Sunday, July 29, 2012

Discussing 'Batman' and other things with Sean

Hello fellow readers, what follows is an email conversation that I had with one of my best friends, Sean Novicki (the biggest Batman fan that I know), in which we discuss The Dark Knight Rises, and occasionally other cinematic topics (but mostly The Dark Knight Rises). Originally, I just asked him what he thought of the new film. This is what followed.

SN:  While I know it has it’s critics, including yourself to an extent, to me The Dark Knight is a perfect Batman story. And story is really the issue when it comes to these films, at least to my mind. I think it’s hard to argue against the artistry of vision, blockbuster ambition (in the best sense of the term), and technical mastery that Christopher Nolan and his production team have brought to all three of their Batman films, so any criticisms you have about these movies you want me to take seriously will have to revolve around story.

Epic lead up to epic battle?
That said, I’ll repeat that I think The Dark Knight is a perfect Batman story. Additionally, it is also a perfect story about Gotham, a city in crisis with a villain that threatened to destroy not only Batman’s ideals, but Gotham’s very soul. The stories of Bruce Wayne/Batman and Gotham are inextricably bound and equally satisfying, providing a narrative and thematic unity that I think went a long way towards making the film the massive success that it was.

Unfortunately, that same level of unity did not make its way into The Dark Knight Rises. In Rises, the stories of Bruce Wayne and Gotham become separate entities for a sustained portion of the film, thanks to Bruce’s imprisonment at the hands of Bane. And so there are essentially two stories that end up being told in TDKR: one of Gotham as a city under the control of a terrorist regime and the other the personal journey of Bruce Wayne/Batman. For various reasons, which we can get to later, the Gotham story is not as interesting or satisfying as the Bruce/Batman story.

Ultimately, though, I was completely fulfilled and satisfied upon walking out of the theater. While the story of Gotham might not have been as good as it could’ve been, the journey that Bruce undergoes in The Dark Knight Rises is the perfect conclusion to the arc that Chris Nolan initiated for the character in Batman Begins. The film succeeds in the most important of all the areas it needed to work in: providing a fitting, heartfelt and definitive end to the story of Bruce Wayne as Batman. With that accomplished, and with the movie’s problem areas still being throughly entertaining, I consider The Dark Knight Rises a massive success, and the contemporary mythological epic that Christopher Nolan crafted in his Dark Knight Trilogy a dream come true for diehard Batman fans such as myself.

JC: I do think The Dark Knight is a better film than Rises. Even though the screenplay to The Dark Knight is a lot messier. The Dark Knight has an otherworldly performance from Heath Ledger and some pretty amazing stuff from Gary Oldman as well. Rises has good performances (or, at least, it doesn't have any particularly bad ones), but I do think the screenplay has a more singular focus: we know that the main focus is Bruce Wayne. The Dark Knight has this biting issue (for me): its protagonist is the fourth most interesting character. I'd rather watch The Joker, Commisioner Gordon, and Harvey Dent then a grumbling Batman who seemed to be, at times, an obligation.

Ledger's incredible performance washed away a lot of issues in The Dark Knight

But to focus on Rises, I actually considered it to be a better 'Batman' movie, in the sense that it's a much more interesting story about Wayne. He had much more of an arc. I actually wasn't too burdened by the Gotham subplot since, despite the lack of real development in Bane's character, I certainly found him interesting to watch, and the performances from Hathaway, Gordon-Levitt, Hardy, etc. were good enough to keep that part of the film afloat. Most of my quibbles happen in the film's first half, where we're kinda force-fed about twelve different characters. In reality, this film could have really been about 120 minutes if it wanted to be, and we don't really learn the relevance of Officer Slade (Gordon-Levitt) until the very end where he's revealed to be Robin.

But let's talk about my main beef, and that is the pretty big twist: Miranda is the daughter of Liam Neeson (don't ask me to remember that character's name). I had issues with this plot development for two reasons:

1) I have prejudices against major plot twists in general, and this felt like surprise just for the sake of surprise. There's no reason to really see how Miranda would end up being a villain, other than the fact that she bangs Bruce Wayne in about five minutes.

2) At this point, I'd been totally sucked into the film. As Batman charged into Gotham fighting through the crowd getting closer and closer to Bane, fighting through various inmates, I was completely pumped, drumming Hans Zimmer on my knees. And then Miriam sticks a knife in Batman, and all that goodwill and energy that was built comes to a screeching halt. For me, anyway.

But I do think that it was a fitting end to Chris Nolan's trilogy. It's not unlike Return of the Jedi. We'd hoped it would be as good as Empire Strikes Back but then the Ewoks show up and you say 'Oh, fuck.' By the end, you say, 'Oh, well, that didn't ruin my day. That was a pretty good ending'. Of the three filmmakers that have tackled Batman in the last 25 years, he definitely captured Batman in its purest form. Schumacher was only interested in the cartoon-y Adam West aspect of Batman, and Tim Burton took Batman and made them all Tim Burton portraits. Nolan's films do all have the tasteful air of his other non-Batman films, but he was way more committed to being faithful to the Batman story than anyone else.

I think that Nolan has cemented himself as the premiere commercial filmmaker right now (actually, he'd probably already done that with The Dark Knight). In an era highly over-saturated with superhero films, his actually stand out for their impeccable filmmaking and dramatic weight. I don't think all comic book films should go that route - we all know of the various fransciscan theories that all film comic book movies should be as brooding as Nolan's Batman films; had that been the case, The Avengers would have been a greasy, overstuffed hot pocket of gravitas - but it says something that he was able to place a stake in a genre that is currently drowning itself.

P.S. I really wanna see the scene where Bruce Wayne gives a dozen blowjobs at the Tambo International Airport in order to get back to Gotham in eight hours after escaping the pit.

SN: You're right that the Gotham subplot was never uninteresting, but speaking as a Batman fan there is ample evidence through this universe's history that the world surrounding Batman can be equally as interesting as the Bat. The Gotham Central series of comics, which focused on the Gotham PD, left Batman on the periphery of events but is by all reports (I haven't read it) every bit as interesting as the most exciting Batman stories. And within Nolan's own trilogy I think Batman Begins and The Dark Knight show that Gotham and the secondary characters can have an arc that lines up thematically with Bruce's individual story much better than what we were given in Rises. The Gotham story is still very good, this is just a diehard fan wanting even more than we got.

Regarding the Miranda Tate twist, I don't disagree with you, and it relates to some of my thoughts about Bane. One of the points that Nolan and co. kept hitting leading up to release was how Rises was going to bring things full circle back to Batman Begins. Making Cotillard's character the daughter of Ras Al'Ghul was part of that, but I like you think it ultimately fell flat. Not only did this twist feel unearned, it also had the unfortunate side effect of turning Bane from a criminal mastermind, and the primary antagonist of the film, into a henchman. And it did it in the blink of an eye (or the twist of a knife). Tom Hardy and the script had crafted a very interesting and powerful character, who to my mind was vastly marginalized by the twist, especially since he dies about five seconds after Cotillard reveals herself as a villain. Nolan had already established a link with Bane back to Begins and the League of Shadows. I think the film would have worked perfectly without the Tate character, letting Bane and Batman have the final showdown those characters deserved. Removing Tate from the film also could have alleviated some of your first half issues, where Nolan would have had one less character to develop.

Miranda Tate subplot gave more than enough movie fans fodder for criticism.

P.S. Yeah another issue for me was how the film apparently breezed through the FIVE MONTHS that Bruce was imprisoned and that bomb was decaying in about twenty minutes. It created the sense for me that there was a shit ton of stuff going on that we just weren't getting to see, something that I think contributes to my slight dissatisfaction with the Gotham storyline.

JC: Wow, I really couldn't have put my conflict with the Miranda twist any better myself.

But you bring up an interesting concept when you talk about how you appreciated things 'as a Batman fan'. It brings up that old argument: is it an adapter's responsibility to please fans of the source material? More specifically, is it bad if an adapter specifically changes things in the adaptation to reach a different audience? After all, the fans of the source material are already a built-in audience. This debate becomes a hell of a lot more relevant when you're talking about material as popular as Batman or Harry Potter (I don't think anyone cared that Sideways and Up In The Air were NOTHING like the books they were based on), which brings with it an audience that feels entitled and usually demands authenticity. I'm much more of a film addict than I am a book worm, so I tend to side with the groupthink that you should make an adaptation that is more broad and has the potential to reach a variety of audiences.

That's why I found it to be an interesting creative choice that Selena Kyle is never referred to as 'Catwoman' throughout the entire movie. She's a fascinating character and Hathaway plays it perfectly (not to mention, she has totally taken the belt of Best Hottie in Hollywood right now; it's hers to lose), but everyone knows that she's Catwoman, but nobody says the name. We just get subtle hints toward it (her cat ear like goggles; being referred to as 'the cat' in a newspaper), as if Nolan is saying, "I want to get Catwoman in this story, but having people call her Catwoman, like the superhero character that she is, really causes friction with quasi-reality tone I've been creating in these films". It wasn't something that I was up in arms about, but its something I noticed.

But back to what I was saying of about an adapter's responsibility, I think there's some responsibility on the audience here as well. In the few instances where I'm seeing a film because of its source material, I find myself consciously watching the film as if I had to separate brains. One brain says, "Okay, you're a film student who aspires to being a film scholar. Watch objectively and focus on what you really feel about it as a film and a story." Then there's the other brain that can never be quieted, saying "HOW THE HELL IS TWO-FACE IN AND OUT OF THIS MOVIE IN FORTY MINUTES!?" (Because, for reasons I don't totally know, Two-Face is my favorite Batman villain). The objective film student usually trumps the fan boy, but I don't know if I should always allow it to. It's a weird psychological back-and-forth my mind constantly goes through when watching a film like Batman or that crappy remake of Charade. Do you think it's important for us to stay in the film or allow our id-like inner fan to come out and run the show? Chances are, that would make the movie more fun.

Lastly, I wanted your opinion on the Man of Steel teaser - specifically on how it seems to be taking the Nolan-esque route of comic book films that have a sense of realism despite their extraordinary stories and characters.

SN: I agree that it’s important not to be so beholden to an adaptation's source that only the fans can appreciate it, but I wasn’t really thinking about things in that way here. Clearly The Dark Knight Rises and Nolan’s entire Batman trilogy appeal to a massive range of people. But when an element like the Gotham subplot fails to satisfy me as much as I’d like, I then look to the vast range of source material and in this case to Nolan's own past work with these characters and ask, "is there any evidence to suggest that this could have been better?"
The example of Catwoman, on the other hand, is an example of adaptation done perfectly. You’re right that Kyle never being called Catwoman was a choice made to better fit the character into Nolan’s carefully constructed quasi-reality. This isn’t an issue for two reasons: One, because as you say everybody knows she’s Catwoman regardless of the name never being said; and two, because the essence of the character--her playfulness, her moral ambiguity, and her complex relationship with Batman--is perfectly captured in the film. It doesn’t matter to a Batman fan like me that the word Catwoman is never spoken in the film because just by looking at Hathaway on the screen, listening to her deliver her lines, watching her interact with Bruce/Batman, it’s completely evident that this IS Catwoman.

"Hathaway wasn't a great Catwoman" -Something NO ONE is saying
To go back to the issue of Cotillard/Miranda Tate/Talia Al’Ghul, this is an area where I think Nolan as an adaptor has failed his core audience. Someone like you (and therefore the majority of Rises’ audience) will not know this, but the relationship between Batman and Talia Al’Ghul is very rich and complex. There is a strong romantic and ideological connection between the two characters that often sees Talia siding with Batman against Ras Al’Ghul. Talia as presented in The Dark Knight Rises gives no evidence of this complexity, and since I don’t think that the cheap-twisty way the character is used in this film works regardless of that richness, I think Nolan would have been well served to realize that his use of Talia wasn’t serving the character right and stayed away from using her.
Regarding the Man of Steel teaser, I think it’s still too soon to say what that film will ultimately be. The fact that Man of Steel seems to be going in the Nolan-esque realism direction isn’t really relevant to me. What’s relevant is if Zach Snyder and co. can make a successful Superman movie, and Man of Steel’s realism or lack thereof won’t be the determining factor of the movie’s success or failure. What will be, is whether or not the essence of Superman is accurately presented. Looking to the comics provides the right context needed to understand this. For every comic book character or series, there are countless different interpretations of their worlds, interpretations that encompass a huge range of tones and styles. Some of them work and some of them don’t. The ones that don’t failed not because the world and the characters were too real or too campy; they failed because they didn’t stay true to the essence of their characters. Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy didn’t succeed because of their realism, although it didn’t hurt. They succeeded because they were damn good Batman stories that faithfully and with pathos represented the quintessential elements of the character established over his 73 years of existence. That’s what Man of Steel needs to accomplish, and if they can do it within a quasi-realistic framework similar to the Dark Knight Trilogy, good for them. If that’s not what Man of Steel ultimately ends up being, that’s fine too, as long as it captures the quintessential elements of the character.
JC: I guess the main thing that I was focusing on when I mentioned the Man of Steel trailer was this interesting dynamic that Nolan has created with the Batman films. There's this interesting sub-plot that I've noticed through various (Facebook) friends where people seem to picking sides between Team Avengers and Team Dark Knight, as if they are polar opposite comic book ideologies. When in reality, I think both films succeeded because they realized the best way to tell those stories (Avengers is light fun; Dark Knight is brooding drama). I would never suggest that Joss Whedon should make a Batman film. That's like asking Ingmar Bergman to direct the sequel to Anchorman.

SN: It is silly to choose sides between The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, but I don't think you're giving Joss Whedon enough credit. Why shouldn't he make a Batman movie? Looking at his body of work, both in movies & TV and in comic writing, it's clear that Whedon is capable of working in a variety of tones and styles. And like Nolan, he has the intelligence and auteurist vision that I think are necessary for projects like these to be as successful across the board as both the Dark Knight Trilogy and The Avengers were. Whedon has also proven with The Avengers--particularly with his superlative take on Bruce Banner/The Hulk--that he has the key gift that I've referred to multiple times: insight into the essential elements of his characters. Nolan's Batman movies and Whedon's Avengers might be very different kinds of films, but they became the massive successes that they are for the same reasons. If Whedon brought  his gift for insight to the Batman franchise, I have confidence that we would see something totally different from the Dark Knight Trilogy, but no less entertaining and no less true to the spirit of Batman. Granted, Joss Whedon probably never will make a Batman movie, but as Warner Bros. moves the character beyond Christopher Nolan, it's writer/director/visionaries like Nolan and Whedon that they need to be looking for to take up the torch.

Does it really matter which one is better?

JC: I don't want to see a Joss Whedon Batman movie in the same way that I'm not that thrilled to see that he's doing a Much Ado About Nothing movie. His ability to dissect character aside, Joss Whedon is the kind of storyteller that leaves an indelible footprint on everything he creates. That footprint fit on the campy nature of The Avengers, but I don't see it fitting on something like Batman (or Shakespeare for that matter). Whedon doesn't adapt to the material, he fits the material to him. There's nothing wrong with that. If anything, that works in the true meaning of auteur. But would you ask Wes Anderson to make a film about Batman? Actually, that would unbelievably interesting as an experiment. But as a Batman film? I'm not so sure.

SN: But to return to Nolan's 'Batman' films, this is a trilogy that truly has meant more to me than any other movies I've seen. They may not be perfect, but they are a keystone of contemporary culture that resurrected a character and a franchise that I've loved since I was a little kid; and it was done with passion, intelligence and extraordinary relevance. Wherever Batman goes from here, these films will always be around, massively ambitious and thoroughly entertaining, forever in my mind the definitive interpretation of the Batman universe.

JC: I agree. I think that this Dark Knight Trilogy is the closest thing our generation has had to something like the Star Wars trilogy in the 70's, even more so than the Lord of the Rings films of the early 2000's. Because they created a world (sure, this was already a preconceived universe, but you still have to re-imagine it to fit contemporary sensibilities) that totally captured an entire country. These were films that really pleased both sides and almost completely side-stepped the whole adapter debate. It spreads itself pretty thin, but if that's the worst thing you can say, that's not too bad.

1 comment:

Kristen Farrah said...

I soo want to see this movie!