Thursday, January 15, 2015
Sensor Scan: Batman
As I've said elsewhere, US superhero comics are not my medium of choice. I have no emotional attachment to them and are blissfully unaware of the comings and goings of DC and Marvel beyond the bare minimum of what is absolutely required so as not to be persecuted by Nerd Culture. So frankly, I couldn't give a neutrino's emission about how Batman stacks up as a comic book movie: Comics and comic culture are entirely peripheral to what this movie is and what it did. This was a legitimate pop culture phenomenon with viral marketing and everything and remains a cultural touchstone for generations of filmgoers regardless of the frequency of their patronage of comic shops because, difficult as it seems for some to comprehend, statistically everybody knows who friggin' Batman is. Indeed, superheroes and Star Trek both are among those bits of pop storytelling that are so ubiquitous and recognised they become universally acknowledged as representatives of the modern Western tradition around the world in spite of Nerds' incessant attempts to pretend they're marginal and niche.
I did see this movie, though. Although I certainly knew who Batman was and picked up just through the osmosis of living in society that that he was a major part of our culture, because I didn't read any superhero comics I wasn't familiar with any actual Batman stories. I even distinctly remember my grandmother buying me a Kenner Batman figure based on Michael Keaton's portrayal in this film (Batman was no more or less toyetic a thing than Star Wars, let's all remember): She gave it to me when she met my mother and I at a McDonalds for lunch one day. It was probably the first bit of superhero merchandise I ever owned, although I think the memory of getting that toy predates even my memory of watching the movie itself. Indeed, many years later the film became a bit of a shared experience for us as we bonded over a rerun of it on one of the HD movie channels she gets as part of her cable package.
Speaking of, this movie might have been my first exposure to Batman as an actual media artefact rather than bit of folkloric pop culture: I can't distinctly recall whether I saw this movie, the Super Friends or the New Scooby-Doo Movies episodes with Batman and Robin first. I'm leaning towards this though, if for no other reason than Michael Keaton's all black body armour with the bright yellow bat insignia on his chest remains the definitive Batman look for me to this day. Last summer as of this writing I was even pleasantly surprised to see the actual bat suit used in the movie on display at a weapons and armour exhibit at an art museum in Massachusetts I visited: I won't pretend it wasn't a little fulfilling to see it in person.
So it's not like this movie was somehow “proving” how big populist entertainment based on superheroes could be successful and comparatively intelligent: Not in a world where the Christopher Reeve Superman movies were over a decade old and there were fond memories of the Wonder Woman and (yes) 1960s Batman TV shows. And say what you will about Hanna Barbera's Super Friends, bear in mind a lot of the people going to see this movie probably grew up on it. It's not so much, I don't think, that audiences weren't prepared for a “dark, mature” version of Batman such that the unparalleled genius of Tim Burton blew their minds: Burton is a creator who, among other things, probably gets a bit too much credit as an auteur for his work here and who is furthermore nowhere near as “dark”, “surreal” and “mysterious” a visionary as he is frequently lauded as being. Burton was far from the first person to remember that German Expressionism was a thing that existed and that you could blend it with big populist things to convey some interesting stuff it'd be hard to do at that scale and within those structural constraints otherwise: The old Universal Horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s basically did the same thing, after all. Hell, even *actual German Expressionist* works were capable of it-Remember Metropolis?
(Actually, Metropolis is interesting to bring up here, considering Giorgio Moroder released his own special cut of the film with a modern soundtrack in 1984 that remains probably the definitive version of the movie for a lot of people these days. Moroder's Metropolis is likely an archetypical 1980s movie because it essentially, and brilliantly, turns the movie into a feature-length music video. Moroder's Metropolis is not quite as stunningly abstract as something like Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture and relies far more on the celebrity of its musical collaborators, but it most certainly fits its era. I know film buffs hate it, but so long as the original version of the movie is still around, which it thankfully now is, I see no reason why we can't accept transformative works based on it. There's even, funnily enough, an anime movie reimagining of Metropolis that also draws influence from an old Osamu Tezuka manga of the same name.)
Tim Burton's major innovation is that he remembered you could take that approach and apply it to things that hold appeal for multiple demographics, including children, not that anyone wants to admit Tim Burton is predominantly a purveyor of children's literature, of course (although he's not the first person to do even that, as Joe Ruby and Ken Spears did the same thing with Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! way back in 1969). And if you actually sit down to piece out what Batman actually is, it reveals its heritage pretty clearly: It's got a fairly straightforward pulp structure with enough twists and turns to keep it compelling and enough dark, antiheroic brooding to appeal to both modern sensibilities and to resonate with comic fans who grew up during the Bronze Age. And, just like Moroder's Metropolis, Miami Vice and Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture, it tries to convey itself as much through striking visuals and music, in particular pop music, as it does anything else, though it does make the perhaps regrettable choice to go with Prince as its primary troubadour when the film's regular score was more than enough to keep us hooked. In essence, this is precisely the sort of Batman movie you would expect to see in 1989.
But it's not the structure itself that's the most noteworthy thing about Batman so much as it is the fact it applies this structure to a pre-existing massively popular pop culture franchise. And here the point of comparison isn't something like Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture, the existence of which is nothing if not a fluke given I highly doubt Dirty Pair is as ubiquitous in Japan as Batman is in the West (or Japan, for that matter). And anyway, no matter how good he may be at aesthetic design, Tim Burton cannot hope to compete with an animator the likes of Kōji Morimoto. No, the real comparison really is with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: Simply by virtue of the fact Star Trek: The Next Generation exists, even though it may not quite yet be the massive runaway smash hit it will become (though it's getting there) means that Star Trek is unquestionably one of the hottest properties of 1989, and the legacy of the Original Series has long since cemented the franchise's pop culture legacy. William Shatner or no, Star Trek V *should* have been playing on Batman's level simply by coming out the same summer: We've reached the point where the visual aesthetic of the Long 1980s has become so commonplace and accepted that you can make Batman movies with it, and there is absolutely no reason why you couldn't make Star Trek movies with it as well.
Except there is one, of course: The Star Trek creative team circa 1989 is incestuously insular and hopelessly behind the times. The world has lept into the Long 1980s with rapturous wonderment and Star Trek is pulling against itself trying to make the transition. The Star Trek that bears the future is being hamstrung and neglected while the zombified shadow of its predecessor claws desperately for relevance. There's no better testament to Batman's success as a work of transcendental aesthetic power and Star Trek V's failure at the first gate then the fact the NES game based on Batman is considered a classic while Star Trek V: The Final Frontier...is Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
As is the way of all things, for Star Trek to adapt and survive in this new world, it must evolve.