is wisely avoided, but sufficient depth has been introduced to ensure that Batman Begins plays well with critics and mass audiences alike.

Part of this process involves recruiting self-styled auteurs rather than studio-appointed administrators to direct the movies. When Marvel and DC have leased out the film rights to major characters, they have benefited from having respected independent directors helm the movies: Sam ‘Evil Dead’ Raimi on Spiderman, Bryan ‘Usual Suspects’ Singer on X-Men and art-house favourite Ang Lee on the disappointing Hulk.

The director of Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan, has a pedigree in thrillers - Following, Memento, Insomnia. Constantly innovative and thoughtful, Nolan only bordered on being conventional with his last film, a remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 police flick. So it is interesting to see how he works with a moribund ‘franchise’, taking on characters not his own. The film divides into two portions, almost lengthy and distinct enough to make two separate films. The second half is of less interest, as it’s where Batman gets to do his action-adventure thing, edited in that irksome style where one can barely see what’s going on. The first half is more subtle, and captures current sensibilities well. Only ADA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) is stuck with a string of clunking speeches about the nature of justice. The rest of the mainly British cast - including Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Cillian Murphy - put in some sprightly performances.

As I’ve argued before on spiked, contemporary audiences are too cynical to accept the clean-cut heroism of the Golden and Silver Ages of comics (see The Peter Parker in us all, by Graham Barnfield). In the comics industry, the morbid fantasies of the fans had already meant a ‘gritty’ shift in the late 1980s to ‘heroes’ who kill like Wolverine and the Punisher; mainstream Hollywood audiences followed suit. When lethal force was absent, character flaws came to the fore, suggesting ordinariness if not feet of clay.

The exception to this pattern came when Japanese and Chinese action films began to cross over from the arthouse to the multiplex. East meets West in a slew of recent hits, from the gargantuan Kill Bill to a growing body of remakes of Asian films in the crime and horror genres.

Batman Begins is a breath of fresh air, since it drops the deference to all things Eastern, showing instead a psychotic cult of eco-warrior ninjas hell-bent on destroying Gotham city. The ‘League of Shadows’ is represented as a sect, taking advantage of the young and miserable Bruce Wayne, rather than the fount of all wisdom. (The League might also want to revise its guidelines on storing gunpowder.) The movie avoids taking the easy option of cosying up to modern mysticism. ‘Master Wayne’ adopts the sensible attitude of ‘so long and thanks for all the training’, and is on his way.

Whereas a vigilante shooting petty criminals appealed to the reactionary instincts of Depression-era readers, today Batman seems anachronistic for his ruthlessness and commitment. Indeed, the point about Batman is that he was always an ordinary man with no superpowers, just a lot of training and technological resources. Bruce Wayne’s mission is out of step with today’s more modest world, from his single-mindedness to his publicly directed quest for physical perfection, rather than a vanity project down at the gym.

There is none of the self-doubt to be found with Peter ‘Spider-Man’ Parker, making this entertaining narrative unfold in a very different way. The beauty of Nolan’s film, at least until its mandatory climactic big battle, is that it shows the detailed logistics of putting together Wayne’s masked alter ego. Whereas the previous movies took the caped crusader’s existence for granted, the new one involves the piecemeal arrangement of his new life unfolding before our very eyes.

The presentation of city life changes too, allowing the prequel to get out from under the shadow of Blade Runner (1982). In a break with cinematic conventional wisdom, Nolan and David S Goyer’s smart screenplay suggests that Gotham City might even be worth saving. Gotham has often been something of a liability for the character, a fictional New York trounced by Marvel’s trick of setting core stories in the Big Apple itself. In the first Raimi Spider-Man film, the high spirits of post-9/11 New Yorkers was an important subtext. (And for real geeks, a map of ‘Marvel Manhattan’ is available in the Marvel Universe encyclopaedia, so one can look up the location of the Fantastic Four’s Headquarters or Doctor Strange’s brownstone.)

This time, however, the Gotham of Batman Begins is something else. Although lodged in an island, there are echoes of Chicago and Detroit in this virtual environment. Thus the Wayne monorail looks like Chicago’s ‘El’, but has failed to deliver prosperity, echoing the aimless meanderings of Detroit’s People Mover. Importantly Gotham’s nightmare has an explanation, the ongoing ‘Depression’ of Wayne’s childhood, linking the story to Batman’s 1930s origins. While Wayne suggests some voodoo economics to fix the problems - if only the well-to-do were more like his father - it’s clear that the best cover story for him is to be a billionaire playboy.

Although Gotham looks gothic, Nolan and team suggest that its social and economic problems are open to rational solutions, rather than indulging the raging misanthropy found in Sin City. As the film ends, Batman is digging in for an idealistic war of attrition, based on the possibility of a better life. As such he’s pleasingly out of step with our limited horizons today; a fictional superhero hiding some heroic thinking beneath his cape.

Graham Barnfield lectures in journalism at the University of East London and blogs at the Loneliest Jukebox.

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(1) For more on the comic strip origins of the present-day Batman, see Kim Newman, ‘Cape fear’, Sight and Sound, July 2005

(2) See DC comics on Wikipedia

(3) See Crisis on Infinite Earths on Wikipedia

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