05 April 2016

On Second Thought, Those Nolan Batmans Weren't That Dark

Obviously, the topic on every single movie site out there this week is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). I haven't seen the thing yet, and don't necessarily plan to, if only because I'm not all that interested in the investment, even if my inherent nerdiness is trying to override that. After reading oodles of article and spoilers it also seems like a really bad movie in nearly every way. But I don't truly want to judge something I've never seen, and I have some history enjoying and defending blockbuster films that history has not been kind to, such as Daredevil (2003) and The Lone Ranger (2013). I'm loath to merely add an homogeneous opinion to the Internet's pile-on, especially because it seems more and more like this was a film doomed from the start. I agree with the pessimistic view associated with Zack Snyder but every film deserves assessment on its own merit.

But we're not here to talk about Batman v. Superman. Instead I'd like to make another contention. The tonal signature of the film and in general Warner Bros' core premise (despite surface pleads otherwise) for their upcoming slate was "no jokes", ostensibly creating thematically and aesthetically serious renditions molded upon the great success of Chris Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, which of course won the studio and the genre a tremendous amount of respect in addition to a lot of dollars. To some extent this mantra also exists to differentiate the studio's offerings from rival Marvel Studio's penchant for candy coated fluff.
Two words: HI - LARIOUS

I'll make the argument that this double-standard is inherently flawed. The Dark Knight Trilogy wasn't actually that dark, or "grimdark" as it's come to be known. I'd also argue that the best Marvel film out there, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), lacks the colorful joy of something like Thor (2011) and especially Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). The latter, by the way, after subsequent viewings, surprisingly doesn't hold up - I think because so much of it relied on subversive surprise that's actually not that subverting in a narrative sense and ends up a little deflated once the joke is out of the bag.

Let's get back to Batman. Naturally part of this weekend's Bv.S tie-in, almost every Batman and Superman film found its way on TV somewhere. That's an impressive feat. There have been six Superman movies in the past 38 years and seven Batman flicks since 1989. This doesn't even count all the serials in the 40s and the Adam West film in 1966, which no one cares about beyond camp. Considering that both of these have always been owned by the same studio it's truly amazing that it both took the studio that long to get these guys together and that they bungled it so bad.

Sorry, sorry, let's stop bashing Batman v. Superman. But seriously, all the old Supermans (except Quest for Peace [1987]) were on SyFy, Man of Steel (2013) on FX, and Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) were on TNT. I wanted to watch these with a close eye to sort of figure out past interpretations of the characters and see if anything could hold up. And don't get me wrong - all the original films with these guys are pretty bad. Even Superman II (1980) which has typically been the gold standard among superhero films has a lot of really weird moments and inconsistencies, this being chief among them. I've never really dug the Burton Batmans either, and consider Batman Returns (1992) to rival Batman & Robin (1997) in roughness. I mean, it's at least equally campy. There's a whole penguin dynamite army!

Moving on, it's very clear that Nolan's attempts at creating serious interpretations of these characters resulted in the most critically and commercially successful iterations. The key here though, is that although these are serious movies in the sense that they're carefully constructed with logical story beats, relevant themes, and strong production, I'm hesitant to call them "realistic" or "dark" as much as they've received that denotation in the past.

In fact, after re-watching a few of these, it's amazing how downright jolly and light-hearted they really are. First, considering DC's current moratorium on jokes, it's surprising how many are actually packed in here. Often these are cheeky scenes with Alfred or Lucius Fox, but there's other classic moments from Jim Gordon chiming to himself in his best Will Smith, "I gotta get me one of these!" to the perfect pause as the police officer calls in Bruce's "Black....tank...." Even in peril, this is apparent. One of my favourite lines still is Alfred's "What's the point of all those push-ups if you can't even lift a bloody log?" as Bruce is trapped in his burning mansion. Bale gives this annoyed look that's a great break in tension. Batman Begins is full of these little bits of levity, but the other sequels shine this way as well.

For fuck's sake, one of the characters here is named the Joker. There are jokes. Dark, twisted jokes, but there's also little moments of perfection like Heath Ledger's subdued reaction when his last hospital bomb momentarily fails to detonate. There's also plenty of cheeky bits in The Dark Knight (2008) like Bruce's riff with Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes, and especially the little party he has, which is full of sly humor.

The Dark Knight Rises, which you might suggest would turn the most towards the darkness actually has some of the greatest levity, from the introduction to Selina Kyle, to the nuttiness of Lucius Fox wanting to "show some stuff anyway" to Bruce, even though he says he's out of the game. Bane even gets some bits, although they're lines that are perhaps more clever and witty than they are funny. His whole introduction fits this. "It would be extremely painful. For you." Often the way the characters intone little lines becomes really memorable, often because they're pretty damn funny.

But sure, you say, even though the film makes a few solid jokes, there's far too much darkness and brooding here to really call these films light, right? Re-examining the color palette, though, Batman Begins is often shrouded in browns, and while there's the muck of the finale, most of the film is shot if not vibrant, then at least realistically, with mostly natural light. The Dark Knight trades a lot of this for more blues, but it's telling that the famous first five minutes that introduce the Joker are in stark daylight. The trilogy ignores the serious-minded desaturated look for something more steeped in naturalism, and while there's nothing necessarily bright on display, the colors are clear.

"You have my permission to cry."
The Trilogy as a whole seems to keep striving to bring Batman out of the shadows and into the day. Batman never makes a day appearance in Batman Begins, and it's especially noted that all the mobsters meet during daylight hours. This runs counter to a lot of superhero films that display their characters fighting proudly during lunch. The Joker is at his most menacing in the day, as if to say we can't hide our greatest fears and enemy in the shadows, rather he'll strike when we're comfortable.

This culminates in The Dark Knight Rises, which ends with a Batman vs. Bane duel in daylight, which is almost second to the mass of cronies vs. cops war that engulfs them. It's the perfect way for Batman to symbolify himself enough that he's fighting alongside the representatives of justice rather than as his own agent of the night. Like the Joker, almost all of Bane's antics are fueled by daylight, and he even flies a white plane in his introduction. Sure he's got a shady lair in the sewer, but Bane operates his violent schemes without fear in the cover of sunlight.

Now, this is obviously a mostly cosmetic analysis so far. Even though the jokes and coloration of the Trilogy have plenty of light in addition to the darkness Batman typically operates in, the series of films also pioneered the self-serious, brooding, contemplative hero that oodles of films since then have attempted to mimic.

I tend to go back and forth on this, because I've named these films as the "Intense Brooders" before. Now I'm kind of doubling back on that assumption, but that's ultimately due to context. In 2012 when I wrote that in the wake of The Avengers (2012), yeah, these Nolan films seemed to take themselves way too seriously. Now, in comparison to Batman v. Superman, they appear downright jolly.

More than that, though, there really isn't a ton of room for long contemplative brooding, especially in a film as tight as Batman BeginsThe Dark Knight probably has the most of this, although its scope remains large and the action on screen is compelling enough that there isn't a ton of time to show the lone warrior thinking about what it means to be a hero in the darkness. Things happen more than they don't happen. In terms of the self-seriousness treatment of pulp material, that's still there, although there are some legit points to be made about the insanity required to maintain this lifestyle as well as the physical, emotional, and personal toll. That statue at the end of Rises might seal the deal in zaniness, though.

I might consider these films not so much explicitly dark as more just thoughtful, serious about their narrative, and thematically sound. On the heels of Schumaker's duology, and even the Burton films, which played up Batman's camp with a level of explicit goofiness unparalleled in major motion picture making, I think if we again take them in cultural context, our reaction was strong towards wunderstanding these as the prototypical dark, gritty reboots.

That being said, Batman Begins, even though the narrows is rocked, ends pretty positively. The Dark Knight is certainly more of a downer, although Batman ostensibly accomplishes his goals, which is reflected in the beginning of Rises, which causes more problems. "Victory has defeated you!" Finally, the end of Rises is a near perfect send-off for Nolan's characterization of Bruce Wayne, fully containing the saga of the Batman living out his days banging Anne Hathaway in Paris.

It's hard to picture the current characterization of Batman doing the same thing. In general, the desire for the grimdark, pessimistic overtaking of modern superhero films seems to miss the point and ovetake what the Dark Knight Trilogy was doing, which is simply a serious treatment of the construction of a superhero saga with conscientious attention paid to narrative, themes, and precisely established ideologies. Their critical acclaim in this case is directly tied into its bankability, which is also fueled by its wit, constantly iconic imagery, memorable distinction in a land of otherwise banality, and the extremely high pedigree of its actors, most notably in Rises, which starred five Oscar winners and three more nominees among its principal cast. That's good for any movie ever.

So there's obviously some debate here, and these films sure show signs of brooding darkness, but they're not quit on the extreme level that we remember them. They're not all that much darker than any other classic action film. Most importantly, they're just good movies, which is shocking enough that we label them as overly serious, which is different from Snyder's Superman films, which are serious first and good movies second.

What do you think?

No comments:

Post a comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails