It’s All Part of the Plan

So. The Dark Knight? Great. Though my wife hated it, I think maybe because she expects her superheroes to triumph in the end and thus found the film too psychologically relentless and unpleasant.

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[spoilers to follow]

If you’re deeply familiar with the character, you don’t have the same expectation: Batman is a romantic enemy of the way things are like Zorro is an enemy of the established order, only unhappy and doomed never to triumph, which is to say not at all like Zorro. Because Batman lives in a world where the way things are is not a matter of a few mustache-twirling oppressors.

Some of my favorite Batman stories in recent years have at least tried to raise the question of how Batman, a driven genius, can understand so much and so little all at once about how the world is and how it might be, how he can delude himself that the best thing he can do to make the world better is dress up like a bat-ninja and beat the shit out of criminals. Sam Hamm did a three-parter a long while back that I really liked on this theme, and more recently, Grant Morrison nodded in this direction as well. Nolan is really savvy to this aspect of the character.

Batman Begins took the now-standard twist in the mythos of sending Bruce Wayne around the world to learn the skills that make him Batman and added something crucial: that he himself becomes a criminal for a time, to learn what it’s like. This is clever for the character as a whole, and it grounds him more complicatedly in the fictional subgenre of “rich man who descends into poverty and suffering to discover what it’s like, emerging a crusader”. But it puts new pressure on the Nolanverse version of Batman: how can he pretend for a minute that being Batman is anything more than a weird bit of theater? Answer, as of The Dark Knight: he knows it’s not. He’s got a plan of sorts: use the theatricality of Batman to shock Gotham City back towards being a better place, and then hand it off to good citizens and officials. The film does a great job with arguing that this shock and awe theory of personal action has unintended consequences in the person of the Joker, and that Batman is left helplessly reacting to circumstances spiraling out of his or anyone’s control. That makes the film sound more crudely allegorical and simple in its morality than it is.

Like a lot of fanboys, though, I’m really left wondering where Nolan can go with this version of Batman in a third film. You could imagine something like the last two issues of Miller’s Batman: Year One, with Batman pitted largely against the police. But that doesn’t seem enough. Maybe if the mayor or the political establishment was someone who appeared like a noble, charismatic crusader but was actually completely corrupt. That could be the only way to make the Penguin work as a meaningful character in Nolan’s version of the mythos, I suppose. The more conventionally super-powered characters like Poison Ivy or Mr. Freeze don’t really work. The Riddler would have to be a low-rent Joker in the context of Nolan’s version. Catwoman has been done about as well as she can be in Burton’s rendition, I think.

So here’s an idea: Professor Hugo Strange, specifically the version that appeared in Moench and Gulacy’s storyline “Prey” in Legends of the Dark Knight. Strange is a psychologist with hang-ups of his own who nevertheless brilliantly deduces that Batman must be Bruce Wayne and proceeds to try and screw with Bruce Wayne’s head while impersonating Batman himself during various criminal acts. This puts the focus of a third film back on Batman as a character and Bale as an actor: in The Dark Knight, character and actor are almost wholly reactive, reduced to being the straight man in an endlessly nightmarish sick joke.

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6 Responses to It’s All Part of the Plan

  1. Dance says:

    Ooh, just saw it last night and thought it was excellent! I can’t say “loved it”, because it *was* relentless and difficult, but so very well-done. The romantic resolution was exceedingly cruel, but augurs well for the next one, though, I was very glad that it didn’t set up an obvious sequel.

  2. fridaykr says:

    As a kid, I was a huge comics fan, and as I adult, I loved miller’s The Dark Knight series, and, of course, Watchmen.

    In general I have grown a little suspicious of hollywood’s pillaging of comics for characters and concepts and then stripping them of their subversive elements and complexity. It seems, like in many of these block buster movies, the primary intent is to showcase big bugets, cool costumes, and stylized violence instead of saying anything. Maybe I am getting old, but in general I have passed. ( I did think “Unbreakable” was a very smart way to tell a story about a comic book hero; but I wouldn’t call that film a blockbuster.) However, based on what I have heard about the Dark Knight, I will see it.

    But what I really want from this movie or the next installment of the next comic turned blockbuster– and probably won’t get – is something in these movies that at least raise serious questions about the genre and its renewed popularity in our culture. And dont give me the stock answer –it’s 9/11. Comics have been around for a long time. Why now? What is it about us that keep us coming back to these stories? In other words, it would be nice to stumble upon a movie that really was a good comic book –that is, it used the premises found in comics about superheroes not for the sake of those premises, but in order to tell another story about the way we live.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the basic answer to “why now” is two-fold. First, that the generation of readers who consumed comics and superheroes in a quiet way, as a subverted pleasure, have become creators. If you go back to something like the television version of Wonder Woman, it wasn’t really made by anyone who understood Wonder Woman the character, the superhero story as a genre, or comic books as a form. So it was kind of a low-rent, cheesy pleasure of its own kind, sort of tits-and-ass 70s action show hybrid, but not really a superhero narrative or a comic-book adaptation.

    Second, some of the visual and technological problems involved in representing superheroes have been worked out steadily over time, which has opened up the narrative and aesthetic choices for filmmakers tackling a superhero project. Burton’s Batman was really not a great film in storytelling terms (I watched it again the other night: it’s just a mess) but getting Batman out of leotards alone was a visual revolution. CG representations allowed some of the basic visual language of superhero action to appear on film–the final battle between Neo and Agent Smith in Matrix: Revolutions is as pure a visualization of a Superman-style superhero fight as we’ve yet seen on film. Until you could visualize the superhero in terms that didn’t seem simply ridiculous, you couldn’t do a “serious” superhero film.

  4. Cala says:

    Why now?

    In part, I think it’s the expectation that the audience is not composed exclusively of teenagers; and in part that the comic books have grown up, too. So have the stories. I was too young to see Tim Burton’s Batman in the theaters, but I remember my parents (who were not all that much older than I am now) having no interest in it. Weren’t superheroes just for kids? Why isn’t the Batman in blue spandex?

    And if you look at the source material they would have read or seen on TV as kids, it did look like something for kids. There wasn’t much of a there there.

    TB’s second point is important, too. I remember reading about an interview with the director of the first Superman movie, where he says to the reporter ‘You’ll believe a man can fly.’ Just imagine the wonder that was supposed to inspire, and the amount of work it would have taken to get that to be believable, and it’s not surprising that whether Superman had an inner life took a back seat. It would have been for nothing if he couldn’t fly.

  5. Cala says:

    I’d also bet on Catwoman. Two reasons: first, Batman has an odd throwaway line wondering whether the new suit will stand up to cats; two, with the death of Rachel, the movie has no female lead.

  6. king16 says:

    planlar??? severim :)

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