Friday, June 24, 2005

Batman Begins

I’ve bitched before about new movies having delayed releases in Japan, but there’s no consistency really. Most movies are only a few months late. Some movies, like “The Quiet American”, are over a year late. (Although, as the Japan Times review noted, in this case the Japanese audience almost benefited from the late release because it made it more relevant to current events.)

And some movies like “Batman Begins” are released in Japan only a couple days after their US release date. So, while I’m STILL waiting for the new Star Wars to come out, I’ve already been able to see the new Batman.

(What accounts for this inconsistency I can’t say. Rumor has it that Japan has a tradition of releasing Star Wars movies in July. And come to think about it, when “Attack of the Clones” came out a few years ago, I had to wait until July to see that as well).

Anyway, Matt Lind posted a good review of the new batman movie. I thought I’d add my thoughts to it. Not necessarily disagreeing with Matt Lind, but just using a different take.

I agree with Matt Lind when he says comic book super heroes are like the mythology of America. So to a certain extent we expect the movies to treat these super heroes as legends. We don’t want “Batman Begins” to be just another action movie, we want to be able to immerse ourselves in the mythology of his character.
I think the original Superman movie was able to do this in exactly the same way that Spiderman didn’t. The first two parts of the original Superman (it has serious 3rd act problems, but we’ll get to that later) felt like a movie where the creators knew they were dealing with an American legend, and treating it accordingly. The story didn’t rush through the story of Superman’s origins, and there was an incredible sense of drama about everything that was happening for the first time.
Lex Luther may not have been much of a villain. He didn’t have his own super powers or own origin story. But it didn’t matter because it was Superman’s story. And in fact, the simpler the villain was the better, because it took less away from Superman’s own story. The more complex villains could be introduced in the later films.

Spiderman, by contrast, felt the need to cram Spiderman’s whole origin in the first half of the movie, combine it with the Green Goblin’s origin, and then use the second half of the movie for the standard action sequences and 3rd act climax. There was nothing that really felt special about the Spiderman movie. It was just like any other action movie. Given how recognized Spiderman is as an American icon, the movie should have felt more special. We should have felt the drama of witnessing the birth of an American legend.

By this criteria, I think the first half of “Batman Begins” is a success. It’s not exactly the same feeling as the “Superman” movie, but then again Batman is a different kind of superhero than Superman. Batman is a bit darker than Superman, and the movie gives us a good feeling of the dark comic book mystic of Gotham city.

The problems were the largely with the villains, which is the same problem with the Spiderman movie. I also thought there were a bit too many villains and their stories threatened to crowd out Batman’s own story. After all, in the comic books the superheroes don’t take on the super villains from day one. There’s a learning curve.  At first they struggle to take on just the average bank robbers. After they’ve established their identity, then some super villain arch nemesis shows up. They spend a while fighting just average crooks before they are paired up against a super villain. In the movies this learning curve is always accelerated.
Admittedly “Batman Begins” is better in this regard than Spiderman. “The Scarecrow” is regulated to a minor character, and the main villain is someone, like Batman, without any superpowers. And yet it seemed to me a bit strained that Batman, straight off the block, was taking on a huge super organization filled with people who were much more experienced than he was, and winning.
If I were making a “Superhero” movie, I wouldn’t have any major villains in the whole first installment. It would all be about the hero’s own story. Of course I know this would never work in Hollywood, because everyone expects a dramatic climax and an all out fight scene at the end between a superhero and a super villain. Which brings me to my next point…

Obviously movies based on comic books do very well financially, which is why Hollywood keeps cranking them out. But for all the money they make, there are very few good “comic book movies”. This, I believe, is because of the inherent difficulties in transferring a story from one medium to another. For instance in the world of comic books, Batman looks perfectly normal. When the story is transferred to the big screen, you can’t help but think to yourself how ridiculous it looks seeing a man in a bat suit jumping around and fighting criminals.

But that’s just a cosmetic issue. More problematic is that the very stories of the comic books themselves don’t transfer well to the big screen. Although comics are violent, the violence is almost secondary to the story. Comics often have ridiculous stories that, if they were produced in any other medium we would just laugh at them, but somehow they seem to work within the realm of comics. We forgive the ridiculous story lines because we become involved in the silliness of it all and want to see what will happen next month. Comic book stories do not work like a Hollywood movie, starting with an exposition, building to a conclusion, and then finishing off with a climax. Instead each comic book is a continuation of the one before it. The story often does not really ever finish, but just evolves into another plot. And the ending of a comic book is not a climatic action sequence, but a cliffhanger until next month.

Now, call me a purist if you want, but I get a little uneasy when a comic book adaptation starts working towards a Hollywood style climax. During the final climatic battle on the train (Oh, yeah, spoiler alert by the way) I thought to myself, “Haven’t I seen this a million times before in other movies like, ‘Speed’ or ‘XXX’? The only difference is that this time the hero is in a bat suit. And somehow instead of adding to the story, that just makes it seem all the more silly. The whole comic book mystic seems lost.”
Of course by this criterion it is hard to find a comic book movie that works. After all that is what movies do; they work towards a climax. Spiderman 2 and X-men 2 perhaps both came closest because both movies had the sense of the same story that was continuing from the first movie, and would continue in the 3rd, but even these movies fit into the 3-act structure. If Hollywood would decide to return to the serial matinee style of the 1940s, that would seem like the structure truly suited to handle the comic book. I won’t hold my breath though waiting for that to happen though.

Video Version

1 comment:

lucretius said...

This is an interesting aesthetic theory. In fact, I think this is where most movie "adaptations" fall down. I disagree that the one needs to be faithful to the medium of an original to make a good movie. In fact, I think that is what makes the movie Adaptation watchable, if not fun. I believe adhering to the original plotline is more important than trying to make a movie like reading the comic book or watching the TV show.