Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: July 2012

Your friendly neighborhood superhero blogger is currently traveling in non-corporeal dimensions and will be unavailable for terrestrial postings until mid-August. If you are having an emergency, please shine the Bat Signal from atop the Baxter Building while spinning in a circle and shouting, “Avengers Assemble!” You might also try perusing the past year of posts.

And, in honor of Dark Knight Rises, here are some Bat-inspired favorites:

Are Batman and Robin gay?

Open Letter to the Cohen Brothers Asking Them to Make the Next Batman Movie

I Can Make You a New Man

Advertisements

Last summer while I was visiting my parents in Pittsburgh, Christopher Nolan was shooting Dark Knight Rises at Heinz Field. I could have huddled in the stands with a few thousand other unpaid extras, watching the Steelers dress up as their alter egos, the Gotham Rogues. It’s a winter scene, so the crowd had to pretend to shiver as they sat in parkas in 90 degree heat all afternoon. But no one complained. They were grateful just to be part of the show.

And that pretty much sums up the Dark Knight trilogy.

Erinn Hutkin from Chicago’s Suburban Life phoned me last week to ask why Batman is so popular, why this movie was so highly anticipated. I’ll tell you what I told her.

Batman is the kind of make believe we love to mistake for reality. Usually superheroes give us exactly the opposite: blatantly larger-than-life abstraction. Men who fly. Men with impossible bodies. Men made of pixels limited only by the imagination of their computer animators. The biggest difference between the Superman cartoons of the 1940s and the barrage of superhero films of the last decade is technological. Hollywood has gotten more skilled at portraying the absurd.

Batman is different. Even “Bat-Man,” Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s 1939 original, stood apart from the other leotards. No alien rocket, no magic ring, no transformative laboratory catastrophe. He’s just a vigilante in a freaky suit.

There were plenty of non-superpowered crime-fighters before him—the Shadow and his gangs of 1930s mystery men—but Batman was the lone comic book hold-out. Even his origin story was a throwback. When Superman decides to champion the oppressed, there’s no motive. He could as easily rule the planet. The core of the superhero formula (regular Joe gets powers, dedicates himself to justice) is psychological nonsense.  Stan Lee fixed that in the 60s, but Finger and Kane found it first. Like so many of those other mystery men, Batman is all motive: BLAM! BLAM! in a back alley. His war on criminals isn’t ad hoc mission. It’s revenge. No magic bat swoops down and bites him on the neck. He transforms himself.

Christopher Nolan and his script brother, Jonathan, capitalize on that. Their Batman is made of flesh and crunching bone. He inhabits a world that looks a hell of a lot like ours. Tim Burton’s Gotham was phantasmagoric. His second movie was literally an amusement park. Nolan’s second Batman opened on street level Chicago. Joel Schumacher’s villains were cackling cartoons in campy costumes. Nolan’s are grotesquely broken human beings, not a superpower in sight. In fact, the most incongruous thing in Dark Knight Rises is the batsuit. It barely belongs.

But this doesn’t make Nolan’s vision any less artificial. Where Burton cast Mr. Mom, Nolan went for the naked guy with a chainsaw in American Psycho. Both choices are wonderfully silly. But we’ve been trained to experience Nolan’s mass consumer product as “gritty realism.”

Which is why it’s so hard to divorce Dark Knight Rises from its very real world context. This Batman wears his political colors on his bruised and bloodied knuckles. He doesn’t just war on crime. He wars on terror. The Nolans upgraded Heath Ledger’s psychologically devastating Joker to stadium-bombing terrorism and revolutionary anarchy. Joker wanted Batman’s soul. Bane wants America’s.

Despite the Obama campaign likening the villain Bane to the villainous Bain Capital, and Rush Limbaugh accusing liberal Hollywood of brainwashing voters against the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney isn’t the allegorized bad guy of the film. If anything, he’s the hero. Romney grew up in the same neighborhood as Bruce Wayne. The 99%, on the other hand, are played by Ann Hathaway. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” says the world’s sexiest Robin Hood. “You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

Bruce is a 1%-er devoted to championing the status quo. He’s a vigilante because that’s what the job requires. Government brutality is unethical and, worse, ineffective. Nolan makes that clear from the opening scene. A CIA agent interrogates prisoners at gunpoint, ready to toss their corpses from a plane. Any sympathy—he’s only trying to protect us from Terrorism—tumbles through the open door too. America can’t employ violence without corrupting itself and fueling its enemies. We need a proxy. We need a guy in a freaky suit.

Or a three piece suit. In which both Christian Bale and Mitt Romney look significantly better. And expectations couldn’t be higher for either millionaire. Have the words “Oscar buzz” and “superhero” ever travelled in the same sentence before? Batman Begins grossed about $200 million, while The Dark Knight topped $500. Sequels aren’t supposed to do that. Neither are Presidential runs. Romney’s 2008 campaign was a flop, but the sequel raised over $100 million last month alone.

But Dark Knight success was largely due to the late Mr. Ledger, a performance gapingly absent from Rises. Instead we get Hathaway slinking next to Berry, Pfeiffer, and Kitt on the Catwalk of fame. Nolan fans might remember Tom Hardy from Inception (though probably not from that other franchise closer Star Trek 10, in which he plays Captain Picard’s younger yet equally bald clone). Bane is another bald villain, but this time Hardy has to roar his lines through a high-tech Hannibal Lechter mask. It’s a little better than Darth Vader, but Hardy’s eyes are only so emotive.

Still, the spectacle almost works. If Bane’s British accent is a bit muffled, well, so is his character. Does he want to Occupy Wall Street or behead it? The villain is a brawny reboot of the first 20th century supervillain, the guillotine-crazed Citizen Chauvelin of Baroness Orczy’s 1905 superhero ur-text, The Scarlet Pimpernel.  That author, unlike Nolan, was a deposed aristocrat, so I get why she pits her hero against French revolutionaries—those  “savage creatures,” as she terms them. But Batman belongs to the same ruling class elite as the Pimpernel. And Gotham’s proletariat is still “animated by vile passions, and by the lust of vengeance, and of hate.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Nolan literalizes the underclass by moving them to the sewers, but it’s those regular Joes working the cement trucks you really have to watch out for. They’re the devoted pawns of Bane’s socialist rhetoric, unaware that their leader is using them as political theater. The revolution is being televised to the humbled Bruce’s prison pit, which, although located somewhere in dusty Asia, is as accessible as the suburbs of Gotham.  Will Bruce regain his spirit and climb out in time to disarm the nuclear bomb?!

The retraining sequence and rematch bear an unfortunate resemblance to Rocky III, which pitted its symbol of American exceptionalism against the Evil Empire. America has since moved from cold war to class war. If Bane is a political parody, he’s Evil Obama. Dark Knight Rises is a right wing morality tale aimed at the 99%. Protest financial greed and look what happens!

But even though Warner Bros. has a lot to gain from the Romney’s promised 10% corporate tax cuts, they’re hedging their bets. Dark Knight Rises gives us a split ticket, Batman-Catwoman, a superheroic feat unthinkable but in the reality-warping universe of “gritty realism.” The now penniless Scarlet Pimpernel lends Robin Hood the keys to the batcycle and together they defeat Citizen Bane before retiring anonymously to the middle class.

I predict Dark Knight Rises will retire into its own anonymity long before the Oscar race. If it has any impact on White House politics, it will be as yet another horror story in the gun lobby saga. No superheroes swung to the rescue of the twelve theater goers murdered in Colorado opening night. That’s a real world tragedy far far beyond the reach of even the grittiest realism.

Instead of social revolution, the rest of us get what we always get, a Hollywood-financed extravaganza, right down to the grassroots. My son came home from summer camp every day last week spattered in black paint and Gorilla Glue. They were building a cardboard batcycle to be parked in front of our smallville theater opening night. It rained all weekend, so we never got to see it. My son didn’t complain though. He and all the other Batman campers were just grateful to be there.

Let them eat popcorn.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

My wife and I have been discussing the proper disposal of bad guys lately.

Used to be a hero could just kill them. You didn’t even have to call it “homicide.” Unless you’re the 1930s Spider or his 21st century descendant, Dexter. Sometimes stories just have a convenient way of doing in the villain. The hero even gets to keep his moral high ground, as his enemy refuses to grasp his outstretched hand before plunging into the abyss (see Loki in the 2011 Thor).

Batman racked up a list of kills before DC instated the first code of comic book ethics and, more importantly, recognized the joy of a reoccurring nemesis. That’s why the Joker’s first appearance ends in jail bars instead of flames (Batman #1). When Superman’s original archenemy (the now deservedly obscure Ultra-Humanite) mysteriously vanishes from his plane wreckage, Superman muses: “Well, that finishes his plan to control the earth—OR DOES IT?”(Action Comics #13).

But the disappearing body trick gets old fast. And so if you can’t kill or lock up the guy, all you’re left with is banishment. Take Magneto. Even that all-plastic prison in X-Men 2 didn’t hold him for long. The first time the Avengers thwarted his plans for world domination, they sealed him in a magic bubble and dropped him to the earth’s core (Avengers #110).

It’s a nifty trick, but did they really think through the consequences? They were saving the earth, but did they consider the below-the-crust population? What about the mole men? Here they are, minding their own subterranean business, when suddenly, BAM!, world’s mightiest mutant plops into the heart of their community. Sure, he’s been de-fanged, no magnetic power waves pulsing from his battle helmet. But it’s still him. Same hulking physique. Same pompously flapping cape. Imagine having to face schlepping to work every day, never knowing when you’re going to find him slouching at the office copy machine, an unrepentant grimace scarring his face.

Because that’s the problem. He doesn’t know he’s a bad guy. In fact, as my ex-department chair’s husband’s brother says, Magneto is the best supervillain because he actually thinks he’s the hero.

But he’s not alone in that category. Only a few Bronze Age readers out there might remember the ex-Avenger Moondragon and her mission to bring peace to the world by establishing herself as its all-powerful goddess. Her rule wasn’t exactly a golden age for human morale, but she didn’t mean any harm. The Avengers had to thwart her too, but instead of allowing her to conveniently die or vanish, Thor’s dad demoted her with a power-absorbing headband and then forced her to join the Defenders for safe keeping (Defenders #124).

Great news for the world. Kinda shitty for the Defenders.

At least when Wonder Woman topples would-be world-conquers, she ships them to Transformation Island where they wear Venus Girdles and learn to submit to loving authority (Wonder Woman #28). But a guy like Magneto never changes. So when his next evil plan went horribly awry, he was demoted all the way down to the baby room. The leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants ends Defenders #16 as a bawling infant.

Again, great for humanity. But what about the x-babies at mutant daycare?

Imagine plopping your diapered butt down for storytime and who’s hogging the bean bag chair but the kid who just the day before was trying to remake your world in his own fickle image. It’s not fair. Mutant daycare was one of the best run departments in the multiverse, and now they have to babysit a dethroned ubervillain? The Defenders are a top-notch team of world-savers, and now they have to share a water cooler with a mind control goddess still pining for omnipotence?

When the Hulk went on a berserker rampage after losing the balancing presence of Bruce Banner, Dr. Strange banished him to an endless crossroads of alternate universes, ones where his green muscles could do no harm (The Incredible Hulk #300). It was a kindness to the poor brute because he got to choose where he would live, while still removing him from the world where he caused so much chaos. Sort of like job searching during an imposed sabbatical far far away.

Is that so much to ask?

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

And, once again, along comes a genetically engineered spider that sits down beside an adorable geek who sprouts superpowers and frightens a computer-generated villain away.  Not only do you know the story, Sony Pictures even recycled screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who co-penned those other semi-recent Spider-Man movies. They grabbed one of the Harry Potter guys too. Hollywood banks on familiarity. If bold risk-taking reaped revenues, Julie Taymor would still be swinging with the Broadway Spider-Man. If Sony could have kept Tobey Maguire, I’d be reviewing Spider-Man 4 right now.

Which is why I want to state with absolute clarity, while drawing on all of my expertise as a professor of English trained in close textual analysis, that The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) kicks the shit out of Spider-Man (2002).

I admit my expectations were low. I figured my night at the theater had peaked with The Dark Knight Rises preview. But within the first expositionally economic minutes, I realized that director Marc Webb landed the job for more than his unlikely last name. And once Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield started tripping through their adolescently awkward mating waltz, I was all grins.

Neither is a particularly plausible high schooler, but plausibility has never been job one in the spandex hero genre. Tobey spent months bulking up for his unitard, but the skinny Mr. Garfield has the advantage of actually looking like a Steve Ditko sketch.

Garfield’s feet, as my wife pointed out, are also bigger. Which, oddly, is the core of the whole movie.

I had planned on writing a Tobey vs. Andrew analysis, playing off the wrestling match motif from Lee and Ditko’s original comic book. But that’s the wrong metaphor. This isn’t hero vs. hero. Amazing is a son sliding into his father’s shoes. Literally. Scene one little Peter is playing hide and seek with Dad, who has left his shoes poking out from the curtains to fool him. Pull the curtains back and no dad. Just the empty shoes.

Lee and Ditko had nothing to say about Peter’s father. He was simply not there, not even mysteriously so. Everybody knows heroes are orphans. And it would have been too painful, too Batman, to have Dad gunned down by the guy his own jerk of a son let escape from the police. So shoot an uncle instead. But the Webb team fills in the missing threads, strings them back so everything is interwoven: the spider that bites Peter was designed by (SPOILER ALERT!) his own father. Superpowers are Peter’s paternal inheritance.

Sony timed the release so Amazing would be on screens for the 4th of July. Which explains the one clunky scene: all those fatherly construction workers angling their cranes to help their boy swing to victory with an anthem-like soundtrack and a literal American flag spotlit in the background.

But Sony should have aimed two weeks earlier. Father’s Day was June 17th.

Maguire is a little young to be Garfield’s father (Maguire’s son, Otis, is only three), but fortunately my eleven-year-old son was with us in the theater too. We watched Peter continue father seeking for the next two hours, as he grows into his superpowered footwear. Uncle Ben, Captain Stacy, even the scaly Doc Connors, they’re all stand-ins for the ur-dad. And the triple orphaned Peter has to make peace with them all.

That means popping out your contact lenses and wearing Dad’s Clark Kent glasses. That means prowling mugger-infested back alleys for your uncle’s killer (a plot thread to be further plucked in Amazing 2). That means stopping your dad’s mad scientist best friend from fathering a race of uberlizards. It even means convincing Dennis Leary, your grouchy would-be father-in-law, that you’re not an anarchist vigilante trying to tear down governmental patriarchy. All you want to do is live up to your dad’s parting words:

“Be good.”

This was also Sony’s directive to the production team. Be good or we’ll forget you faster than we did your father, Mr. Maquire. Meanwhile, the Garfield boy fits amazingly well in those spider re-boots.

I’m not going to comment on Ms. Stone’s presumably fashionable legwear. She’s one of my fifteen-year-old daughter’s favorite actresses. My daughter hasn’t seen Amazing yet (she was working at the pizza joint down the street where they got inundated when our 7:00 showing let out), but I’m curious if she’ll be as annoyed as I was when Gwen gets shucked off camera so her dad and boyfriend can go save the day. Sally Fields didn’t get much action either, not with Martin Sheen’s pompous voice-over hogging the avuncular glory. Someone must have been playing Gwen’s mother too, but it was hard to see through all the testosterone.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 release date is May 2, 2014.  A week before Mother’s Day. Maybe Embeth Davidtz, Peter’s still basically non-existent mother, will get a few lines next time.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Who’s the richest superhero? Billionaire Bruce Wayne is an obvious choice. Tony Stark would be a good bet too. Green Arrow, Booster Gold, and Mr. Fantastic are all 1%-ers as well. Before comic books, almost all superheroes were wealthy: the Shadow, Doc Savage, Zorro, Scarlet Pimpernel, Spring-Heeled Jack. Money is the original superpower. It sunk its radioactive teeth into you from birth. But who’s the uber-richest of them all?

How about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?

Look back at his 1962 issues and Peter Parker has to scrounge just to pay his recently widowed aunt’s rent. His first masked appearance was in a wrestling ring so he could take home some pocket money. When Tobey Maguire started playing the part in 2002, he just wanted to cash in, not listen to his Uncle Ben about responsibility and all that.

And cash in he did. The Spider-Man movie trilogy grossed just over a billion dollars. That’s about $371 million per film, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th biggest superhero money makers of all time.

Of course Bruce Wayne has some pockets of his own. The two Christopher Nolan films averaged $369 million, so just a couple of shakes of the piggy bank behind Tobey. Unless you average all six of the Batman films, including the 1997 franchise ending Batman and Robin. Then poor Bruce plummets to a $240 million average, way below Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man who ka-chings in at $315.

Fourth place goes to Superman Returns, the lonely solo reboot that still managed to gross $200.  Thor’s not far behind, debuting last year at $181. Though we may have to wait for Thor 2 to know the Asgardian’s real market value. And with Man of Steel in production, the Kryptonian is a wild card too. He could even redeem the collapse of his 80’s franchise when Superman III and IV pulled in a mild-mannered $60 and $16 million each.

Batman, however, has no flops in his bat closet. The 4 film franchise Tim Burton kicked off in 1989 averages $176 million, even with Schumacher’s Batman and Robin scrounging only $107. Ignore that low ball, and Batman flaps over Thor to perch under the 2006 Superman at $199.

Of course all this math is about to change.

July is rematch month for Hollywood’s billion dollar superheroes. The franchise-rebooting Amazing Spider-Man opens this week, and the reboot-capping Dark Knight Rises opens the 20th.

Despite Peter’s higher gross average, Bruce is the top seed. Dark Knight alone pulled in $533, more than doubling Batman Begins.  Until The Avengers plowed through box offices in May, Dark Knight was the third biggest money maker of all time, just under Avatar and Titanic (yes, uberdirector James Cameron hogs both first and second place). Adjust for inflation though and The Avengers plunges to 32nd, making Dark Knight s 28th the financial high bar for superhero films. (Gone With the Wind , the inflation-adjusted champion, opened way back in 1939, the same year the first 6-page “Bat-Man” premiered in Detective Comics.)

Peter Parker followed the more standard sequel trajectory, with Spider-Man 2 making a bit less than the Spider-Man, and 3 making a bit less than 2. Spider-Man 4 might have continued down that (still highly lucrative) slope, but post-trilogy contract negotiations were a supervillain Columbia Pictures could not defeat. Thus Andrew Garfield as the new Tobey Maguire.

Can Garfield really take on Christian Bale? Mark Zuckerberg pinned him in the first round of Social Network when Garfield played Zuckerberg’s less than savvy business partner. But Bale’s current Batman costume is so constricting, he almost passed out while filming.  Garfield also played a love-struck clone in Never Let Me Go, so Bale might have to face multiple spider copies. Of course Bale is also a two-time homicidal maniac from Shaft and American Psycho, so he could chainsaw all the Garfields Columbia throw at him.

Whatever the outcome, the fight won’t end here. Warner Brothers already has plans to re-reboot the Batman franchise after the Bale-and-Nolan tag team retires. And if Columbia doesn’t like Garfield’s performance, he could go the way of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney. There are always more clones warming up in the locker room. And superhero fans ready to drop more cash into Bruce’s and Peter’s billionaire pockets.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: