Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Obligatory Batfleck Post

Teh interwebs are by nature a realm of anonymity, which enables people to unleash their inner a-hole to a gobsmacking degree, and also makes it impossible to state anything definitive about its demographics. You might assume the person spewing grammatically suspect slurs at you is a twelve-year-old boy, but it might very well be a tech-savvy, trolling grandma. Certainty is ever elusive. Still, I’m reasonably sure that a lot of the people who’ve been freaking out on the internet about the news that Ben Affleck has been cast as Batman in the next Superman movie are, at the very least, too young to remember the autumn of ‘88, if not so young that said season came and went before they were ever born. (Your average 23-year-old was born in 1990. So, yeah.)

Well gather ‘round, kiddies, ‘cuz Middle-Aged Man has a thing or two to tell you about Bat-casting choices. I remember the great grievous garment-rending that accompanied the announcement of Michael Keaton’s casting as Batman; somehow this apprehension made it into the zeitgeist despite it being a pre-Internet timeframe. Multitudes of people were convinced that Keaton was completely wrong for the part, since after all he was a comedian first and foremost, famous for playing the eponymous Mr. Mom or Blaze from Night Shift (which, by the by, is a criminally underrated movie which teamed Keaton with Henry Winkler as pimps before pimpin’ was cool). The skepticism was crushing, and yet it was counterbalanced by a couple of things. Number one, Batman was going to be the first big budget live-action superhero movie since the Superman franchise squandered itself into oblivion, which was reason enough for much nerd rejoicing (especially in the heart of yours truly, age 14 at the time). And number two:

Nicholson as the Joker. Villains always make or break heroic fictions, and nobody had any argument with Nicholson as graphic literature’s most infamous evil clown. So people griped and groused about Keaton, but then the summer of ‘89 arrived and the movie came out and broke all kinds of box office records, and clearly the pre-emptive backlash was misplaced and quickly forgotten.

Nowadays, of course, Tim Burton’s vision of Batman is divisive, and doesn’t necessarily hold up, especially compared to the recent spate of comic book movies. But none of that comes down to Keaton’s performance. The point is, actors have range. Some careers start out limited by typecasting or simply defined by a comfort zone, but a revelatory performance might always be right around the corner. That’s also because movies are collaborative, with a screenwriter producing a script and a director envisioning how to bring that script to life; the actor says the words on the page in a manner elicited by the director, and then there’s a million other invisible arts going on all around that in costumes and set design and soundtracks and special effects and whatnot. Assuming that Affleck as Batman will be exactly like Affleck as [insert whatever character in whatever movie you find actively irritating] except in a cowl with pointy ears? Fundamentally misses the point.

The real point, in my humble opinion, is that Man of Steel was total garbage, and the possibility of its sequel being total garbage has always been high, and Affleck being cast as Batman in the sequel does nothing to convince me that they have turned away from that possibility. Not because I have anything against Affleck! I’m sure he will acquit himself as well as Henry Cavill did with the material given. But there’s the rub.

Rumor has it that Affleck is an apt choice to play Batman not despite his age (he’ll be about 42 during production, a decade older than Christian Bale was for Batman Begins) but because of it. The movie will allegedly draw at least partial inspiration from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, a story about a crafty, grizzled older version of Batman which climaxes with an epic Batman-vs.-Superman showdown. To which I can only say: UGH. Again, not that I have anything against Dark Knight Returns! It’s a classic, which despite being so imitated over the years that it almost reads as self-parody still retains a certain greatness. But it’s a great Batman story. Superman just happens to be in it.

Ever since comics became “not just for kids” and writers infused the archetypal superheroes with psychological complexity, flaws and foibles and moral ambiguity, it’s become very hard to tell a balanced Superman and Batman story. Either the sympathy is with Superman, and Batman is a violent paranoid nutjob, or the sympathy is with Bats and Supes is a naive sanctimonious boy scout. A select few writers manage to avoid this, and approach the pair as two sides of the same coin who recognize both their differences and similarities and work together for the greater good. But most writers would rather just see Superman and Batman fight.

So the Man of Steel movie was this deeply weird take on Superman where instead of being a paragon of inspiration and aspiration he was an insecure, uncertain, unhappy god-among-men in need of redemption. It ended with the trappings of redemption being within reach, ignoring that Superman had just precipitated and participated in untold destruction and devastation. I think the audience was supposed to come away thinking that Superman was one of the good guys, despite being given little evidence to that and mountains of proof to the contrary. Now, in the sequel, they’re going to throw an older Batman into the mix for contrast. This can really only go one of two ways:

1 - Batman is in the story to make Superman look good, which will necessarily entail making Batman look bad. Man of Steel played around with (but ultimately had no idea what to do with) the notion of trust, and Batman could very well be introduced as a loner who trusts no one. He won’t trust Superman, and Superman will spend most of the movie trying to win his trust. And/or, Superman will see what life is like when you trust no one and no one trusts you (with Batman as an unhinged vigilante who is scorned by the Gotham police, and who acts as a terrifying urban legend and gets no love from the citizens, either) and re-dedicate himself to maintaining public trust.

2 - Batman ends up looking good in comparison to Superman? Superman becomes the Other, the unknowable Kryptonian who presumes to judge and interfere in the ways of mortal men, while Batman is just a human who pushes himself to the limits. Superman is arrogant in his power and invulnerability, and Batman takes him down a few pegs with good old-fashioned ingenuity and grit.

Both of these outcomes are terrible! The second scenario seems crazily implausible, but then again, if you had told me a couple years ago how the plot of Man of Steel would go I would never have believed you, so who knows. The middle installment of a trilogy is often the darkest, so maybe that’s exactly where the filmmakers will go, pushing Superman to the lowest of lows, beaten down by Batman, a man who should be his staunchest ally. I can almost grasp the logic of that, but again, it’s kind of garbage. They’ve already cheapened the concept of the character so much, it just seems to add insult to injury.

Then again, if they go the first route with Batman as quasi-villain, how does that bode for the supposed Justice League movie they’re building towards? It’s one thing to have years upon years of comic book stories where Batman is a white-hat good guy, and so is Superman, and sometimes they team up, and eventually they form a team with all their other superhero friends, and then you start messing with the dynamics and introducing some “but what about this?”-style questions, when you’ve got a solid foundation to bounce off of. It’s another to introduce, for the very first time within this particular (truly odd) cinematic universe, the Batman character and have him be the Jerk In Someone Else’s Story. Can the idea of Batman recover from that, and be part of the eventual mega-franchise roster? Probably not, because probably they won’t even try, they’ll just handwave away everything troubling and thought-provoking about whatever goes down in the prior 120 minutes and have Superman and Batman stolidly, resolutely and respectfully shake each other’s hands, despite the fact that Superman had been forced to heat-vision Alfred in half (or something).

There are subtle and meaningful and rewarding ways to tell a balanced Superman and Batman story, and Affleck would be great in that story. But going by the precedent, we’re going to get a tortured hour of angst, and an interminable extended assault scene pitting Batman’s technology and tactics against Superman’s raw innate strength, and then a quick and cheap ending that makes little to no sense. And Affleck will be fine in that, too, but that’s beside the point.

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