|Thursday, August 14, 2008
07:10 - Why so unserious?
You want to see something really surreal?
Go watch The Dark Knight—preferably twice, because it's so damn dense with plot and intrigue—and then go back and re-watch all the Tim Burton-era Batman movies.
It's bizarre. I can hardly imagine why people thought these things were so groundbreaking, except that what they had to compare it to was the campy 60s stuff. I mean, I was never that overwhelmed with the Burton movies—I thought the jet-engined, fire-belching Batmobile was a completely pointless piece of unjustified visual fancy, considering that you never saw it traveling faster than about 15 mph, and the fist-fights were hardly better than you saw in a low-budget TV series, what with the wide shot of the wind-up for a punch, close-up for the actual punch, then wide again to show the guy falling over with no momentum or follow-through—but dammit, they were dark and brooding and serious, or at least they started out that way. They gave rise to the unbearably good Animated Series, after all, and I always ascribed a certain dignity to the movies in retrospect just for laying that groundwork alone—bequeathing the Elfman theme, the noiry design, the dark-paint-on-dark-cel-paper color scheme that everything from The Matrix to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow has tried to emulate in more recent years.
But I guess it all went sour pretty early on. The Penguin wasn't exactly a menacing villain, and Catwoman had such a ridiculous origin story that if there was any method behind it, it was to telegraph to the audience that they couldn't keep up the charade of "darkness" any longer. Indeed, in the next outing we were treated to Val Kilmer, the Nipple Suit, Jim Carrey flouncing around being Jim Carrey, and:
Oh, and Robin. Robin. You know, what I loved about the Animated Series more than anything else—anything else—was that they avoided introducing Robin as long as they possibly could, and when they finally did, it was more or less as a bridge to spin-off series. It was my impression at the time that in any Batman incarnation, the appearance of Robin was the harbinger of doom—it meant they were officially out of ideas. Without enough imagination to present a plausible and complex backstory for these wacky villains, it would inevitably devolve into self-effacing camp, a world where no matter how menacing and dark and Gothy the equipment, it all had names beginning with "Bat—".
I loved how the Batboat and Batwing lasted for about two minutes each in Batman Forever, incidentally. Ace in the hole, indeed! ...No, they just got blown up, immediately, simultaneously, almost by accident—with lucky shots. And the pointlessly redesigned Batmobile was dispatched with hardly any more effort by an army of thugs invading the Batcave. Wow, what a badass. Er, batass.
In fact, the whole idea of keeping Batman's identity secret seemed to become more and more of a joke as the Burton movies went on—Wayne tried gamely to blurt it out in front of a crowd because Two-Face threatened to blow up a circus, something the modern Batman—or even the original Burton Batman—would have put paid to with some clever deployment of gear and/or swift kicks to the neck, and he'd have been back in his seat with popcorn in time for the third act. He tore off his mask—destructively, as though he'd design a mask he couldn't take off without ripping it in half—right in front of various villains, just because he was besotted with a woman. By the end of Batman Forever, it seemed like if the whole city didn't know Batman was, it was purely because of laziness on the part of the villains of the day, or active secrecy, since they had like fifty thugs who had all figured it out by that point too.
And on that subject: nothing is more cognitively dissonant, having seen The Dark Knight, than watching Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. Talk about a waste of an actor. The character in that movie was a gibbering, haphazard, thoughtless, self-indulgent tool, with an implausible and perfunctory backstory and an emphasis on stupid trappings like his half-and-half suit and half-and-half doxies and using "two" of everything. Watching him mug and leer and jump around with Jim Carrey, with dorky one-liners coming from the latter and little but incoherent laughter coming from the former, you get the feeling that what Joel Schumacher really wanted to do was make another Joker—and if they had to do that by creating two separate characters, one kaka-cuckoo and mindlessly destructive and the other flamboyant and scheming and bearing a name like a "Joker" groupie to boot, well, so be it. It's camp. Bring on the makeup and purple suits!
But then you see The Dark Knight and you realize that it's possible to do these characters with depth and seriousness and real humanity. At least to a certain extent. Right up until you do the Joker. And do it right.
And this is what I worry about. The Burton movies were lazy, in that they blew their Joker load in the first outing. Nicholson's Joker, stiff and silly as he is by comparison to Ledger's, had the requisite modicum of depth that has led to all the scholarly dissertations on what kind of "hero" Batman is, how chaos and order interplay in his world, the roles of random chance and the fickleness of the public and the importance of symbols—indeed, the whole premise of The Dark Knight. (And that was the second movie in this series. They took their time building up to it.) Nicholson's Joker was used up and thrown away by the end of the first movie, and the next best "plausible" villain they could turn to was... the Penguin. And thus the inevitable slide into camp began.
I worry, now: have the Nolan movies reached the point where they will inevitably follow the same path? I like to think not, since they've shown great perspicacity in picking which characters to focus on and dig into—Schumacher utterly wasted his Two-Face by making him into a cartoon with no depth or significance, just another makeup-daubed bomb-thrower, and Nolan made his whole universe revolve around the torment underlying Harvey Dent and his struggle with the public role he's forced to play for the sake of Gotham. But where else can Nolan go?
I'm trying to picture what a hypothetical third Nolan-series Batman movie would be like. I mean, even leaving aside the fact that Heath Ledger can't play his now-definitive Joker anymore—Two-Face is dead, or at least played out. Ra's al Ghul has already been processed through the machine. So has Scarecrow. Who else in the pantheon has the depth to carry on the series at the level it's established? I shudder to imagine a Nolan movie involving the Penguin or Mr. Freeze.
The watchword of the current series is plausibility. Everything has to make sense. None of the equipment is over-the-top for the sole sake of being over-the-top. This Batman is more about blending into the shadows than making a public show of shiny wings and ridiculous technology, just the way it should be. But that's completely at odds with the world inhabited by all the sillier villains to whom the universe inevitably bequeaths itself once the Joker and Two-Face have been removed from the picture. The Animated Series was so successful in large part because it had the foresight to make the Joker and his cronies, Two-Face, and Catwoman recurring characters, never killed off, always available with a new scheme that helped to explore the depth of their characters. If the series had had to make do with the gimmicky third-string villains, camp would have arrived quickly and become impossible to untangle from, and Robin would have appeared soon thereafter. Urrgh.
I suppose that at first glance even the Joker and Two-Face both look gimmicky and cartoonish, throwaways with theme ingredients like all the rest of them—and maybe Nolan is just so good that he was able to extract so much of their potential and make them both so portentous, so iconic, so fundamentally intertwined with the fate of Gotham. Maybe he's so good that he'll be able to make Clayface or Poison Ivy or Calendar Man into the centerpiece of another "serious" superhero movie with real things to say about the human condition.
But somehow I doubt it.
UPDATE: It sure seems like it's got people thinking lately.