Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Fantastique vs. The Realistic vs. The Insane - Another Look At The Bat-Mythos

Writing movie and comic reviews is cathartic for me. It enables me to think things other than my immediate concerns such as my job, financial-commitments, religion, etc.

La Tey read my reviews and had a long discussion with me late last night. He is of the opinion that people today have little imagination and therefore they prefer "realism" in their "fiction"! I told him that I thought "The Dark Knight" failed simply because it no longer IS a Batman movie. It could've been "The Departed II"! Everything that happened in it could and does in fact happen in the real world – bank robberies, terrorist acts, money-laundering, etc. Even the Bat-Cave is no longer there – Batman and Alfred meets up in a nondescript open-spaced warehouse or office building! The Batman mythos is not so much about "realism" and crime as it is about a performance, a dance, a pantomime, a circus. The Batman does not so much "fight" his adversaries. He dances with them on rooftops. It is all a play with colourful characters – a criminal-clown (Joker) with buzzers and acid-squirting flowers, Mr. Pickwick with his trick umbrellas (Penguin), a half-faced gangster who flips a coin for every decision (Two-Face), a two-bit thief who leaves clues in the form of riddles (Riddler), a sexy female cat-burglar with a thing for whips (Catwoman), a half-woman / half-plant hybrid creature (Poison Ivy), a monster made out of clay (Clayface), etc.

Of course, it can be argued that these characters and settings mean far more than their surface literalness. Hence, in our more sophisticated times, we read all sorts of political / sexual / psychological inferences into them. Much as people do these days when they read "The Wizard of Oz" or "Alice In Wonderland". Well, it may be that Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll had other things in mind when they wrote their fantasies but what kept them alive for so many years to be enjoyed by so many generations wasn't the "deeper" meanings and/or implications so much as that these stories were FUN! Dorothy being swept up in a tornado and Alice entering the rabbit-hole meant that the "realistic" characters were being transported into ANOTHER world, a world quite different from the one that we are familiar with. This is the essence of the fantastique. C. S. Lewis did the same with the children discovering the wondrous Land of Narnia within the wardrobe! Neil Gaiman gave us "The Dreaming" that we all visit during the 1/3 of our lives when we are asleep. Same thing for Clive Barker's "Sea of Quiddity" [in "The Great and Secret Show"] that we each visit three times during our lifetimes: when we were first born, when we first have sex and when we die. The problem with "The Dark Knight" film was that it did the exact opposite. Instead of transporting the viewers into the world of the fantastique, original denizens of that land (Batman, Two-Face, Joker, etc.) were transported into our dull, dreary world of twisted Hong Kong businessmen, money-launderers, accountants and terrorists.

Gotham City was always meant to be such a setting for the fantastique. We visit it with the immediacy of simply opening a comicbook. Frank Miller wrote about this experience in his foreword to "Batman: Year One". It was an experience, an encounter with a world that is strangely familiar and yet altogether different. Dennis O'Neil explained that the Bat-mythos was really a reversal of familiar archetypes. You can find heroic archetypes for all the other super-heroes (e.g. Superman = Samson / Hercules, Wonder Woman = Artemis, Flash = Hermes / Mercury, etc.) but not Batman. When we look into the annals of history, mythology and literature, the only creatures than even resemble that Batman-archetype is that of the arch-fiend, the bloodsucking Nosferatu / Dracula. But in this fantastique world of Gotham City, this arch-fiend is, in fact, the hero and protector while the familiar friendly clown is a murderous criminal! Because of such a reversal, the Bat-mythos is actually more complex and perhaps in a way, darker, than that of say Superman or Wonder Woman. The problem with "The Dark Knight" film is that it clung on to the dark aspect while stripping it of the fantastique. The resulting film becomes rather simplistic in comparison to its original sources. To a large extent, the Bat-mythos can only "work" within the context of the fantastique. Strip it of that element and what do we have to distinguish it from other pulp / crime fiction? That was what I meant when I said that "The Dark Knight" is not a Batman film – it's a lot closer in spirit to movies like "The Departed" or even the dark / crime films of Hong Kong director Johnnie To (PTU, Election, etc.)

Strangely, both La Tey and I enjoyed "Batman Begins" a lot more than "The Dark Knight". I think the reason for this is that "Batman Begins" at least had exotic settings because of all the Ra's Al Ghul stuff. Furthermore, Gotham City at least "felt" like Gotham City with all the sprawling railroads and gothic skyscrapers in "Batman Begins". Chris Nolan mentioned in interviews that he decided to unclutter Gotham City in "The Dark Knight". The end result is that this new Gotham is quite undistinguishable from say, Hong Kong (and it's interesting that the Batman was shown swooping down majestically in Hong Kong during the earlier scenes of the film than in Gotham!) Gotham City is as much a character in the Bat-mythos as Alfred, Gordon, etc. Fans who have grown up with the TV series, cartoons, comics, novels, etc. KNOW Gotham City! We know where Stately Wayne Manor is. We know how the Bat-Signal lights up the sky from the top of Gotham Central. We know about the replica Statue of Liberty across the Gotham River. It's as important as having Metropolis as the setting for Superman or say, New York City as the setting for Spider-Man. I've been told by many fans who visited New York for the first time and looked up half-expecting to see the Daily Bugle building because they grew up reading Spider-Man comics. It's that kind of thing I'm talking about. The all-importance of setting. Never mind that New York City is a real city – in the fictional Marvel Universe, it's a setting for the fantastique – it's the stage for the stories of a teenager endowed with arachnid-like powers. The distinguishing elements of the fictional city must be retained in order for the fantastique to work. Tim Burton's vision for Gotham City is still the most potent version of it on-screen or any medium for that matter. It is regrettable that Chris Nolan destroyed that vision in "The Dark Knight".

Another very important element in the Bat-mythos that finds its roots in the pulp-tradition is that of the femme fatale. The femme fatale is sex and death in one attractive package. During the war, soldiers were sent off with Bettie Page posters to fight, kill and die. That was the essence of the femme fatale. Raymond Chandler understood that. Will Eisner understood that. Dashiel Hammett understood that. Ian Fleming understood that. Dennis O'Neil understood that. Mike W. Barr understood that. Frank Miller understood that. The girl who comes into the hero's life and literally tears it apart from within. The girl who is bad-news from the moment the hero first lay eyes on her but it simply irresistible. Like Elektra to Daredevil or Catwoman to Batman. She invades the hero's privately secure world, makes the hero fall in love with her so much that he's willing to die for her or even give up his heroic career for her, then she betrays him or he discovers that she's sleeping with the enemy. The undefeatable hero, well-protected behind his fortress of machismo, cold-intelligence and training gets his heart ripped out from within him. Daniel Craig's James Bond experienced that recently with Eva Green's Vesper Lynn in "Casino Royale". Interestingly, that element is missing in the Chris Nolan directed Batman films. He had every opportunity to play with that in "Batman Begins" because of the Ra's Al Ghul factor. Now, every comic reader worth his salt knows that what makes the Ra's Al Ghul stories so powerful was not just the duels between Batman and Ra's but the emotional tug-of-war because Batman was in love with Ra's daughter, Talia! "Run Talia, run! I do not dare face you or I will be forced to arrest you. But… but how can I arrest the woman I love....!!!" Melodramatic perhaps but used to great effect in the best of the Bats-Ra's sagas (e.g. "Son of the Demon" by Mike W. Barr) In place of that, Chris Nolan gives us the terribly bland Rachel Dawes. First, she was played by Mrs. Tom Cruise and in the new film, she was played by the ugly Maggie Gyllenhaal. Unbelievable. How did we go from hot babes like Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer, Nicole Kidman and Uma Thurman to MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL????? Did someone forgot to put on their contact lenses when they woke up in the morning and mistakenly cast MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL? Looks aside, the Rachel Dawes character had nothing to offer beyond blandness and more blandness. I don't know about you but I did not feel a thing when the villains blew her to smithereens. Don't even talk about ripping the heart out of Batman – there wasn't even any real chemistry between them on screen. Same thing between Rachel and Harvey Dent. If her death was the catalyst for his descent into madness as Two-Face, well, it just didn't come off in a believable fashion. It felt more like Aaron Ekhart was simply following the script and HAD to become Two-Face! That was it. Throughout the movie, it felt more like Batman and Harvey were in-love with each other in their willingness to bear each other's crosses! Rachel Dawes wasn't even the "third party" in the Bats-Harvey romance. That honour went to Jim Gordon! Hahahahaha!

Finally, the loudest cheers for "The Dark Knight" film had to be for Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. Many are even crying out for a posthumous Oscar for him. I do not disagree since Oscars are generally reserved for really shitty stuff anyway (are there anyone out there stupid enough to believe that the Academy Awards Committee really award performers based on merit/quality?) My problem with Ledger's Joker is that he's NOT crazy! He's disgusting (especially with his reptilian-tongue thingy) and scary (with his knives and bombs). But he's NOT crazy. More than anything, La Tey and I actually agree with his philosophy! Underneath the veneer of civility, we really are savage beasts. The world really is ruled by manipulators and schemers. The world really is crazy because everytime shitheads like Warren Buffett or Alan Greenspan start speaking, everyone listens to their shit! The world political-financial system is evil and keeps nations, governments and peoples in bondage. To a large extent, La Tey and I would probably go out and start blowing up banks if we were given enough TNT to do the job! It's not crazy to think/act like the Joker. It's crazy to think that being an accountant in Melbourne is the height of human achievements! In other words, we actually appreciate that this movie is giving us another icon for anarchy (outside of Edward Norton in "Fight Club"). It's the only thing that La Tey and I really enjoyed about this movie. Ironically, the people who are cheering for Ledger's Joker are doing it for the wrong reasons! They think that he was portraying an insane man. He wasn't. He was portraying a disgusting and cruel man who is possibly the sanest character in the movie! – "Why so serious?" :)