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Posts Tagged 'the dark knight rises'

Some thoughts on the Justice League rumors

Both of my regular readers might have some inkling that Christopher Nolan has been one of my favorite filmmakers of the last twelve years, that on the whole I’ve loved his Batman movies, and that Batman has been one of my favorite literary characters since I was probably six or seven.

A Justice League movie is an idea that people have been circling around for several years. There was the TV pilot in 1997 that a Google Image search shows to have been pretty ridiculous looking; the animated series from Bruce Timm and Paul Dini was awesome, but I’m guessing that Cartoon Network in the long run decided it was backwards-looking and chasing after an audience made up of the wrong age group. I never watched Smallville, but the pictures that I saw made their Justice League look low-rent to say the least. After Batman Begins and Superman Returns there was talk of George Miller making a standalone film with a totally different cast (like Armie Hammer as Batman and Common as Green Lantern); obviously that never happened, and since then, non-Batman standalone films seem to have been the plan, but I can’t say that there has seemed to be an overabundance of confidence in those projects. Neither Captain Marvel (I refuse to call the character “Shazam”) nor The Flash have really gotten anywhere. Green Arrow was supposed to be the hero in a villain-centric prison-escape film called Supermax, but that went nowhere. Superman Returns showed that there was still something of an audience somewhere for Superman movies, but it wasn’t a solid enough hit to maintain confidence in Bryan Singer’s vision. I didn’t hate Green Lantern, but for a movie that had as its fundamental premise somebody with a ring that they could use to build whatever they could imagine, it seemed to be pretty unimaginative. Wonder Woman has had a infamously troubled path to the silver screen, with even Joss Whedon not being able to put together a package that could convince studio execs to pull the trigger (and then there was a TV pilot a couple of years later about which, it seems, the less said the better).

After the success of The Avengers last year, Warner Bros. predictably announced that they would be making a Justice League movie their priority after The Dark Knight Rises was done, but whatever idea that seemed to be pushing that forward fell apart a couple of weeks ago. We’ve been left with Batman being apparently done for now, Man of Steel still being something of a question mark, and a consolation prize of a version of Green Arrow presently on TV who is clearly the poor man’s Batman, but he’s still pretty scrappy and reasonably enjoyable to watch.

Then, last night, a rumor started circulating that even got picked up by Forbes: after the demise of the most recent iteration of the Justice League idea, Warner Bros. has handed the reins of the DC film universe over to Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, with Christian Bale likely in the mix to come back as Batman and Zack Snyder (director of Man of Steel300, and Watchmen). Nolan is producing Man of Steel, and a version of the Justice League rumor was going around about a year ago, but Nolan seemed to intentionally distance himself from the concept in interviews.

Is it true? I have no idea. My guess is that nobody wants to miss out on the money that Marvel Studios is raking in with their cinematic universe, and that if Christopher Nolan plays his cards right, he’s got guaranteed budgets and creative control for all of his personal movies going forward. How do you reconcile such a move with the end of The Dark Knight Rises? I’m not overly concerned about that; surely that’s an opportunity for creative storytelling. It’s entirely possible that it’s true right now in the sense that it’s the idea they’re trying to make the deals for; a denial down the road may mean only that they couldn’t get everybody to sign on the dotted line, not that it wasn’t what they were trying to do. (My plan B: Bruce Timm produces, Christopher Nolan directs, Paul Dini writes. It’ll never happen, but that would be my dream team.)

I’m somewhat less interested in whether or not it’s true than a couple of other dimensions to the story. First, it’s evident to me reading comments on the various re-postings of the story that, bluntly, geeks have short memories. It’s no longer a novelty that an A-list auteur is directing a film based on a comic book with a big budget and an Oscar-winning cast, so it’s time to rewrite history so that the auteur in question is an overrated hack whom everybody has always hated (going all the way back to that second-rate piece of celluloid Memento) and whose contributions to the comic book genre of films have been miscast and mediocre at best, self-important trash at worst, and, really, even The Dark Knight was a second-rate Heat knockoff that mostly sold tickets because of the death of one of its stars. The Dark Knight Rises went off in a different direction than they’d hoped (tying off the arc of the cinematic character rather than opening up ways to tell more of the comic book stories), so now the guy everybody was drooling over when he was announced as the director of Batman Begins is persona non grata. Like I said, short memories, and I can’t really say that I get it.

The other thing that I find intriguing is the apparent article of faith in some circles that a Justice League film can’t work, that these characters fundamentally will look silly next to each other on the silver screen, that there are too many storytelling problems introduced by having Superman and Batman in the same world, etc. etc. Somehow these concerns are a non-issue when you’re talking about Marvel characters (The Avengers, after all, includes a Norse god, a chemically-enhanced supersoldier, and a genius gajillionaire in a wearable energy source that makes a nuclear reactor look like a 9 volt battery), but when it’s Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, it’s irredeemably silly somehow. Nobody’s really been able to explain why the DC characters are different, they just are, apparently.

Thinking about it, I’d like to toss out a possible explanation, and that’s one of generation. The DC characters, as the prototypical superheroes, inevitably are first archetypes of a sort and characters second. For the Golden Age characters, the basic point of reference is the circus, a common enough cultural experience in the 1930s. The costumes are all more or less based on the strongman/acrobat model; Batman’s not wearing body armor in Detective Comics #27, he’s wearing a leotard. The types of characters are all basically that, types — Superman’s origin is all of half a page in Action Comics #1, and the point isn’t to give him a psychology, the point is to explain why he’s got super-strength. He’s a strongman; Batman’s a detective and an acrobat, a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and Zorro; Wonder Woman is a goddess, again in a circus performer’s costume; the Jay Garrick Flash is a combination scientist and and college athlete, dressed up as Mercury; the Alan Scott Green Lantern is basically a wizard-type of character. The alter-egos are also essentially types; Clark Kent is a reporter (the trappings of which very much date the character and are not easily transferrable to the popular imagery of journalism of 2013 — it’s more Matt Drudge than Cary Grant), Bruce Wayne is an aristocrat, Diana Prince a nurse — and the 1950s revamps of Flash and Green Lantern keep this going, with Barry Allen as a police scientist and Hal Jordan as the ultimate manly man of the 1950s, a test pilot.

By contrast, being a generation later, the methodology has developed somewhat, and while the Marvel characters all certainly have some basis in types — mostly the “scientist” type — from the get-go they’re made into more than types by flaws and deformity. Peter Parker is a geeky high school kid whose powers convince him just long enough that he’s better than everybody else for it to cost his Uncle Ben his life. Tony Stark is a genius weapons engineer and industrialist whose talents are turned against him. Bruce Banner set free his own inner demon. And so on. If, as William Faulkner once said, drama is the human heart in conflict with itself, then one can argue that the Marvel characters are fundamentally more dramatic.

From this perspective, the problem with the DC characters maybe becomes a bit more evident. The whole premise of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern is that he is supposed to be without fear; that rather makes inner conflict a tougher nut to crack, dramatically. (And the film was hampered by this problem — the cinematic Hal Jordan’s inner self-doubt, while perhaps more “cinematic”, completely undermined the foundations of the character. Ryan Reynolds did what he could, but the result was, rather than the human heart in conflict with itself, a movie plot in conflict with itself.) It also makes more sense why Batman has been the most successful of the various attempts, and in more than just one medium — of the Golden Age characters, he’s the one who actually has a personal internal conflict to resolve, and it’s an incredibly effective, primal one at that. Superman is much harder to make interesting in that regard; the 1978 film’s use of Jor-El and Pa Kent was a good storytelling move in terms of giving him an inner conflict, moral poles to bounce off of, and the trailers make it look as though Man of Steel will draw some of its drama from Philip Wylie’s 1931 novel Gladiator, one of Siegel and Schuster’s key sources, so we’ll see how that turns out — but at the same time, there’s simply no reason for Superman to be wearing body armor.

To me, however, none of that says “won’t work on film”, it just says, “You’ve got to do it with the best filmmakers possible” — filmmakers who understand the archetypes they’re dealing with, understand what it is about those archetypes that people connect with, and not use artificial and false storytelling techniques to try to re-engineer the characters. None of it says to me “Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman can’t all be in the same movie”, either; again, it just says to me that you need a filmmaker who knows exactly how each character fits into the story you’re telling. Zack Snyder seems to have a reasonable grasp of how ensemble casts in comic book movies need to work; again, we’ll see how things look after Man of Steel comes out.

Anyway, to me it seems like a good day when the big thing you have to complain about is that Christopher Nolan might produce a Nolan/David Goyer-written, Zack Snyder-directed Justice League movie. I guess we’ll see.

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“Do you feel in charge?”

Spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, and so on below.

The UPS truck came yesterday. Thus it was that once Theodore was put down, I took a break from Cicero’s letters, and I told Flesh of My Flesh, “I’m making dinner, and then we’re watching The Dark Knight Rises.” The issue being, you see, that she hadn’t seen it yet. Skyfall was the first movie we had been able to see together in   since The Avengers, and that was just because for my birthday, some friends offered to watch Theodorus Rex while we went out by ourselves.

I very much enjoyed Skyfall, incidentally, and have seen it twice now; the transformation of Daniel Craig as the new James Bond into, effectively, the old James Bond, is complete. If one knows something about the history of actors who might have been Bond, the presence of Ralph Fiennes (as well as the reveal of him as the “new” M, who’s really the “old” M) is clever; he was one of the actors being considered back in 1994 to take over the role after Dalton declined to participate in what became GoldenEye. If I’m remembering a particular issue of Premiere sufficiently, the list before they finally circled back around to Brosnan was Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Sam Neill, and Hugh Grant. Fiennes, then, as a former field agent whom we see take a bullet and fire off some of his own shots, takes on some real-life resonance, given that part of the idea with Gareth Mallory seems to be that he’s what Bond would have been if he’d just been a bit more respectable.

I liked the approach with Skyfall of “James-Bond-as-art-film”; we get a lot of Bond fighting in silhouette, and this can get a bit trippy, particularly when he’s silhouetted against lots of moving neon lights. Sam Mendes also seems to be trying to tell you something with how he frames shots; Bond is frequently centered in the frame, as is Javier Bardem’s Silva, but then, at the very end, when Bond is looking out over the city from MI6’s roof, it starts out with him centered only to have the camera nudge just a little bit right so that Big Ben is now centered. The point seems to be that Bond has finally decided once and for all that he’s doing what he does, not out of anger for Vesper’s betrayal, not out of the repressed trauma of his parents’ death, but for queen and country.

But I’m supposed to be talking about The Dark Knight Rises.

So, four and a half years ago, The Dark Knight took up a big chunk of my summer. I saw it, I think, nine times on the big screen all told, six of those in IMAX, and really what I did during July and August of 2008 was call up my friends and say, “Hey, want to go see The Dark Knight in IMAX with me?” I didn’t have much else to do; I had a French reading knowledge class I was taking, and I was working, but so far as I knew at that point, I was definitely not going to be working on a grad program anytime soon, and my wife was in Germany, followed almost immediately by her spending close to a month in Seattle after her dad was diagnosed with cancer. The Dark Knight seemed as good a way as any to kill time.

Obviously, my life has changed a lot in the intervening years, and I have other ways my time is occupied these days, thank God. Still, I managed to see The Dark Knight Rises four times on the big screen, two of those in IMAX. So, draw whatever conclusions you will about that — such as, for example, baby or no baby, PhD program or no PhD program, I’m still an unrepentant nerd.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the Batman took the rap for Harvey Dent’s murders rather than have Gotham lose their knight in shining armor. The storytelling reason for this seems to be so that Batman takes on some qualities of being an urban legend, almost a Spring-heeled Jack kind of figure; I suspect that the practical, real-world reason is because it had been seven years since they started shooting Batman Begins, which itself required Christian Bale to play Bruce Wayne over a seven to eight year span, and The Dark Knight was supposed to take place something like six months after Batman Begins while being made three years later. Everybody looks noticeably older than they did in 2005, in other words, and this gives them an in-story way to explain that.

In the intervening years, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, letting the physical and mental damage he suffered as Batman settle in. He tries to become a philanthropist, but he finds out projects that can save the world also have the dark side of probably being able to destroy it, a realization which just drives him further into the shadows. Commissioner Gordon has been able to use the memory of Harvey Dent to lock up a lot of people, but the lie is eating away at him. It’s a status quo that’s, for all intents, a well-polished rotten apple.

Enter four characters who each stir up the hornet’s nest in their own way. Selina Kyle is a jewel thief who has taken a curious interest in Bruce’s fingerprints; John Blake is a young cop who sees that everybody is pretty much just going through the motions to keep everything looking nice; Miranda Tate is an investment partner of Bruce’s who wants to show him that the world is worth trusting enough to save it… and then there’s Bane, who is manipulating much of this (or is he?) specifically to force Bruce to get back into the ring as Batman.

A running theme of the movie — which goes all the way back to Batman Begins — is that of the “clean slate”. The express purpose of the League of Shadows, after all, was to “wipe the slate clean”, as it were, when cities got too big and corrupt by destroying them, which is the objective that Bane has inherited; Selina Kyle wants to wipe out her own past (there’s a MacGuffin of the “gangland myth” of a computer program that can do this, which it turns out that Bruce acquired to keep from being used; since the Joker had no traceable record in The Dark Knight, it’s possible that this is intended to be an oblique reference to him); Gordon, Bruce, and Blake are all living with accounts needing to be settled, and so on. Is a revolution how society ultimately has to pay its bill? As R’as Al Ghul suggests in Begins (and as Bane trumpets in Rises), is burning away the brush always the solution, and it’s just a question of scale? Can one man show a better way? One might not be entirely wrong to detect a Christ allegory with where Nolan and company end up with this question (albeit thankfully not in the somewhat ham-fisted way that Superman Returns did), but it seems to me that Plato’s cave is far more explicitly referenced.

Rises does a nice job of bringing things full circle back to Begins; the story keys off of R’as Al Ghul’s conviction in Begins that “Gotham must be destroyed”, and shows that just because R’as Al Ghul died, it didn’t mean the idea died. R’as Al Ghul left a legacy, and it’s a legacy Bruce has to deal with.

Incidentally, for anybody familiar with the comics, there’s only one way the character of Miranda Tate was going to make any sense at all, and if you’re paying attention, they telegraph her identity as Talia from the get-go. She talks like R’as (she has a line about “restoring balance” early on), and there are visual callbacks as well, like showing her good at building a fire, much as R’as was in Begins. A reward of repeated viewings, too, is noticing that the little girl in the prison stabs somebody in the back in one of the first flashbacks, much as the adult Talia does to Bruce.

There are other interesting references to Begins; there’s the explicit comparison of the prison to the well young Bruce falls into in Begins, but there’s also Batman walking on ice (apparently having learned to mind his surroundings after all), and the memorial statue of Batman unveiled at the end bears a striking resemblance to the nightmare Batman that Scarecrow hallucinated in Begins. Both Begins and The Dark Knight end with conversations about thanking Batman — Begins: “I never said thank you.” “And you’ll never have to.” TDK: “Thank you.” “You don’t have to thank me.” — and while Rises has its own ending, it has its own version of this conversation: “Thanks.” “Don’t thank me yet.” It’s a little grace note that seems to say a lot about where Bruce sees what he’s achieved relative to his own ideals — in Begins the story ends with his ideals having won the day, in TDK his ideals have cost him dearly, and at this point in Rises it’s unclear whether or not he will even survive his own ideals.

The point of Rises, and I suppose of Nolan’s whole trilogy, is that in this story, Bruce Wayne isn’t trying to become a superhero, he’s trying to build a myth. As R’as says in Begins, “You have to become an idea.” The idea that there might be a big unstoppable demon that comes after you if you’re a bad guy, and you’ll never know who it is, is much more powerful than there being a human being who can be taken down with a bullet. In Begins he takes on the initial trappings of the legend, in TDK he sees a human being who he thinks could become the idea without having to pretend to be somebody else, only to see that person corrupted, and in Rises he has to complete the mythmaking by, effectively, dying and coming back from the dead — both so he can just be Bruce Wayne once and for all, and so that Batman can be that much more powerful. Along these lines, Bane is presented as sort of a counter-symbol to Batman; “No one cared who I was till I put on the mask,” he says.

Do Nolan’s films constitute a “definitive” Batman? Well, what do you mean by that? “Definitive” according to whose take on the character? Frank Miller’s? Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil’s? Bob Kane’s? Paul Dini’s? Adam West’s? Just by the nature of film, where you’re basically blowing up a short story into two or three hours and only being able to do it once every few years, you’re never going to be able to bring out all the nuances that one can play with in an ongoing serial like a comic book or a TV show. Like any film adaptation, the best you’re going to be able to do is honor the spirit of the source material while doing your own thing as well as you can. Batman, by virtue of being a symbol, is open to a lot of interpretation, and I think Nolan has made three pretty great movies with his interpretation. Somebody else will probably come along and do their own interpretation in a few years, and there may very well be things I like about that one better, perhaps things I don’t like as well; who knows? The comics themselves will still be sitting on the shelf right next to these movies, as well as Tim Burton’s 1989 film. What I think one can say is that this trilogy is a long Batman story that incorporates a lot of ideas and images from the comics as well as the animated series (there’s a decent amount of Batman Beyond in Bruce’s solution), and while it’s something you could never do with Batman as he appears in the comics (unless it were an Elseworlds mini-series or something of that nature), it’s a great way, from where I sit, to encapsulate the character onscreen in a self-contained story.

OK. Back to reading some Latin.


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