Friday, July 16, 2010

The reinvention of the bat

Now don’t get me wrong: I like George Clooney. A lot. But it has to be said: ‘Batman and Robin’ is a piece of shit. It was my friend Paul who delivered the most accurate and coruscating verdict on ‘Batman and Robin’: “It says something when a movie’s got Alicia Silverstone, Uma Thurman and Vivica Fox in it – and you still walk out halfway through.”

‘Batman and Robin’ is what it had come to. It made the Adam West incarnation of Batman look like an exercise in documentary realism. It made the lacklustre ‘Batman Forever’, in which the mantle so convincingly worn by Michael Keaton was transmogrified into a mooching slab of banality by Val Kilmer, look like a rediscovered masterpiece by Powell & Pressburger. It made a five year old with a snot nose and scabby knees running through a council estate screaming “nana-nana-nana-nana, nana-nana-nana-nana, BATMAAAAANNN!” at the top of his voice look like Sir Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet at the Old Vic. It made –

*steels himself*

*gnashes teeth*

*types the motherfucker anyway*

– it made ‘Twilight’ look like a proper film.

In short, ‘Batman and Robin’ presented a pretty convincing argument for the end of the franchise. Only a madman or a genius would have attempted a reboot.

Enter Christopher Nolan. (Clue: he ain’t no madman.) Even then, if I’m being perfectly honest, I had my doubts. Taking my seat at Nottingham’s Showcase Cinema back in 2005 (a scant eight years after Joel Schumacher had raped the shit out of my sense of aesthetics in exactly the same cinema with ‘Batman and Robin’), I wondered if Nolan – who had delivered a minor masterpiece with ‘Memento’ and an assured big-name studio picture with ‘Insomnia’ – wasn’t making a mis-step.

Ten minutes in, with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) roughing it up in down and dirty style in some godforsaken prison, and I gave myself a mental rebuke for doubting Mr Nolan’s talent. An hour in, with Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson and Morgan Freeman delivering the goods and Bale himself wiping the slate clean in terms of how you portray Batman onscreen, and I was in hog heaven.

This was a Batman that was dark and nasty. Wilkinson’s Falcone was a proper mob boss, the kind of guy who’d shoot you in the head halfway through a meal and still be on coffee and desserts while his henchmen were dumping you in the harbour. Cillian Murphy’s Dr Crane (a.k.a Scarecrow) was a chilling and nightmarishly-visaged fiend … even before he put the freakin’ mask on! Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows were terrifying in their implacable certainty that their genocidal plans were the only reasonable option.

And then there was Bale’s Batman. You only need to remind yourself of Bale’s filmography. The man’s intense. His performances eviscerate. You could put him in ‘Teletubbies: the Movie’ and he’d tear the screen apart in an exegesis of method actor ferocity that would have the pre-school audience in therapy for decades. Or, to put it more simply, cast the man in a comic book movie and it stops being a comic book movie pretty damn quick.

Not that Nolan’s take on Batman was ever going to be comic book. There is very little of the gothic iconography that defines the comics. Nolan’s Gotham pays lip service with some shots of a monorail and the quasi-Victorian architecture of Arkham Asylum, but otherwise the film plays out across an unapologetically gritty milieu: the docks, the slums, Falcone’s downtown bar, an authentically grubby police precinct.

Case in point: it’s halfway into the film before Wayne dons the bat-suit. Most directors would mark the moment with a big, iconic close-up of Bruce Wayne as Batman, cape fluttering, zooming down through the night sky to combat villainy. Nolan does things differently. Nolan stages Batman’s first appearance during a drug deal, there various miscreants and heavies darting between containers as something – something shadowy and deadly and preternaturally fast – picks off their numbers one by one.

Context: Bruce Wayne picks his alter ego based on what scares him the most. Reasoning: if he conquers his own fear (pace the teachings of Ra’s Al Ghul), the very thing that scares him will terrify his enemies.

Nolan keeps the bat to the shadows. The effect is so much more devastating.

In a film that has only one weak spot – Katie Holmes’s indifferent performance – Nolan effortlessly portrays both sides of the persona, Bruce Wayne and Batman, as intertwined. Where most of the previous outings (only Burton’s first Batman film comes close to synthesising the two) unambiguously delineate Bruce Wayne the millionaire playboy and Batman the masked avenger, Nolan uses Wayne’s outward appearance of gentleman of leisure to strip away the concealing layers of his psyche and get to grips with the day-to-day hardships and psychological implications of leading what is essentially a double life.

‘Batman Begins’ gave the cinema-going public a credible, obsessively driven and sometimes vulnerable Batman. A gritty, ballsy Batman. A Batman largely free of glib one-liners and casual heroics. A superhero, in other words, for our troubled and ambiguous times.

Then he spent the two and a half hours of its genre-bending, expectation-shattering sequel demolishing every aspect of his anti-hero’s granite-like rectitude, irreversibly compromising Batman’s morality and turning him into a post-Guantanamo Bay one-man Patriot Act, beating the shit out of arrested suspects, clandestinely deporting foreign nationals, fucking over the basic civil liberties of every resident of Gotham (a Gotham, moreover, now free of monorails and Gothic buildings; a Gotham that could easily pass for New York) and basically proving right every naysayer who decries him as a vigilante. ‘The Dark Knight’ is the Ingmar Bergman of summer blockbusters, an unremittingly dark foray into the depths of its supposed hero’s ravaged humanity; a film whose gleefully amoral villain, Heath Ledger’s definitive Joker, remains utterly and perversely true to himself while forcing Batman at every turn to overturn every tenet of justice he stands for.

Earlier in this blogathon, Bryce linked to a thought-provoking and elegantly constructed essay at The Movie Blog which weighs the evidence of ‘Batman Begins’ as a deconstructionist or reconstructionist film and finds it reconstructionist. It’s an argument I’m entirely convinced by. But there’s no doubt that Nolan’s two Batman films are also reinventions.


Simon said...

You should read the Aronofsky script originally presented to the studio. Talking about dark.

Great write-up, anyway. Interesting idea about the bat suit, though I've never given it much thought.

Neil Fulwood said...

Not read the Aronofsky script for 'Year Zero', so I don't know how faithful it is to Frank Miller's graphic novel. But even if it was half as subversive (Bruce Wayne disenfranchised from his father's fortune; Alfred re-imagined as an African-American junkyard owner; Selina Kyle working as a hooker), I'm not surprised the studios got cold feet.

Still, I'd love to see Miller's story done, even as a down 'n' dirty low budget production.

Darren said...

Thanks for the link. Yep, I'm still trying to steel myself to rewatch Batman & Robin. I only did Batman Forever last week and I still feel unclean.

I don't think Nolan gets enough credit for what he's done with the character. He's made him tangible and credible, without changing any of his his core identity. It isn't that the films are set in "the real world" (they aren't - some of the scenes and moments are as physically impossible as Burton's Batman) - but he has made the character and his surroundings "more real". If that makes sense.

Neil Fulwood said...

Darren - with regards to 'Batman and Robin': don't do it! It's an hour and three quarters of your life that you'll never have again.