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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Tim Burton

Dear Warner Bros.,

First off, congrats on the whole Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy thing. Sorry about The Avengers, but hey, Batman grabbed both silver and bronze for biggest grossing superhero movies of all time. Now you’re all asking yourselves one question:

How soon till we reboot!

If you follow the Spider-Man model, you have the minimum of a five-year hiatus. That’s a 2017 release date. Which is like, wow, a long time from now. You could jump sooner, but The Amazing Spider-Man took a lot of heat for its accelerated offing of Tobey Maguire. And even though it was a better film than Spider-Man, it grossed a measly $257 million against the original’s $403. Hell, even Spider-Man 3 pulled $336.

Plus the Nolan trilogy is now a “classic.” There were no street protests when Val Kilmer stole Michael Keaton’s batsuit back in ’95 (or George Clooney in ’97), but you’ll have Bane-style revolution if you yank Mr. Bale’s tights off too soon.

So how do you keep the franchise alive in the meantime? How do you capitalize on the Dark Knight when its success is its own roadblock?

Switch screens.

It’s time for the Warner Brothers Television to answer the bat signal.

You have plenty of TV superhero successes to build on. My Bronze Age generation grew up on Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Lois & Clark defined Superman for the 90’s, and Smallville just completed its decade-long run last year. Sure, you’ve had flops (The Flash, Birds of Prey), but the timing is right for the caped crusader to go prime time.

Except not.

And here’s where I worry about confusing you. People say Hollywood only understands things in very simple, high-concept terms, so I’ll try to keep this plain.

A TV show about some new Bruce Wayne gearing up to clobber crime once a week will not work (see “Bane-style revolution” above, except with more yawning). Keeping your franchise alive means shaking up the paradigm. The new show isn’t about Bruce. It’s about Gotham.

Maybe I should translate this into agent-pitch dialect:

“It’s Batman Begins meets Law & Order!”

“It’s Batman: Year One meets The Wire!”

It sounds weird, I know, but Batman can’t be the main character. In fact, he’ll almost never be on screen. Bruce will make a few appearances, but not in costume, and only as a secondary character. The viewers are in the know of course, but everyone in the show has no idea that the loser playboy has any connection to reports about that new vigilante weirdo pulverizing thugs in Crime Alley.

Let me be explicit about this: that means no Batcave, no shots from the Batmobile cockpit, not even a Wayne Mansion interior unless it’s from the POV of a visiting character. “The Bat-man” is just a name a reporter coins after an episode or two of rumor-level sightings. We only know him from his handiwork, via crime scene investigations, usually just details bubbling through the cast of cops and lawyers.

Steal as much as you like from Frank Miller. Year One is already plotted for a first season arc. “Meet newcomer Detective Jim Gordon as he struggles against police corruption in his adopted precinct.” I’d add a tier of uniformed patrolmen too. Maybe Officer Drake? Or, for a Dark Knight tie-in, Officer Blake. Better yet, Officer Carrie Kelley. The first time we glimpse a cape flapping into the dark, it’s going to be from one of their street-level points of view.

You’re going to need a posse of lawyers too, headed of course by District Attorney Harvey Dent. Don’t overdo the Two Face foreshadowing. Dent is a decent guy trying to work within a flawed legal system. That two-headed quarter in his pocket is just a trick he plays on arrested thugs he’s trying to turn, pretends he’s leaving it all to chance, heads you take the plea bargain, tails you walk free. But guess what happens to his meticulously crafted court cases when that new vigilante won’t play by the rules. How do you prosecute the big fish with that idiot warring on the small fries is scaring off your informants? I’d end Dent’s first season with the collapse of his biggest case. Maybe the legal system really is just random. In frustration, he grinds an X across his coin, a talisman of things to come.

As far as the other villains, tone them back too. No costumes, no MHA-HA-HAing. “The Riddler” is another newspaper-coined name for that anonymous guy phoning in tauntingly obscure tips and threats to the police hotline, another season-length plot to play out. The Penguin? That’s what the editorial cartoonist nicknamed the corrupt, old money mayor, scribbling in a monocle and umbrella for comic effect. Keep stealing from Miller and follow Selina Kyle’s gritty travails through Gotham’s underworld of drugs and prostitution as she develops her own brand of Mob-bashing vigilantism and Robin Hood-esque do-goodery.

Remember: the show is doing with Gotham what The Wire did with Baltimore and Treme New Orleans. It’s a portrait of a city. For real world locations, I’d go with Pittsburgh, and not just because I grew up there. It’s another way of building on Nolan’s vision. The city provided the working class feel of Dark knight Rises, something the TV show would need to expand. Plus Pittsburgh is a film-making mini-hub ready to go.

Tapping the Wire/Treme creative team will also provide something else woefully lacking from the history of the Batman franchise:

Black people.

Did anyone notice all the white faces when the police force charges Bane’s stronghold in Dark Knight Rises? I didn’t spot any black faces during the prison break either. Or on the streets. Or at the fundraising gala. Or just about anywhere in Gotham. It’s as if Morgan Freeman beamed in from an alternate dimension. Of course Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is no better on race. His urban mutants are thinly coded black gangs. And does anyone remember Jack Nicholson graffiti-painting the art museum to the beat of a boom box? At least Tim Burton’s Harvey Dent was played Billy Dee Williams, a cameo made pointless when Tommy Lee Jones camped up Two Face for the third movie.

But let’s not get off track here. We can talk casting after you start the development ball rolling. I’m thinking a Fall 2013 premiere. Not too close to the Nolan achievement to provoke grousing, but close enough to ride some of its wake. Especially when you start the pre-hype now. A year of strategically leaked rumors and production shots, and that massive Batman fan base will have their TVs tuned to their Bat channels before you spend a dollar on advertising.

Also, I assume you heard about Marvel greenlighting Joss Whedon’s S.H.I.E.L.D. show, right? So unless you want to get beat by The Avengers again, you better get the Batmobile in gear ASAP. If you have any questions, drop me a note. I’d be happy to read some of the preliminary scripts. I’m busy with my new semester, but I should be able to free up some time during Thanksgiving break.  Good luck till then!

Sincerely yours,

Chris Gavaler

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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.

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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.

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“The trend in uniform design is more toward making costumes for superheroes than uniforms for athletes.”

That’s ESPN reporter Paul Lukas. He’s also the editor of Uni-Watch.com. A website devoted not to sport teams but their uniforms. Lukas is not a fan of U of Maryland’s new string of high fashion helmets and jerseys. Under Armour (they’re designing all of Maryland’s varsity uniforms) is championing the new menswear trend of garishly bright colors.

But it’s not new for comic books. Joe Shuster’s Superman made the first superheroic fashion statement seventy years ago. And comic book heroes are still working the runways.

George Perez and Jesus Merino just retailored the Man of Steel’s skintight threads with a Kryptonian armor design (the red briefs have, mysteriously, vanished). And Sara Pichelli stitched a sassy new suit for Ultimate Spider-Man (the black and red is almost as bold as the brown skin underneath it).

In Hollywood, superhero costume design is its own industry. Look at just this year’s super fashion:

Designer Anna B. Sheppard trashed the spandex and went with a looser fitting cut for Captain America. The leather straps and metal buckles say “1940’s.”

Alexandra Byrne was thinking “ancient modernism” for Thor. The biggest challenge was the cape, which had to merge “completely believable” with the “sublimely magical.”

Ngila Dickson abandoned real-world fabrics. The Green Lantern costume is entirely motion-captured computer graphics.

David E. Kelley recently shot a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC, but his Amazon’s costume make-over didn’t make it into the fall line-up. Despite all the film fashion fun, the only superhero costumes on TV are on ESPN. Primetime heroes won’t touch them.

Syfy’s Alphas launched last summer. The team of superpowered government agents fight evil mutants in their street clothes. There’s not as much as a logo on their lapels.

Across the Atlantic, the BBC’s Misfits sport matching orange jumpsuits, but only because the characters are juvenile offenders clocking community service hours.

NBC’s Heroes solidified the trend in 2006, but it was the CW’s 2001 Superboy adaptation, Smallville, that first scissorsed the costume off a superhero.

The 1993 Lois and Clark, the 1988 Superboy, and the 1990 The Flash series all still featured their hero’s iconic wardrobes. Which was part of the problem.

“The appearance of realism in a super-hero costume,” explains Michael Chabon, “made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off.” In fact, he goes on, it’s “hopeless” because the true superhero costume exists only on paper.

This is most obviously and hilariously true in the earliest attempts to move superheroes from comic books to screen. If you don’t admire Anna B. Sheppard’s Captain America, take a look at the 1944 film serial.

Adam West’s Batman could get away with leotarded camp in the 60’s. William Katt’s Greatest American Hero still could fifteen years later. The goofiness of their costumes was part of the appeal. But Tim Burton raised the bar with Batman in 1989. Low-budget leotards no longer cut it. Michael Keaton in Bob Ringwood’s award-winning batsuit changed the playing field. The 2000 X-Men said it outright: leather is better.

At least on the big screen. Responding to the same challenge, TV designers opted for a simpler solution. If it’s hopeless, why try?

Stan Lee never liked costumes anyway. “I always felt if I had a superpower,” Lee says in Confessions of a Superhero, “there’s no way I would wear a costume. I’m a show-off; I’d want everybody to [know]–I wouldn’t wear a mask, conceal my identity. And I wouldn’t want to look like some idiot in a costume.”

When he and Jack Kirby posed their first superhero team on the cover of a Marvel comic book in 1961, the Fantastic Four were no more fashion forward than the Alphas. The Thing made his debut in a men’s clothing store (“I’m sorry, mister, I just don’t have anything big enough for a man your size!”). It’s not till issue three that Invisible Girl reveals her secret superpower:

“Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!”

“And for you, too! It’s time we all had some colorful costumes!”

But now the anti-fashion fashion is filtering back into comic books. When Grant Morrison and Rags Morales revamped Action Comics, they made the most radical costume choice imaginable: Superman in work boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. There’s still an ‘S’ on his chest and a cape on his back, but the iconic unitard of the original comic book superhero is gone.

These surface changes are more than just surface changes. In comic books, costume is character. A change in tights is a change in meaning. The spandex look has marked superheroes as exotic outsiders since the 30’s. They fight for humanity, but their second skins separate them. They remain alien and so alienated.

Or they did. When TV’s Alphas or Misfits or Heroes perform extraordinary abilities in ordinary clothes, they are also performing their humanity. They are just people. People with really freaky skill sets, but at their core (which is a product of their surface) they are human. While their big screen brothers want to remain larger than life, the 21st century TV superhero is dressed for small-scale integration. We all pull our pants on one leg at a time.

So if you’re a costume connoisseur, stick with college football.

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