It’s the time of the bat, haven’t you heard? Although Tim Burton’s 1989 masterpiece turns 25 next month, no patient of Arkham Asylum can forget that it’s the leading character’s 75th birthday this month. As he reaches that milestone it’s clear that the character’s in greater shape than ever. How things have changed for the awkward outsider of comic book adaptation…
NEXT MONTH IS THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE RELEASE OF TIM BURTON’S BATMAN. That film stands in the same short field as Jaws and Star Wars, creating a new wave of blockbuster movie-making. That was when summer movies came out in June, not May and men were bats. It’s worth nothing that Batman came it came only 14 years after Jaws and just six years after The Return of the Jedi. It’s been a long 25 years of blockbusters since Jack Nicholson’s Joker laughed his last.
Infinitely more important is this month’s anniversary: 75 years since Bob Kane unleashed Batman into popular culture. Yes, I know: it’s unbelievable that Warner Brothers scheduled one month out from the Golden anniversary in 1989, but back then the reign of the comic film was a long way off.
In context, Tim Burton’s Batman was released a mere 21 years after the Batman TV series was pulled from the schedules. In part, that enjoyably hokum show resigned batman to a camp scrapheap for some time. It was the earnest work undertaken by comic creators such as Neal Adams and editor-in-excelsis Denny O’Neil that confronted that overpowering softening of Batman and created the chameleon of comics that we know today. The result of their and others’ exemplary 1970s work were characters such as Ra’s al Ghul – a villain who has and remains at the core of modern Batman films and animated series.
Batman was released a mere 21 years after the Batman TV series
While good work was being undertaken on the printed page. Warner’s caped screen antics fell onto the super powered box office potential of Superman, ably filling the gap between 1978 and 1987, although not quite avoiding a dive into his own camp dreariness at the end.
Since 1989 though, Batman has barely been away from the screens, even if Joel Schumacher’s laughably credible third sequel Batman and Robin kept the Knight away for eight years. Still, he clung on by the Batarang to the small screen. From the incredibly influential Batman: The Animated Series, through Batman Beyond, Justice League (a commendably continuous animated universe under the guidance of Bruce Timm) and onto the current CGI trinket Beware the Batman (alongside countless spin-off movies). Special mention must go to Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a wonderfully referential and good natured show that showcased a host of DC characters in three seasons between 2008 and 2011. I’ve written at length about the quality of intention behind that show, but it could escape falling slightly foul of those intervening years between Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Of course Nolan’s universe was a not an easy fit for a cartoon, even though earlier series The Batman gave a half stab at the young Batman theory and Gotham Knight, prequel to The Dark Knight added a Matrix-style universe expansion. As a result The Brave and the Bold proved once again, that a light knight will always bring a reaction. I fear that show will be wrongly dismissed as frippery in the canon, but Beware the Batman makes a brave stab at obliterating it.
Beware the CGI
The Brave and the Boldproved again that a light knight will always bring a reaction…
Beware the Batman is an intriguing concept. While the CGI is as hard to warm to as ever, it’s an interesting expansion in the fast evolving Bat-universe. The ex-spy, glabrous Alfred signals the direction of Sean Pertwee’s upcoming ex-spy guardian in television series Gotham. It’s a far cry from the classic pencil moustached Alfred of legend, Michael Gough’s four film stint and (presumably/hopefully) Jeremy Iron’s next big screen iteration. Michael Caine of course, falls peerlessly in the middle.
While a character – and Outsider – with her own comic legacy, Katana still takes the role of a Robin here. It’s really with its foes that Beware the Batman stakes its claim. A series-long arc of villainy steers well clear of the well established rogues’ gallery – well, mostly. Catwoman is missing, replaced with Magpie. Arkham Asylum has less of a presence, Blackgate Prison more. Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Anarky makes a welcome (re)appearance while the main fodder is supplied by the rather better known League of Assassins. That brings Lady Shiva, though here she’s not addressed as one of Batman’s early mentors, and inevitably, Ra’s himself. Ever since I first came across the long-lived, beardily eerie eco-terrorist I’ve been hooked – I’m not surprised that he forms a major part of both this and the Nolan trilogy.
Perhaps most interesting in this new animated series is the appearance of Grant Morrison’s Professor Pyg and Mr Toad (the latterly brilliantly voiced by Udo Kier I was delighted to see). Yes, those fiends are rather differently presented than in their 2008 comic debut, but once again, the inclusion of Wind in the Willows shows just how well Gotham takes to being the land of fiction…
The glut of Batman in the last 25 years signals and creates one thing: confidence. Warners didn’t seem put off by the relatively minor haul of 2005’s Batman Begins and that, er, wildcard Joker and patience proved astute when the sequel, the stand-out example of Batman on film, crossed $1 billion.
With Nolan, things changed. While the comic scene has increased yet further, only Marvel has remained strong enough among blockbuster producers not to mine at least some of the perceived ‘dark realism’ of the Dark Knight trilogy.
Party like it’s 1989
That is and ever will be the Batmobile
True, Tim Burton’s Batman started a mini craze in 1989, but that was for blockbusters as Indiana Jones took a false-retirement. A prime example of its impact being felt five years later was Russell Mulcahy’s extraordinary homage, The Shadow in 1994. That example showed how definitively brilliant some part of Batman were. It’s the late Anton Furst’s delectable production design meeting Tim Burton’s singularly artistic vision and bold casting that made that legend.
With this week’s reveal of Zack Snyder’s new Batmobile, it’s no surprise that immediate thoughts turn to Anton Furst’s superior 1989 design,
just as the late 2000s had everyone wishing that the Tumbler would develop that same sleek aesthetic. That is and ever will be the Batmobile. And Batman versus Superman’s design seems to acknowledge that debt.
It’s undeniable that Burton’s Batman made that one crucial mistake: giving Batman ultimate revenge for the death of his parents, credit for which screenwriter Sam Hamm lays with Burton. That redemption set the franchise up for a fall, not to provide Joel Schumacher any excuses. It meant that in the three successive films, no matter who wore the cowl, Bruce Wayne had to retread and uncover further trauma in his earlier tragedy. Last decade Nolan got it right. Well, apart from that ending, but let’s just call that an Inception moment.
The Comics are Coming
Comic book movies cannot and will not ever over-saturate
Since that film kicked off Batman on the big screen (really, it did), he hasn’t left us. But his is a celluloid history often slightly removed from comic book trends. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t Sam Raimi’s very successful Spiderman trilogy that kicked off the comic film boom in 2002, nor Bryan Singer’s stable if under-powered X-Men two years before. That honour belongs to Stephen Norrington’s Blade in 1998. A well made but under-sold film of the titular Marvel character, it opened up the box office for the super-powered assault we see today. And crucially, just to futilely banish those same suggestions made each year: comic book movies cannot and will not ever reach over-saturation.
And Wesley Snipes’ Blade sliced into cinemas just one year after Batman and Robin had supposedly stopped the comic trend cold. Mr Freeze cold. But although Batman wasn’t there during those early years of Marvel taking a foothold through three different studios, Warners were still simmering in their bat cave.
At the turn of the century Miles Millar and Alfred Gough III pitched an idea for a young Bruce Wayne television series, but Warners dismissed it, eager to pursue the Dark Knight’s more lucrative career on the big screen. That series morphed into the incredibly successful Smallville. It wasn’t that Superman wasn’t box office property, but it seemed that Nic Cage’s pay-or-play contract for Tim Burton’s aborted Superman Returns had burnt them a little more than Batman ever could. Either that or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was really far worse than Batman and Robin. Well…
Traits of the Batmen
The Dark Knight’s one simple appeal keeps him relevant
Nonetheless, Smallville’s 10 seasons happened because Warners’ aspirations for Batman on film signalled a brand conflict. 14 years later, it couldn’t be more different. We live in a universe of multiple batmen. New animated series are lined up to reboot the last when their natural lives conclude. Gotham will bring us classic villains before they’d even heard of Arkham and Jim Gordon before he grew a moustache. And at the flicks, Ben Affleck’s Batman takes on the Man of Steel in what must be one of 2016’s big hitters. And that’s not even including the wildly successful Arkham videogame series, it’s Lego counterpart and the Caped Crusader’s constant appearances in the well produced line of DC Universe Animated OriginalMovies.
So why the increasing multiplicty? Well, you can read why Batman’s a fascinating character, if not quite with the potential of Superman, here. But some clear indicators lie in his key traits. There’s the inherent darkness, the Jekyll and Hyde, the fact he’s the world’s greatest detective and most dangerous human (modern adaptations suggest that the great detective’s morphing more into Batman than the other way around). There’s the fact that he’s mortal, he’s a playboy, he has the greatest rogues’ gallery in comics, many representing a psychological disorder or primal instinct. He’s a bat, that atavistic and distinctive symbol conjuring up vampires, darkness, base fear… He’s the protector, the winged guardian angel who overcomes all odds…
But really it’s the Dark Knight’s one simple appeal that keeps him relevant – it’s that alluring 101 to psychological damage that stands him alone as a character who can carry this off. Batman exists in multiple guises at the same time because that is what the character is. When he doesn’t, he’s diminished. Not even Warren Ellis did that in Planetary… But his guardian’s increasingly realise it. And in each and every guise, the Dark Knight stands watch over the ultimate fictional city. That once and maybe never were New York, Gotham.
A great figure in the Batman story, Darwyn Cooke’s 75th anniversary animated tribute get’s it about right, with a fitting and good spoonful of other pop culture to go with it. As that shows, Batman’s in very good health this 75th birthday and as more and more share the Mantle of the Bat, it’s certain that he’s going to be with us a good while yet.
Now, time for a Batrospective…
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IT HAD BEEN TWO MONTHS SINCE I’D LAST VISITED THE CORP TOWER WHEN I FOUND MYSELF, LATE ONE NIGHT, RECEIVING A SPECIAL INVITATION. It came in the form of two gigantic, suited, monosyllabic bodyguards. The glimmer of the single letter signet rings they both wore were introduction enough. The rest was force. Within seconds I was in car, just able to grab a camera and notepad from my apartment and balance glasses on the end of my nose. The drive was quiet, but quick; there was I sat firmly between the two beefcakes, staring at a black tinted driver shield. Outside I saw the city fleet past, not a head turning toward the dark limo. Within minutes I was at the Corp Tower, walking around the labyrinthine corridors that spiralled from the ornate reception, past gigantic sculptures and escorted into a glass lift. As the lift rose I thought I saw a familiar face below, looking impassively up at the rising elevator. Was it impassive? I could make out the turned, glossed lips and immaculate make-up. Something switched in my head and I suddenly remembered my lucky pack – surely lying quietly on a shelf at home. I gulped and left my stomach on floor 65 as I sped to the top of the tower. Emerging onto a helipad, all watered down cement, fresh blue markings and chrome bars I was met by a young woman, clasping a raincoat tightly around her. She held an umbrella above my head as she pulled me towards her. The rain was light and I got the impression that the covering was more for the benefit of my destination. There ahead of me sat a purring helicopter. Huge, seemingly levitating on the wet pad. The rotors swooped in slow motion, throwing a soft buzz into the wet breeze. As we walked, I heard the instructions given by the woman close to my ear. Half warning, half order. Her voice slowed with our strides as the chopper neared. The green chassis gleamed. Behind the cockpit glass I saw only black equipment with black gloved hands slowly working. I could feel black eyes stare at me from behind shades. We were nearly at the open door when I dared ask my guide what the rush was. She looked at me just for a moment at the base of the steps. “Didn’t you feel it?” She asked. I didn’t need to try to look perplexed. “You can’t keep him waiting”. Her eyes dropped as I climbed the steps and saw him, the last person I wanted to see. I knew he’d be there of course. I was stuck, suddenly feeling rather lonely, at the top of his bloody tower. As usual, he was sharply attired in a sleek air suit. I was not. His head gleamed, his hands worked. One picked up a safety harness and flak jacket which he threw at me, the other worked a miniscule tablet device. I knew where we were going before I recognised the map on the screen: due south. Something had happened, something had to have happened. But I knew that seed of a thought would only make the trip longer still.
“Hope.” That’s all the hulk said to me as the helicopter rose into the air. “Hope”. Rising from the tallest tower in the City, moonlight still managed to catch the skyline below and strafe his face with shadow. I stared into the reflection, the dark eyes embedded in pits that stayed resolutely black in spite of the strobe. “I know you had hope, of a kind, but it’s gone”. He might be true. My body suddenly felt heavy and sluggish. I blamed it on the helicopter and shook my head slightly. The last time I had confronted this man there had been talk of a doomsday. That had stopped some weeks before, abruptly. Whatever had been coming hadn’t. It had been halted in its tracks. But with that act, the city’s guardian had disappeared. Searches continued in the suburbs of the city, where huge craters pock-marked what once were amusement parks and lakes, fields and reservoirs. It had been weeks, but it was still too early to say that hope had gone. The deep voice continued. “He was more than hope, more than anything any human should ever believe in. He was a distortion of everything human, a forced Messiah” Ah. We were back in that office, as if no time had passed at all since the uncomfortable interview. This time, despite the rush and surprise I was far more prepared. That first meeting had run and run through my mind… I had wanted a rematch and now I had it. “I was surprised” I acknowledged, taking the nape of my nose between my fingers as a the nausea abated. Ahead of me, the eyes didn’t move. They remained trained intently on me…
Following the heavy symbolism of Superman Returns (the son and the father, the fall to Earth, the resurrection), I was amazed that Man of Steel pushed the symbolism even further. The church visit and the spread-arm descent from space are blunt, but the world wandering and name-checked age of 33 are deliberate additions. In support, Warner Bros also accompanied the film’s release with some peculiar specialist Christian marketing… However, the Christ-like qualities of Superman’s myth have been present for many years. It was no coincidence that Returns, a self-styled sequel to Superman II, drew it out. Superman’s is a history full of symbolism, responsibility, sacrifice and often, resurrection – whether that’s the Death of Superman storyline in the comic books or the last third of Superman Returns. He is named as the light, the leader and his central role is that largest of metaphors: the son who becomes the father. The Kryptonian’s resurrection is hardly a unique quality among comic-book heroes. Even so, Superman arrives as an apparent Christian metaphor through a variety of sources. Superman is a fundamentally natural and biological phenomenon. A human-sized, red-caped battery powered by the yellow sun. His is an exaggerated use of the same source that gives us life, one that has also been a symbol of worship for many civilisations – the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Aztecs and others. Man of Steel drew on that bold idea of the god walking among us. The Codex that Superman carries in his DNA draws comparison with not only Noah, but Prometheus – another mythological figure who casts a mighty shadow on comics and science fiction. Perhaps most noteworthy, is the fact that Superman was created by two Jewish teenagers. Undoubtedly, he was not conceived as this Christ-like figure – their first character called Superman was a mad scientist with more in common with Superman’s greatest nemesis. Across the cabin, the lips curled. But just as Superman grew to focus his powers, so that early groundwork built up through the decades to form a Christian allegory that film creatives still find so compelling.
We were sat in a flying lump of metal I could only, lamely, describe as the most futuristic thing I had ever seen. It was sleek and solid, huge and powerful. It was a statement of intent. It was aimed south and I was on it. The rest was unclear. We were careering across the southern suburbs of the great metropolis at an incredible rate, but still the rotors made hardly any noise, the open doorways – there were no doors – were guarded so closely by the design that there was neither the incredible rush of air or the flight of the wind. I looked around as my interviewer examined me closely. My eyes darted. For a second, I was sure that I saw an indentation at the top right hand of the cabin… It looked like a hand. No… But, in the changing light it was impossible to see it properly. I certainly didn’t intend to unbuckle myself and stand in the cabin at that precise moment. The next question seemed to pick up on my thoughts, dwelling as they did on the contemporary and futuristic. I shuddered slightly and raised my chin. “He’s outdated, he has no place in the 21st century” I parried back once more. Superman is not an easy to evolve. If he ever was, he isn’t now. Once the character had developed, he proved too archetypal to play with too much. One factor must have been the massive rise of the superhero during the Silver Age of comics. With the powers that all others are judged by, Superman was forced into a locked and lead-lined template of sorts. Each change since, whether momentary such as the Death, Transformed or power loss storylines or life changing (until reboot) like his marriage to Lois, have created opprobrium in the press and fair-weather fans alike. But that’s not too say that Big Blue hasn’t changed. For all the tropes and stock parts of the myth that stay intact (costume, phone boxes, Lois, Daily Planet) important ones have been lost (Lois’ obliviousness, the Jimmy Olsen watch – for the most part, Luthor the mad criminal scientist…). In fact, Superman has changed greatly since his inception. It’s just not been easy to notice. Fandom is defined by its lobbying for then outrage at change. But despite his many mythical elements, Superman is on a far more sticky wicket than the Dark Knight. While the basics stay intact, Batman is defined by his constant evolution. In fact, his evolution has turned into a real Bat-asset. While the Dark Knight can be identified as 60s camp, 70s dark, 80s gothic, Nolan-real and so on, Superman apparently remains very similar. Henry Cavill’s relationship with Ma Kent isn’t that different from Welling, Cain or Christopher Reeves’. It may be that the Bat-family is more durable. The first Robin grew up to spread his wings as Nightwing while no such enduring success has served Jimmy Olsen, the latter Superboys or Krypto the Superdog. “You talk about the man… A man with a family. If he’s just a man, there are others”. There are others. The DC Universe presented on film has been markedly influenced by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. (Although, that introduction’s an injustice. It is writer David S Goyer who lay not only at the heart of the Dark Knight trilogy, but also Man of Steel and its forthcoming sequel as well as the new Commissioner Gordon television show and the here before you know it Justice League film.) 2012 was a key year for superhero films, pitching Nolan’s ‘realistic’ take against the highly militaristic but jocular Marvel Avengers. It was a battle of the billion dollar film franchises – Marvel’s long-trailed team-up versus the Dark Knight’s ‘satirical’ violence. Both emerged well from the scrap, but it was a battle that established very clear rules for the rematch in 2015 – a year that Spielberg and Lucas might well call the make or break year of the blockbuster. With Man of Steel it’s clear that Warner Bros saw strength in the darker, more serious tones that Nolan and Goyer established as opposed to matching the Marvel universe gag for gag. The Avengers wasn’t a camp affair by any means. But while Marvel may play with killing a character – in DC’s universe anything is possible. Given the 2011 Green Lantern disaster, that’s not a bad decision.
“Some of Gotham’s finest minds gone in an instant, so much trust placed in those alien hands and based on what? How many must he kill?” On the seat next to the figure I saw a short stack of papers pawed over by his large hands. As the paper shifted I thought I saw a logo I hadn’t seen for years. The tip of a yellow triangle, a star..? How deep did this man’s reach go, how far below the streets, past the sewers… I looked from the window, where the sun sat low on the horizon and barns and outhouses cast long dark shadows over fields and vineyards. I knew where we were going, but why?
Anything is possible? Really? The deaths of major characters, the surprising (presumed) demise of Emil Hamilton – it all set a tone for tone for Man of Steel’s new universe. It’snot without comedy and neither was the Dark Knight, but it creates a world of repercussion and consequence. During the course of the Dark Knight trilogy Gotham visibly transformed from Kowloon to Manhattan. It’s not exactly Morten Harket breaking out of his comic world, but it shows an intent to increasingly ground the universe in realism, even within its own narrative. After the Dark Knight, that almost seems a crucial approach to modernising a definitive superhero. Were it not for Joss Whedon that is. There’s more that one way to skin a bat after all. Warner’s is not an easy path, but runs less risk of the comic campery that has wounded them more than most. Superman has appeared as outdated for years and although the mass devastation, or rather the ambiguous human cost, of Man of Steel appears very un-Superman, it acutely makes that modernist argument. Goyer has recently spoken out about the death count and voiced his strong support for Superman’s right to kill, acknowledging the opposition from many other comic writers. In the DC film universe, death really is the catalyst that The Avengers built into its plot. While Batman has lived in this universe of consequence since 2005, it’s a big step for Superman. Why not easy? In essence it’s a finite universe that works contrary to the rules of comic books, one where death is real and consequences eternal. I used to rail at the middle ground comic films took to death before. Taking the original Batman films of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Joker was killed off in part one, the Penguin in part two. There was death rather than incarceration in Arkham Asylum, but there was no consequence to it. These were westerns, where the lone slinger lived to walk away to lick his wounds until the next gang rode into town. That was a Batman who battled super villains one at a time, each one of them meeting a grizzly end after a week or so of conflict. It wasn’t compelling, although the films were immensely enjoyable. This unwritten law of the superhero film fortunately changed in the 2000s – an even more sequel-savvy time – despite Spiderman’s best efforts to keep it going. In The Dark Knight trilogy, every death had a purpose. Whether Batman Begins was intended to establish a trilogy (highly unlikely), by the time The Dark Knight had granted Christopher Nolan a blank sheet for the follow-up, the third part could only provide closure. In 2012, The Avengers expertly established a super team in the Marvel world of comics. In fact, it was more effective than any other Marvel film at putting Marvel on film – mainly thanks to Joss Whedon who evidently breathes the House of Ideas. Man of Steel is a film that reflects the contemporary Superman ‘universe’. It’s darker, it’s a world of ramifications, it’s drawing on the lines of history laid down by 60 years of the comics, just like The Dark Knight trilogy had done for his caped comrade… The helicopter buzzed. It had been a smooth journey so far, the sound of the machine hardly audible, but now I noticed it. Looking from the window, I saw that we had dropped – virtually skimming the thinning trees. We were approaching the suburbs – I’d seen the trees thin like this a thousand times. Soon to be replaced by dark canals, lakes and stacks of rundown warehouses… But this time something was different. There were less trees, or rather less treetops. Giant stems and trunks lay flat on the ground, giant swathes of earth fleeing the root cavities. I realised that both my hands were flat against the windows as I strained to see more. Running through the trees laid furrows and trenches, like fissures, ripping the forests and fields into shards. “Update.” The voice was deep and commanding, it wasn’t a question. I don’t know who it was aimed at but I was sure that whoever it was intended for had heard it. A tinny voice rang through the cabin, clear and crisp as though it came through the walls. “Sir, confirmed as a 7.6 quake with an epicentre on the south west outskirts. Government response teams testing viability of remaining bridges around the island. Seven minutes to the Tower”. The figure was impassive. I turned back to the window, where metres below the mud trenches were clearly revealed as faults. There had been a cataclysm and we were heading right into it.
I was reeling, trying to understand why I was in the transport with perhaps the most important people in the country heading for a disaster zone. Why me? The smallest whimper may have escaped my lips. Fortunately I had some questions to distract me. Unfortunately they were drilled at me by the same person. “But then you’ve got to agree that souped-up boy scout isn’t as interesting as that lying rodent…” – I must have missed the “f” in the rush of air. Small branches snapped against the undercarriage. “I’ve heard that. I’ve heard that many times in the last month.” The sound of flight was much louder now, as if the air was resisting our arrival. Just like this city to reject help I thought. Below me, the broken husks of warehouses had begun to litter the landscape. “I’ve heard Superman described as a difficult character because he just isn’t as interesting as Batman, but really?” There’s two sides to it each equally as interesting, and I laid them out.. On one hand Superman’s lost his home planet and entire species, not just his parents. On the other he’s one of the few superheroes who was able to make a choice of his own free-will. Although Man of Steel saw Zod’s actions force Kal-El’s hands somewhat, the addition of Kryptonian ‘genetic set roles’ adds a new dimension. Batman’s dual identity may appear more compelling, set as it is against a city of madness, but aside from the ‘which persona is the mask?’ debate, is Bruce Wayne so much deeper than Clark Kent? Superman, Kal-El and Clark Kent are three distinct personalities: world saviour, Kryptonian son and Kansas farm boy turned Pulitzer-baiting journalist. Each feeds in to the other and it’s far more than simply donning a suit under a crisp white shirt. Biographically the character was first and foremost raised as Clark. His super powers developed over time, leading to the creation of one persona and discovery of the other. One is the moral question of great responsibility coming with great power, the other the inevitable quest to discover his origin. While Kal-El may have arrived at around the same time as Superman, it’s easily identifiable as an objective route to dealing with his role as Superman. It can be looked at in different ways. Film, TV series and comics have dealt with this differently and if you want to break up the various Supermen from Superboys, it’s far easier to look at their on-screen portrayals. Superman’s different personas are more nuanced than the pre-eminent modern Batman debate of which character is the mask. Superman is far less psychologically tortured, but there is plenty of room for many different interpretations. Smallville, by TV necessity, was all about Clark Kent’s discovery of Kal-El. Taking on the caped mantle was the end result and was only seen in the final episode alongside that typical Superman power, flight. Superman the Movie dealt very much with Clark Kent. Here we saw Superman arrive fully developed. The discovery of Kal-El was touched upon, but revealed by the Clark Kent character as well as external factors – importantly, the loss of his father. He was then nourished in a ice fortress for years until the ready-formed mind-set of Kal-Superman emerged. In Man of Steel Clark’s character undergoes similar loss, but sitting between its two predecessors, it creates a loner Clark Kent who embarks on a long Christ-like period of discovery but also pre-destiny. The film shows that his years of searching eventually trigger a set of events that rapidly answer long hanging questions. Strong with coincidence Man of Steel balances the change against a long Bruce Banner style journey of self-discovery before Zod’s arrival suddenly brings the decision to the fore. Unlike the Movie, Clark does not have years encased in the Fortress of Solitude to understand his situation – those years are instead spent among the best and worst of the people he will chose to adopt. His persona emerges from his battle with his biological people. The effect is a less contrived and more human Superman. He discovered the role of Superman at the age of 33, far later than the Welling or Reeve iterations. Onscreen, the channelling of different facets of the character by each actor has helped create Superman as a successful screen icon – yes, including Dean Cain. It’s possible, that this has served to limit his growth in the comics. Certainly, you are far more likely to imagine an actor as your Clark Kent than with Bruce Wayne. The infamous, but abating Hollywood curse hasn’t helped Superman loosen that distinction. “Curses, fate and destiny. Is that where we’ve arrived? I have always dealt in fact and certainty” Below groups of people had started to form. Even from meters above, they were disorientated, dispossessed. A tragedy was unfolding.
Both Superman and Batman are figures of tragedy and the paternal legacy that leads from that. It’s intensely personal, but also about the personnel. While Bruce Wayne famously lost his parents as a young boy, he replaced them with a framework of characters, among them his faithful ‘batman’ of conscience Alfred, figure of justice Commissioner Gordon and figure of (business) moral Lucius Fox. The Dark Knight trilogy took this to its extreme, supplementing and layering those paternal analogies throughout the trilogy.
In contrast, Superman lost his parents and his race as an infant and has been a product of two parental sets ever since. True there are others, but they are not strong. Daily Planet editor Perry White could take on such a role easily, but he also serves it for Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and his other employees. Man of Steel purposefully delivered its disaster movie plot through individuals. It wasn’t just the central message that was bottled down to a personal level. It was seeded and foreshadowed through the characters caught up in the third act’s destruction of Metropolis. Instead of seeing the large military presence that’s seen elsewhere carry out the evacuation, it was followed through Perry White and the Daily Planet staff. This was a big film played out through the archetype characters of Superman lore. Zack Snyder has recently defended the mass destruction of comparing it to the Japanese monster films of the 1950s and beyond. When he first appeared, Godzilla was a clear analogy for the horror of nuclear weapons, a close response to a very real and recent tragedy. Godzilla’s relocation to America over the years hasn’t had quite the same effect, but in Man of Steel, Snyder adopted the idea. It’s not a new idea that Superman forms part of a modern America’s pantheon akin to the Greek gods of Olympus or Nordic gods of Asgard. Man of Steel saw Snyder rope in stronger beats, more reflective of modern America. Just as the first Godzilla film was repurposed for American audiences (Raymond Burr intercut into destruction for added resonance), Snyder used the film’s individuals to counter-balance this. At the start, Godzilla had little perception of the people in the mass disaster he dealt, just as the Kryptonians had little perception of the humans in their metropolis. Batman is a more immediately personal crime-fighter. Partly it’s because he’s human and he loves a gadget, just like many husbands. Partly he’s defined by his fights against individual villains or even against the highly anthropomorphic Gotham City. His fight is a dark and self-destructive one. But people love the dark vigilante and Batman has become a definitively brilliant example of that. That said, Superman may be the exception to the rule that the good guys are less interesting in comparison. While Batman’s origin has become mythic, but Superman’s is biblical. The son of two worlds idea is a deep and powerful one – albeit more opaque than Batman’s son of two sides of a city. It’s B-movie versus film noir, and you only have to look at critical reception to see how that unfolds. I noticed that across the cabin a hand lay against the glass window. Impassively, the thick neck and strong dome were studying the devastation below. The thick knuckles were white against the pane. As the inevitable dark clouds fell around us as we neared the city districts, the reflection of his face was lost in shadow. I was speaking louder and more confidently now as if to keep his attention, I had to finish before we arrived. Who knew what would happen then… “It’s that Superman’s perceived as outdated, clean-cut and too powerful to be opposed that a lot of emphasis falls on the darker and so ‘more interesting’ Batman.” I paused as I remembered my lucky pack. I thought of the King of Clubs and King of Hearts vying for the top deck.
The next film has been announced as Superman versus Batman – even if the name changes in the interim, the long mooted struggle is at last reaches the big screen. That opposition, purposefully, sounds a little more drastic than it is. In reality, they are just ideologically opposed. It’s a concept that’s nicely murky for our times, and their first meeting will make for interesting viewing. Notes that swiftly accompanied the casting of Ben Affleck in the Dark Knight’s role confirmed that this would be a grizzled, older Batman. Not Dark night Returns perhaps, but no Batman beginning. Of course, Bats and Supes have historically come to blows in the comics, and most aficionados will opt for the mortal side of the coin. Usually that opposition comes in some form of corruption to what Superman is or does. Superman isn’t a vigilante after all, with a public persona and allegiances sworn at various times to US and world bodies. Batman is all about vigilantism. In any dystopian shift, a government, just like any villain, would seek to corrupt the more powerful Superman first (remember, Batman’s only a mortal). In that role, Batman always rises to the surface as the champion of right. There are levels of irony in their pairing, but over the years it’s forged a close bond. “The most dangerous mortal on Earth. Perhaps he still is…” We were over the city outskirts. Below I could see the stately parks and manor houses of the city’s founding fathers. Those that were still intact had the ground ripped from underneath them. One sat among chasms, a dark pit spreading from its base. It looked like foundations were exposed in the cave below. The figure in front of me craned his neck. There is no defence against Superman. He gets all the attention from governments, cartels or rival injustice leagues because he’s the one to take down. Swearing allegiance to the President of the USA in a far more – perhaps necessarily – open way than Batman, he is the first to succumb. At the first sign of a metahuman registration act, in the first wave of hypnosis or brainwashing into, he’s a prime target – whether villain, governments or both are behind it. As he a natural the symbol of the American Dream it oozes dramatic potential. As opposition to the ultimate symbol of vigilantism, it’s even better. When it comes to kryptonite knuckle-dusters, the rule of the underdog gives the Dark Knight of Gotham a distinct advantage.
We were nearing the end of our journey I assumed. There must be a stopping point. Surely he wasn’t here just to circle… There were rumours he had far more property in the city below us than anyone knew of course. Rumours that a duplicate of his Scottish manor to the north had been constructed here as well. I was curious to see if would head there before or after The Tower. I turned back to my interviewer. Inevitably, the challenge for the next film was set. “Invincible.” It sounded chilling above the devastation. “He’s invincible”. “He’s a storytelling challenge who’s been underserved…” The head twisted slightly on the thick neck too face me. In the comics, when they have clashed, it’s Batman who’s invariably the victor, but there are inherent problems with bringing Superman to the big screen. The same issues that make him the one to take down, also ensure that he’s perceived as dull. That Batman has the greater and better known gallery of rogues is good indicator of the difficulty with the Superman. The Caped Crusader has almost inarguably the best roster of nemeses, perhaps only rivalled by Spiderman. The fact that Gotham City’s guardian is mortal helps immensely of course, as does that fact that they are generally mentally unstable and reside for the most part in an asylum. But with Superman you can’t just ramp up the gothic. Superman’s foes may have been around as long or longer than Batman’s, but they haven’t achieved the same cultural familiarity. Braniac is no Joker, Metallo is no Riddler. Some of the earliest have all but disappeared as solo Superman rogues, such as the Ultrahumanite. Others like Luthor have changed immeasurably. However, much of the problem is that for the most part, they can’t be realised on screen. Even with the arrival of CGI Superman Returns illustrated the resistance perfectly. Now, with reboot fresh in the minds and a sequel announced, we still aren’t being introduced to universal foes such as Darkseid, Mogul or Brainiac. All the emphasis in the next film, sensibly, has to fall to the modern day corporate Lex Luthor. Man of Steel chose to favour the General Zod, last seen in cinemas in Superman II (1980), which made great origin sense. Still, the General’s earlier appearance had played it’s part Superman’s difficulty. Despite a broad range of foes and storylines crossing nearly eight decades, the failure to draw on them in the past has just served to diminish the Man of Steel. That he’s just too powerful has been a constant challenge in the books and films, although the rise of CGI should helped combat this. So far, the common attempt to combat it has been a sharp divergence between the Superman comics and onscreen representations. At last, it appears that the Kryptonian has allies on celluloid. Previously, the blame has lain with the film creators themselves. While Superman the Movie is wonderful in its scope, as is the sequel that unleashed General Zod onto the world, Superman III, IV and Returns suffered from poor decisions. The latter two continued the outdated and limiting misreading of Superman’s biggest foe – as enjoyable as Gene Hackman’s portrayal was. While Lex Luthor had started off as a mad scientist in the comics, the current corporate Luthor is a far more interesting creation than the one seen in the Reeve films or their belated sequels. It was only in the 1980s that the current nuanced and interesting take on the character came to the fore in the comics. Various storylines and creative teams have established Luthor as the greatest human who has ever lived, knocking off cancer cures at a whim (and of course charging tons to patients in the process), providing innate genius to a multi-billion business that Bruce Wayne can barely touch. Effectively he’s the greatest human Earth has ever produced but then… An alien just happens to land in America and steals all the glory. Luthor will always be number two, and every despicable plan has its root in that jealousy inspired by an unnatural twist of fate. Even in the 1960s (Adventure Comics 271), it was posited that Luthor and Clark Kent knew each other as children, an idea recently brought back to the fore in the tremendously successful Smallville. So in all, it’s curiosity that lead to jealousy at the root of Luthor’s evil. Another in a long line of fantastic and jealous villains. It’s an emotion that has powered brilliant plots and inspired great writers for centuries, including, it must be said, those who’ve breathed life into Superman. In the comics anything is fair game, from Lois to morals, from Metropolis to the Earth. I resisted the urge to push Mark Millar’s Red Son once again… I pulled the collar around my neck as the cold glare chilled the air around me. Under the intense scrutiny I contemplated making a leap for it. If there was one man who didn’t need a look to kill…
Saved. Red lights blinked and confirmation came to the cabin that we were near our destination. The chopper smoothly dipped through the cloud that had built up at the centre. There were less buildings than there used to be, I noted unemotionally. The sky was strangely quiet, but below the clouds the streets were chaos. Swathes of concrete and tarmac had been overturned, gigantic trenches dotted every block wriggling in and out of the buildings. Blue and red lights flashed in between, main a sea of white light. I couldn’t even gauge the devastation. I couldn’t consider the loss… The city as everyone knew it was gone. It wasn’t a tourist trap, it wasn’t visited by people other than those who had a reason. Those who knew what had gone were select, many of them in the streets now… Somehow through all of it we landed. There was a mist, a haze… Like the disorientation couldn’t rest in the streets and was reaching up to escape. The cabin release lights flicked on and I earned a scowl from the figure that flashed past to leave the cabin as I grappled with my safety belt. In the minute it took me to put a foot to the concrete and find my land legs, he was already standing 20 metres in front of me surveying the scene as if he’d been there a thousand years. I realised we were on the top of a skyscraper, perched in the middle of the city. His skyscraper? I couldn’t remember him having one before… It was eerie… What would happen next I thought… Man of Steel left vast swathes of the Superman mythos waiting while it redefined the story and set many other cogs in motion. Using the sequel of this successful Superman as a springboard for the rebooted Batman is a clever one, and not just financially. Batman can survive very well on his own of course, but he needs to be cajoled into the DC universe just as his Justice League peers occasionally need to convince him to be a team player. While Arrow promises to introduce the Flash to the small screen, within a few short years a functional Justice League could be ready to go, showing up Marvel’s not-so-secret-invasion as slow. Many things need to align for that to happen, but the establishment of the two male cornerstones of the DC universe in that one film will help greatly in bringing that vision to the big screen. That battle, though mostly inferred will be far larger than the sum of its parts. While Superman sits awkwardly in the Man of Steel Universe, those flip-side ideologies promise to be scintillating. There is still the third icon of DC’s trinity to come of course, and she really is a goddess. Rumours are circulating that Wonder Woman’s being cast in the film, potentially shifting it into the Trinity core of the Justice League. But what else could be in store? Luthor must be a shoe in for the next instalment – not just as the enemy of Superman in Metropolis, but a major competitor of Bruce Wayne across the trading floor. Although Professor Hamilton’s presumably gone, Luthor’s surely the link to Kryptonite but crucially, that’s the one element that Batman needs to make a fight of it. Add in the Amazonian princess, and the cards are being stacked for a multi-textured struggle. Exactly what you’d expect from this burgeoning universe. I thought of my playing cards again and looked at my host. He sat above his tower overlooking the devastation. I could see it there again. Opportunity, that’s what he saw in ever displaced person, every broken street, every upturned house. In the distance a cloud grew in the air from a controlled explosion. It looked like the river. Perhaps the island and was being separated from the mainland. We were being sealed in, I knew it almost instinctively… Next to me, the focussed eyes gleamed. One of the country’s major cities in ruins, one man to save it. I thought the lights might reflect in his eyes and reached into my bag for a notepad. I didn’t want to miss the moment those reflected lights turned into the facsimile of the Oval Office reflected in his eyes. As I floundered, he turned to look at me. The steely gaze refreshed with zeal and confidence. He spoke slowly and deliberately, his words reminding me of the last time I was in this city, joining that select group. “Some time ago a friend asked me a question…”
THE NEWS SPRUNG OUT OF THE SHADOWS LATE ON THURSDAY – AGAIN I WISH THAT WARNER WOULD GIVE SOME WARNING FOR THEIR SURPRISE ANNOUNCEMENTS. BEN AFFLECK IS THE DARK KNIGHT.
More than usual, the genre press led with ‘What do you think?’ headlines – and that’s saying something. There are few actors who’d create more of a stir. Recent weeks have been consumed with rumours that Warner Bros were casting around for an older Batman to match their 33 year old on screen Superman – even pursuing Christian Bale’s return to the tune of $50 million. Recently retired Caped Crusader Bale is just two years younger than Affleck, but it turns out that offer was either flatly rejected, a neat distraction or both. The sudden and definitive announcement surprised many, more than guaranteeing an argument.
Indifferent commentators have been increasingly quiet during a Summer where superhero films have dodged blockbuster box office meltdown. But this news stirred them. They stress that for them it’s not an Affleck issue. It’s more a lament – usually an ill-considered one – that it’s time to seal the comic book film genre away in UV protecting plastic sleeves. In an attic. For once, fans with vision the size of the bat cave entrance may be more clued up, but not necessarily for the right reason. The problem is that Ben Affleck has form.
2003’s Daredevil hangs over Affleck like Kingpin over Hell’s Kitchen. And that’s a little unfair. Far from being the victim of misfortune, it’s been mainly Affleck who’s distanced himself from it – with an emphasis on never playing a superhero again. 2003 was an odd time for the genre, falling in an odd hinterland half a decade before Marvel Studios kicked off their ambitions. At the time Fox’s X Men franchise was successfully burgeoning but remained quite low key. That Summer also saw Ang Lee’s tortured Hulk suffer (mind you, in a difficult season even Harry Potter underperformed).
Daredevil is an established and well regarded Marvel superhero, with one of the most eminent fathers in Stan Lee. But he’s always been one that fits a little awkwardly into the Marvel film roster. Now Fox have rejected Joe Carnahan’s intriguing 70s reboot and the rights have reverted to Marvel Studios it’s hard to see the Man without Fear slipping neatly into the Avengers universe anytime soon. While tragedy and classic monster horror runs through the Hulk’s veins and comedy and coming of age angst drip from Spiderman’s web, Daredevil marries one of the hokiest origin stories with themes of religion, law and city-grit. The horned one is perhaps the darkest fantasy creation to ever wear scarlet in comics and over time creators such as Frank Miller have honed him into a fascinating character – so much more than disability and toxic ooze. Those B-Movie roots that even the Turtles couldn’t totally steal remain, but his position as the real Batman of the Marvel Universe is clear. Pipe down Iron Man.
Director Mark Steven Johnson, a director who often finds it very difficult to please, got a lot right. Daredevil’s power was startlingly realised if a little too stylised. The curse of heightened senses and the Devil’s Catholic guilt were implemented well while the cast was well filled out. The late Michael Clarke Duncan was a superb Kingpin in particular. Fox certainly didn’t fear the worst before it opened, ordering an extra post-credit scene that showed rising star of the moment Colin Farrell’s or rather his character Bullseye had survived for a sequel. Still, despite those apparent strengths in a second string costumed hero film, it didn’t even touch $180million in receipts. It scored under half the amount that the sublime X Men 2 clawed in for the studio just two months later.
A lot of the supposed faults of the mini-Devil franchise were cemented by the unwise Electra spin-off film. Despite the presence of small screen directing legend Rob Bowman, things didn’t go well. Just a cursory look at one of Electra’s comics shows that it would have been hard to conceive the film more poorly. Affleck wasn’t slow to remove himself from the disappointment, but an even more uncomfortable year was to follow. Having already bounced back from Pearl Harbour in 2001, 2003/4 saw him endure the release of Gigli, Paycheck and Jersey Girl following Daredevil. Each proved a nail of various sizes, and it wasn’t long until the former Hollywood golden child found a better stable behind the camera. However, not before, interestingly, he found time to portray doomed Superman actor George Reeves in Hollywoodland.
And so 10 years later, after a chequered decade, Affleck returns to superheroes, this time as that other famous vigilante of the night, the one with the black cowl.
2013 has cemented Affleck’s remarkable repositioning. Taking the directing reins and major roles in a series of serious, gritty and political films has quickly established him up as a talent to watch. His choices and oh so serious bearded persona could be seen as mildly cynical were it not for the critical acclaim and awards… He’s making money as well. Argo raked in $232 million and he’s well on the same path as Clint Eastwood took, but in a far shorter timeframe. His best film win at the Oscars this year may have surprised, but in hindsight it was the one film that allowed the Academy to acknowledge politics at arm’s length. George Clooney had Affleck’s back. Their beards were strong.
So really, it’s the timing of the casting that’s most surprising. Affleck’s name’s been linked to Bruce Wayne’s before, most recently in the flurry of activity surrounding the presumed Justice League movie. Affleck was linked with that directing gig before Snyder was locked in… But there must be some truth to ever rumour, especially in Gotham.
Warner ultimately decided on a cleverer route to realising their big screen ambitions than leaping into their own Avengers. While they can introduce a rebooted Batman in the next Superman film, building and boosting Man of Steel 2’s box office, it’ increasingly likely that they will be growing other characters from the small screen. Series two of DC Superhero series Arrow is set to feature the origin of Scarlet Speedster Flash (which bears some similarity to Daredevil’s hokum) starting a run that may well continue straight onto the big screen. It’s a far cry from previous years where television appearances were overruled in favour of screen development. That change in thinking, while brilliantly opposite to Marvel’s, uncoincidentally collides with the box set generation’s rapidly changing habits. On Wednesday one-time Lex Luthor Kevin Spacey, a praised the golden age of television that is outshining a lot of cinema’s offerings. Warner’s plan increasingly looks multi-format, benefitting from a cohesion that the empire has fecklessly mishandled in recent years.
However, there’s a more telling indication in Affleck’s casting. He’s not the man without fear, the arrogant Hollywood star unaffected by critics…
Affleck is director of the Best film at the 2013 Academy Awards, with a strong recent working relationship with Warner Bros. Further details have surfaced over the last day that Nolan’s serious stab at Gotham-lore was enough to pique Affleck’s interest and he may even have been in the frame for Man of Steel. Certainly it seems reasonable that Affleck’s also eyeing up the contribution he can make to the character behind the camera, either in a solo tale or as part of the larger DC universe.
Casting wise, the past week has seen speculation grow around Lex Luthor with many names connected to the role signalling a similarly serious intent. Among some heavy-hitting fan-baiting names, imagine Bryan Cranston’s Luthor flexing stocks and shares and Kryptonite opposite Affleck’s Bruce Wayne. It looks like, having settled on the serious direction inspired by the Dark Knight trilogy – one which at least limits the possibility of a critical failure – Warner and DC are building a family for the future. It’s a strong one if David Goyer, Nolan, Snyder and Affleck continue to orbit it.
If Affleck had sought the advice of his friend George Clooney, the response may have been as brutal as some of the internet’s reaction. Some have observed that Warner may just as well have put Clooney back in the cowl but that’s another unfair reminder how one misplaced appearance can disrupt a career. Clooney was an excellent Bruce Wayne and hardly responsible for 1997’s Batman and Robin debacle. Put him in the cowl now and it wouldn’t be a terrible choice by any means, but unfortunately it represents far more of a nadir than Daredevil. In many ways, their respective superheroes have made the modern Affleck and Clooney.
Affleck’s chin, sans beard, will return to fantasy once again, but this time to a fantasy one steeped in allegory and metaphor and not a slavish origin. DC has built a universe of consequence and repercussion – not terrible things to have in a blockbuster. While the Dark Knight is a closed and dusty shop, this Batman isn’t likely to be a total reinvention. While undoubtedly dark and vigilante, this Batman will be as crucial to the plot’s capitalist and political scrutiny as inevitable Snyder-size devastation. Affleck will join an ensemble. He won’t take on the mantle of a new and repurposed Batman that some fans are calling for, but he certainly won’t be a Daredevil.
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